One of the biggest problems I have had in treatment, aside from my depression, is dealing with fear. It’s not fear on anything necessarily material – though I am afraid of spiders, sharks, and aliens, in that order – but for me, my most painful and crippling fear has been the fear of rejection.
Those of you who have read some of my previous entries, or know me personally, know that my childhood was all over the place, literally – four states and four countries, with varying times in each. This made it hard to connect, especially as I was often not only a new kid at school, but I tended towards being one of the smartest. I’m not claiming to be a genius – by the time I got to college, I wasn’t even the smartest person in my dorm room, let alone the average classroom – but I was a shy, quiet kid who liked to read and study, so I did very well in school.
Most of you probably know that new kids in class don’t tend to be treated very well in most places. Smart kids, or kids who ‘look’ smart or nerdy, get unpleasant treatment as well. I got both, which tended to make my time in school relatively unenjoyable. So I developed, effectively, a talent – invisibility. I don’t mean literal invisibility, obviously, but rather the kind that makes you easily overlooked by the more aggressive kids in class. I sat in a chair near the back, often near a corner, and rarely answered anything a teacher asked, even if I knew the answer. I walked slowly, imitating others, trying to blend into the crowd, and for the most part, it worked.
This talent, however, came with a downside – since I avoided almost everyone else in school, it was hard to really form friendships. I tended to make most of my friends, short-term though many of them were, outside of school, in activities like Cub Scouts or Boy Scouts. This trend continued well into college, until I met a couple people who helped to bring me out of my shell. Oddly, though, my high school years were nowhere near the nightmare that popular culture makes them out to be form nerdy kids – I actually kind of liked high school, though some of my most serious problems started there. But I went to an all-guys high school, when fed into more fear.
I was already afraid of many of the people around me, afraid that they would reject me for being nerdy (I started wearing big, thick glasses when I was ten, and only got smaller, thinner ones a few years ago). I was badly bullied in 8th grade, which led to my parents sending me to an all-boys Jesuit high school. While this stopped the bullying, and let me be a little less guarded around my classmates, it also kept me from interacting with a major part of a teenage boy’s life – teenage girls. I had no interaction with the fairer sex until my junior year of high school, and that did not go at all well for me. I had had little real experience with emotions until then, and a number of people actually referred to me as somewhat robotic, a moniker I enjoyed. But that lack of contact with girls, along with my terribly stunted emotional status, led me to fall hard for someone, and then be absolutely broken when things ended.
That experience affected me so much that it took me years to even come close to getting over it. I spoke to a handful of girls in college, and never with any intention of asking any of them out; I was still in pain from my previous attempt. In fact, the only women I really got along with in college tended to be women who were already dating other people. My relationship experience was a factor in my loss of faith, because I felt that no benevolent deity would let someone be hurt that badly (yeah, yeah, I was 19 at the time, melodrama was practically my middle name). I don’t blame anyone for this; it was a confluence of events that all came together to cause me this much grief. But it made talking to women who I didn’t feel were ‘safe’ extremely difficult.
After college, my depression really took hold, and I think fear was the last thing to go – at least, fear of rejection. When I finally attempted suicide in 2007 and failed, after my recovery, I enrolled in graduate school, to encounter entirely new experiences with fear of rejection. In graduate school, professors want students to interact, to discuss, to answer questions, and to be active in class – and this was the absolute opposite of what I had spent almost 20 years doing. I floundered for a while, especially because I felt that I would look stupid not just to my professors, but also to my classmates. I had to preface every presentation I gave with the fact that I was not a good speaker. And, despite a high level of very intelligent, very attractive women in graduate school, I had difficult looking my female classmates in the eye.
It took much of my time in the Masters program to figure out how to interact in class. I had to train myself to act in a totally different way than I had before; I was no longer trying to avoid appearing smart, because everyone in the program was smart – I had to work to show people that I was, in fact, smart. Even then, my fear of rejection led me to speak to few people outside of class, because I was afraid they would talk to me and in doing so discover that I was really much dumber than I sounded in class. It took me until 2010 (that’s three years, for those of you keeping track) to start meeting people’s eyes in conversation. And by that time, I felt that I was sufficiently over the disaster that was my relationship life to try to ask someone out. But that went, shall we say, poorly. My only two attempts to ask a woman out were fumbling, awkward, and total failures. On a third occasion, while I was asking a woman a question totally unrelated to dating (though, to be fair, I did find her attractive), I was pre-emptively turned down, which shocked me so much that I never got around to asking her the question I had originally been trying to ask.
To make matters worse for myself, I have always, despite having periods of rebellion against my parents (yes, I had a Goth phase, and no, you can’t see the pictures), craved the approval of my parents – or rather, feared their rejection. It was this fear that led me to lie to them about taking summer courses between my junior and senior years of college (which resulted in some very heated arguments), and then to later lie to them about what I was doing in St. Louis – which eventually led to my first suicide attempt in 2007. Things picked up for several years, but even after 2007 I had severe problems with fear of their rejection, even though they’d given me no real indication that my fears were justified. So when I started falling behind (as I saw it) in my PhD progress, I started lying to them again. I justified this to myself by thinking that I would eventually catch up to the lies I was telling, and so they wouldn’t really be lies, just delays in communication. But I kept falling behind, while the lies kept moving forward, until eventually I felt so guilty, and so afraid of what would happen when I was found out, that I felt the only way to go was to try to kill myself. That happened in January of 2013, and it led me, in February, to Menninger.
At Menninger, many of my fellow patients were women, and since we were on a unit together, in relatively close quarters all the time, I was at first kind of terrified. I was really terrified of interacting at all – what if they didn’t like me? What if they thought my problems were so much less than theirs that they didn’t think I was worthy of being there? And so both I and my team were astounded when I stood up in our first community meeting to tell people that my silence wasn’t a result of smugness or arrogance, but fear, and that I would talk to whoever came up to me and started a conversation – and that I would work on starting conversations myself. I remember that after doing that I could hear nothing but the blood pounding in my head, and felt my heart going a hundred miles an hour.
Oddly, as I spent my time at Menninger, many of the people I formed the closest relationships with were women. Granted, it was relatively safe, because even if I had wanted to form any kind of romantic relationship, we never had more than 29 minutes of privacy, but I found that after hearing some of them talk about their lives and problems, it was much easier to talk about mine. By my 5th week, I was volunteering information about myself without even being pushed to do so. Even here at the step-down, many of the people I am closest to are women, which is a huge step for me. Maybe by the time I leave, I’ll be feeling confident enough to try to get into the dating game.
I’ve also spoken to my family about my fears, unfounded though they may be, about rejection. We’ve talked about pressure and perceived pressure, about displaying emotions or trying not to, and even, I think, made some progress in how we can talk to each other calmly and actually talk about our thoughts and feelings. Even my friends outside of the program have provided a huge amount of support, being willing to talk about anything I cared to share or ask about, and I owe them a huge debt of gratitude for that.
So, it turns out that, much like the quote from the movie this post title was taken from, fear does lead to anger. But if you take the time to examine your fear, and why you have it, and really look at the root causes and how silly they can be when you get to the cause, realizing how groundless your fears are can help you move away from them, help the anxiety caused by that fear to dissipate, and help you get past the scary things in your head.
Still hasn’t made me any less afraid of spiders, though.