On Monday, I spoke at The Story Collider, a live event that provides a stage for people to tell true, personal stories. I decided to tell a very personal one: the story of the six months I spent trapped in agonizing anxiety.
I procrastinated getting my story in shape, and by Sunday I was in a horrendous mood. I felt stressed out, not ready, and angry at myself for signing up. Why was I putting myself through this anyway? What was the point of going up on stage to tell a bunch of strangers about the most personal and painful moments of my life? I felt embarrassed that I’d open myself up that way, convinced that everyone would think I was strange, and maybe a little sad.
But I went through with it, and my fiancé came, and a few of my friends came, and we watched people go up on stage one-by-one and talk about a sick mother, a dying student, a collapse on the subway, a chronically ill father…heavy stuff. As the audience gave each speaker a warm embrace, I felt my doubts sloughing off one by one, even as my nerves started to approach panic level. I was up last, and when I finally bounded onstage, it felt energizing to be up there, hearing my voice echoing in a microphone, looking out at a room full of people who laughed when I wanted them to laugh, were silent when I needed them to be silent, listened closely as I told them my pain.
Afterward, a woman came up to me to talk. She said she works with kids who have anxiety and maybe my story could help them. One of my fellow storytellers, a neurologist, thought my story’s recording could help her patients, too. A woman who recently had a brain hemorrhage was now experiencing the same fainting episodes I once had, and she broke into a relieved smile when I told her how they were connected to anxiety. And the speaker who had collapsed on the subway politely bombarded me with questions about mental health: How do you recognize panic attacks? How do you learn cognitive behavioral therapy? Do you think mental illness is all in your head?
At some point, it occurred to me: This is why we open up to people. Helping others and helping yourself are almost always two sides of the same coin, a lesson I struggle to remember when anxiety drives me to be concerned only with protecting myself. I am reminded of Steph Davis’ perfect quote, which I might do well to tattoo to my forehead (or at least make copies to hang in several conspicuous locations): “What’s funny to me is how we always talk about taking risks like it’s an option or a decision we get to make. Like there might be some version of life in which just getting out of bed doesn’t open you up to an endless gamut of risks, some version of life in which things don’t change and nothing happens.” It feels safer for nothing to happen, but my only reward for trying to achieve that was a few horrible months of chronic pain and the loss of nearly everything that made my life worth living in the first place. I hope I can go on to help more people, but just being reminded of this is enough.