I realize that I have always had anxiety. Even as a child, I did things that many would view as irrational, and I will recount one example for you now.
In the middle of fifth grade, my parents decided to move our family from one town in upstate New York to another one located about 30 minutes away. As a little boy with yet-to-be-understood anxiety, I was terrified — but this is not why I am telling you my story. My story begins once I arrived in my new town, in my new home. It was a nice home in a nice, extremely safe neighborhood. In addition, the elementary school was close enough that I could walk to and from school each day. Easy enough, right? Wrong.
Soon after we arrived in this new town and settled into our new home, I developed a fear that our house would be robbed. And seeing how, due to my family’s schedules, I was the only one at home for a good half hour or so each weekday, I was the one to be robbed! I was the prey, the captive, the horrified audience. I was doomed.
I soon became so scared that I would open the front door each day, place by backpack near the entryway, and slowly remove my homework. There, about two feet from the front door were the stairs leading up to the second floor. There, on the first step I would perch, precariously, with my homework. Each day, I would nervously work on my homework, toiling over math problems and scrawling sentences, always watchful of my surroundings, and always considering that I might need to escape from burglars quickly through the front door. Never mind that the all-too-real future burglars might enter through the front door; that thought never entered my anxious mind.
My parents found this behavior peculiar, of course, and they did not really know what to make of it. They chalked it up to being in a new town, and I don’t recall them really talking to me about my emotions. They did try their best to understand what I was going through, but they never coached me through it — or normalized what I was feeling. To me, I could very possibly get robbed by bad guys — or even die! To them, it was a silly, albeit slightly concerning, adjustment to a new town and a new school. To them, they were just thankful that I was doing my homework so diligently, even if I was completing it in a very odd location a few feet from the front door. In my mind, my feelings were pervasive and very real. And they lasted for a good couple of months, before, slowly, over time, they dissipated and then disappeared as suddenly as they came. I started to feel safer in my new location — and in my own skin.
Even to this day, as I am now a man a couple of years away from his third decade on this earth, I recall a comment my mom made a year or so ago: “Do you remember when you used to do your homework right by the door?” she said with a smile. I smiled as well, but mainly I cringed. I did remember that, but not the way she remembered it. Yet, when she asked me about it, I did not feel the need to go into the details about how irrationally frightened I had been. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I am able to appreciate my heightened level of anxiety — and both the benefits and the limitations it provides.
What I wish would have happened when I was younger is this: I wish my parents would have met me in my moments of terror and validated my feelings. They did the best with what they knew at the time, I know this to be true. What you have to remember is that anxiety was viewed as a weakness decades ago — and it is still very much viewed as such today. However, I wish my parents would have acknowledged that what I was feeling was very real to me, that it would be alright.
I say this like I am an expert on dealing with anxiety — which, in a way, I guess I kind of am — but my expertise has come at great cost to my own emotional well-being. Still, I am trying to use my expertise to benefit others, to help them understand that it will be alright. To show them the inherent good that anxiety has in their lives. I’ll leave you know with one example of this.
I used to work in school-based mental health program, at the middle-school level. I fondly remember one small boy, who I had the privilege of knowing when he was in sixth and seventh grade. This boy was extremely anxious, and when I say anxious, I mean anxious. This boy seemed to be in a perpetual state of worry, and as I got to know him, I came to understand how his anxiety came about — and how that anxiety was actually an effort to make sense of a very unpredictable world.
I had difficulty connecting with this boy during the first few months that I got to know him. Even though I still experience anxiety to this day, I couldn’t understand why he could be so anxious about seemingly innocuous situations. How could forgetting one’s homework lead to such unbelievable dread? How could being one minute late to class mean that he would experience a day filled with unfathomable embarrassment? At first, I was overly dismissive. I didn’t think anyone could be so anxious about what appeared to be such silly things. Then, at some point, I remembered myself as a fifth-grade boy perched on the steps of his new home. I remembered the terror that consumed me. This boy I was working with and that boy I had once been had experienced this paralyzing feeling of anxiety.
Through my memories, and through feedback from my coworkers at the middle school, I began to connect with this boy more and more. I began to talk less and listen more. I began to just sit with him in his moments of fear.
And you know what? He got better.
He started to, with me as his witness, figure out his anxiety. He started to spend less and less time in our office and more time in class. He started to understand that it would be alright. Don’t get me wrong; he still had anxiety — just like I still have anxiety. But what we both learned from one another during the almost two years that we spent together was that having anxiety is okay; it’s how you deal with your anxiety that makes all of the difference.
And when I left that school to take another job, this boy gave me a card to bid me farewell. On it, he wrote one surprisingly poetic sentence. He wrote, “You are and always will be a great man, Mr. Jordan.”
I was stunned. This was so unlike this boy to write something like that. This boy with whom at first I felt like I had no connection, ultimately became one of the kids with whom I had the strongest bond. What he wrote was the timeless message of a naïve child and an old soul. He taught me something with his message on that card. He taught me that we, he and I, are two anxious guys, but we need to play the hand that we have been dealt. And play it we will, one anxious card at a time.
Originally published at medium.com