I know sometimes you hurt, and often you don’t even know why. I know that after the days where you feel unstoppable there are always the days where you feel like you’ve failed at everything and nothing can make it better, not even chocolate. I know that sometimes those feelings of self-doubt (and even self-loathing) can become so omnipresent that it feels like the only truth that exists any more.
I know that a simple comment or a look from someone can either put a jet pack to your day or set it on fire and watch it crumble into ruins.
I know regret.
I know that sometimes you agonize over something that you did for days, wishing you could spin the hands of the clock back to have another go at a defining moment that could have made everyone look at you with admiration in their eyes. Instead you’re left with nothing but dust and ash that was once hope, caught in a cycle of forever kicking yourself over the mistakes you made.
But I also know that mistakes are never mistakes, they are actually tiny seeds that are being planted that just haven’t had the chance to break the surface yet. They feel like pain and taste like glass in your mouth but that’s only because you haven’t had the chance to heal yet. You can’t heal if you haven’t hurt, and seeds can’t grow if there was never a barrier for them to break through; a dark gestation place that made them reach for light.
Keep reaching. Just because you can’t see it yet doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.
I acknowledge that over the last year I’ve been writing a lot of sad and depressing things. I’ve been going through a really hard time and writing helps me to process the sea of shit my mind often swims in. I’m not always this way; in fact, I’ve spent my life being an incredibly positive and upbeat person. This makes my lows feel deeper sometimes. I often worry far too much about what other people think of me, and I’m finding tremendous healing in opening up about social anxiety and laying it all out for people to read. Of course, it terrifies me. I berate myself endlessly but decide to do it anyway. But maybe if I know that people know, I can stop giving so much of a fuck. I’m not really sure if it’s working yet, but it has to be better than pretending.
Please don’t misunderstand; I’m not writing these things for sympathy. I’m writing them because it terrifies me and this is the logical way of facing that fear.
It’s a weird dichotomy, having the capacity to feel simultaneously good about yourself and hate yourself at the same time. But the good is definitely there, especially on the days when my thinking is a little less stormy. Thinking back, I have this one really beautiful, pure and perfect memory. This one time in my life where I was brave, and exuberant, and incredible. I felt like I could conquer the entire world. But to tell you how I got to that point, I have to back up a little.
When I was a teenager, my mom was really into self-improvement. If there was a book to read, she would read it; a teleclass to listen in on, she was all ears. If there was a seminar or workshop she wanted to go to, she was there, and once in a while she would take me, too.
One time, she signed me up to go with her to this week-long workshop called “Warrior Camp” where you’re supposed to practice facing your fears and in the process learn about yourself. At times the experience was difficult, but I found myself excelling at most of the challenges. Making friends was painful of course, but as far as all of the physical exercises and emotional processes, I realized that there were many things that scare normal people don’t bother me at all. I tackled each experience willingly and with an open mind, but after the first couple of bumps, most of the workshop was unchallenging for me. Then on the third night, all of that went out the window.
The exercise: write a song or poem in ten minutes. If you wanted to volunteer, you could sing or read it out loud to the group of 200-something campers.
A hot flash of panic spread from my instantly knotted stomach and I knew that this was something I needed to do. The whole point of this camp was to face your fears, and here it was — one of my very worst. Deep breaths and butterflies and lots of scribbled words and scratch marks. Ten minutes later, I had a song that I put to paper.
“All right, we’ll take volunteers now.”
Do it. Go. Get in line. COME ON, TIEN. This is your chance.
Feet of lead. I couldn’t move from my chair. I was paralyzed by fear, heart pounding like crazy. I screamed at myself mentally to get a move on, but my body wouldn’t budge. My palms were sweating like crazy. Person after person went up on stage, singing and professing and sharing. I wanted to, but I JUST COULDN’T. IT WAS TOO MUCH.
Go! GOGOGOGOGGOGOGO!!!!! JUST DOOOOO IT!
My foot jerked forward abruptly, and before I knew it jelly-legs were actually wobbling toward the stage. Wait, what? No! I’m actually moving. People are looking at me. I’m going to have to follow through with this! Oh my god. Can I do this?
One of the staff turned suddenly and stepped in my way, blocking my path to the stage. “I’m sorry, but we’re out of time. We can’t take any more.”
No! You can’t mean that. You can’t tell me I FINALLY got up the guts to get up there and do this something that scares me absolutely shitless, and then take it away from me!
But the staff member was resolute, and directed me back to my seat. I walked sullenly back to the chair and gazed up at the stage.
I felt furious. Yes, a little bit at the staff member, but mostly at myself. I had waited too long. I had hesitated, and hesitated, and hesitated. I second-guessed myself and let my fear get the better of me. Here I was, at this camp where we were supposed to face our fears and the ONE challenge that really would have meant something for me to overcome, and I completely BOMBED it.
I could not stop kicking myself. I was pissed.
I didn’t get over it, either. I was upset at myself for months. I knew I would never get another chance like that again. I wished I could go back in time.
It was a year or so later when I decided to sign up for another workshop by the same company. This one was a much shorter event: just two and a half days up in L.A. helping to get clarity on your life direction and purpose.
The event went smoothly. I was uncomfortable in the sea of people, and yet somehow I could get through it because there was so much acceptance and kindness everywhere I turned. It was this beautiful sanctuary from the regular indifferent coldness of everyday life. It wasn’t until the very end of the very last day that the excitement was starting to die down and things were coming to a close.
“We have one last challenge today. You have ten minutes to write a song or a poem about your life purpose and then we will take volunteers to come up here and sing or share with the group.”
I could not believe my ears. They were actually doing the same thing as they did at warrior camp! It took only a moment to sink in: I was being given a second chance. Only this time, it was a group not of two hundred people, but of two thousand.
