My mom would probably tell you it started with “Maddie Fatty.” That’s what a few kids in grade school dubbed me at the height of my chubby years. It’s true: my mother had to make special trips to Sears to buy my extra-large jeans; it’s also true that I’ve unconsciously blocked this first cut to my self-esteem from memory. I actually can’t remember the tears. Yet my mom does and every so often, she likes to remind me. “It made you stronger,” she says. I wonder, did it?
The memory I can clearly recall, my first real rejection, happened a few years later, right after switching schools for 7th grade. My good girlfriends — the ones who had liked me even when I was fat — ditched me for the cool crowd. It happened swiftly, a clean break: We stepped foot in our new school and it was as though I never existed. I wasn’t the right “fit” for their new gang, one that suddenly included a pack of hormonal boys.
This wasn’t the first time I felt different. My parents were a couple of nature-loving hippies, who somehow landed in the preppy, conservative suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. While other families I went to school with vacationed in Aruba and Mexico, we went canoeing in the boundary waters of Minnesota. My siblings and I didn’t get allowances like the other kids we played with — we worked. At 12, I was babysitting for several neighbors. And just a few years later, I convinced our local Kumon learning center to give me a tutoring job.
I had always felt sort of like an outsider, but high school was the first time I was truly alone. Instead of getting emotional about it — instead of letting it consume me — I went to work. I quickly became the “nerd”, the “teacher’s pet”, the kid who actually worked in the library, while all my classmates flirted. My family likes to call this period “the cave years”, referencing the long nights and weekends I spent walled up in my room, obsessing over homework or whatever flavor of extracurricular I had thrown myself into that week. I didn’t have time for many friends, and I told myself that I didn’t really need them anyway.
I tried to stop caring what other people thought about me; I tried to give zero fucks; I tried to own my differences. And when I was alone, that’s who I was: the independent woman, kicking ass all by myself.
But that’s not who I was to the rest of the world. Without even realizing it, my anxiety, my fear of rejection, had created this wall between me and everyone else. If you would’ve asked a classmate to describe me, they might’ve used adjectives like quiet or distant. Reserved. No one, besides my family, really knew me because I never let them in.
Social situations were the worst. It was during these painful moments —with the popular girls on the field hockey team, standing next to the hot jock at a party — that I became hyper aware of my differences, self-conscious of my appearance, scared of being judged by the pretty blonde girls with whom I used to swap secrets. Was everyone talking about me behind my back? What was I doing here? I would wipe the sweat from my brow, try to hide my blushing cheeks, say sorry a lot for no reason. I would shrink whenever I became the focus of attention, stare blankly when I was put on the spot. My chest would tighten and I would tell myself that I had to leave, quietly and swiftly, without anyone noticing. And I did.
More than a decade later, I finally started seeing a therapist. When my anxiety and work stress started to take a toll on my physical health. When I wasn’t sleeping. When my hair was falling out. When I couldn’t concentrate. Or sit still. I had become obsessed with future uncertainties, worrying incessantly about what was next. I couldn’t be present.
Of course, I would never share any of this with those around me. I had become quite good at masking my struggles. I’d also obviously grown up a bit too. I like to think I’ve since become the fierce, confident woman I was trying to convince myself I was back then. I’m much more comfortable with who I am and how I’m different and I embrace it. I have a broad group of close friends and I’m very social, to the point that I barely have a free night to myself. Yet there are still times where I find myself reverting back to my old tendencies: throwing myself into my ambitions as a way to cope with insecurities, putting up a wall around new folks, withdrawing in big groups.
Therapy has helped me understand all this. It’s made me aware of my anxiety, so I can consciously change my behaviors and catch myself when I’m spinning out of control. So I can talk openly about my inner world and meet people on a human level. So I can be vulnerable.
I think so many of us, myself included, are afraid of just being human — and that’s all we are. That’s all we have. And that’s why I’m part of Anxy.