• September 27, 2019 |

    shadow girl

    a tryst with social anxiety

    article by , illustrated by

    Content Warning: Anxiety

    Before I left for college, my mother told me, “Be careful of the company you keep,” and she couldn’t have been more prescient. Of course, I didn’t take heed of her statement; I became far too comfortable with the company of my own shadow, which quickly became my closest confidante. I wouldn’t go anywhere without the shadow-girl’s permission—so when she dragged me down to the depths of hell, I didn’t question it.

    It turned out that hell was a place inside my head. The first time I found myself there was during freshman year. That was when I first understood how Tantalus felt: I was surrounded by people laughing, talking, becoming fast friends…but the fruit of friendship seemed unbearably out of my reach. Still, I nourished myself with the irony that rolled off my tongue when anyone asked me what my major was.

    “Psychology,” I said. At its essence, the study of the mind, the study of people. It was a natural decision given that I’d spent most of my life doing just that. Studying others’ reactions to everything I said and did—even how loudly I breathed. It had been a while since I’d noticed that every little action had a hidden meaning. If someone sighed too loudly while I was speaking, that meant they wished I would shut up. Prolonged eye contact meant someone wanted to approach me (so I’d have to immediately exit the room), and God forbid anyone ever rolled their eyes at me because that was basically an invitation to war. 

    At the time, I felt so alone that I was almost grateful for the shadow-girl. When I walked, I looked at the ground to avoid making eye contact with anyone; shadow-girl was the only company I needed, I told myself. If I did accidentally meet someone’s eyes, I wouldn’t know how to react. So I stuffed my earphones in, harshly enough that their vibrations might have penetrated my skull and counterbalanced my brain, which shook anxiously on an axis of its own. I played music only at maximum volume, listening solely to songs with words like “gray” and “black” and “hole” in them. They described everything going on in my head and chest.

    And when I spoke—convinced that my accent would immediately make me as an outcast—mostly monosyllables came out. And when my laconic speech paired with my accent and mumbling went unheard, I’d give up. All my life, I’d been the type of girl who was too afraid to go after what she wanted, and it looked as though college would be no different. I’d fallen in love with a monster called Hesitation, and he had whisked me away from the rest of the world so that I could be his until the end of eternity. 

    Most days, I’d just stay home, lying in my bed for hours at a time with the shadow-girl serving as my only company. I can still remember the number of ceiling tiles in EmWool 314. When my best friend came to visit, she tried to conceal them with motivational posters that read “Keep Calm” and “You got this!”

    At first, those words did nothing but infuriate me.

    But eventually, I started believing them. It took weeks, maybe even months. 

    I can’t pinpoint exactly when, but somewhere along the line, things had gotten so bad that I let the shadow-girl consume me whole. Then something shifted, and when she spat me back out, it was for the better.

    I won’t say I understand much of how this happened, because I don’t. But what I do know is this:

    I have friends now—the type who live outside of my head and don’t care if I occasionally say something stupid. I have a roommate who laughs at all my jokes, and I think it’s safe to say that’s the truest form of friendship there is.

    I still study psychology, but now with the intention of helping adolescents struggling with mood disorders. Or teenagers struggling with social anxiety who haven’t figured out how to be happy yet.

    I walk with my head held high, and when I blast my music—those same songs about gray and black and holes—it’s only because their rhythm lines up with the newfound bounce in my step.

    And I love my accent now. It sounds like home, the place that shaped me into the person I am today. I’m still not the most loquacious person around, but when I have something to say, I let it free. All the unspoken thoughts and words in my head have finally been set afloat, a hundred million little messages in glass bottles, bobbing patiently in the oceans of my mind, just waiting to be revealed.

    Occasionally, I’ll glance down at my shadow with a smile of reminiscence. She stretches far behind me, and miles ahead of me. Sometimes she’s taller than I am, longer and more slender. Once upon a time, that used to bother me. Now I know that there’s no point in being jealous of somebody who’s always been a part of me. Perfection is a fickle mistress. But now that I no longer lust fruitlessly after her, satisfaction is so much easier to achieve. 

    Most importantly, though, I’m not afraid to look anyone in the eye anymore. Especially not my own reflection, who stares back at me with understanding and the offer of unconditional friendship in her eyes.