There was not a single shred of hesitation in my body. My heart pounded so loud in my ears it drowned out the room full of rustling papers and scratching pencils but I scribbled out a new song about my love for directing movies and telling stories. It was hurried and imperfect, but it rhymed and had a melody. It was a little slice of my heart, written down on paper. Ten minutes later, the speaker returned to the stage and said, “Okay, if you want to share, raise your hand.”
I leapt to my feet and darted through the crowd of people. I raced up to the side of the stage, and looked at him expectantly. I was the only one that had actually gotten out of their seat. The rest of the crowd was holding up hands so that he might call on them. He turned and looked at me in surprise.
“That’s not really how it works.” He paused, unsure of what to do. “But… okay.”
Oh my God I am really doing this I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M DOING THIS. It’s finally my chance to do it right this time.
I stepped up onto the stage and looked out at a room of TWO THOUSAND PEOPLE. I stepped up to the microphone with a lump in my throat, shaking hand holding on to the crinkled paper with my song lyrics. OH FUCK. I was scared shitless. I’m not sure why I felt compelled to mumble out some kind of preface, but somehow the words tumbled out: “Um, this is really outside of my comfort zone right now.” Then my words turned to ash and I couldn’t get anything else out.
Come on, come on.
I closed my eyes and took a slow, deep breath. Then I opened them and started to sing.
At first my voice was weak and wavering, but then it grew stronger. If it wasn’t for the microphone, I don’t think I could have sung loud enough, but the room was absolutely and utterly silent. I realized that everyone was really listening to me.
The song was short; I don’t think I was up there for more than a minute and a half. Still — it sounds cheesy but time ground to a halt. It was a perfect moment of utter silence. I was doing it. I was up there, singing to two thousand people. ME! I was lucky if I could strike up a conversation with a stranger, much less this.
But I did it. I sang the whole song. And as the last few notes trailed out, I heard nothing around me but the absence of sound.
Then, the entire room ERUPTED. I’m not exaggerating, either. I don’t know if it was because it was obvious that this terrified me or what (I doubt it was my singing voice.) You know how sometimes a few people stand and clap, and then a few more people stand, and a few more, until finally the whole room is giving a standing ovation? Yeah, that didn’t happen. The whole room jumped to their feet in a standing ovation, screaming and cheering. I have never been so bowled over by an overwhelming feeling of total LOVE in all of my years. It was absolutely incredible.
It was one of the very best moments of my life. And one of only a handful of times in my life when I felt completely free and self-expressed and accepted and happy.
Like all things, the moment did end. But every so often I return to it in my head and think, I did it. I didn’t let anything stop me, and I put it all out there. I faced my fears, and found love in a crowd of unfamiliar faces. Some part of me is lovable. Maybe my life does mean something, after all.
Usually when something is going to have a profound impact on my life, I feel inexplicably drawn to it — a feeling of excitement builds in my gut and I have no idea why. Like the time I was driving through Santa Monica as a teenager and looked up and saw a Wicked poster and hadn’t a single clue what it was (I didn’t even know it was a musical) and every fiber of my being screamed “whatever that is, it is going to be AMAZING!” Goose bumps rose all over my body. And when I finally sat in the audience a year later and saw myself in Elphaba while my Glinda-like best friend sat next to me and we watched the themes of our childhood and friendship come to life on stage with the most incredible story set to soul-inspired music, my heart cracked in two and was put back together again while the lights came up on my tear-stained face, and my life was changed.
Or that time when I was in middle school and my friend was having a birthday party and the DJ played swing music and we all learned a little bit of swing dancing and a massive bear-like creature came roaring out of my chest screaming “I MUST DO THIS” and many years later I threw myself obsessively into swing dancing and was out almost every single night, dancing for hours on end (even on school nights) because I loved it so much.
This knowing I feel before an experience is so normal for me that I forget that occasionally things whip in and change my life without precursor or internal fanfare. That’s why when I don’t feel enthusiasm at doing something, I am hesitant to throw myself all in. I dip my toes in tentatively and think things through logically. I give things a shot with the mindset of “we’ll see.”
Brandon and I have another couple that we hang out with often who are really good friends of ours. Erin and James love backpacking, and invited us on a trip, so we said yes. I have never felt particularly drawn to the idea; on the contrary, the idea of hauling a heavy backpack for long stretches has always sounded rather unappealing to me. Don’t get me wrong, I have always loved hiking. And I enjoy the occasional camping trip, though we never did much camping when I was a kid so I didn’t grow up loving it like so many people I know do. It’s more of an acquired taste. As much fun as it is sitting around a campfire getting tipsy and eating hot dogs and marshmallows and trying to fall asleep in a tent while the next camp over is still drunk and cackling, it just never really thrilled me enough to want to do it on a regular basis. So the idea of having to haul everything on my back first and then go camping was more of a shrug and a “sure, why not give it a try?”
On top of that, I am probably in the worst shape I have ever been in. I’m not out of shape, per se; I can still go for really long hikes with little problem (sans weight, of course) and I still try to get in at least a little exercise every day, but these last couple of years I have thrown myself so hard into work (which usually means sitting at my computer for hours on end) that I don’t exactly have the stamina or muscles to dance for six hours straight like I used to as a teenager. Gone are the days of being able to just go rock climbing when someone invites me; I’d probably really struggle right now if I tried to go for very long. I’ve been meaning to get in better shape, but everything else always seems more important and, well… it’s easy to stay on the momentum train.
