Since childhood, I have always been the kid who sat quietly in a corner, avoiding crowds and large gatherings as my sense of anxiety cemented itself into my sense of identity. Reading out loud in class, answering questions, saying ‘here’ when the class register was ticked, all these instances that happened on a brutally frequent basis filled me with fear, as my heart pounded and a mind-numbing headache rendered me a crumbling mess. God forbid audience participation during pantomimes and other such events.
As a child, my habits led many teachers to label me as ‘shy’ and ‘withdrawn’ which in turn hit my academic confidence. My shyness somehow downgraded my intelligence. Though I was never the top student, I was suitably intelligent, slightly above average you could say, but my classroom shyness was often misinterpreted as stupidity. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the answers, it was that I was too afraid to speak up.
This pattern of behaviour carried on into my mid-teens as exams drew near and, overall school anxiety and stress peaked. I had close friends and even boyfriends throughout school who I hung around with, but this was not enough to overcome my anxious habits. Instead, I buried myself in books, admiring characters who battled through their tragedies with great success.
As sixth form approached and we were given the option to choose which subjects to study, my progress towards confidence seeded itself in my sense of identity. For the first time in my academic career, I could study a subject which I was passionate about and of which I naturally excelled. This subject was, of course, English Literature. Shakespeare, Milton and Blake brought out an sense of belonging, as I and a handful of other students could revel in the meaning of words.
Still drawn to my childhood habits, I frequently preferred to stay quiet but felt no obligation to keep my thoughts internal. Instead, my passion for language overtook my sense of anxiety and I could actively participate in group discussions. Unaware of it back then, these group discussions were the first steps I took to overcome my anxiety.
I did as everyone did when breaching adulthood. I went to university, got a job and implanted myself in society. I became one of the crowd and in that, I felt a sense of security. But this comfort blanket was not going to last forever.
My anxiety spiralled as I entered a relationship which destroyed my confidence and individuality. I could no longer walk to work, dress in alternative clothing or attend events. I had become the anxious, shy child I once was again. This time, however, I could feel it. Unlike my childhood self who ‘grew up’ with an anxious and agoraphobic mind, this time I could feel my confidence dwindle and along with it my personality.
In the depths of my mind as I hide from friends and family, I knew I was the only one who could fix myself. I had to rewire my brain again but this time for good.
Leaving my past relationship was the first step. I’m not going to lie and say that it was easy. As horrendous as that relationship was, I loved my partner entirely and losing him felt like looking part of myself. It broke me completely. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t do anything alone for months. But time passed and I changed. I became used to the overwhelming feeling of loneliness and in my despair turned to an old friend. Literature.
Obsessively I buried myself in books and play, using their stories as a distraction method. I rehearsed and memorised countless lines in my head while walking to work. For the first time in almost a year, I could walk to work alone. I wasn’t consumed by anxiety anymore as my mind filled with Shakespearian sonnets.
The next step was salvaging what individualism and personality I had left. What did I like? What did I want to do? Could I do everything I wanted to?
Asking these questions brought out memories of the hero’s I loved as a child, and with it, I turned my mind to sport. Namely, combat sport. In a way, I tried to emulate the battles I read and watched as a child. This however presented a new trial that had to be overcome. My fear of walking into a crowded room alone.
Standing outside the building which would hold my first ever kickboxing lesson, the soul-crushing anxious thoughts that consumed my mind overwhelmed me. ‘I can’t do this’ I screamed internally. I stood in silence and in a state of shock, unable to move my body even an inch. By some miracle and a bit of luck, one of the kickboxing teachers went outside to get some air. His name was Kyle, being just a bit older than me he looked at me eager-eyed and curious.
‘So, you’re the new girl?’ He asked. I nodded, still unable to move fully. Walking over to me slowly, Kyle put his hand on my shoulder and guided me into the building.
‘It’s okay to be nervous, I’ll look after you today’ He promised. And with that promise in tow, I began my first kickboxing lesson. What Kyle didn’t realise he had done in that short and seemingly meaningless moment was ground me. Talking to me and knocking me out of my state of shock with his hand on my shoulder was all I needed. I just needed to feel like I belonged and was wanted. In the same way, I belonged in my literature classes at school, I now belonged in my kickboxing classes.
Every week my confidence grew, I was becoming the heros I read about in the books that filled my childhood. Though I did and do have short spurs of overwhelming anxiety, I know I belong somewhere, doing something I love and can develop.
Nowadays, as I refined my skills I talk publicly at events, dress in alternative clothing that naturally garners attention and do what I want to because well, I can. I left behind the shy child I was and turned into who I wanted to be. So, for anyone who experiences anxiety or social shyness I encourage you to follow your passion, and with it you will find a place to belong and grow. Do this for yourself and no one else.
Though I will never tell Kyle how important that moment of closeness meant to me, somehow I think he knows.