By Patrick M. (Alumni)
It was the first day of high-school cross country practice, and only one other freshman was there. He paced nervously across the lanes in the heat. A few upperclassmen talked with each other by the field.
What am I supposed to do? I asked myself. I was new to Portland and new to high school. I didn’t have the nerve to talk to the older runners, so I decided to pace like the other freshman while keeping a safe distance away.
Freshman year was a marathon of embarrassing situations, from my implosion during a debate on Legalism and Confucianism, to the hundred times I accidentally insulted someone while trying to be funny. “Ums” and “ahs” cropped up in my speech. “Sorry” became my favorite word.
I found myself going to tremendous lengths to avoid awkward situations. If there was a group of people blocking a hallway I would wait quietly for them to move; I’d even go around the building. I was nervous about going to the grocery store. Public transportation became a nightmare; I was afraid someone would need my seat and I would do something awkward. I found myself replaying social interactions, scrutinizing myself for mistakes. And I was convinced everyone else cared as much as I did.
It was like I was playing a game with so many rules I couldn’t possibly follow them. This started to change the middle of my Sophomore year, when I accepted that I had been lying to myself about my sexual orientation and that I was, in fact, gay. One day, I let myself admit it, and realized there was nothing wrong with about how I was. I don’t mean this to be an essay about “coming out”, but the realization was very important to me. When I finally accepted that part of myself, I also figured out that other people could be wrong. People could hate me for no credible reason. It was liberating.
A teacher once told me that you can be judged by people for anything, but it’s up to you to decide whether the judgement is valid. There were so many pointless things I was afraid people would judge me for, but these slowly began to lose their significance.
Today, I am not a perfectly confident person. If I’m at the store, I still worry that I’ll do something awkward. Maybe, in a freak accident, I’ll lose control of my grocery cart and knock down a whole bunch of feminine hygiene products and the entire store will turn to look at me. But because I’ve spent so much time being afraid of little things, I have learned a lot about how I deal with anxiety. I have learned to evaluate why I’m afraid of something and put fear in its place– the world will (usually) not end if I make a mistake. I have learned to focus on the job instead of the outcome. And most importantly, I have learned to challenge myself to face each fear.
I take the bus. I go to the library, the park, and the grocery store. I have learned to talk to people, and look them in the eye when I speak to them, because very few things are actually as frightening as my mind makes them out to be. Once I actually started talking to people, I realized how easy it actually is. People seem a lot friendlier now that I am no longer hiding from them. As I look forward the next big change in my life, I am excited and not afraid. Even as I find newer and better ways to embarrass myself, I’m going to be just fine.