â€śWhat words would you use to describe yourself?â€ť This seemingly harmless question always left me drawing the same conclusions about myself: I was shy, quiet, reserved, and introverted. I was the girl on the sidelines, occupying the same seat in the last row, doing everything and anything to ensure that no unnecessary attention was drawn towards me.
When I was younger, I was never bothered by my shyness. I would just tell myself that it just took me longer to warm up to people and to jump into conversations. However, as I entered into adolescence, these definitive aspects of my personality began to warp into something bigger than I wanted to acknowledge.
After experiencing a loss in my early adolescence, I did everything in my power to remain myself. I tried to ignore my sadness and the gnawing feeling that I was different than my peers. This worked for a few years, but eventually the feelings I tried to suppress caught up to me. I was 15 years old when I experienced my first panic attack, which marked the beginning of my continual struggle with anxiety. The shyness I felt in social situations morphed into full-body panic, being called out in class resulted in shortness of breath, and class presentations left my heart racing and my throat closing in on the words I tried to speak.
My situation only worsened as my family failed to understand what I was dealing with, mocking my anxiety, preying on my insecurities. I no longer felt safe voicing my opinions and so I withdrew further into myself.
Living in an extroverted world, where class clowns and social butterflies are looked up to, I felt ostracized by my new anxiety. Stuck inside the confines of my own mind, I believed that I would be forced to resign myself to a life of constant fear and embarrassment, fighting a losing battle with the voices inside my head. However, with medication and therapy, I learned how to effectively deal with my mental health experience. It was not until this year, five years later, that I was finally able to acknowledge my experience as a social anxiety disorder.
I believe much of my shame surrounding this experience was due in part to the sense of illegitimacy I felt. I could not understand why something as trivial as a conversation posed such a challenge for me. I felt as if I had missed some secret lesson that everyone else had been taught, never able to catch up.
As I continue to grow and understand myself, I am now able to acknowledge that my mental health experience is not something I should ever feel shameful towards. My unique history has made me who I am. It may be that I always feel slightly apprehensive when I meet new people, taking longer than others to learn to fully trust a new person in my life, but that is perfectly okay.
The stigma surrounding mental health has yet to be broken. I am now able to understand that I had internalized the societal stigma which proclaims that mental health experiences are illegitimate, treating my suffering as something to be suppressed or ignored. This kind of internalization is dangerous, as it not only reinforces the stigma, but discourages those who are suffering from reaching out for help. I can only hope that as more and more individuals come forward to share their stories, our society will begin to recognize these lived experiences for what they are. My struggle with social anxiety is nothing I should ever apologize for. I will not apologize for the person I have become. Yes, I may still be quiet, shy, and reserved, but I am also courageous, empathetic and stronger than I ever believed I could be. I am done with the shame, and I am done apologizing.
By: Talia Main
Talia is pursuing a degree in psychology at the University of Toronto. She hopes to continue her education in psychology following graduation. She is passionate about ending the stigma surrounding mental health through her writing and education.