This article contains descriptions of my personal experiences with anxiety. I am in no way trying to advocate or speak on others’ relationships and/or experiences with mental health.
I don’t like her.
She always seems to show up at the worst possible times, like while I’m eating lunch with my team, or as I’m walking into an outround. Sometimes I’ll forget she even exists; I’ll be so consumed in that familiar competitive rush that I forget how it feels to have her around, to have her draining every ounce of my energy and confidence until she’s impossible to ignore. I’ve known her for long enough that I’ve begun to recognize her patterns- certain activities, certain words, certain people that she likes to hang around- and I can avoid bumping into her as much as possible, but we’re regulars at all the same places, and avoidance is only a temporary fix. I’ve begun to think she does it on purpose, as an attempt to throw me off in the moments I need her the least.
She clouds my mind and controls me, pressuring me to do and say things I don’t mean. Last spring, she was an incessant whisper in my ear, telling me over and over again that I wasn’t good enough to be at TOC, that I could hardly deliver a coherent speech, that my partner had carried me all the way to Kentucky, and that I was wasting my time and my parents’ money by even agreeing to go down there. She was practically yelling at me as I walked into a bid round at UPenn last year, reminding me how unprepared I was, making my legs shake, my hands sweat, and my face flush. She made me cry in front of half of my team, in front of my new partner, and in front of coaches past and present. She walks hand in hand with pressure to succeed; they follow me around tournaments and through life and nibble away at me.
I don’t like my anxiety, but she’s a part of me I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of.
Once in freshman year, I sat outside of a high school classroom waiting to enter a round as anxiety rattled my legs and pressed its hands down on my chest. It was getting harder to breathe by the second. As embarrassed as I felt to be reacting so dramatically to something which seemed so simple, I couldn’t help it. My teammates and coach sat across the hall from me, trying their best to calm me down.
“It’s only a debate round,” they insisted. “It doesn’t count for anything.”
“Just take deep breaths.”
“What’s the worst that can happen?”
I was so used to hearing those textbook consolations that they faded into nothing more than background noise, shrouded by the clatter of my own thoughts.
Somewhere deep inside, I heard and understood the words they were saying, even agreed with them, but my anxiety had reared its ugly head and sat somewhere between us, ensuring that nothing ever got through to me in the way they intended.
“You can look at it this way,” my coach began. “Having anxiety is kind of like an evolutionary superpower. At some point in time, you were super good at detecting threats and responding to them. Even though it might feel like it’s hindering you, it’s truly meant to help.”
Although his words may not have gotten through to me in the moment, I’ve returned to them time and time again in moments where my anxiety gets especially difficult to manage.
Debate, while being one of the most empowering and formative experiences of my high school career, has also been one of the most anxiety-inducing. In my worst moments, I lose control of myself and wish I were just about anywhere instead of standing up in front of that judge, their critical eyes boring into me, giving an improvised speech about some international policy I’m just barely familiar with. However, those are also the moments in which I learn the most about myself. Through repeatedly exposing myself to what makes me anxious, I have discovered a newfound resilience and willingness within myself to jump right back into the activity, diving headfirst into another tournament despite the fact that I can practically feel the anxiety coursing through my veins as I write my name on that sign-up sheet. Rather, I try to focus on the rush of adrenaline, excitement, and camaraderie that has characterized my debate experience. By persisting and focusing on the highlights of my debate experience rather than focusing on how my brain decides to interpret them, I learned that even though I may not like my anxiety, that’s okay; she is not all there is, and she is not all I am.
For me, dealing with my anxiety can be a draining battle. Since I’m sure we’re all tired of the “she” metaphor by now, I’ll use another one; having anxiety is like being stuck in the ocean. There are days I can stay above the water and keep my head dry- even if it takes a significant amount of energy to tread water for so long- and there are days where my muscles tire and I can’t help but be swallowed up by the waves. Despite it all, one thing remains constant; I always find my way back up. I don’t know if I’ll ever reach the point where I can swim to shore and leave the ocean behind, but in the meantime, I’ll just keep swimming.