02 September, 2013

Battling Anxiety and Identity Crisis, 27 Years in the Making

Good Lord – I’m an Introvert.

My entire life I’ve water-skied on two separate lakes: Extroversion and Introversion; only, I had no idea.
I’ve always been loud and outgoing. I can small talk to random people or be the center of attention (I’m assuming this was my goal growing up that carried me to where I am now).

In all the quizzes, conversations, and jobs I’ve ever had I’ve always identified with Extroverts. I believe this is the most popular option and I saw it mirrored in myself and how I interacted with those around me. I would always score extremely high on self-tests and people comment on how friendly and easy to approach I seem (seem? Am).

I spent my entire life thinking I am this extroverted creature. I convinced myself I was the embodiment of this popular person, and while I did embody the traits there was always something different with how I felt about it and how I acted. It was it as though there was a disconnect I was in denial about.

In high school I was afraid to be alone. And I mean afraid - anxiety to the point of near panic attacks. Just crossing the cafeteria to get to the stairs by myself invoked waves of panic and made my heart beat in what seemed to be a jackhammer’s overture. Why? I was terrified somebody would see me and think “She’s all by herself, she must not have friends. She must be a loser. She must not have anyone that wants to hang out with her.” These seem like arbitrary and frivolous fears but they ran my life. If none of my friends had the same lunch period as I did (our school carved a 90 minute stretch into 3 lunchtimes) I would walk around aimlessly, or sit in the library pretending to do homework so I didn’t have to eat by myself. The concept of eating by myself literally filled me with terror. I would rather not eat than confront that fear.

By the time I went to university I learned to do things by myself; walk to class, sit and study in a hallway, or go to the mall (If you would have told me 10 years ago I would have gone to the mall by myself I would have laughed in your face). That anxiety has almost disappeared (to that extent vanished) but it forced me to identify myself as someone who needed to be around other people in public in order to feel normal, and doing so kept my personal demons at bay.

The first time I ever sat in a restaurant or food court by myself and ate a meal was a month ago. At 27, I was at IKEA and was so hungry I debated leaving, even though I had just got there. I even debating eating in my car because the thought of being alone in public with a meal made me seem so sad and I felt people would pity me. The thought of being pitied is worse than the thought of people laughing. I did eat by myself, and it may seem like no big deal, but it was overwhelmingly freeing. I felt like I stepped out of a box for the first time in my life. It’s a small step but it’s in the right direction.

As I grew up with this crippling self-consciousness and self-deprecation (I hated everything about myself down to my name) I overcompensated by being more outgoing and loud. If people wanted to notice me I wanted it to be on my own terms instead of to pick me apart by theirs. This is how I saw the world.

I became a full-fledged attention-whore. This was noticeable more so in my high school days. I sought attention of guys like I needed it to survive. To help me acknowledge the fact I was someone worth noticing. I was a dick to my friends, I screwed around in school, and I effectively broke most of my friendships once I left school due to my insensibility, selfishness, and unwillingness to put others before myself.

During this time, I really knew who I was as a person (in high school mind you, there’s not much to know – yet). I was self-aware, confident (demons were in denial at this point), and used the attention I gathered like an animal in hibernation – I’d get as much as I could and feed on it when I didn’t have anyone giving it to me. I really thought I knew everything. It was a very self-destructive phase and it cost me. I learned this years later.

After I graduated University and started my first career full time job, I fell into this Alice in Wonderland hole of self-doubt. I was in a new world, nothing I knew about how to handle life was the same. I was paying all my own bills, I handled all my own affairs, I had my own place, my own car, a new job in a new city I’d never lived in (or new anyone who lived there) and I was 2 hours away from family, friends, and my then-boyfriend. I had no idea who I was – any self-assurance I had left when I moved and my life changed. I was put in a position where I had to interact by myself again and I struggled to keep my panic attacks under control.

It turns out that living alone was the biggest blessing (I use that term in a high level way) in the world. It separated me from everyone so I had to force myself to do things on my own. Scary, terrifying things; things like getting groceries by myself, dealing with incorrect payments and bill problems myself, getting and oil change, and spending the evenings and weekends alone. There were weekends I literally did not leave my apartment. It forced me out of my comfort zone and into an adult. It was one of the most life-changing experiences I’ve had.

