I’ve written about depression, about suicidality, about self-harm, about generalized anxiety, about panic disorders, about eating disorders, about insomnia, and about OCD, among other tidbits of my life.
It can be a lot. Each one of these topics is a rabbit hole that even I don’t know how to navigate, if I get down too far.
Yet, I walk around in a relatively “normal” life now. I feed my cat in the morning, say hello to friends and smile at strangers, and balance my work with play.
My friend (So) asked me a few days ago, what was my biggest difference from my high school self.
It pains me to admit that there was once a point in my life where, my social anxiety and social isolation was so strong, that I didn’t have a single person to come to in my free time, besides God.
I didn’t have words to describe my condition yet. All I knew was that during lunch hour, I would hide in a toilet stall, practice room, or empty classroom, rather than walk into the cafeteria or a public lounge area.
No matter that my grades were all A’s, or that I worked hard at all my extracurriculars, and thought deeply about life. I didn’t believe that there were people who wanted to see me, people who cared about me, either at school or after those hours. It was so rare for me to attend formals, or other social events.
I took to wearing a hat, because it helped me to not be required to look people in the eye. I wore jackets, even when it was hot sometimes, because I would feel more protected with an extra layer. Seeing my own face in photos would embarrass me. Even at home, my door would often be locked, not having the energy to face a hoard of younger siblings.
It was like I would rather disappear, than risk being judged and evaluated by others.
It hurt me to think that if I transferred that very day, dropped out, or even killed myself, my classmates might not have batted an eye, said goodbye, or had reason to grieve. It hurt me to walk down a hallway and to not be acknowledged, whether I did or didn’t say hello.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have any social skills, or that I couldn’t read social cues. I actually thought it was quite the opposite … I was hyper aware of social situations, and I knew exactly what I should have said afterwards, only I would find myself paralyzed, stuttering, or otherwise incompetent in the moment.
I hadn’t felt comfortable in my own skin in a long, long time. And the quieter I got, the more my self-esteem would shrink. It was a vicious cycle.
I’m starting to think that these symptoms could be partly attributed to being in a co-ed environment. (More about that in a later post.)
Back then, I labeled it as stage fright. My bow would shake on stage so badly, it would sound nothing like it did when I practiced the piece. I know now, that it was more than ordinary pre performance butterflies. I only pushed myself harder after those concerts, until my muscle memory overcame my performance anxiety. (But, I didn’t want to be on auto-pilot either.)
If I wanted to speak in class, my heart would pound in anticipation as I made up my mind to do it. I needed so much control to keep my voice from shaking, and even if I never said a word, I would be on the edge of my seat all day, because I perpetually would have ideas and things to share.
I tried learning debate skills in an attempt to overcome this perceived weakness, so I joined the clubs that were relevant. But, if I didn’t have word for word points written down and in my hand, I could not make things up on the fly, so I would fumble something quickly and return to my seat. (To this day, I still get nervous for public speaking.)
Like the “observer effect” in scientific measurements (i.e. double slit experiment, anyone?), simply knowing that I was being seen or heard would make my abilities disappear.
It was like I was brilliant, funny, and kind, but that I always lost those elements between my heart and my mouth. My light needed to hide itself; I was externally hiding from who I was internally, and I was robbing the world of my existence.
“Step out, step out of the sun
If you keep getting burned.
“On the outside, always looking in
Will I ever be more than I’ve always been?
‘Cause I’m tap, tap, tapping on the glass
Waving through a window
“I try to speak, but nobody can hear
So I wait around for an answer to appear
While I’m watch, watch, watching people pass
Waving through a window,
Can anybody see, is anybody waving back at me?
“When you’re falling in a forest and there’s nobody around
Do you ever really crash, or even make a sound?”
– Dear Evan Hansen
But I made the most of my circumstances. I wasn’t one to waste my time in self pity. Throughout my time in high school, I was always just as enthusiastic, ambitious, and motivated as I was when I entered. I never became jaded, or developed senioritis, because all my fuel was internal, and because I wasn’t driven by the desire to please my classmates, my teachers, or an invisible college admissions board in the future.
Rather, I learned to do things for myself. If I couldn’t force myself into a social clique or make myself pleasing to the people who I felt were rejecting me, I would use my time and energy for self improvement.
I was someone who was assured of my own worth, even when I physically couldn’t prove it in my social context. I had nothing to prove, and everything to learn.
I carried my notebook and violin with me every day, all over the place. When I had the chance, I would contemplate my mortality, the purpose of learning, the quirks of human nature. When I wasn’t reflecting, I was practicing scales, arpeggios, double stops, Paganini, and whatever sheet music I could get my hands on from ISMLP. When I wasn’t practicing or scribbling my thoughts down in my commonplace book, I was reading.
And I would teach myself. From MOOCs to Pinterest, from Quora to Library Genesis, I was always asking questions, searching, wondering, and finding. My queries were informed by, but independent from, what I needed to succeed academically.
I interested myself in things from Greek mythology to Christian apologetics, from conducting to Stravinsky, from Beowulf to Burroughs, from T.S. Eliot to Dante Alighieri. It would have been nearly pretentious, if I had been doing it for credit or recognition. But I sat there like a sponge, and took in the wonders of the ages, for the joy that came from feeding my curiosity.
I learned to be perfectly contented with having myself for company. During this time, I also experienced what it was like to have God as my best friend. I had so much time every day to give thanks to Him, share what I was thinking, and to simply dwell in His presence.
I saw my time as so precious. I also knew it would be only a matter of time before I found a place where I belonged, because high school was temporary. But in the meanwhile, I was determined to suck the marrow out of life. Looking back, I’m proud of that.
By the time I started Sun Requiem, I had so many thoughts bubbling inside of me that I physically could no longer contain them for myself. Because there had been no one I could share them with for years, I knew I had to write, and so I did. Within my first seven months in 2016, I totaled 98 posts, and 780,000 words. And they kept coming. The more ideas I used, the more inspiration I would have.
The tagline of my website is, “Nothing to offer except my own confusion.” Turns out, that’s a lot. I know I have so much to offer. And I’ve always known that.
I am capable of so much. I can create and inspire. So I’m stepping back into the sun. After all, is it not in my name?
Out of all the struggles I have dealt with, this feels to me to be one of the most personal. When the topic of high school memories comes up, I usually prefer to stay silent, because I don’t have many positive experiences which were social. But those years were also formative to my individual growth, which prepared me to be a part of a community.
I learned to be myself in a place where I didn’t belong. So now, thank you. I also know how to remain myself in a place where I do belong, because of that. And I have come out this experience, grateful.
(Soon, I may write about my social transition to college. Keep an eye out for that! Thanks so much for reading.)