Ask Polly: I'm Turning 30 And Anxiety Is Ruining Me

Dear Polly,

I have a problem that’s common to some extent for everyone but lately it’s beginning to be unmanageable for me: I have terrible anxiety.

Background: I’m a gay 29-year-old male who’s been working at a crappy data entry job for the past couple of years. I’ve never been in a relationship and since coming out, I’ve somehow gotten into the habit of having sex only once a year.

As you can imagine, growing up I used to be a nervous little queer kid; scared of being called a faggot, I cultivated this deep monotone speech pattern and tried my damn hardest to keep the camp to a minimum. As the years passed and I moved into high school and then college, this way of living killed what little self-esteem I had and my anxiety got progressively worse. I waited until I was 23, when I was already out of college (sigh), to ever so slowly begin the coming out process only to people I trusted. At first this felt like a huge relief and it coincided with me getting placed in a kick ass internship. But then? My anxiety jumped into high gear and it seemed like I couldn’t focus on anything; unable to continue going forward in my career and personal life.

When it comes to career stuff, the internship I scored dealt with public policy, and my goal was to immerse myself and see if it was an area I could see myself growing in, but the sad truth is that I never could find out because my anxiety was so overwhelming I had to keep my head down to make it through the day. When I was at work, I couldn’t bear having people call attention to me because I would instantly blush beet red. I can handle women talking to me one on one—the conversation flows and the end results are positive, but I’ve been finding as I get older that I get incredibly embarrassed when a man, especially if he’s attractive, attempts to make conversation with me in a well-lit setting. At my job, there are fluorescent lights everywhere so when I’m approached by my office’s Tom Hardy, I get super red and I just have to end the conversation. Here’s what goes on in my head when Hardy talks to me: He’s looking at me; I’m getting red now; he can see all the pores in my face; I’m getting redder; I must look so uncomfortable to him; his nervous smile shows me he’s noticing how red and embarrassed I look.” How can someone progress in a work environment with those kind of shitty social skills?

And that isn’t even the worst of my problems at work; I have a horrible public speaking phobia. I’ve sucked at speaking in front of a group since I was a child, but now it’s gotten so out of hand that I’ve had 3 separate panic attacks in front of my department. One was especially mortifying because it occurred not only in front of my co-workers but also colleagues from outside organizations at a state conference. I ran out of the auditorium, went into a restroom and started bawling. I’ve spent years beating myself up about public speaking but I can’t seem to approach it with anything but sheer terror. What really trips me out is making eye contact with the audience, especially with men. I start to panic, have trouble breathing, and blush. When I see those eyes, it feels like they’re beaming their thoughts into my head: you’re fucking stupid; you’re worth nothing; who do you think you are; you’re getting red.

When the internship ended, I had spent so much time dodging attention that I failed to make a mark in front of my superiors and had to take a dead end position at the company. Now I sit here in my cubicle wondering how I could have fucked up so much. This job requires nothing of me so my brain has nothing better to do than over-think and jump start my anxiety.

In terms of my personal life, everything is whatever. I struggle with gay shame everyday. I have a good set of friends, and I should be grateful to have them because 10 years ago I thought if I came out of the closet I would be left with no one but myself. The problem is with my family. I’m an Asian American with immigrant parents who I know would be devastated if I told them the truth. I’ve worried about breaking their heart and disappointing them since as far back as I can remember, but keeping this secret from them is killing me. Sometimes when I’m commuting I’ll wander off in my head and imagine different scenarios of how the coming out scene would play out; it never ends well. Obviously, I’ve never brought a girl home. During each holiday season, I spend my time carefully steering conversations so that my uncles don’t ask me in front of my parents if I have a girlfriend yet. I can tell it embarrasses them that their almost-30-year-old son can’t seem to find a date to save his life. This year after both Thanksgiving and Christmas, I went back to my apartment with my back aching.

I’ll be 30 in 4 months and I spend my nights tossing and turning, dreading that my life will look exactly the same in 5 years. How do I change… me? Look, I know that I can’t change the fact that I’m gay and I know I can’t change that I have an over-active nervous system; but how can I keep my shame and my panic attacks from leading me into a life of nothing?