Still, I was determined to give it a try. “You’ve been wanting to get into better shape, Tien. Here’s your chance!” I told myself. For the two weeks leading up to the trip I pushed myself to exercise more and use muscles that I had forgotten about. I didn’t train like I probably should have and didn’t go for any walks with weight on my back, but I did try to prepare somewhat at least. I definitely felt a lot of trepidation about how the weekend would go and I hoped I wouldn’t be a complete drain on everyone else. But our friends promised us it would be a short three hour hike to the campsite and three hours back. One night. A great beginner trek for me to get a taste and see if I liked it. Not to mention Brandon used to do a lot of backpacking so he already knew what to expect and we could plan together appropriately.
The hike was definitely a lot harder with a giant backpack, that’s for sure. I was slower on the uphills than everyone else. But we made it to the campsite without too much difficulty and set up tents and sat around talking while we ate dinner. I forgot how delicious food tastes when you really kick your own ass exercising. I find it ironic that the most difficult part of the trip came when it was time to go to sleep. Because I hadn’t been sure that backpacking was an experience I wanted to repeat, we had borrowed the tent and sleeping bags from our friends and I had decided not to invest in better sleeping gear (because, ouch! That stuff is expensive. I wasn’t about to drop that much money on something I didn’t know if I was going to be doing again any time soon.) Even though I was exhausted from the hike it took me over two hours to fall asleep because I was so uncomfortable. I woke up in the middle of the night several times from bizarre dreams and my tailbone and hips were aching from where they pressed against the rocky ground and I berated myself for not taking the time to figure out a way to have a more comfortable pillow. Ever since getting rear-ended in my early twenties I have had neck problems and this trip showed me that a wadded up jacket does not qualify as a pillow when you are almost 30 and your muscles and bones don’t bounce back like they used to when you are younger. I woke up feeling far more sore from sleeping than I did from hiking with a heavy pack, which I thought was pretty funny.
Interestingly enough, I was still in great spirits. I was filthy and sweaty and smelly and pretty damn chipper. Many times throughout the night I listened to the panoramic symphony of crickets serenading us in our tent and thought, “if I was comfortable right now, this would be incredible!” I was looking forward to what promised to be a much easier hike back to the car with a lot less uphill than the trek there, with my backpack much lighter than before from all the water we had been drinking. I thought of how I usually take showering for granted and how fucking amazing it was going to feel to sleep in a real bed with a real pillow. But I was so happy to be right where I was, with great company and good friends and the beauty of nature all around us, drinking water and getting exercise. I know that all of these things have a massively positive impact on my mood but it’s easy to forget when you get sucked into the day-to-day grind of things.
Somehow on the hike back our lead got a little turned around and we ended up going the wrong way which caused us to have to do a painfully steep incline for the last half a mile back to the car. A tiny part of me was disappointed because I was exhausted and just wanted to take my backpack off and be done. But mostly I was mentally unfazed by this sudden twist, which surprised me. I knew it was going to be harder for me than the rest of the group because I had already been the only one with trouble hauling my backpack up the inclines on the first day, and I was probably going to be trailing behind everyone else. And yes, I ended up being the last one, huffing and puffing and sweating like crazy because my leg muscles weren’t at all used to it with so much weight. But Erin stuck with me and encouraged me and kicked my butt a little when I needed it and I appreciated her for that. We were so close to the top and I was struggling but so happy to be almost there when Brandon came jogging back down and tried to remove my backpack, saying he would carry it for me the rest of the way to help me out. I love him so much for his sweet intentions, but I swatted him away and grumpily snapped my pack back on. “Don’t take this away from me,” I told him. “I’m so close to the top. Just let me finish this on my own.” And when we finally made it it felt just as amazing as I knew it would, like those times when I did in my early twenties going rock climbing when I pushed past the fear and made it to the top even though my muscles were shaking and I was terrified I would slip and hurt myself. I ended up being thankful we went the wrong way, because it made the whole experience that much more memorable.
That feeling of being capable…. that feeling of succeeding at something that is difficult and pushes you beyond yourself… it’s a drug, that’s for sure. But the very best kind.
And yes, that first shower after was the most amazing shower ever. And dinner tasted fucking incredible. And colors were brighter and my mind felt sharper and I felt a renewed sense of appreciation for both nature and technology.
But the best part came when this night owl woke up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at an unnatural hour the next day, before the sun was up and the fog was still thick around suburbia. I watched all of the parents ushering crowds of children off to their first day at school and I felt utterly thrilled to the tips of my toes that I am an adult and I’m no longer shoved into a classroom being force-fed things I don’t care about and will never remember. I was one of the first people into the coffee shop and I ordered myself a giant cup of hot black coffee and sat in the corner by myself slurping it straight into my soul and nibbling on a pastry and feeling more thankful and centered than I have felt in a long, long time. The easy and convenient things always feel more delicious when they are preceded by the difficult and the challenging — especially when those challenging things are just enough for you to handle and not completely overwhelming; when they push you right up against the edge of yourself but don’t throw you over. You get to stand there and feel more awake and alive and capable and somehow free.
And as I climbed into the car to make the drive from Orange County to San Diego, I felt better than I have in a long, long time. The depression that I’ve been carrying around lately has been tied to a feeling of losing my sense of hopefulness and optimism about my future. I’ve become cynical, sarcastic, and bitter — something I never saw coming in myself. I used to have all of these huge dreams and things that I wanted to do and accomplish, and somehow in the last couple of years I feel like they’ve all died and I’ve given up on so many of them. But interestingly enough, the overwhelming happiness I felt after my trip didn’t change any of that — it was in spite of it. I know that might not sound like a good thing, but I promise you, it is. It made me realize that I could still feel good about myself without needing my life to look a certain way. I don’t have to hang on to any of my dreams in order to feel good. I don’t need them. For those that don’t understand, that probably sounds negative, but it’s not. It’s the closest thing I’ve felt to free in a very long time.