My then-boyfriend was removed from my life enough that I could no longer rely on him to go see movies with, hang out after work with, and depend on him to be there when I called (no slight against him, but we were 2 hours away and he worked retail evenings/weekends). The entire time I self-wrestled with my identity I (unbeknownst to me) was forming my real self. I was sitting in a cocoon waiting to emerge.
What is the point of my life story? Let me tell you.

I live on my own again in Toronto. I’ve been asked countless times how lonely I am, or how bored I get. When I respond with “I don’t get bored or lonely” I am met with scoffs or am told “you will.” I loved on my own for a year and a half in Waterloo, and after the first few months I relished the time alone. I never once got bored or lonely because being alone charges my batteries.

Ding ding – that’s introversion. And I just realized it recently. I took a silly test online this morning that gives you both introvert and extrovert options, and for the first time in my life I didn’t skew the results to go with the answer I wish I was. I took the test and it said I was an introvert, while having some extrovert qualities. Now, this isn’t an exact science but this theory holds water.

The ah-ha moment came this morning. The past few long weekends I’ve spent them by myself. Watched movies, baked, cooked, cleaned, ran errands etc. I didn’t hang out with anyone but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
So this weekend I stayed at home again. This morning I heated left over pizza in my underwear and as I was putting it on a plate, a pepperoni fell off and landed on the floor. I said “shit” and reached down to get it. As I was picking it up I had a very sudden, very out of body experience of myself. I almost looked down at myself, picking up pepperoni, undressed, alone, eating by myself in my apartment and I literally laughed out loud. I had a huge smile on my face while throwing out the cured meat escapee when it hit me.

I don’t give a fuck.

I was alone, eating, in pajamas. This was everything I feared in my teens and early 20’s. The fear of how much of a loser I was vanished with the echo of my laugh and I caught my Cheshire cat smile in the mirror as I held a plate of pizza. That anxiety and that fear of being alone, doing things by myself, all the what-ifs, and “this looks sad” thoughts vanished. I literally watched the moment my cocoon opened and the butterfly emerged. The identity I craved for so long had started to click into place. It took 27 years, almost 20 years of school, 5 years of working in a career, over two years of living by myself, and countless screwups and mistakes to finally realize that the anxiety I felt, the anxiety that crippled me and held me in fear was completely unfounded.

Those who don’t have anxiety will never really understand what it’s like for those who do, and even in saying that mine is very minimal compared to others. It’s not enough for me to tell you it goes away (luckily I never needed [knew I needed to take] medication), and it’d different for everyone. But for me, it dug trenches for me to live my life. It was suffocating and it was something that I started to overcome out of necessity. But it changed my life. Removing yourself from common denominators and safety nets is enough to set off anxiety never mind help it, but it has helped. Being forced to handle things on your own is a very brutal way to combat it, so I sympathize with those who have.

My whole life I thought I just needed to be around people. But it wasn’t until I hit my 20’s I realized I suffered from anxiety. Badly enough that I think if I knew then what I knew then I would have needed medication. I still have it, and I doubt it will disappear forever. But it’s less, and it seems to be going away as I get older.

I still get unfounded panic attacks when I think of things I’m unfamiliar with. Being the center of attention gives me anxiety because I feel like people are judging me. I still struggle with looking people in the eyes (this is a problem I’ve had for years that people always point out), but it’s getting better.

The point is I thought I was alone. The point is I thought I was over reacting, I was told to ‘get over it’ or ‘stop analyzing things’. So I grew up thinking it was normal – it’s not.

The point is you’re not alone. And as scary and as impossible as it seemed to me to do these simple things, I did them. Now it’s just another way I live my life.

I need to spend time alone. I need to get out of contact with others sometimes. I need to escape and do my own things in order to be happy. I love my friends and family, but I also need my time alone. I always will; it’s how I was built.

And I’ve finally learned that’s okay.

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