A College Student Talks About Overcoming His Social Anxiety
This speech was delivered at the New York University Child Study Center Second Annual Child Advocacy Award Dinner honoring Tipper Gore on November 30, 1999:
I want to take a few moments to tell you why I am standing in front of you tonight.
Looking at it from the outside, I have had a pretty normal life. I grew up in New York, the son of two loving parents. I played little league, I took piano lessons, and I went to church on Sundays. I was a good student. In the sixth grade I started feeling different. I began to believe that I would not be liked by anybody. I also began to be very nervous and panicky around people. Fear became a major part of my life. Fear I would say the wrong thing in front of friends and teachers or that I might somehow embarrass and humiliate myself. My fear gradually intensified throughout junior high and high school. My desire to not let anyone see my nervousness became so dramatic that everything was pre-meditated. For me, every situation required extreme thought and calculation. I gave great thought to things that others would find routine -- how I moved from place to place, how I held a book or what I did with my hands. I had this overwhelming feeling that I was being watched and scrutinized with every move I made. I began to avoid anything that involved risk. If I wasn't doing anything, I couldn't screw up. If I was alone in my room, there was no risk involved and no fear of failure and embarrassment. My high school experience was four years of a non-risky routine. I never dated, I never spoke with anyone on the phone if it wasn't about homework, and Saturday nights might be spent at a movie with a friend. That was the extent of my social life. "Joel, why are you so quiet? Why don't you like to go to parties? Why don't you have a girlfriend?" I would hear people say these things and I would become so angry that people had discovered I wasn't normal. I found myself making excuses, the best of which was that I was trying to be a good student and those other normal kids were doing stupid things and I was reaching for a higher goal. The fact is, I really wanted to not be so quiet, to go to parties and to have a girlfriend, but I was too scared to risk failure. I began to believe that I was simply not meant to be a socially confident person and that everyone else was.
Every once in a while, I would have a burst of confidence and I tasted what it must feel like to be without fear. It made me realize that there was a different person trapped inside of me. A person I really liked. That there was a world out there that was not filled with fear and self-consciousness. When I felt confident, I was very likeable and outgoing and funny and, if I do say so myself, dangerously charming. But those moments would come and go and when they left, I didn't know how to get them back. The more I thought about getting them back, the more frustrated I became. I didn't know how to get there from here.
I graduated from high school in May of 1997 and entered NYU the following fall. I thought that perhaps my problems were high school and I was just going through a phase. Then I realized it was a really, really long phase. A new environment, new people and college life would somehow snap me out of this. At first, the initial excitement that things might be different helped. But soon the newness wore off and the fear that plagued me in high school was back in full force. But now I wasn't just a scared little kid, I was a scared adult. At NYU, there was no escape from the people who were living the lives I wanted to live. Everyday I saw guys and girls my age doing things I was too afraid to do - dating, going to parties, pledging fraternities and living active social lives. The jealousy I had of them was overwhelming. By the end of my freshman year, I began to actively search for a way to change my life and to stop being driven by my fears. Eastern meditative religions became very intriguing and I had serious thoughts about running away to a Zen monastery where I would not have to speak with anyone or interact with any one. Perhaps there, the anger and jealously I felt at NYU would be gone. As you can imagine, my Roman Catholic parents didn't think this was the best idea.
I managed to return to NYU for my sophomore year but only stayed a month. At that time I realized I couldn't get through this on my own. I was desperate and depressed. I knew this wasn't normal. But I couldn't show anyone physical symptoms. I didn't have a broken leg, I didn't have a viral infection and I wasn't bleeding. At the same time, I wasn't seeing or hearing things and I didn't think there was a plot by the government to get me. That is what I thought mental illness was. I was afraid that nobody would understand this or take me seriously.
I left NYU and returned home thinking I could find some answers but instead fell into a greater depression and more fear. I couldn't sleep and things that would make me feel a little bit better under normal circumstances wouldn't penetrate - favorite television shows, music, friends, family. I asked myself, "would I ever live a normal life? Was I going to live with this fear forever?" I felt completely hopeless.
That fall, I finally leveled with my parents and told them everything. I let them in on my secret and told them a little about the world that I was living in. My parents then spoke with a family friend named Mary Guardino, the head of the "Freedom from Fear" organization on Staten Island. Mary knew of the work the Child Study Center and suggested to my parents that I go there. I became a patient of Dr. Koplewicz and also of Dr. Ann Marie Albano, who runs the Institute for Anxiety Disorders at the Center. They both assured me that I would be better in a few months. To be honest, I didn't believe them. I couldn't believe that this thing I had been living with for as long as I could remember would somehow be controlled. I was speechless when I discovered that there was a team of experts who not only understood what was happening to me but also had a way of helping. Before I came to the Child Study Center, I had prayed that I had a disease that had a name and a cure. At the Child Study Center, I found out that I did. It is called social phobia and it can be controlled. I was overwhelmed with relief.
The Child Study Center has changed my life. In addition to private sessions with Dr. Koplewicz and Dr. Albano, I participated this past summer in a social phobia treatment group developed by Dr. Albano with other people my age. At the Child Study Center, the doctors taught me about my anxiety. They taught me why it exists and how it manifests itself. What I learned was that anxiety itself is a normal, healthy human emotion. It becomes abnormal when your whole life revolves around it. I knew they weren't going to zap it out of my system forever. I discovered they were going to teach me how to shrink it to a healthy level. I returned to NYU this past August and have been living a different life. This past summer, I dated a girl I have had a crush on for a long time. I attend a step aerobics class five days a week in which I am the only guy in the room. I perform in front of a large group of people in my drama class and will do so again this spring. Meeting people and talking to people is so much easier. I am no longer obsessed with how I position my body, how I hold a book or how I walk across campus. The time and energy I once invested in fear can now be used for things I really care about.
When Dr. Albano called and asked me if I was interested in speaking tonight, I was thrilled. Then nervous, then thrilled. That is the difference. A year ago, I felt I was alone in the world. Now I am speaking to a room full of people who are interested in what I have to say. I know I can go through life's circumstances and manage my anxiety. Before I came to the Child Study Center, my future was bleak. I don't know what the future holds. What I do know is that my future is not dictated by my anxiety. I am free to explore anything I want and choose my own path.
Thank you for supporting the Child Study Center. I hope you realize there are many people like me out there and your support changes lives.
About the NYU Child Study Center
The New York University Child Study Center is dedicated to increasing the awareness of child and adolescent psychiatric disorders and improving the research necessary to advance the prevention, identification, and treatment of these disorders on a national scale. The Center offers expert psychiatric services for children, adolescents, young adults, and families with emphasis on early diagnosis and intervention. The Center's mission is to bridge the gap between science and practice, integrating the finest research with patient care and state-of-the-art training utilizing the resources of the New York University School of Medicine. The Child Study Center was founded in 1997 and established as the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry within the NYU School of Medicine in 2006. For more information, please call us at (212) 263-6622 or visit us at http://www.aboutourkids.org.
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.