At five-years-old, I was thrust into the public education system and endured a year in a kindergarten classroom. A huge, ugly square of carpet divided into smaller squares with electrical tape marking the territory where each child would sit pretzel-style. We laid the foundation of our education within this square. Unfortunately, within this square my feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, and anxiety emerged.
This square is where I would sit and always question whether I was doing the right thing. Where I never raised my hand and feared Mrs. Riedel would call on me anyway. My foundation was on a teeter-totter, constantly trying to balance learning with a fear of failure and rejection.
Anxiety made occasional appearances throughout my elementary years. It appeared on my report cards, disguised as does not exhibit confidence, quiet and shy, and encourage to participate in class. Anxiety showed up on the playground with hints of depression. It told me to gravitate toward the misfits because the cool kids would never accept a loser like me.
As I grew older, anxiety began to dominate more aspects of my life. The physical symptoms emerged one day in seventh grade Language Arts class when I had to sit at the front of the classroom and read aloud. My face flushed, my heart was racing, and the paper I held started trembling between my fingers. This was the beginning of what wouldn’t be diagnosed as a Generalized Anxiety Disorder until eight years later.
Anxiety is an Obstacle —Not My Excuse
The visible anxiousness I displayed giving speeches in class, singing in front of an audience, and talking with peers I considered superior to me was embarrassing. I caked on makeup to hide the redness of my face, but this was never successful. Instead, I would get cruel comments from the bitch behind me in History class like, “Hey Melissa, who taught you how to put on make up?”
Eventually, I stopped going to class. Then, I stopped going to school all together. You can bet anxiety came with me to face the judge when I had to go to court for truancy.
I barely graduated high school and my guidance counselor told me I’d never be accepted to a university.
Despite his lack of faith in me, I went to a technical college for Educational Interpreting (sign language). To have sign language skills evaluated, I needed to sign in front of my instructors, peers, and in front of video cameras. I served as a deaf person’s voice and the fear of failure was always present. What if I conveyed the wrong message? It was awful for my anxiety.
Soon anxiety turned into panic attacks. At the age of 20, I went on medication for the first time. The experience was horrendous and I even dropped out of school for a semester. At the time, I had no intention of returning to the interpreting program.
But I went back and finished my degree. My anxiety came with me into every evaluation. It followed me to practicum in Green Bay and walked with me across the graduation stage. Anxiety was the greatest obstacle I have faced in my education, my music, my career, and maybe even in life
Anxiety could have easily been a roadblock instead of a speed bump, but I didn’t let this happen. I challenged myself to take risks and learned anxiety could not be an excuse. For anything.
I put this into practice when I moved to Alaska. Before I ventured out on my 3,000 mile drive to the unknown, I promised myself I would embrace opportunities. No excuses. If you are familiar with Meyers-Briggs, when I move to Alaska my personality type was INFP. In case you aren’t familiar with it, this basically means this task would not be easy for Melissa.
Within my first few days in Alaska, I attended a picnic with a local church, accepted a dinner invitation with a local family, and even accepted a walking tour with one of the neighbors.
This was only the beginning of controlling my anxiety before it controlled me. Social gatherings became a piece of cake; however, I was struggling with performing my music in front of people. This was clear at a local Christmas concert on the island.
I signed up to perform an original Christmas song. The musical talent on the tiny island in Alaska was remarkable and I felt out-of-place. For two days before the concert, I was a nervous wreck. I was nervous about being nervous. My diet eliminated caffeine for two weeks ahead of the concert. I was running and following all the tips recommended to manage anxiety, but it didn’t pay off when I took the stage.
Sitting in a hot spotlight on a stool, I played my song. I managed to perform the song, but the trembling in my legs was almost enough to create earthquake warnings throughout Southeast Alaska.
There was a social gathering in the commons of the high school after the concert. Even though it was the last place I wanted go, I dragged my embarrassment with me and cracked jokes about the performance. This was easier to laugh at it than face that my body was in constant conflict with my aspirations.
I left the island the next morning to travel back to Wisconsin for the holidays. While I was home, I scheduled a visit to see a doctor about trying a medication. She prescribed an as-needed beta blocker that I still take occasionally, but not nearly as often as I used to.
Practice in Perseverance
The more I engaged in activities that put me outside of my comfort zone, the more capable I was of managing my anxiety. I could have used anxiety as an excuse to quit. Anxiety could have turned me into a work-from-home hermit had I given it the power.
The more I exposed myself to the things that increased my anxiety, the less of an impact they had on me. This meant booking more music performances, going out — even if I had to go alone, and constantly stepping outside of my comfort zone.
Arriving late adds an uncomfortable amount of anxiety to situations for me. What if there isn’t a seat available? Or worse, what if the only seat available is in the front row? Why create anxiety when I don’t need to? This is one reason I always strive to arrive early.
With my music and performing, I learned quickly the initial nervousness would diminish after I started. I showed up early to every gig and would make peace with the venue. It helped doing a long sound check, too.
Not only does showing up early help ease my anxiety, punctuality shows I’m dependable. It’s a win-win, really.
Empathy & Compassion
I think it’s fair to say everyone experiences some form of anxiety at least once in their lifetime. It’s much different for those with an anxiety disorder, though. I am blessed to have mine managed; however, this isn’t as easy for many others struggling with anxiety.
When I worked for an elementary school, I was able to tune in to the children I saw pieces of my younger self in. These are kids I would gravitate toward and kept a watchful eye during my time doing recess duty. I often joined in the playground games and made myself available to the kids because I knew what it was like to need a positive, understanding role model.
At the time I worked for the school district, I was in treatment for my eating disorder. Something I didn’t share with the folks I worked with. Not only was I in treatment, I was taking night classes trying to figure out how to make the world a better place.
Long story short, I still carry this empathy and compassion with me for others I see struggling. It comes with me to work everyday. It’s a constant reminder I have no idea what other people are going through.