Big Nervous Mess




Dear BNM,

A life of nothing comes from not wanting to be any of the things that you naturally are. You grew up in an environment that makes you feel that who you naturally are is bad. In disguising your true self, you not only lost any chance to express yourself authentically and naturally, but you cut off your connection to your most brilliant impulses, your most vivid and dynamic streaks of insight and genius, and your most tender and heartfelt moments of empathy and love and joy. I know you don’t really need me to state the obvious on this front, but I do want you to really acknowledge at a deep level what this act of hiding and masking and pulling away did to your soul, because it’s unbearably sad. Your anxiety is a symptom of your injured soul.

But hiding was also a survivalist’s choice, and maybe a smart choice for someone with your wiring and your lack of interest in being in the spotlight. Coming out and being yourself and taking on immediate outsider status wasn’t something you could stomach, with your family, your circumstances, and your nature. Who knows what kaleidoscope of hellish outcomes might’ve sprung out of taking a riskier path? I want you to feel real empathy for the scared kid who kept the camp to a minimum and made his voice monotone. I mean, what a tragedy, that a naturally dramatic and vivacious boy would have to imitate the dull heterosexual trolls in his midst! The sheer loss of that! To have all of this exciting, vibrant potential, to be a unique flower in a field of milkweed. No, dillweed. There you were, a blossoming, glorious purple iris, with nothing but dickweed as far as the eye could see! And you had to hide your gorgeous purple and yellow blooms and imitate dickweed instead.

OK, I just Googled milkweed and it’s kind of a raggedy-ass plant, but it’s got all these orange and yellow or hot pink flowers on it that attract butterflies. (It’s the only thing monarch larvae eat!) And dillweed is just green, but it has those cool little green blossoms, the kind that look great in a big glass vase. Or in a giant pot on a sunshiney back patio, the sort of giant pot of weird green plants that makes people say, “Jesus, what ARE these? I need to know what they are! I MUST GET SOME OF THESE.” So let’s just admit that even the seemingly dull, monotone-speaking heterosexual men of the world are ALSO plucking their own pretty flowers, just to please an unkind universe that favors DICKWEED over the other, far more exuberant and melodious and electrifying varietals.

The most anxious guy I ever knew was this incredibly smart, creative, interesting guy I met in college. He looked and sounded like your average frat boy until you got him a little drunk, and then he’d come out of his shell and talk in winding, artful, bizarre circles, always with deeply mournful undertones. He could also play guitar and sing, but he didn’t sing in the usual faux-scratchy Bob Dylan voice that everyone else did. He had a sweet, clear, high voice, and when he sang Kris Kristofferson’s “Casey’s Last Ride,” he could make a whole room full of drunk assholes weep big salty tears. I’m not exaggerating. It makes me weep big salty tears just thinking about it.

He did the ROTC thing to pay for college, which meant he had to keep his hair very, very short and he had to act like a gruff macho dude in order to avoid unnecessary attention. Although that probably doesn’t sound like much of a hardship, a lot of depression and anxiety and loneliness bubbled up around it for him. He was tall and had big shoulders and he would look in the mirror and say, “God, I look like such a typical frat dirtbag.” A few times, he put on fake facial hair and a long-haired wig and a hat and went out to bars like that. He would marvel at how mean people were to him, in his disguise, but somehow looking like a misfit and seeing their meanness felt like seeing the world as it really was for the first time. It was punishing, and it felt cathartic, to be acknowledged as a misfit. That was his strange way of escaping the lie of his identity.

Eventually he graduated and joined the Navy and things got even worse. His anxiety and depression skyrocketed. I remember visiting him on his ship in San Francisco during Fleet Week. He talked about feeling desperately unhappy and fearful that things would never get any better. Even if he survived the Navy—which didn’t seem all that likely to him—he’d get out and live a life of nothing.

This is probably where you expect me to tell you that he killed himself. But he didn’t. He moved to San Francisco, grew his hair long, got a series of great jobs, fell in love with an amazing woman, had some kids, grew some weird facial hair, started wearing hats, sang in a gospel choir, started writing his own music, and he’s about to put out an album of crazy old-fashioned gospel-influenced music that sounds like something that would fit neatly into the soundtrack of a Coen Brothers movie.

