I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Mr. Thomas, one of my favorite high school teachers. He taught physics and chemistry, and also did SAT/ACT prep classes a few times a year. He was the first outright nerd of a teacher I ever met, and he had the abrasive, obnoxious, self-satisfied attitude an extremely smart person surrounded by average people often has. Students (and the less professional teachers) would console each other by saying he probably got beaten up a lot in high school, but I think, like most of us nerds, he was generally just ignored, which can be hard, too.
I saw a lot of myself in him: the way he showcased his intelligence in that desperate way that made it seem like he felt it was the only thing that made him worthwhile; the way he covered his insecurity with jokes or, if that didn’t work, rudeness; the way he, when his guard was down, tried to explain how the inside of his head felt, but gave up when it was clear others just didn’t get it. That weird feeling of being isolated in a room full of people because, even though you grew up with them and experienced the same things in the same places, you can’t make connections, and the resulting suspicion that either they’re too stupid or you’re too broken.
I actually had Mr. Thomas as a teacher for the first time in 7th grade, because he was teaching E3 (the gifted class). That was the first class where I read poetry I actually liked, where I wrote things I actually thought about beyond using correct grammar and full sentences. The class was mostly spent talking about whatever we wanted, with Mr. Thomas trying to steer us into thinking critically about things like social issues. (It didn’t usually work.) It was also the first time I asked anyone about my anxiety.
We were standing around talking kind of idly; I think the subject was psychology, because Mr. Thomas had gotten a degree in in in college, and was planning on becoming the school therapist when our current one retired. We had quiz bowl that afternoon, which meant we had to be driven down the local university. I was nervous about it, because I hated talking in front of people, but also because being in a car on the highway made me uncomfortable. So I asked, “What does it mean if you’re always scared something bad is going to happen? Like, if you’re in a car, and you picture a semi jack-knifing in front of you?”
Mr. Thomas looked at me for a moment, I guess trying to figure out where the question came from. I smiled, because that’s what I do when I’m nervous. He smiled back at me said something about how someone who felt like that was delusional and out of touch with reality. I kind of laughed. I didn’t ask anyone else about my anxiety and whether it was a problem. I remember the feeling of shutting the door on those questions, because if this person I saw so much of myself in couldn’t even tell I was being serious, how could any stranger help me figure myself out?
I only admitted to having anxiety problems once after that, to my mother, after having a crying fit because I was anxious about church choir practice for no reason. Even then, I didn’t get specific, and only agreed with the things my mom said about her own anxiety. After, I felt like since my mom could handle her anxiety, I could handle mine; I just had to work harder. For years I tried and failed to control my own brain.
It wasn’t until I was good friends with Nikki that I ever talked in person to anyone about my anxiety. At that point I had listened to her talk about her depression and her anger issues, and it made me realize that if it wasn’t her fault that she had depression, then maybe it wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t control my anxiety by sheer force of will. I slowly began to acknowledge my problems, to myself and to Nikki, and I found that talking about them didn’t make them go away, but it did make me feel less crazy and alone.
Even now, I had a hard time talking face-to-face with anyone about my anxiety, and it nearly always involves some crying on my part. It is scary, trying to explain to someone that your brain doesn’t work correctly. I feel like talking about it with others does make it seem more common, though, which I think is a good thing. I try especially to discuss it with parents of Nikki’s more nervous and shy students, to try to let them know that being scared all the time isn’t normal, but it doesn’t make you a freak or a failure.