Negative thoughts continued to pop up as I was driving; typical anxious thoughts that I’ve become so used to: “you always make such a fool of yourself, Tien. You’re such a loser. No one likes you. I don’t know why you even bother.” But something small shifted inside of me. A very lucid, clear thought floated to the surface, a bubble that burst open and spilled sunshine over the anxiety: if I let my mind wander for this whole drive, these thoughts are going to take over like they always do. But I feel good enough right now that I don’t have to let that happen. I need something to focus on, something to pull my mind in a different direction. I mulled it over and couldn’t come up with any thoughts that I knew would keep my mind occupied for the next hour in a truly positive way, when all of the sudden it clicked. Brainstorm.
If I could only use one word to describe myself, it would be creative. It is the one thing that I truly live for, the thread of my soul that makes me happier than anything else on this planet, and the one thing that I would die inside without. When I am brainstorming or working on creating something that I feel excited about, I am at my happiest. It only made sense for me to use this beautiful slice of solitude to dream up something new.
But here’s the interesting part. Normally when I brainstorm story ideas, I get hung up on wanting everything to come together perfectly. I want everything to make sense, I want everything to fit together logically and still have a powerful underlying message. I allow myself to get stuck there, and it’s why I rarely move forward. For years now I’ve been starting stories, writing chapters for things I never finish and developing characters for novels that go nowhere. I get frustrated because I can’t see the entire road and I’m so hell bent on wanting it to be perfect that I never complete anything. I know this is my weakness and yet it’s always been hard to let go somehow. In other creative endeavors I can let go of perfectionism, but I just care so fucking much about writing that I get stuck. It’s been my single lifelong dream, and I’ve already told you that I easily get hung up on dreams. That’s why I finally set my sights on something different and decided to publish a children’s book. It still took me a year, but it was something I could actually finish. I was less attached to it being perfect than I am writing for adults, and that’s why I could do it. That’s also the same reason that I started writing this blog — I wanted it to be an exercise in writing things that are less than perfect. Sure, I rewrite here and there. But I’m allowing myself the space to let thoughts roll over the keyboard, completely uninhibited, and let them be grammatically incorrect if that’s the way they come out. I’ve been trying to ease myself, step by step, away from my perfectionistic nature, and it’s been leaking out here and there where it can. But I’ve still been stuck when it comes to stories, and I’ll be honest with you: a big part of me has given up. No, I don’t think I can ever completely let go of that dream because it is too close to my heart, but for my own sanity I have had to let go of it for the most part.
So that’s why brainstorming on my drive to San Diego felt like such a huge breakthrough. This time, I wasn’t creating for an end result. I wasn’t trying to create a perfect, epic, incredible, life-altering story. It was just me and the scenery shifting around me and good music on the stereo and a single good intention — keep feeling happy. What if? And How would? and Wouldn’t this be cool? I’ll be honest: part of me didn’t want the drive to end. But all drives do eventually end, and I tucked my story idea into the back folds of my brain for later. It’s one of the best I’ve had in a while. I can’t make any promises, since I always have the best of intentions when it comes to new story ideas, and things like this take more time than I ever want them to. But it’s the first time I’ve felt excited about a story idea in a long time. I’m going to spend some time nurturing it and see if it turns into something. Most of all, it made me happy to simply spend an hour being me at my very best.
And backpacking? Well, I guess I’m kind of hooked; I had no idea I was going to enjoy it as much as I did. It looks like now I’m going to have to start doing a little research and looking for some of my own equipment. I don’t see myself having the time to become a hardcore backpacker, but I definitely see more trips in my future. I love when life takes me by surprise and sends something my way that is not only wonderful, but exactly what I need.
It’s no longer science fiction – it’s just science. To think that so much science begins with science fiction – and all creation begins with imagination. Science fiction writers of the last century imagined technological possibilities, many of which seemed like pipe dreams but have become reality because scientists put time and effort into figuring out how to make them work.
Technology is evolving rapidly – my grandchildren will laugh at me when I tell them I was just a kid when the internet became mainstream, and you’d turn on a computer and the only thing you’d see was a C prompt. They’ll just look at me with confusion in their eyes and ask “what’s a computer?”
Technology is always shifting forms, becoming simpler, more efficient, more effective, more versatile and more integrated. We’re at this wonderful vantage point in our own evolution where we’re no longer looking at ANYTHING as impossible because 100 years ago, hell 50 years ago, you could have told someone what our technology looks like now and they would have laughed in your face.
Locked you up.
Violently opposed your outrageous claims.
Now people are asking themselves, “what’s next? What impossibilities of today can be the possibilities of tomorrow?” The future is limited only by the furthest reaches of our imagination.
About five and a half years ago, when I was still with my ex-boyfriend and he moved in with his sister and her husband for a few months to save rent, my social anxiety used to be a lot worse and interacting with people was frustrating. I would visit said boyfriend and was at the mercy of social interaction too frequently for my comfort. On top of this, the sister’s husband (we’ll call him Greg) was a really intimidating guy. A real life ex-pimp, he stood a foot above me and was the kind of person that had judgement to dole out for everyone around him. Basically, a lot of dry kindling for someone with social anxiety.
While most people react with surprise at discovering I have SA, Greg could see it plain as day. I’m sure it didn’t help that he made me even more uncomfortable than most people, but I always felt like he was evaluating me, judging me. It bugged the shit out of me. The problem is, even though he could tell I was always uncomfortable, he didn’t actually know the first thing about SA. So he did what most people do: he told me to stop being uncomfortable.
Right — cause that actually fucking works, thanks.
“You know you don’t need to be uncomfortable here, Tien. You need to relax. I don’t bite. You need to talk more, and speak up. Just stop being so worried all the time.”
