Anxiety, You and a Triangle Tattoo
The needle digs into my thigh. Pain cracks through the numb haze that’s descended over my mind from an afternoon making the most of the catamaran’s open bar. In that moment, I start to wonder I how I got here…
You know when you ride a bicycle along a bumpy road, and when you finally get off, your whole body is numb and shaking from gripping on for dear life? Imagine that feeling constantly buzzing through your nerves.
Every time you walk into a room, it’s accompanied by a wave of nausea. You hunch, cover your face with your hair, make yourself invisible. When you have to talk, your throat closes over like you’re having an allergic reaction. Your tongue swells as you try to get out the words: “I-I-I’m f-f-f-fine, th-thanks.” You know exactly what shoes everyone wears, but couldn’t say exactly which faces belong to them.
You’re terrified of the high school bathroom, so afraid of people judging you that you avoid it at all costs. Even the idea of pissing yourself between the bus stop and your front door seems preferable to someone hearing a stranger pee in the stall next door.
You imagine the kind of person you want to be. Someone charismatic, outgoing, funny; someone who gives off a welcoming aura. Being that person seems so unattainable. You start observing others, to see how they interact. Without realising it, that becomes the first step forward.
You make a pact to make a conscious note of the eye colour of everyone you speak to. That’s how you learn to make eye contact: setting yourself the simple, scientific task of collating whether a person’s gaze is brown, blue, hazel or green.
The tattooist checks the line he’s been drawing for the past few minutes. Satisfied with his work, he continues with the next. I remember now; it all started when, a few mojitos deep, the conversation turned to waxing. I used to be so afraid of what people would think of me using the bathroom, and here I was discussing pubic hair with people I’d only met a couple of weeks ago.
You want so badly to make friends, but when you’re around people it takes all your energy to keep the nausea at bay. You’re convinced that if you try to start a conversation, you’ll pass out before you get past the first word.
It’s the third week of term one. Everyone seems to have settled into the friend groups that will see them through to the end of high school. Once again, you sit in the back corner of class and stare across the sea of students, wishing for things to be different. As you cast a hopeful gaze around the room, a face swims up to you from the crowd.
“Hey!” she says. “Would you like to come and play badminton with me at lunch today?”
Just like that, your friendship with Sam begins.
Everyone needs a Sam in their lives. She turns out to be a saviour for many during the rough years of high school. Your friendship group becomes an eclectic mix of shy people she has reached out to. One girl has just moved from Korea and speaks very little English; another is worried about being judged for her love of Japanese comics. You are apprehensive of them at first, so caught in your own head you don’t even think about the fact that they live the same struggle as you.
I always wanted a tattoo, but this isn’t exactly how I had imagined it. I thought I’d be a mess of nerves, but right now the only thing bubbling up inside is euphoria. I look around at my friends of three weeks, all getting the triangle inked onto them. A symbol of the experiences we’ve shared.
You start to gain confidence in your wee group. Your stutter is less prominent, you can hold a conversation. But you still have no sense of self. So worried about people not liking you, you’ll agree with anything anyone says, like what they like. You get a knot in the pit of your stomach when you have to be around groups larger than three. Starting a conversation is still out of the question.
High school comes and goes, university begins. You get a little nervous about meeting people, but you’re more relaxed now knowing that people like you. Still, you have trouble keeping the white noise away. Even when nothing’s wrong, you lay awake at night; your mind reaches for things to occupy it.
You decide to see a counsellor. She assures you that you’re not in a bad place, and gives you more strategies to manage future situations with more confidence.
For them, it may be a dumb tattoo, the result of too many cocktails at the open bar. Tomorrow there will probably be curses of, “What the fuck did we do?!” For me though, it’s more than that. It symbolises a life of not overthinking, of just doing, of living life to the fullest. It’s a symbol of a future as the ‘me’ I always wanted to be.
12 years after the first time you stepped back to have a good hard look at yourself, you decide to do it again. How far you’ve come! But though proud of your progress, rather than a sense of accomplishment, you just feel empty. So many years wasted investing all your energy in battling your own head, you’ve had no time to think about what makes you ‘you’. You realise the final test to truly overcoming social anxiety is to go out and test yourself.
You decide to go travelling. It’s the first day of your tour. You look around at the people you’ll be traveling with for the next month. They look nervous. You remember Sam. It’s your turn now.
“Hey!” you smile “You guys excited for the cruise tomorrow?”
Cover by Jeremy Bishop