What They Can’t Understand (My Comments on Bullying and Social Anxiety Disorder)

Okay, internet people, it’s about to get “real” in here, as they say. Recently, a video from a student at my former high school has gone “viral”. In the video, she talks about being bullied in high school and all of the problems it has caused her. I’m not here to talk about that video or that person, specifically, because each person has their own struggles and they don’t need my commentary on them. Instead, I’m going to talk about bullying in general, and about something very personal–social anxiety disorder.

Bullying is a terrible and a widespread thing. I’ve been bullied, I’ve seen people being bullied and wished I could stand up to help them. I truly believe a lot of us are the way we are because of the treatment we received during our formative years–whether we were the bullies, the bullied, or the ones nobody bothered to acknowledge the existence of at all. It hurts to be teased, or talked about behind your back, or ignored and excluded by your peers.

I can’t say that I’ve spent a lot of time being the one people picked on, or the one everyone talked about. I went to three different schools during my adolescence, and the atmospheres were very much the same. Kids will be kids, no matter where they are. I spent some time being picked on personally–hit with a binder because they knew I wouldn’t say anything back (they didn’t realize it was because I COULDN’T, but we’ll get to that), had a shoe thrown at me (twice), had a girl say the worst and nastiest things she could to me just to see if she could get a reaction (again, COULDN’T). But that wasn’t what hurt the most, for me.

I’m not going to sit here and act like I’m the only person who has been hurt, because I’m not. Instead, I’m just going to put the word out there about something I’ve wanted to talk about for a very, very long time. It’s called social anxiety disorder, which people often confuse for someone who is either “just shy”, or is even “stuck up”, which is usually what people said about me. But, look it up. Some people will say it isn’t a real thing, that it doesn’t exist. But I can personally tell you that it does.

As a kid, and even now because I don’t think it’s really a “disorder” so much as just a part of who I am, I suffered from social anxiety disorder. Every single day of my life, I felt awkward in any type of social situation. I constantly worried about what people thought of me, what my teachers thought, what my peers thought, what that random guy walking down the street over there thought. Something in my brain told me that every time a group of people laughed, they had to be laughing at me, at some weird thing I had unwittingly done. No matter how many times I told myself this was ridiculous, it didn’t stop. I was so afraid of saying the wrong thing, of calling negative attention to myself, that speaking became impossible. It was like the words were sitting there, but my mouth was sealed shut and nothing I did would ever make them come out, because once they did surely they would be the wrong words, the words that would make people laugh at me, judge me, hate me.

You can, I’m sure, guess what this silence earned me. I was that weird, quiet girl. I retreated into books, into my imagination, so I could drown out the world around me. For a long time, I resented “normal” people, people who could just walk up to people and “just talk to them”, which is what anyone I managed to open up to about my issues told me to do. I realize now, in my wise old age of nineteen years, that people just genuinely don’t understand why it’s so difficult for someone like me to just open my mouth and speak. And like they will do, kids bullied or ignored me, not really out of any desire to be mean but because that is how kids react to things they don’t understand. Now I know that, but back then I thought there must be something wrong with me, that I didn’t deserve to be “normal”, to talk to people, to have friends. I was desperate for human attachment, feared it would never come, that I was somehow simply “broken” and nothing I ever did could fix that.

I am who I am today because of what I went through as a kid. I still have to rehearse phone calls to the pharmacy, to my bank, to anywhere ordinary before I can dial the number. My heart still beats extra fast whenever I’m faced with a new situation I don’t understand. But I’m happy to say I am NOT the kid cowering in the corner of the playground, both hoping no one saw and praying that someone, ANYONE, would take the time to come over and pry the words out of me so that I could play four square, too.

I was lucky. I joined color guard, made a few wonderful and understanding friends who coaxed me out of “my shell” (which is what my teachers called it). I don’t see myself as “abnormal” anymore, or as someone who is unworthy of attention. Rather, I understand that social anxiety is just a part of ME, of the wonderful person I have become and continue to become. So what if I have to practice ordering that fettuchini alfredo from time to time? And so what if it takes a little more for me to flirt with that cute guy in class? It’s just a part of ME, and it’s what has given me the internal monologue that helps me be the writer I am today. And if it wasn’t for those kids, flinching away from what they didn’t understand, I wouldn’t have come to the realization that maybe what other people think doesn’t actually matter all that much.

I guess I’m not entirely sure what I want you to take away from this post. I started in on bullying, but then I got sidetracked with something far more important to me personally–with one of the underlying reasons for why kids get bullied. Frankly, someone who is actually unable to stick up from themselves due to a hardwired self-defeating internal monologue is an easy target. As a senior in high school, sensitive to “my own” as I so fondly call them, I noticed a few kids who probably had social anxiety disorder. I could tell the signs–they spoke like a script, with key questions their therapist (yes, I went to one, for a while) had told them to ask people when they got nervous. Sometimes, they asked the same question twice, or three times, because they were so nervous they forgot what they had already said, already learned about the other person. I root for those kids–I was never that brave. I just hid and blamed others, thought they hated me, that they were saying mean things about me. But I worry about them too, because I see that kids are still exactly the same–they lash out at things they don’t understand.

So just remember, that girl in the corner there, with the book? She MIGHT think she’s too good for you, or she might be hoping you’ll come over and say hello so she can unglue her mouth. And that boy? The one who asks you every day what kind of dog you have? Maybe he just wants you to ask HIM something, so you can talk about that, instead. No one is “normal.” There’s no such thing. We all have things that make us different–good things, bad things, things as insignificant as hair color or a birth mark.

No, kids will probably never stop bullying–they don’t know better. But maybe, just maybe, if we educate ourselves about all the different shades of human existence out there, we can stop it sooner, create a support group for people who find it a little harder to fit in, or just give them somewhere to turn. Or something. Who knows? I don’t know what can help something that, in some ways, is just a sad part of growing up. But maybe you do, internet people, and maybe you can get started right now. 

And if you’re reading this from the position of someone who has been bullied, or even someone who has been the bully, remember you are YOU, and that’s the only person you can and should be. So take pride in that, and do it well.

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