He said these kinds of things to me literally every time I saw him. And you know what happened? Every time I saw him I became increasingly more and more anxious, because I knew he would point out that I was anxious, which would make me feel absolutely AWFUL every single time, without fail. I did everything I possibly could to avoid him so that I wouldn’t have to listen to him tell me to just turn off my emotions.
Now, he was one of the worst, but the truth is that a pretty big number of “normal” people have a tendency to offer similar advice. The problem is, if you don’t have SA, you could never possibly understand what it feels like. You, as a normal person, might be able to willpower your way through your feelings and just turn them off and on at your leisure, but those of us with social anxiety will never have that luxury. We are drowning in shit, inhaling it, choking on it, but we still have to try to keep breathing and interacting anyway. It takes a lot more effort for us to just do everyday things than it does you. It’s hard to imagine how much more effort it takes to maneuver a semi through a crowded city when you’ve been driving a motorcycle your whole life.
Maybe if I put it a different way, it will help you understand. It’s called social anxiety disorder because it’s a form of mental illness. You can’t think of SA as just “poor mindset” or “weakness” because it’s not. AT ALL. In fact, people with social anxiety are stronger than most — we have to be, to survive. If you watched someone fall down a flight of stairs and break their leg, would you say to them, “just get up and keep going; ignore the pain and you’ll be fine tomorrow” ? No. No you wouldn’t, because it’s obvious what stupid and utterly useless advice that is. But because SA is invisible and you don’t understand what the experience of having it is ACTUALLY like (all you have are mild fears and self-doubts that you’ve prided yourself on being able to push through) it is so easy for you to brush it off like it’s some imagined aspect that the person has exacerbated because they can’t see things as clearly as you do.
News flash: you’re wrong.
Just because you don’t understand what someone is going through doesn’t mean you can’t have compassion for the fact that the experience is real and painful for them.
“But so many people have it so much worse off than you do. You have nothing to feel bad about. Just suck it up.”
Of course there are people that have it worse off than I do. Of course. But do you walk into a Cancer support group and say things like, “but there are people who have AIDS, and they have it so much worse than you do” ? Do you tell someone who has lost both of his legs that he needs to just get over it because there are other people that lost all of their limbs? No you don’t. Because it’s insensitive, and because you would sound like a total asshole.
Well, guess what? I know you’re not trying to, but when you say things like that to those of us with social anxiety, you also sound like a total asshole. I know you probably don’t mean to, so that’s why I’m telling you. If you notice that someone is uncomfortable, don’t push and poke them about it constantly. Let them move through it awkwardly and at their own pace.
Yes, from the outside looking in, it can seem like our experience is trivial, or we are making it up, or it’s all in our heads. It’s easy to brush off that which you can’t see. But the experience of living with SA for your entire life is overwhelmingly painful and impossible to understand unless you have it. It’s kind of like being locked in a dark room with a bunch of cruel people who are all eager to constantly tell you what an awful person you are and how you fail at everything and you don’t deserve to be liked or loved and they don’t need sleep or breaks or food, they just keep shouting, talking, whispering in your ear. And at the same time you’re supposed to interact with the world through this tiny little hole the size of a watermelon, but the dark room and the voices are bigger and louder and they are all around you and they never. shut. up. If you had to live like that, you would struggle at interacting with the world, too.
This is my cat… every. single. day.
If someone took a bunch of onions and turned them into nesting dolls, that would be a map of my brain. No matter how many layers I peel back, I can never see the whole picture, never arrive at the center of it all, never ever be able to make sense out of all of the pulsing neurons and thought processes.
My brain is also made out of gorilla glue. If I dwell on any thought to long, it gets stuck there and the only thing that removes me from it is sheer brute strength and something else to get stuck on. This can be a positive thing (I find something creative I’m excited about and work on it almost obsessively until something beautiful emerges) or a negative thing (relentless, restless social anxiety.)
I’m not sure what I’m trying to write, exactly. I just have this… feeling. This need to express something. So many thoughts going through my head. And this ache, this hole that I just can’t fill with anything. Writing is like filling that hole with quicksand. Though it’s always temporary, I feel whole while I’m doing it. Maybe God’s idea of a joke was creating a cure that you have to practice every day. If I didn’t love it so much, I might be outraged.
Not too long ago I discovered something about myself that made me reevaluate my entire childhood experience. I somehow found myself reading about selective mutism (an unfamiliar term) and the further and further I read the wider and wider my eyes got. It was as if someone had watched me as a child, written it all down, and come up with a name for my behavior. The thing is, I usually don’t spend tons of time on the internet researching my problems, past or present — so I never discover these things until I’m nearing the end of the third decade of my life and wasting time in the wee hours of the morning. (I’m realizing that this whole research thing is pretty awesome and I should probably do it more often when it pertains to things like this in my life.)
If you are like I was, thinking, “what the heck is selective mutism?” I will share with you. It is when someone feels such extreme anxiety in social situations that they barely speak or don’t speak at all. They will act like a different person at home or in situations in which they are comfortable, but otherwise they are extremely hard (or impossible) to worm words out of. This goes beyond simple shyness to where the person often feels like a deer-in-the-headlights when forced to interact socially. Basically: me as a child.
Let me help you understand why this is so significant. The social aspect of childhood was UNBEARABLY painful for me.
At home I was unrestrainedly myself: hyperactive, loud, goofy. I would run around the yard singing at the top of my lungs imagining that I had magic powers and making up all kinds of fun stories. I would harass my brother, chase my dog, and dress up in outrageous outfits and jump on the trampoline. My close friends would come over and we would play and have fun. that’s why it never occurred to my mom that I was anything other than extremely shy around new people. I really don’t blame her.
