Content Warning: anxiety, anxiety around public speaking, social anxiety
For as long as I can remember, my sister has been quiet around strangers. She’s extremely talkative at home–in fact, we can’t get her to shut up. Her mouth flaps from the minute she steps in the house to the moment her eyes shut for the night, and it constantly cracks the entire family up. Her flair for the dramatic keeps any story–no matter how seemingly dull–extremely hysterical, and her creative and strangely random insults could keep anyone entertained (my favorites include “idiot on a stick,” “your face,” and “your mom”). She’s told me stories about playing phone tag and had me laughing throughout. Last week, I watched her buy a book online, and she went through such a large range of emotions you would have thought she was putting on a performance.
But as hilarious as my sister is, no one would know, because the minute a person she doesn’t know enters the scene, she falls silent. It was a much bigger issue when she was younger, as she refused to place food orders despite my mother’s insistence. Over time, my mom came to understand her anxiety surrounding people, and learned to gently push her instead of forcing her into paralysis as she sat on the silent end of a phone call to a pizza place. She’d write a script for her–no matter how simple the order–and give her time to rehearse, encouraging her from the sidelines as she made the call. My sister still complained to no end and usually begged my mom not to make her call, but my mom insisted and over time my sister worried much less and was able to call and order food on her own. Once she got her license, she went through a similar process with drive-thru’s, although those were usually at my dad’s insistence.
Although I understand my sister’s struggle now, it took me a very long time to make sense of why she hated meeting new people and worried so much about being the center of attention, especially because I loved it. When my sister attempted to decline making phone calls, I always offered to do it for her, despite my mom being adamant about my sister doing the task. Whenever my mom wasn’t around, it made me feel useful to be the one to ask questions for my sister, never afraid to pester strangers when she wasn’t up to it. I knew she needed to work on talking to people, but I always figured that was my mom’s job, whereas my job as her big sister was to be her protector. I’d still encourage her to take center stage when there was an opportunity for her to show off her skills–just because I knew how talented and funny she was, and I wanted the world to see that too. But she always shook her head vehemently, becoming nervous at even the thought. The public speaking or performing she couldn’t avoid would have her worked up days in advance, even if it was as simple as introducing herself to a new group of strangers. I remember watching her on our first day of cross-country practice, me a junior and her a freshman. No matter how much I tried to reassure her, she still jittered, nervous about anything and everything going horribly wrong.
Fortunately, my sister is much more confident about her interactions now, which has helped ease her anxiety immensely. She still talks about it and suffers from her worry, but significantly less than she used to. That being said, she still avoids being the center of attention at all costs and has yet to be the same person she is with me in front of new people. But she has recently gathered the strength to start seeing a therapist, and I have no doubt she’ll overcome this mental health struggle and find a way to be herself in all situations, regardless of strangers.