Hot & Impaired: New Year, New You, Same Nerves
Think back to those middle school/high school days. Remember that algebra class or those standardized-tests the state forced you to take every year? Do you get a little queasy thinking about the exams you studied for? The sweaty palms, the foot-tapping, the chewing on the eraser end of your pencil…?
Even as grown-ups, there’s no shortage of stress-inducing situations we find ourselves in; only difference is, we’ve learned a few tricks to handle that “fight-or-flight” feeling a lot better than we did in math class. I’m willing to bet that for many of us reading this, social confidence has been one of our new “rites of passage,” and the reason for many of those anxious-filled stories. Able-bodied or not, stress and anxiety can throw you off your game at school, at work, and definitely when it comes to dating and relationships.
SIDENOTE: We know that anxiety, stress, depression, and social disorders are mental health issues that affect individuals in many more ways than we can briefly show from our personal experiences. Our stories are only meant to educate, and encourage anyone who is struggling with anxiety, to ask for help from support groups and medical professionals.
MERVIN’S SCHOOL DAYS
Throughout high school and college, I’d say my time and attention was almost entirely focused on getting my degree. As a visually impaired person, that involved some creative effort, which cost me valuable practice in the social scene. After graduating and finally starting to do some socializing, I started to go through the five stages of grief (so to speak) before arriving at a handful of confidence. Going through that growth process had a lot to do with the fact I have a visible disability: Albinism, which is very fair skin coupled with a visual impairment.
For someone with my challenges, making eye-contact can mean squinting, or looking through the side of your good eye. In my case, my very own excessive “self-awareness” of being visually impaired, was the reason I was so anxious whenever I met someone new. If that someone happened to be a dating hopeful, I was doubly worried about saying the right things, timing my comebacks just right, and when it was time to ask for some digits. But, before I could worry about witty banter, I first had to “own” my skin.
Working Past the Social Anxiety
Thinking back to around my junior year in high school, I participated in one of my first summer camps, one of which was just for students with disabilities. This was one of the safe places where I begin breaking down the barriers holding me back from being sociable. I made friends who also had disabilities, but also got responsibilities from organizers who gave this young Mervin the spotlight to introduce a dignitary, or address the large group. Truly the only way I was ever going to “get better” at being socially confident, was to woodshed through more frequent and closer social interactions with people with and without disabilities. The adage comes to mind “The only way out of a bad situation, is through it.
After I graduated university and accepted my first professional career opportunity, I continued the tedious work of building my social comfort level by choosing to go into some of the most uncomfortable social settings—or at least that’s what it felt like at the time. New York City has a bit of everything from tech meetups, to church groups, architecture and history tours, to trivia themed dating nights! At first, I didn’t go to these events for any other reason besides to complete a brute-force exercise on myself. I wanted to face my fears of social interaction, and practice, really hard practice: go up to a stranger, introduce myself, find out why they came to the event, and so on.
This is my recommendation for anyone who feels anxious about an important and public part of your life. The fears we carry around are often bigger than the realities we live in. Whether you’re disabled or not, think about exercises you can do, that will help you move one step closer to busting a myth that’s been holding you back. Especially if you have a disability, find communities of support for your condition, speak with a social worker or therapist when you’re overwhelmed; and when you’re ready to climb the mountain, break your big goals into smaller steps you can manage as you make forward progress.
WHITNEY’S OWNING IT
My relationship with social anxiety stems from a lifetime of being stared and pointed at. When you’re the girl with one arm and one leg, you get used to going out in public and being the one everyone gaps at. As Mervin mentioned, you have to “own” your body. I have always had confidence in my physical appearance, but not much confidence in standing up for myself. I never question how my body looks in an outfit or how good or bad my hair looks, but the moment someone asks, “What happened to you?” I instantly start to question how my response will make me look as a person in this stranger’s eyes.
Will they think I’m rude if I don’t answer? Will they think I’m mean if I tell them it’s none of their business? I don’t want to be the person that puts a bad taste in their mouth, in which they may end up generalizing all disabled people as “mean and/or rude.” Talk about self-imposed pressure!
The other side of the coin is that if I do answer, does that mean this person thinks that other disabled people will be nice enough to answer their personal questions? It’s a lose/lose social interaction in my mind.
Then queue in the dating scene, what happens when my date asks me that same question? Do I snub them? Answer? Try to make a joke? There’s no great way to respond to an uncomfortable question, but because I’m comfortable in my own body, I go with honesty and explain why the answer to that question shouldn’t be something they need to know. Sure, I usually end up giving them the answer anyway, but I hope that with a bit more insight, it will help the next person that comes along. It’s about being considerate with questions best saved for later in a relationship. After all, honesty is the best policy!
Working Past the Anxiety
Everyone struggles with different aspects of their personalities, and it’s always a journey to accept our faults and carry on. Whether it’s an adolescent self-consciousness of their acne, or a young woman finding her voice and positivity through debilitating mental illness, the most important thing is to work on not letting these feelings of self-doubt and anxiety keep you from experiencing life.
Though we didn’t discuss the deep and serious side of anxiety, we too still go through seasons in our lives when we need help dealing with our circumstances – often professional help is needed. If you feel like you’re stuck in a difficult headspace, we want to encourage you to seek professional help because EVERYONE can benefit from a little bit of therapy. Social support groups for various disabilities also offer meet-ups and conferences where you can meet people who deal with the same issues you do: for example Mervin is a member of NOAH (the National Organization of Albinism and Hypopigmentation), and Whitney is a part of The Amputee Coalition in Florida.