Shy, I was though. So painfully shy in fact, that whenever a stranger introduced themselves to me I would not say a word, just literally run and hide. At school, I was a SILENT little mouse. If I talked to anyone, it was only to the few close friends I had, and usually only at recess or lunch — and those were only during the years when I wasn’t a loner. The other years I would sit by myself and not talk to anyone at all, or run off to some quiet corner of the field at recess where I could be in my own little world. Teachers learned not to call on me because I couldn’t speak up in class, even though I usually knew the answer; I don’t remember a time, even in elementary school, when I didn’t get really good grades. I talked really, really quietly, too. I remember constantly hearing people telling me to speak up because they couldn’t hear me. Unless I felt really comfortable with someone, I never had any confidence in my words and was terrified of saying anything at all.
All of this was exacerbated by the fact that no one seemed to recognize the pain I was going through. And I was too young to realize anything more than the simple fact that I was incredibly afraid and that made me very different from everyone else. But I didn’t want anyone to know there was something wrong with me, so I never spoke up.
Selective mutism seriously sucks. I recall feeling an intense pain whenever I was forced to speak out loud in front of anyone I wasn’t very comfortable with. I remember going over to my best friend’s house to play all the time and struggling with it. She and I were two peas in a pod but I was less familiar with the rest of her family. Anytime her brother or parents were around I reverted back to fear and silence, and as you can imagine, this made it really difficult for them as well as me. But I didn’t know HOW to speak to them. I was so young that all I knew was it felt next to impossible. It was like everyone could fly and they kept telling me to join them but I could never flap my arms fast enough to get any lift. I felt helpless.
So guess what my solution was? I discovered that if I whispered in Brooke’s ear, I could still talk. And no, this never went over very well. Because no one, including me, realized that I had a freaking disorder, it was just assumed that I was being a bad kid and trying to stir up mischief. I recall being frequently chastised: “we don’t whisper in this house, Tien. There are no secrets. You need to TALK.” So I stopped whispering, and I stopped talking, and I remember feeling absolutely AWFUL all the time because I knew they didn’t understand. They couldn’t see what I was going through. I hated being the way I was.
My mom vividly recalls going to a parent-teacher conference one time and the teacher sat down across from her and proceeded to tell my mom that I was a stuck up little brat and that I needed to stop acting like I was too good to talk to the other kids.
When my mom explained to her how painfully shy I was, the teacher was blown away. It wouldn’t be the last time I would be labeled a snob simply because I had no idea how to talk to people.
So just FYI: that person who actually acts like they are better than everyone else? Probably an actual snob. That person who just plain never talks to anyone? Might just have severe social anxiety and is agonizing over the prospect of interacting with other people.
Do with that information what you will.
I got over my selective mutism, thankfully, though it took many years. All of the way until I graduated from high school I was still a really quiet person and rarely talked to anyone unless they approached me first. But I got better over time. Looking back I just feel incredibly thankful that I can finally put a name to something that I thought was terribly wrong with me for most of my young life. I take so much comfort in realizing that there are other people out there who had or still have the same problem. Even if I’ve long moved past it, there is still so much relief in simply being able to acknowledge that there never was anything horribly wrong with me (like it always felt growing up.) I was just a child with a different set of problems than most, trying to cope in a world that didn’t understand me and didn’t know there was a name for my behavior either. I may have been alone then, but I am definitely not alone now… even if it feels that way sometimes.
I have this deep frustration inside of me that’s been growing for a long, long time. It’s a frustration about something that I can’t really change (hint: other people) so I’m trying to make peace with it and it’s not really working. My frustration has to do with integrity (or lack thereof) in the vast majority of people today. Since when did it become the norm to not take your own word seriously?
I suppose I should be more specific. I look around me and I hate to say it, but the majority of the people I interact with these days generally don’t follow through with what they say they are going to. They say they are going to do something by a certain date, and they don’t. They commit to a get-together or event and then cancel at the last minute (or just don’t show up.) Or even just something as simple as being more than ten minutes late on a regular basis. I’m beginning to take it personally, and I know I shouldn’t because it’s an epidemic in our society and it’s not just the people around me — it’s become the norm.
The problem is, I see it as a lack of respect. And no matter how hard I try to reframe that mindset or try to put myself in other peoples’ shoes, I just don’t get it.
Now don’t get me wrong, I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit that there were times in my life when I’ve done each of these things; especially when I was younger. I remember one time when I was a teenager and was supposed to babysit for the neighbors down the street and I canceled on them last minute and TO THIS DAY I still feel awful about it. But my inability to forgive myself for past mistakes is an entirely different problem. The thing is, I’ve grown up from that. And I’m nowhere near perfect, but I put a significant amount of effort these days into following through with what I say I’m going to do.
If I don’t want to do something or can’t commit to something, I tell people up front. If I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to make it, I say I’m not going to be able to make it. If a client wants me to meet a deadline but I’ve got a pile of work on my desk from other clients that needs finishing first, I tell the client I will do my best (and I do my very, very best) but I don’t make promises I can’t keep. And if I do promise to meet a deadline, I will stay up all night if I have to in order to meet it. When my grandmother was in the hospital recently, I had to cancel going to lunch to catch up with an old friend who I haven’t seen in years. Granted, it was a very valid reason to cancel, and I gave her some advance notice, but I still deeply regretted it. I always leave early for appointments and meetings, just in case traffic is bad — because it often is, here in so cal — and arriving on time is important to me.
Why? Because I care. Because I respect other people. But also, because my word is my bond. It is the gold bar behind the dollar that actually stands for something and gives it value. If I never followed through with what I said I was going to, people would stop believing me when I say things.
