Shine On, Shame Out

The past 24 hours have been filled with heart-overflowing gratefulness.  I’m another year older and even more validated in who I am.  The responses to the blog have been more overwhelming than I could’ve ever imagined; so much support, love and encouragement from so, so many. It has been the best birthday gift ever.  AND I got to eat cake.

What was even more profound than the outpouring of support, were my friends who opened up and shared their own experiences with panic.  Some of these people I had known almost my entire life, and I never knew.  But it doesn’t surprise me.  Anxiety is not something that you are exactly proud of. Mental health issues aren’t something you want associated with your image, right? We all strive for love and acceptance, to feel like we are just “normal”.  In a world obsessed with labeling others, mental illness is one label you are not necessarily lining up for.

Here are some of the actual quotes I received after my blog went live:

“I never would have thought that. You always seem so happy and never stressed.”

“You fooled me. Had no idea.”

“Wow, someone who actually came forward.”

The element of surprise is so common here. If I had a dollar for every time someone has said to me, “but you seem so happy!” I would be a rich woman.  People who have anxiety issues are some of the nicest people you have ever met. You would never guess that they are struggling on the inside.  This is typical.  We are emotional masterminds; we have learned to stifle and hide our fear to the point where it breaks us.  We are people-pleasers that would never want to burden anyone else with our problems.  We are so worried about acceptance and love from others that we don’t want our negative issues to threaten that.  All of the hiding and burying of the terror we really feel feeds panic disorder.  Until we can break out of the shame spiral that it brings upon us, we will continue to suffer.

Tonight I had the privilege to listen to an amazing woman, Rachel Faulkner Brown, tell her story.  She has overcome some unimaginable loss in her life.  One of her talking points touched on “the fear of man”. Basically, what others think of you.  If we dwell too much on this, it will destroy the light meant to shine from within us.   I am so guilty of this.  I worry about what people think of me all the time.  Why? Some of us are more insecure than others.  I have always felt like the team mascot for insecurity.  People who struggle with insecurity tend to overcompensate  by burying their own emotions to please and accommodate others. This is a breeding ground for anxiety disorders.

I was 23 when I had my first full-blown panic attack.  But hiding behind a perma-smile was a life-long talent.  Sure, I am a genuinely happy, positive person.  But I have never been good at handling or channeling my stress for fear of upsetting others. It took many, many years after that first attack to even start to accept that this was happening to me, and even longer to share it with others.  But the simple truth is, the more open and vulnerable you are, the smaller the fear becomes.  Just simple acceptance makes a huge difference in starting the battle against the panic trick.

Why are we so afraid to speak out? Why is there such a stigma associated with this disorder? There doesn’t have to be.  In her talk tonight, Rachel mentioned that “we think about ourselves more than anyone else does”. We worry about “the fear of man” and what others will think if we speak out about what’s on our hearts and minds.  But realistically, everyone is too busy worrying about themselves and their own issues to really care.

I dare you to try it.  If you are just starting to feel the loneliness of panic disorder and hiding behind your fear, try telling one person.  If you are too afraid to talk, write it down.  Or, just start by talking to your fear.  Introduce yourself, and accept it for what it is.  Tell it you’re not here to fight with it, but to live with it, to learn from it, and to watch it eventually get bored with you when you aren’t putting up the good fight.  We all have those people in our lives who are looking to pick fights with everyone, who are constantly stirring up drama.  Fear and anxiety are those people.  The more drama you give them, the more they are going to get out of it.  They want you to fight back.  But guess what? There’s nothing a dramatic pot-stirrer hates more than someone who doesn’t give them any material to work with.

My fear-friend is still hanging out with me, but we are on much better terms.  I’m slowly learning to ignore his shenanigans. My hope for you is that you can stop hiding behind your shame and let your own light shine, whatever it is.  That light will cast a shadow over your fear.  And who knows, maybe it’s afraid of the dark and will choose to disappear for good.