The Strength to Be Happy

Even on the brightest days shadows lurk around leery corners. As the sun crosses the afternoon sky the grays creepily grow over lush grass until night arrives and the world is shaded in darkness. This is the best metaphor I can think to describe my slow decent back into anxiety. Lately I have found myself more influenced by the adverse memories of my past than by my dreams for the future, whereas a couple years ago I was a bright and vibrant woman who was coping well with what life threw at her and had big expectations for herself. I remember a time when I was virtually free of anxiety and how I began to take a clear mind for granted. I miss that bliss immensely at times.

Over the past year or so, becoming more aware of newer nervous habits and a rise in panic attacks and other anxiety-related problems, I’ve become increasingly frustrated with myself. Why is this happening to me? I was doing so well, and it is unfair that after working so hard I’m regressing into a nutball. Ever the psychologist, I am always analyzing and discovering new things about myself. It is amazing the things you can learn about your life and habits just by thinking. In the back of my mind though, I know the answer. I had identified my problem a few years ago but never allowed myself to come to terms with it. This blog post, whether it is read or not, is my attempt at trying to understand the pain I was put through and hopefully begin some kind of road to healing. I have never talked about this before, not even with my family or my closest friends, but as my anxiety and stress reach levels that are clearly unhealthy I know I need to, and I know that writing is the only way  will be able to.

Imagine yourself in elementary school when you are still so young and all you want is to make friends, run around, and play in the dirt. Imagine you do make a friend and that person remains as such through the rest of elementary school, middle school, and high school. Somewhere along the line the upgrade to “best friend” is made. You are inseparable. You are known as a pair, an entity, and when one is seen alone it often leads to the question, “Where is the other one?” Imagine late nights, football games, movies, and laughter. Inside jokes, vacations, bad decisions and no secrets. For all intents and purposes it is a perfect friendship.

Now imagine cruel words, power plays, and mocking tones. Imagine that one person that you trusted with everything being the one person sending you home in tears at the end of the day. Imagine every day, for seven years, being made to feel stupid, unpretty, and not good enough. I honestly hope that you can’t imagine it, because it is not a feeling that I would wish on anyone. It isn’t fun to be afraid to be yourself. I didn’t even know who “myself” was until college granted me freedom away from this friend’s judgement.

I often hear the words, “Don’t worry so much” and “Try to relax.” Do you know how hard it is to not worry and to relax when every day for a huge portion of your life everything you did was “wrong”? I am so sensitive to what others are thinking and feeling because for a very long time I was constantly on extremely thin ice, afraid of saying something that might prompt rebuke. I worry about others before myself because, heaven forbid I said or did something to make myself happy, I would be reprimanded. If I said something silly and innocuous it was thrown in my face, and if I didn’t say something because I was afraid of the reaction I’d get I’d be yelled at. Basically I was punished for everything. Good or bad, right or wrong, a big deal or not. To give you an idea, on one occasion I was criticized for the way I drank my water and on another I was admonished for wanting pancakes. I was given the silent treatment for a few days after a birthday because my dad surprised me with tickets to see RENT and at my mother’s funeral I still remember the looks I received from this friend, almost as if the words “Could you stop being so mopey?” were right there ready to drive a knife through my stomach. For a long time following this I pushed people away and didn’t open up about my feelings very much because the thought of being so vulnerable made me feel sick to my stomach. To a point it still does, sitting here typing this I can feel the pit rising. I tip my hat to anyone who can make it through seven years of emotional abuse at the hands of a once trusted companion and not have any scars.

There is one moment I will never forget. In my freshman year of high school myself, this friend, and another mutual friend (who remains my bestie to this day) joined the committee to design and build the Homecoming float. The theme that year was Disney movies, and the freshman class had chosen Beauty and the Beast. This was exciting for me because Beauty and the Beast is my all-time favorite. When I was little I watched it so much that my mom called me “Belle,” a moniker that has since been lost to me and I miss from time to time. While discussing how the group would decide who would play the leading lady, my bestie jokingly leaned over to me and said, “You should be Belle! It’s your nickname anyway!” I smiled and laughed appreciatively, having no intention of actually putting my name in the running. To this, my friend turned and scoffed, “You? Yeah, okay.” It felt like a little dagger had been shoved through my heart. Maybe on its own this doesn’t seem like much, but several similar instances building up every day over several years starts to beat down your psyche. You actually do begin to feel like you’re not good enough. Now I am strong enough to defend myself, or simply not care, but at the delicate teenage age when all you want is acceptance I would take the sticks and stones before the words.

There is one thing I’m sure you’re thinking at this point, “Why did you put up with it? Why didn’t you just end the friendship and leave?” I completely understand why you would ask. I used to wonder the same thing upon hearing similar stories. The best I can say is because you don’t realize what is happening until you are so deep into the situation that you are afraid of the repercussions should you try to break free. It isn’t something that starts suddenly. The first time some unkind words are said you hardly notice. The second time you may think, “Oh, he/she is just having a bad day.” As it goes on you place the blame on other things, like their home life or personal problems. A couple years in you being to crave their approval because you remember when you had a healthy friendship and you want to get back to that place, but despite your efforts to make the person happy things only get worse. I didn’t know that I was actually afraid of my friend until about the sixth or seventh year of this behavior when I found myself deliberately not telling my friend things just to avoid potential criticism. Going into college I couldn’t interact with people because I was afraid of judgement. It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I realized how lucky I was, because I did have some people in my life who would never dream of hurting me and wanted nothing more than to see me smile. It also wasn’t until my sophomore year that I realized what I had tolerated for seven years, and it wasn’t until last night (I graduate college over a year ago now, to give you a reference of time) that it hit me so hard I actually broke down and cried. I’m tired of feeling emotionally restrained because someone else chose to take their pain out on me. I’m tired of feeling dumb, unpretty, and unconfident when I have no reason to and, most of all, I am tired of letting my past define me. I want that strength to forgive and move on. I want the strength to be happy. Maybe this is a good start? Maybe I don’t have to fear the darkness, because dawn is only a few hours away.