Updated on April 4, 2017
I sat nervously in a closet-sized room across from two school administrators, all too aware that the next hour would determine how I would spend my first year out of college and potentially, shape the course of my life. After months of research and planning, it was finally time to convince the women before me that I was a perfect fit for the dream fellowship to which I was applying.
I couldn’t wait to live amongst members of Buddhist and Christian communities in Europe and Asia, to study and practice silence as a means to freedom. I was passionate about the project I had developed, so inextricably linked to my lifelong experiences with silence.
As the interview unfolded, I bravely shared my story of hope and perseverance in the face of an invisible disability. I explained how complacency had been my biggest enemy and how I chose daily to ignore the nagging voice of anxiety that tried to convince me I didn’t need to continuously push the boundaries that had imprisoned me my entire life.
In the middle of my explanation, one of the interviewers stopped me and bluntly asked, “What’s wrong with complacency?”
No matter how hard I tried to explain the ways in which complacency was like a venom, destroying my flesh as it paralyzed me in my battle with anxiety, she didn’t understand.
She didn’t comprehend the way Selective Mutism completely stripped me of not only my voice, but of joy, as it forced to me remain locked in my dorm room each weekend. The way it caused me to go days without eating more than the cookies and chips from home because I was too afraid to enter the dining hall to grab something more sustaining. The way it prevented me from fully pursuing both my academic and extracurricular interests because I couldn’t bear to set foot on the bus or the train in order to take advantage of the many opportunities in the city and at nearby colleges.
“What’s wrong with complacency?”
Three years later, her question still haunted me as I read over my graduate school application essays. I had spent the previous month writing and rewriting words that were meant to accurately sum up the attributes and accomplishments of Danica Cotov. Phrases like “service work,” and “social justice” filled the pages, yet they seemed inadequate, and only proved to create a mere caricature of who I was.
I thought of the admissions committees who were likely pouring over my application at that very moment…who, like that school administrator years before, couldn’t possibly comprehend the magnitude of the social anxiety that plagued me and the extent to which it had become a stumbling block on the road to my academic success.
They couldn’t possibly understand how the blemish on my freshman year transcript was the result of my inability to step inside the campus library so that I might acquire the proper research materials necessary to write successful papers. There was no way they could know that my lack of campus involvement was the result of my fear of leaving my room and meeting new people, who I had convinced myself would surely find me inferior. Even my standardized test scores were unrepresentative of my mastery of the material, as I had effectively aced multiple practice tests; only my incessant shaking hinted at my inability to concentrate on the long-awaited “big day.”
As I anxiously await the stream of application decisions to arrive in my inbox, “if onlys” flood my mind. My thought process goes something like this:
If I didn’t have social anxiety, I would have gotten better grades my freshman year of college.
If I had gotten better grades freshman year, I would have gotten a higher GPA, and would have felt more worthy being a student at such a prestigious institution.
If I felt more worthy, I would have participated in more activities.
If I had gotten more involved, I would have a longer, more impressive resume.
If I had a better resume, I might have had a better chance at those prestigious fellowships and jobs, post graduation.
If I had landed a better job after graduation, I might have a better chance of getting into a top law school.
The more I ruminate on all that I am not, the longer my lists gets, and the more I wish I could press the “tabula rasa” button and start life over.
I realize there are many things I don’t know, but here’s some things I do know for certain:
Like clockwork, each year I blow out another candle on my birthday cake, I become intolerant toward yet another new thing (so far, it’s dairy, gluten, peanut butter, tahini and soy products).
I feel most like the person I was created to be when I’m traveling and exploring new (and old) places, especially National Parks.
In addition to being blessed with different gifts, each of us is endowed with specific challenges that shape and refine us into stronger (and more interesting) individuals.
Because I’m unfortunately bound by time and space, I’m unable to enter into the alternate universe where my anxiety was cured when I was still in preschool. But as I continue to reflect on the ways anxiety has altered my life, I can’t help but think that maybe it hasn’t been a complete curse.
Without my unwanted sidekick (I’m looking at you, anxiety), I probably wouldn’t be sensitive to the needs of disenfranchised and indigent populations. I probably wouldn’t be passionate about being a voice…an advocate…for those who currently have no representation. In fact, I probably wouldn’t be interested in pursuing a career in law today (or at the very least, interested in practicing in the public sector). I would be a completely different person without my anxiety, and I’m only just getting started.
While life hasn’t turned out like I expected or planned, I’m learning you can’t take the good without the bad. You are a composite of the highs and the lows, the accomplishments you can’t wait to post about on social media and the failures you’d rather die (too dramatic?) than reveal to others. I am a mix of boundless nervous energy, worrying and second guessing every decision, and empathy and passion, fighting to end injustice.
With this in mind, I’m learning to stop blaming myself for my faults and weaknesses. I’m learning to take the time to grieve the “only ifs” and then move beyond them, once and for all. I’m learning to keep fighting for what I believe in while trusting that I’ll get to where I need to be by the time I need to get there.
It may not be easy, but I’m trying. I dare you to do the same.