When you see depictions of social anxiety in the media, you typically see a person who is painfully shy. They are too afraid to speak up in class or they say no to parties and engagements because they are literally crippled in their fear about what other people think of them. Though shyness is one possible way of experiencing social anxiety, many people experience it differently based on the make-up of their social identities. I identify as a black, extroverted woman who has anxiety, and this particular combination of identities has made my experience with anxiety very nuanced. My blackness, my womanhood, my extroversion and my anxiety are all inextricably linked, and my experience cannot be validated without considering each one.
As you’ll read in the essay, the only antidote I’ve found to anxiety is continuously proving to myself that I can be brave and unapologetic- and that this bravery and unapology can actually help people who are going through the same thing. Before you get reading, reminders: (1) this is MY experience with anxiety- in no way does this totally account for anyone else’s experience with anxiety AND (2) there are so many articles online about how to support friends and family members who suffer with anxiety; though this doesn’t have tips on how to do that, I hope that this supplies affinity to women of color who have anxiety, and a greater understanding for those who don’t.
Twirl Until Ya Fade
You are the life of the party. Sequins are your favorite color. Crack a joke, buy a drink, laugh until you clutch your stomach hard, until you feel the pressure build up in your shoulders and at the nape of your neck, wonder if there’s too much pressure (should you go see a doctor? Are you about to die?), but remind yourself: in your head, that you recently read an article about how when you laugh too hard you briefly lose oxygen to your brain which makes total sense until you imagine air rushing through holes in your scalp and causing pressure just because your body doesn’t want you to have too much fun- where’s the bartender?
Now, you’re talking to that person who you really enjoy being around- she has hair the color of yarn like the white girls in the books your mother you used to read to yourself alone in your room; these girls would go to school and dream about kissing boys who skip gym class, and go home to their families where their annoying kid brother would read their diary and that was a whole stressful chapter of their lives. The girl with the hair the color of yarn who you think is your friend (but you’re never really sure are you?) laughs when you make jokes, and eventually they become inside jokes- words like airplane and phrases like “ya gotta be kidding me” send you both into laughing fits that make you clutch your stomach hard, until you feel the pressure build up in your shoulders and at the nape of your neck, wonder if there’s too much pressure (Should you go see a doctor? Are you about to die?).
Oops- almost, forgot you’re black.
When she laughs at your jokes now, you wonder if she’s laughing at you, at your afro, at your skin, at the power she holds; her grins turn to self-entitled pouts, her smiles are glares; you don’t know if it’s real or not so you stop talking to her and abruptly walk away murmuring something about the bathroom, but now you’re the angry black girl again, and you flatten your afro cause you’re nervous and you know you’re not just the angry black girl- now you’re the crazy black girl with anxiety with the bad attitude- people whisper “be careful around her; she’s crazy” (is this real?)
No- darn it, too late, you’re walking away and you didn’t think ahead because if you leave this party you know how the rest of your night will end up. You, in bed, scrolling through your Facebook feed, only 1 like? Come on. Fill out 20 applications for 20 different positions that you don’t know if you want because maybe if you grow successful this feeling will go away, and you can live like Beyonce with skinny legs and a fierce gaze and bright, flashy outfits and you’ll lay in bed at night and wonder if everyone hates you and find examples of it throughout your day (the cashier sliding your change across to you on the counter, the professor ignoring your hand in class), but you don’t know if all these things were real or not- you know that they happened, but you don’t know the intention and everyone’s gaze just melds together and points a big finger at you- and you don’t know who to ask or what to do so you turn to the shows and the books that give you relief. Sink- the crime thriller. Sink- the research project. Sink- the journal pages that you write your escape plans in- it’s x amount of money for a ticket to Paris, you’ll save that up in 2 months, grab another job till then, make a list of which books to choose, make a list of your favorite names, imagine you at the Eiffel Tower alone…and longing to be with others. Rips out page.
It’s your own personal sunken place- your own version of intersectionality:
You live in a world where you can never fully interpret your experience because of these identities that guide you blindly through the night. The cashier slides your change across to you on the counter. The professor doesn’t call on you in class.
Is it because you’re black? Is it because you’re a woman?
Are you making this up? Should you be offended?
If you are offended, is it because of your anxiety? Is it because of racism or one of the other -isms?
Why do I have so many questions? Why am I led by questions? Why is nothing ever certain? What’s that pressure in my head? Is it real? How do you breathe, again? Well, what if I forget- what then?
While you think these things you’re alone in your room, and your brain tells you it’s not okay to be alone in your room: call a friend, send a text, get out BUT what if they don’t want to hear what you have to say, BUT what if….
I haven’t found a cure yet.
I haven’t found a way to stop my mind from racing, to stop my heart from fidgeting in my chest-
But, I have found a mantra in reminding myself how brave I can be. That’s all I have to hold on to, and I hold on to it with desperate hands that go numb and become bruised from the grip-
So, I’ll go out to parties and I’ll wear a ball gown and I’ll curtsey like a lady and I’ll feel the pressure and I’ll wonder if it’s real, and I’ll twirl- I’ll twirl so fast, so so damn fast just to keep from falling-
and I’ll do this because I have to,
but I’ll make it because I’m brave.