I see it in other people. Those friends that are always late? I hear other people rolling their eyes and scoffing at them and complaining about them because they know that 5:00 really means 5:30. Those friends that always cancel at the last minute? I never hear the end of it from those closest to them who have gotten to the point that they simply don’t believe them any more when they say they are going to be there. “We’ll see,” and an eye roll is usually the response, followed by genuine surprise when the person actually shows up. We’ve become a society that expects less from other people because we’ve been trained to do so. And it drives me fucking crazy.
I would so much rather someone be straight with me and say “maybe” every single time than “yes” and cancel again and again (and I’m incredibly thankful to a couple of friends who have realized they are this way and no longer commit to anything unless they know for certain they will be there. Seriously — it makes all the difference that they just say “maybe” up front.)
Because no matter how much people flake on me, I am not going to stop being the person I am. I am not going to stop caring, and stop trying, and stop doing my best to follow through. I don’t ever want to be that person that gets rolled eyes when my head is turned because people have come to expect the worst from me. I mean, yes, I will probably drop the ball here and there. Every once in a great while, I end up being late; sometimes you just can’t help that. And once in a while, I will probably have to cancel for one reason or another, but I make a very concerted effort not to, and at the very least give advance notice if possible. It’s important to me that those are the exceptions to the rule, and that no one ever comes to expect that from me. My word matters to me. And unfortunately, I feel like it doesn’t matter to anyone else.
I always tell people up front: if you can’t commit to this, don’t. If you don’t want to do it, don’t. If you can’t be there at 5:00, say you will be there at 5:15 or 5:30. But people do anyway. They shrug it off, say they will be there, or say they will be on time. And then they are not. And it makes me want to bang my head against a wall.
Don’t get me wrong; there are people in my life that follow through. This isn’t a blanket statement. I do feel like (generally speaking) the older generation has a better relationship with integrity than my peers. BUT there are definitely exceptions on both sides of that.
I hate to say it, but the truth is just that most people don’t really care if their word has no substance. And from someone who works hard to maintain their integrity, who cares about follow through, it’s a source of endless frustration for me. I tell myself over and over that these people are just too caught up in themselves and their lives to realize it. They were never taught that integrity matters, so how can I expect them to realize that it does? I tell myself again and again that it isn’t meant as a slight. But unfortunately, no matter what I do, my brain still interprets it as “this person has no respect for me or my time.” And what ends up happening is I get tired of hearing the lies (because let’s face it, that’s what they are — lies) and ultimately I end up weeding these people out of my life.
I’m not sure why, but lately it just seems like it has been worse than ever. I’ve been increasingly bombarded by people who don’t follow through or cancel on me and I’m just getting tired of it. When it starts hitting from every angle, it gets harder and harder to let slide. I try really hard to have low to no expectations, but somehow I still end up disappointed in other people.
I’m working on it.
This is an old story I wrote five years ago when I lived in Hawaii. I’ve edited it slightly for this post but overall it is the same as the original. I decided to share because recalling just how ridiculous I can be is entertaining.
Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, this was back when I was still using double spaces between sentences… I fixed them for you. But if I missed any: no, I’m not apologizing. Deal with it.
A few nights ago I was sleeping soundly in bed, warm and happy, dreaming that I was hiking through the forest on a trek to some unknown land. Trees loomed overhead and a cool breeze ruffled my hair.
As I walked I became aware of the droning buzz of an insect near my ear. I looked around to swat it away, but didn’t see anything, yet the buzzing continued. Everything around me began to go dark as I felt myself slipping from the forest back to warm pillows and sheets. Why was I waking up? I was having such a lovely dream. I wanted to return and take pictures!
The buzzing had not been a part of my dream – it was in my bedroom. Some stupid fly with nothing better to do than wake me up from golden dreams about distant realms. With a groan, I swatted at the noise. I heard the little insect’s wings as he did figure eights around my ear. I swatted at him again, barely catching myself from slapping my own face. Unperturbed, the fly continued doing infinity loops around my head like he was training for the insect olympics.
“What the hell!? You have the whole room to fly around in. You could go chill out in some corner and wait for morning to come. Go have a dream about being something more interesting than a fly. Leave me alone why don’t you?”
Apparently flies don’t speak English, or at least this one didn’t. I pulled my pillow over my head and my covers up to my chin. Ahh, that’s better.
I sprung from my bed with a newfound energy born of murderous intentions, waving my hands severely at the dark in hope of them connecting with something small and evil, but my blind attempts had no effect on the buzzing. I switched on the bedside lamp and squinted, trying to discern my enemy from the bright fuzzy blobs of the room. I couldn’t see a damn thing.
Hastily, I snatched my glasses from the table and stood at the ready. Where was my attacker!? But I didn’t see or hear anything. In the presence of light, this fierce antagonist had become a skulking coward.
“Where are you, stupid fly? Come out, come out so I can kill you!”
The fly must speak English after all, because he stayed resolutely hidden. Tim, however, rolled over in bed and groaned at me, “why did you turn the light on?”
“There’s a FLY in this room and he won’t stop BUZZING around my HEAD!”
“Turn off the light.”
“Not until I find him and kill him!”
“Tien, turn off the light and go back to sleep.”
“I don’t hear a fly. He’s gone. Now turn off the light please. Go back to sleep.”
I felt bad for waking him, so I returned my glasses to their place, switched off the light, and crawled back into bed. He was right, it was silent. Thank goodness. Maybe the fly had decided to go to bed, too. I sank into the mattress, feeling the warmth of sleep starting to slide back over my body and pull me back into that blissful dream-state where all things become possible.
“Tien, it’s just a fly.”
“No! He has an evil plot against me. I can’t sleep with all of this buzzing!”
“Turn on the fan. It’ll make it harder for him to fly.”