And here’s how strange life is: Last fall, someone sent me a link to an awesome “Breaking Bad” tribute scored with… my friend’s music.

He is not living a life of nothing. And maybe his challenges were minor compared to yours. Maybe just being poorly suited for life on a Navy ship is laughable, compared to what you’ve dealt with. But to me, it doesn’t matter. His basic nature made his particular circumstances unbearable. HE WASN’T WIRED FOR HIDING. He had to bury his authentic self for years, and it almost killed him. His salvation came in the form of shedding his dickweed disguise and letting all of the colors of his true exuberant, melodious, electrifying soul spring forth, for all the world to see.

You aren’t wired for hiding, either. You have to stop blaming yourself for that, and for the blushing and the panicking and the bawling in the bathroom. I can only imagine how it feels for you to have fundamentally reshaped your entire personality to match the colorless, lackluster demands of your habitat. You weren’t built to live a lie. Few people are, but as a smart, sensitive kid, you are particularly ill-suited for it.

And it’s not JUST that your nature is ill-suited for it. You have a long history of burying your true feelings, your true self, and the trauma of that accumulates. You have been injured by the repeated feeling that your parents will not love you if they know who you really are. The pain of that suspicion, the pain of having to hide under those circumstances, must be almost unbearable. Maybe you don’t feel the pain, and instead your brain does backflips whenever you talk to a man. That bad energy has to land somewhere.

But did you notice how wearing an ACTUAL freaky disguise, and being treated with contempt for it, was a relief to my friend? Oftentimes the ACTUAL pain that you anticipate for so long is nothing, compared to the imagined pain in your head. And, as my friend demonstrated, sometimes we stumble on artful ways of releasing our spirits from the conformist forces that threaten to blot out the sun entirely. Sometimes, a little free-flowing freakiness is just the ticket. Sometimes, veering into a realm that’s completely unfamiliar and a little scary, that sounds at once alluring and repellent, can clear out the cobwebs and get the spontaneity and authentic joy flowing for the first time.

I know that you hate public speaking, and you feel incredibly scrutinized and paralyzed when you have to present to a group. MOST people feel that way. The major difference for you is that you think this means there’s something wrong with you. And WHEN you feel anxious about speaking, you almost get PTSD because it kicks up all of the trauma of hiding—hiding your true voice and sensibilities in high school, hiding your true self from your parents your whole life.

Someone with less trauma over this, but with the same fears of public speaking, would simply tell people, “I can’t present to a group—I don’t like it. I’ll write a report but I won’t present it, because I’m not comfortable with doing that.” Maybe that’s not ideal, but it’s better than forcing yourself to do something you’re not ready to do. You don’t HAVE to be exactly what the world wants you to be. The world can fucking adjust to who you are right now, and so can you.

Should you do toastmasters or practice your public speaking in a safe group, among other people who freak the fuck out when they’re asked to speak publicly? Maybe. Or maybe you should find a different job, with people who are more flexible, and see clearly how smart and talented you are, and how absurd it is to have you doing data entry. Can you imagine a setting that might free you up and make you feel more accepted? Isn’t it possible that there are jobs in your field where you might work around other gay men, in a more casual and nontraditional environment?

At the risk of replicating some gay-man version of the magical negro here, I have to tell you that I suspect that your natural self is the best kind of glorious, generous, vibrant, dynamic, exceptional kind of self. If you didn’t have to hide anymore, you would open like a beautiful flower and you’d feel the rain on your face for the first time and you’d say, I WILL HAVE A LIFE OF EVERYTHING. If we could find the right vehicle, the right outlet for your soul, we might coax you closer and closer to this kind of happiness and raw thrill at being alive.

Maybe you should write poetry. Maybe you just need to go to some spoken word events, to watch other people feeling nervous but letting their souls shine through anyway. But you definitely need something strange and wild in your life, that frees you up and makes you feel more genuine.

And what about embracing your introverted status, but doing it with other introverts? What about engaging in something creative that allows you to quietly be in the company of other interesting men? What if you took up something you’re terrible at, just because? What if you set out to make friends online, and you made it very clear in your profile that you are PAINFULLY SHY AND AFRAID? I feel like you need to accept your weirdness and shyness enough that you can show it to other people.

