Maybe it’s not that big of a deal. Maybe that’s why she pushes it aside, ignores it, lets it grow. Maybe the fact that her problem isn’t as severe as others’ makes it less important.
It’s not, but she doesn’t know that yet.
She’s gotten used to it. To feeling her palms become clammy in mere seconds. To sensing a thin layer of sweat coat her body after a tiny bit of adrenaline. To sitting on her hands to stop them from trembling. To taking deep breaths to avoid voice cracks. Her stress is not important. Everyone gets stressed. It’s a part of life.
She bites her lip, a bad habit, she calls it, but somehow, it always reappears when she’s out of her comfort zone. She blushes at the mention of her name, which is a new and rather unwelcome development. The feeling of heat rushing to her face is not a pleasant one. Everyone is going around and introducing themselves, and her brain scrambles to silently rehearse her response at least twice before she speaks.
She walks into the lunchroom on the first day, exhaling shakily, taking in all of the unfamiliar faces around her. She takes a few hesitant steps forward to sit down, with total strangers, no less, and ends up switching seats once, twice, three times, and once more, before finding a group of girls that actually speak to her. She relaxes slightly, but the sweat is still there, incriminating evidence of her shame.
She wears black on presentation days and plans out when she should volunteer to go. She speaks clearly, but quickly, quickly enough to not be remembered, she hopes. She wants to be remembered someday, but not now, not here, not in this class with people whose respect is none of her concern.
You see, it is not that she dislikes herself, nor that she doubts or doesn’t believe in herself. It is mainly that she... she doesn’t know what to call it yet, really. She just knows she doesn’t like the spotlight very much, at least not yet.
She tells this to others, her friends, her family, all of whom shrug it off and tell her things like, “you’ll get used to it with time,” or “it’s a matter of confidence, which you’ll build.” The thing is though, she has given it time, and her confidence is not usually lacking. “Then,” they say, “if that really is the case, what’s the problem?”
She opens her mouth to tell them, but she can’t find her words. She, who is used to being called smart or wise or mature, does not know the answer to a question about herself, of all things.
It’s the worst form of torture.
She tries to find loopholes, ways to muffle the problem rather than extinguish it. She showers every day, sometimes more than once, and uses anti-perspirant constantly. If she can’t completely stop the sweating, she may as well stop the odor. She wipes her palms on her jeans, which is somewhat ineffective, but at least no one can tell. She practices breathing techniques and tries to distract herself from anything and everything that may make her nervous. And most of all, she never, ever, uses the A-word.
It’s not her word to use. It doesn’t apply to her. She doesn’t need medication. She doesn’t need therapy. She’s fine. She’s just stressed. Everyone gets stressed. It’s a part of life.
She tries to sit up straight. She tries to walk with confidence, with elegance and sureness. She makes friends, eventually, and talks to them, loudly. She raises her hand and answers questions. More than a few people know her name. She is respected. She makes jokes that earn laughs. She speaks up and makes good points. She convinces herself that she’s fine now, that the A-word was never her problem, and that it never will be. She refuses to succumb to any stereotypes or signs of weakness. She is strong, and the A-word is not hers to use.
Until, after some peace and quiet, her strength is tested again, again, and again, and she finds herself surrounded by public speaking events. Suddenly, it looks as if all of those loopholes and strategies have evaporated, leaving her with nothing. She feels her breath catch in her throat, but she cannot remember even one of her techniques. She senses her palms becoming clammy as that sheen layer of sweat covers her body once more. She feels defeated, and as she realizes that her own body, her own mind, are defying her, it hurts her even more.
Maybe it’s not that big of a deal, she somehow thinks, for what seems like the millionth time.
Maybe that’s why she had been pushing it aside, ignoring it, letting it grow. Maybe the fact that her problem wasn’t as severe as others’ made it seem less important.
She knows now that it wasn’t. It still isn’t.
She thinks about all she will miss out on. She thinks about the first time she will have the chance to hold a boy’s hand and feels herself recoil at the thought of her own shameful, wet palms. She thinks about how wonderful it must be to not worry about every little thing. She thinks about how lovely it sounds not to turn bright red every time someone calls her name. She thinks about how dreadful the rest of her life will be, how difficult it has been to live with this pit in her stomach, and how tortorous it will be to carry it with her forever.
Then, finally, she thinks about treatment. She considers meditation, then remembers how quickly she fell asleep the first few times she tried. She considers pills, then blanches at the thought of the heavy chemicals. She lands on therapy, and quirks an eyebrow in interest. She thinks about going in to talk to someone, to remove even a bit of the burden off her shoulders, and it soothes her, much to her own surprise.
She tells her mother, then her father. Her mother supports her, trying not to show emotion, as if that will make her weak. She, like her daughter, does not want to seem weak. Her father scoffs at her, telling her she’s making a big deal out of nothing. Her father is old-fashioned, and believes that therapy is for the insane. It is only when she speaks to him with tears brimming in her eyes that he listens.
She tells him about the pit in her stomach, about the sweat that begins in her hands and spreads to her body, about the shakiness of her breath, about the trembling of her hands, about the ache in her soul. Finally, he listens, and eventually, he concedes.
She steps into the office of a kind woman who seems to not care that she walked from school, making her hair frizzy, or that her hand was soaked when she shook it. She introduces herself as Dr. Partha, and beckons for her to sit.
“Start at the beginning,” Dr. Partha says gently.
She exhales, not noticing that it comes out shakily.
“I have mild anxiety.”
She knows that not saying it aloud earlier was a huge mistake, that not admitting it to herself was wrong in so many ways, but somehow, she feels her lips curve into a real, bittersweet smile.
“Do you want to elaborate?” Dr. Partha gestures for her to continue.
She knows that building up this idea of the A-word was wrong, and that she should have addressed it earlier. She also knows now that it is never too late to address such a thing, and it is this realization that gives her a surge of strength. She used to feel weak for not knowing the words to describe her problem, and for not even realizing what her problem was. Now, knowing that she has righted her wrongs, she nods.
She opens her mouth to speak, feeling tears spring to her eyes as she breathes a sigh of relief. She has finally found her words.