When I was five years old, I was terrified of my kindergarten class teacher. She often shouted at the kids in my class for ‘misbehaving’ (i.e. behaving like their usual five-year-old selves). Though I was never at the receiving end of her anger – probably because I was always exceptionally quiet and mindlessly obedient (an ideal student, in other words) – I was still mortified by the thought of being embarrassed and humiliated in front of the whole class if she did choose to single me out some day. It made me wake up every weekday morning with a sense of foreboding, and experience a mounting discomfort as my school rickshaw approached its destination. One day, after one of her particularly unpleasant tirades of criticism directed at a classmate, I decided I couldn’t take it any longer. The next morning when my parents woke me up for school, I began to sob and flatly refused to get out of bed.
This may not seem very unusual as an early experience of a school-going child, who’s still learning to cope with the harsh environment of an Indian school; but the trouble is, I never did quite learn to cope. I remember being seven and feeling my legs shaking uncontrollably when I had to walk up to the teacher’s desk to collect a corrected assignment. I remember being twelve and my palms becoming wet with sweat and my heart racing when I was called on to answer a question in class, even though I knew the answer. I remember being eighteen and feeling the blood rush to my face when I entered a classroom full of students; my college classmates’ gaze burning imaginary holes into my skin as I tried to make my way to my seat. I remember being 24 and being a nervous wreck during team meetings at my workplace.
Such experiences have been an integral part of my everyday life for as long as I can remember. I’ve been horrified of speaking in public, of being the centre of attention in a group, of talking to people in positions of authority. I’ve also had a hard time forging and maintaining friendships.
Whenever I meet someone new, my first thought seems to be that they probably don’t like me; that they can notice my awkwardness and discomfort, and consequently think of me as shallow and uninteresting.
Things don’t change very much even after I get to know them better. Even if they make it obvious that they want to be friends, I cannot help feeling that I will mess up somehow; say something inappropriate, or let them down in some way, which will make them stop liking me. Every friendship I’ve ever had has been accompanied by a strong and persistent fear of rejection.
Talking on the phone is another uncomfortable experience. My heart skips a beat every time my phone rings and caller is not someone in my immediate family. There’s something about not being able to see the face of the person I’m talking to. I keep the phone pressed tightly to my ear, scared of missing even a word of what is being said at the other end, all the while grasping to find my own words.
I pace around frantically as I talk, as if trying to get away from whatever is distracting me. It doesn’t help, of course; how do you get away from your own mind?
People around me have always referred to me as a ‘shy’ person; but I’ve felt that the term shy doesn’t quite fit the bill. It seems to be a gross understatement, and a rather one-dimensional way to describe the circus that plays itself out in my head so frequently. At various stages in my life these unusual emotional reactions have made me feel shallow, stupid, insensitive, docile, gutless, boring, unlovable or some combination thereof, and made me suspect there was something seriously wrong with me.
I’ve also received plenty of well-meaning advice of course. Whenever I have tried to share my feelings of anxiety with a relative or friend, I’ve been told to just calm down, to learn to face my fears, to stop caring so much about what other people think, to rid myself of my ‘hang-ups’.
Countless people have tried to console me by telling me how they used to be ‘just like’ me at some point in their lives before they decided they needed to change, and voila!
They soon transformed into their present confident and outgoing selves. Listening to them, it would seem like it was just of question of mustering the courage to take one big leap, and then everything would be just fine. Well, believe it or not, I’ve been taking those leaps all my life. Every so often, I’ve forced myself to do things which every fibre of my being was telling me not to. To attend school picnics and birthday parties and workshops, to speak on stage, to raise my hand in class, to address a gathering. And yet, the anxiety never subsides. It’s the same roller-coaster ride every single time.
My inclination towards social justice issues and activism has only deepened my dilemmas. I have worked for NGOs and been involved with people’s movements in various capacities at different times in my life. The activists I often find myself around are mostly outgoing, extroverted and highly expressive people. I’ve come a across a lot of people who have been courageous enough to defy all kinds of gender stereotypes and social restrictions; they are confident, comfortable in their own skin and living life on their own terms. Even though these people inspire me in many ways, I often feel even more of a misfit around them than people who are leading more conventional lives. I can’t help feeling like the stereotypical quiet and docile woman who hesitates to speak her mind; probably the kind of person some of my colleagues would talk about ‘empowering’.
I’ve often asked myself what hope someone like me could have of participating in revolutionary change.
Then, a couple of years ago, I stumbled on a truth which changed the way I looked at myself in a fundamental way. Some random googling introduced me to the mental health condition of social anxiety. I came across online forums in which people shared their experiences of living with the condition. I read many of the posts with tears in my eyes, feeling like I was reading the story of my life. It flooded me with an overwhelming sense of relief to know that I was not alone in the world, that there were other people – about 7% of the human population in fact – whose life experience was similar to mine. I wasn’t the weirdest, most ridiculous person in the world after all!
Social anxiety is the most common form of anxiety in the world, and it is estimated that it affects about 1 in 15 people. Yet, I never once heard of it growing up. In fact I was utterly ignorant of issues to do with neurodiversity and mental health before I realised I was a neurodivergent person. It makes me wonder how many other people there are in the world who remain caught up in a painful cycle of self-blame and despair, not realising that non-conformance with the neurotypical cognitive make-up does not make them any less deserving of love, acceptance and self-fulfilment.