Was that true? Would it really? Trust Tim to be rational and reasonable in the middle of the night. Being woken up didn’t seem to turn him into the raging lunatic it transformed me into.
I climbed out of bed and turned on the ceiling fan. I lay in bed for the next five minutes, waiting for the fly to return, but he didn’t. Success! Thank you Tim, I thought.
Unfortunately, the longer I laid there I felt a chill creep over me. The joy of living in Hawaii is that you need very little bedding to keep you warm at night. In fact, half the time I find myself kicking the sheets off in the night to keep cool. However, with the ceiling fan spinning overhead at warp speeds, protecting me from invisible enemies, I found myself absolutely freezing. I would never get back to sleep in a room this cold. The fly was long gone.
I got up, turned the fan back off, and relished the warmth of the bed. The room stayed silent around me, and I was grateful. Soon I was drifting back off to sleep, feeling silly that I’d ever gotten so upset about a tiny little fly…
No! I wouldn’t let him bother me. I would just go to sleep, and he would eventually leave me alone. I scrunched way down under the sheets, completely covering my head with them and using my pillow as a shield. It successfully muffled the buzzing and after a while I fell into a fitful, restless sleep.
The next morning, I looked for the fly and could not find him. Thank goodness. I left the bedroom door open all day, hoping he would escape to the downstairs and eventually make his way back outside. I didn’t see the fly anywhere, so I figured he must be gone.
When night came, Tim and I got ready for bed and closed the bedroom door behind us. I stood in the bathroom brushing my teeth, when I heard a low, wicked sound:
I turned to look, and there he was: the fly.
I looked around frantically for something to kill the fly with, my toothbrush dangling from my mouth forgotten, toothpaste slowly dripping down my chin. “Iii-gghhhfffaggkttt-ittt!!!!”
“What?” Tim called from the bedroom.
I spit the toothbrush and toothpaste out of my mouth and called, “I found it! The fly! We have to KILL IT before we go to bed!!!”
He joined me in the bathroom as I attempted to swat a the fly with a container of shaving cream. Entirely ineffective. Why don’t we have a fly swatter!? Ah. I scampered into the closet and returned with a shoe.
By now, the fly had buzzed back into the bedroom. I chased him around the bed and he flew circles around me, laughing in merriment, taunting me. I chased him back into the bathroom.
Tim closed the door to the closet as well as the bedroom, cleverly locking him in with us. That was smart. Why didn’t I think of that? My eyes remained glued to the tiny zipping target.
The next five minutes were spent attempting to flatten the beast, I with my shoe and Tim with a manila folder. He never stayed still long enough for us to overtake him, and the harder it became the more determined I was to annihilate this motherfuckerrrrr!
The fly paused on the edge of the tub, laughing at how silly we looked and all of the sudden an intense burst of energy surged through my body. I was a 12-year-old girl at the nickel arcade on a mission to win win win and the entire bathroom had become my own personal giant whack-a-mole. With an amazonian war-cry I began feverishly hammering at the fly over and over again with my shoe, wham, wham, wham, wham, WHAM, wham, wham, WHAM WHAM WHAM WHAM!
The fly leapt from spot to spot, caught off-guard by my new lightening speed. Tim retreated to the corner, fear in his eyes. His girlfriend had disappeared and was replaced by a psychotic killer. I think he was grateful right then that he wasn’t a fly. I was going to kill that fly, godammit, wham, if it was the last, wham, thing I, wham, DO! WHAM!
I nicked the edge of the fly’s wing and his flying became erratic and slow. Hah. I knew I had him now. There was nothing he could do.
I’m sure in that moment my eyes had turned to flaming red slits and steam was escaping via ear canal. A twisted, cheshire-grinch-grin curled my lips as I lifted the shoe a final time. The fly landed on the shower door.
Bzzz. It said, halfheartedly.
WHA-WHAM! I smashed the fly dead-on and the wobble-wobble-wobble of the shower door reverberated as I stood triumphantly over the innards of my foe. He would NEVER wake me from my slumber EVER again! Muahahahahaha!
I turned to Tim with a loud cheer and went to give him a high five. He looked at me, terrified.
“Jesus, you almost shattered the shower door.”
“That’s what he GETS!”
“Remind me never to make you mad.”
I strutted around the bathroom, and raised my hand for a high five. He returned it, too scared to do anything but humor my neurotic behavior.
I did it! I killed the fly! I am the CHAMPION FLY-KILLER, for ever and ever! Nothing can mess with me! I will take you ON! Just call me Tien the Conquerer! Heh, heh, heh.
I smiled down at fly-guts on glass, and felt a twinge of guilt. The poor thing. He was just a fly. He had a life to live, even if it was a short one, and I had just ended it suddenly because I was annoyed by him. Perhaps I was a terrible person.
Then I told myself reasonably that he knew what he was doing, he was not innocent at all he was tormenting me, and besides, being dead is pretty awesome. Nothing really ever dies, anyway, they just go to a better place. Now he was free to come back as a caterpillar or a bee or a worm. Being a fly probably sucked anyway. I instantly felt better.
I went to sleep that night feeling pretty proud of myself; I had triumphed, and that fly would never buzz around my head at night again. I snuggled deeper into the sheets, feeling intensely safe, savoring the quiet. And yes, I was feeling pretty cocky, too.
“What’s that I hear? Hmm? Is that the sound of SILENCE? How nice. No bzz-bzz-bzz tonight, just quiet. That’s because I am the conquerer!” I said out loud.
The room was still around me. With a smile on my face, I found myself drifting off. Suddenly…
No! It couldn’t be! Had my attacker returned from the dead? I had killed him! What was going on!?
I switched on the light.
It was a motherfucking mosquito.