It’s going to take some time to find your path, and you need outside help. You need to find a therapist immediately. You simply must do it, no matter what. I can’t describe to you what a difference it will make in your life. I would see a male therapist, in fact, because that’s where you need healing. You need to feel accepted and supported by a man. I can tell you right now that THAT ALONE will turn your life upside down—in an good way. And of course a good therapist will be totally comfortable with your stress and blushing and crying. THAT’S WHAT YOU’RE THERE TO DO. Don’t forget that. Therapy is all about having your worst reaction in the company of that supportive energy. You’re SUPPOSED TO bring out the ugliness and the weakness and the shameful everything. That’s how you reach past a life of nothing.

And in your everyday life, too. You’re SUPPOSED TO bring out the ugliness and the weakness and the shameful everything. You’re supposed to cry and show the world who you are. If they demote you, fuck them. They don’t see you clearly. Your good friends see you. Slowly try to open yourself up to new people. Show them the things that make you feel ashamed. They will feel good, that you invited them in. If they don’t, forgive them and move on. They’re just letting you know that they’re not worth your time.

So: Get a therapist, consider joining a support group for young gay men, investigate activities that will make you feel like you’re coming out of hiding, look into other jobs, and of course, exercise daily in order to reduce your physical anxiety.

You say that it’s killing you to hide the fact that you’re gay from your parents. I’m sure a lot of people would argue that coming out might relieve your stress and anxiety immensely. But I know that it can be traumatic to reach for such a major change when you’re already feeling anxious and depressed. That’s really something you have to explore with your therapist. I also don’t know if you should consider taking drugs for anxiety. It’s something to consider, but I do think that you have a lot of clear reasons for feeling anxious beyond your biochemistry, so I would address those factors before trying out drugs if possible.

Above all, though, you need to know this, believe this, and say it to yourself every morning: THE WORST THINGS ABOUT YOU ARE ALSO THE BEST THINGS ABOUT YOU. Your sensitivity, your hyper-awareness of other people’s emotions, your attunement to the world—all of these things are qualities, as long as they’re not channeled into a negative feedback loop. You’re living in an illusion now, the illusion that every little awkward thing you do matters and is seen clearly by other people. You are hyperaware of reactions, like someone on psychoactive drugs. But people just don’t care that much that you stutter or turn red. They have shit on their minds, too. Once you channel your sensitivity somewhere else, all of these interactions will lose their high-pressure feeling and you’ll be able to just exist. You don’t have to keep up every conversation. You can allow silence to set in. You can say, “Alright, let’s talk about this later.” You can serve your own needs. You can be yourself. You can ask for what YOU want, instead of always trying to be what other people want of you.

YOU ARE SPECIAL. YOU ARE SENSITIVE. YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL. Write it in sharpie and put it on the wall. YOU ARE A FUCKING WEIRDO. YOU ARE AMAZING. YOU DESERVE TO BE EXACTLY WHO YOU ARE. Write it down. Post it on the wall. This is your work now. Your work is to BELIEVE THESE THINGS. Your work is to read these things every day, and believe them, and live inside of that belief. If you do that, your whole life will change.

And you have to get a therapist. Start cooking dry beans and baked potatoes every night for dinner if you have to, but get a therapist. Get one you suspect might be smarter than you, one who stays calm when you fidget and sweat.

Here’s what you don’t realize yet: Blushing and crying in the bathroom make you lovable. Many, many people who read your letter will feel REAL love for you. They wish they could meet you and give you a hug. They get it. We are all freaks and misfits. We all need a hug. The weirdness that you’re sure damns you to the sidelines, to a life of nothing, is exactly what makes you unique and intuitive and divine. The dickweed disguise must be shed. It’s going to take a little more work than you thought to shed it completely. But once it’s gone, you are going to love someone deeply, and he is going to feel so grateful for your love. You are about to bloom before your own eyes, and you’re going to help someone else bloom after that. You are going to have a life of everything.

Polly




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Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo of Asclepias welshii—which only blooms in the desert, ahem!—by the USFWS.