There are times where I feel broken. I mean…I suppose that in a way, I may be. My brain is somewhat broken. Every day, it fails me. I can’t keep up with my peers, and I end up falling behind on seemingly “normal” things. I can never really seem to catch up, either. Sometimes I have fallen so far behind that I think that I’m ahead in this race of life. And then I realize, as I get lapped again, that I’m so far behind and there’s no hope in making up the distance that I have lost. However, over time, I have learned a thing or two on how to cope. I have learned that my type of fun is not the type of fun that everyone else is having, and that’s okay.
The other day, I sat outside Courtroom 16170, staring at the blinking cursor on my computer screen. There are so many instances in which I am reminded of how abnormal I am. Out of 25 prospective jurors, I was the only one with a voice squeaky enough to be handed a microphone. I stuck out like a sore thumb. My voice cracked, and I breathed too heavy into the microphone. Here’s the thing: despite my discomfort, part of me was proud to be there. Don’t get me wrong, jury duty wasn’t fun, and I would have much rather not been summoned in the first place. I was even tempted to opt-out due to my Social Anxiety Disorder. I thought of ways to try to get out of jury duty, not because it was jury duty, but because I was too worried that I would fall behind socially, become embarrassed, and get found out for being different and not belonging.
When people think of common disabilities, Social Anxiety Disorder does not often come to mind. Most people do not even know what Social Anxiety Disorder truly is — it does not simply consist of being shy or awkward. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) describes Social Anxiety Disorder as “intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation.” This disease — yes, it is a disease — completely controls my life. Every decision I make has a basis within my anxiety. For example, I often ponder visiting my favorite local restaurant for a quick bite to eat, but my anxiety stops me in my tracks. This is my thought process: I probably shouldn’t go because I might run into someone I know, and they would want to talk to me, but I may not have anything interesting to say. Or, when I wonder if I should ask my boyfriend if he would like to spend time together, I think, maybe not, because he might want to hang out with his friends, and then I look desperate. Lastly, I think, should I accept that a speaking engagement is a part of the nonprofit organization I run? Definitely not, because, well…for obvious reasons. Social Anxiety Disorder has a grip on me like it’s trying to choke me out. Sometimes I wish it just would already.
Another thing that I must admit is that I hate group settings. Usually, I’m comfortable with the one-on-one type of encounters. If it’s just a friend and me, I typically am not anxious enough to jumpstart a panic attack. But, on the rare occasion that I get invited out to a party or a dinner with multiple people, I am more nervous than almost any other time in my life. I usually just outright refuse to attend. If I must go, however, I stand on the outsides of the conversation, trying to blend into the walls and go unnoticed. As an introvert, social settings tire me out; as someone with Social Anxiety Disorder, social environments are my absolute worst nightmare. Over time, though, I have realized that I do not need to enjoy going out and being amongst many other people. I would much rather sit down with one friend for coffee when I am feeling brave. Other people may find social gatherings fun, and that’s fine. But I don’t. That’s also fine, too. We all have varying degrees of normalcy, and this is mine.
Something that I’ve learned about inclusivity is that it isn’t always up to other people to include me. There are so many times where, in my case, I have to include myself. With Social Anxiety Disorder, I exclude myself for fear of being excluded by others. Inclusivity, in my case, starts with me.
What is one way that I can work toward inclusiveness with myself? I can put myself out there; I have learned I must make an effort. If someone else doesn’t return the effort, that says more about them than it says about me. I have to give myself that little push to spur small experiences that will further my type of social experiences. They all build on each other. Maybe when I go out to lunch and make small talk with an old friend, I’ll gain the courage to ask my boyfriend to hang out. Then, I might be able to speak to a small handful of people about what my nonprofit is doing. If I didn’t take that small step to go out for lunch, that speaking engagement would never have been possible.
Having a brain that’s broken isn’t anything to be ashamed of. My mind just doesn’t work like everyone else’s. “If you can’t make your own neurotransmitters, store-bought is fine,” is a slogan I remember seeing on a t-shirt. This resonates with me, as it has made me realize that I shouldn’t be ashamed to have to take medication for my disease. No one shames people with diabetes for taking insulin, so why should I be ashamed of taking medication for my mental health? There are so many people out in the world struggling because they are kept on the outside. They’re looking in, wondering why they aren’t included. For me, that gatekeeper was myself. This fact is something that I have had to come to terms with. My brain is predisposed to keep me out for fear of being a social outcast. But I have really made myself a social outcast by not including myself. That is not very inclusive of me.
Through my personal work as a writer and the work I do with my nonprofit, I fight for inclusivity for those with mental illnesses. It is hypocritical of me to keep myself on the outside, looking in, while I urge inclusivity for others. Change starts with yourself. Allow yourself the space to include yourself in the activities you know are for you. That little voice in the back of your head saying, “Go for it!” is right. My fellow friends with Social Anxiety Disorder: Go for it! That’s what I silently told myself as I accepted the microphone: Go for it. Tell your truth. You deserve this.
Nicole Cahill is a mental health advocate and an avid baseball fan. When she isn’t at the ballpark, she’s working with her nonprofit, Neuro-atypical Neighborhood, to make a difference in the lives of young athletes who have mental health challenges.