Anxiety is, of course, an integral part of the human condition and all people experience it to some degree or the other in certain kinds of situations. However, a person is said to have anxiety if their anxiousness is much more pervasive than usual, and based on fears which would seem irrational and excessive to most people. In fact, anxious people themselves realise the irrationality of their fears, but they also feel powerless to mitigate these fears. This often leads to a great deal of shame and self-loathing.
According to research, social anxiety usually stems from a combination of both genetic and environmental factors. This has made me speculate endlessly about how my environment may have shaped my anxiety. There is no doubt that the way my mind functions has been affected by, for example, the fact that I am a woman living in a patriarchal world; or by the conservative upper-caste Hindu family I grew up in; by the education I received, which taught me to be compliant, unimaginative and single-minded; and, on the other hand, also by the immense social and economic privilege I possess in a caste-ridden, unequal, and violent society.
Maybe it was these perverted social realities around me which pushed the vulnerable mind I was born with, in a divergent direction.
Some people refer to such a condition as a mental ‘disorder’, which is how I thought of it initially as well. However the more I learned about it, and I more I read first-person stories of people coping with it, and the more I came to terms with its presence in my own life, the more I realised that social anxiety – like many other forms of neurological divergence – is ultimately just a different way of perceiving the world.
It does not necessarily have to be something which needs to be treated or cured.
People who deal with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, often face two kinds of harmful and discriminatory behaviour from the people around them. On one hand, their condition may sometimes be unnecessarily and excessively pathologised, without consideration to their own perspective on it. On the other hand, many neurodivergent people do feel unwell and in need of help, but have a hard time convincing others of this. Their unusual behaviour and mental anguish is dismissed as something to be ‘snapped out of’ or ‘got over’.
In either case, the problem is not with the neurodivergent people, but with a society which lacks the wisdom and compassion be more accepting of diversity, or the empathy to provide people with the support and resources required for them to understand and accept their cognitive make-up for what it is, and to deal with it in a way which allows them to live their best lives.
In some parts of the world, clinical treatments for anxiety are widely available, including medication and cognitive therapy. Meditation techniques such as Mindfulness, are also known to help. People should be informed of the medical and therapeutic options available for dealing with neurodivergence. But in the end, it is important to allow a neurodivergent person to act autonomously, because no one understands their needs better than they do themselves. This may not always be possible if the person is a child, in which case parents will have to make many decisions for them, but it is still important for them to be tuned in to what their child thinks and feels regarding their condition. No two minds work the same way. Any kind of neurodivergence comes in many different flavours. As a result, different people experience and deal with their neurodivergence in different ways, which should be respected. Some may see it as something to be overcome; or they might wish they could alter some aspects of it which they may find to be debilitating or restrictive. Others may feel entirely ok with how their mind works and just wish that other people were less judgemental and more understanding of their needs.
Indian society is especially unkind to neurodivergent people.
Societal and familial pressure to conform to social norms is immense. Our utterly broken public healthcare system, very limited access to mental healthcare facilities for the general public, and the misconceptions and social stigma attached with any kind of neurodivergence, makes life very difficult, especially for people who come from socially and economically weaker backgrounds. I realise I’m far more fortunate than most other neurodivergent people in my country, and have options and opportunities most never will.
I’m still not sure what the best course of action for me would be. For now, just the experience of coming to terms with my neurodivergence and learning to accept it has been liberating.
Also, meeting and falling in love with a person who understands me and is a bedrock of support has allowed me reach deeper levels of self-acceptance than ever before.
Even though life has been tough at times, I feel that the experience of being neurodivergent has also shaped me in many positive ways. I’d like to believe that the heightened sensitivity to the people around me, which comes from being an anxious person, has made me realise certain truths about the world which I may not have otherwise. Being perpetually non-conforming in social settings, I feel, has prevented me from internalising many prevalent unjust attitudes and assumptions which the people around me tend to have about people from cultural and social backgrounds other than their own. Knowing that most people I come across in life do not see the world the way I do (or anywhere close to it) has also made me appreciate the importance of diversity; of the inter-mixing of people with different backgrounds, experiences and points of view, in order to make our world a more equal and compassionate place. All of this has perhaps made me a better human being than I would have been otherwise. But on the other hand, there are times in my life when my anxiety holds me back from doing the things I truly want to, and from having more meaningful and uninhibited relationships. I have been a practitioner of Mindfulness (or Vipassana) meditation and have found it to be helpful in many ways. I also wonder if cognitive therapy may prove beneficial, and might consider seeking professional help some time in the future.
All that said, there is a lot more to me than my anxiety and I would certainly not like to be seen as being defined by it. What I would like, is to work towards creating a world where diversity and difference are not suppressed and stigmatised, but valued and celebrated.
Surabhi Agarwal is pursuing her Master’s in Dalit and Tribal studies from the Mahatma Gandhi Antarashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalay, Wardha. She aspires to be an ally to communities fighting against caste discrimination.