Essay: The ‘What I Be Project’ acknowledged that I’m more than my anxiety

Eva Palmer, a junior majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s managing director.

Media Credit: Emily Robinson | Design Assistant

If you walked into a large room of people, what’s the one thing you wouldn’t want them to notice about you?

That was the first question Steven Rosenfield asked me during our session for the What I Be Project. Each year, Rosenfield comes to campus and asks students to talk through their biggest insecurities, then sit for a photo with a phrase related to their insecurity written across their body in black Sharpie. The photos are striking, and after two years, I finally decided to sign up for a session. It was time for me to express my frustration at the way people react when I tell them I have anxiety.

I’ve always been an anxious person. In elementary school, I saw a therapist to get over a phobia of fire drills that would send me home from school for days on end. In high school, I spent hours in the bathroom, trying to pull myself together to make it across campus to go to my next class.

By my freshman year at GW, I thought I had my anxiety under control. But a series of traumatic events during the first half of my sophomore year sent me back to square one. I missed classes, spent hours in Mental Health Services and could barely get out of bed. I eventually got myself back on track after my spring semester by spending time at home to take care of myself and reset.

But as I entered junior year, I spent a lot of time thinking about how my anxiety impacted parts of my life. Whenever I opened myself up enough to talk to anyone about my anxiety, their first questions were usually the same: Why aren’t you taking medication? (Because I don’t want to). When is the last time you went to therapy? (It’s none of your business). Why don’t you just calm down? (If only it were that easy).

So many of the people I talked to were focused on wanting to solve my anxiety instead of listening to the reasons why I was stressed in the first place. Only a few friends – those who had been through similar experiences – took the time to focus on what was making me anxious instead of trying to change who I am by pushing therapy or medication.

This realization led me to the What I Be Project. Once and for all, I wanted to express how frustrated I was with the way people react to my anxiety disorder. Having a public photo of me with a statement about my biggest insecurity written across my forehead seemed to me like the best, most effective way to do that.

I also was hoping the experience would bring me closure. Aside from a few conversations with my counselor at GW and my best friend, I hadn’t done much introspection into how I felt about having anxiety. I thought venting about my anxiety to someone I would likely never see again – in this case, Rosenfield – could bring me a cathartic level of peace.

When I woke up the morning of my session with Rosenfield, I was, expectedly, anxious. As the clock on my phone crept toward 3 p.m., a million questions were racing through my head. What do I wear? What if I’m wearing too much makeup? What if the marker doesn’t come off my face and I have to walk around campus for the next few days with words across my forehead?

Once I got to the Marvin Center, I was having a full-blown anxiety attack. I didn’t feel at ease until I got into the room where I’d sit for my picture and started talking through my anxiety with Rosenfield.

We talked about how once people know I have an anxiety disorder, they treat me like someone who can’t keep it together. I told him that people use my anxiety disorder as an explanation for why I feel stressed about anything. For the 10 minutes while we talked, he made me feel at ease. For once, I wasn’t responding to someone’s questions about my anxiety, but was instead venting in a judgement-free zone with someone who was comforting and trusting.

By the end of our conversation, I came to a personal realization: So much of my frustration about my anxiety centered around people focusing on my anxiety attacks, instead of helping me talk through my issue.

That’s why I decided to have “I can keep it together” across my forehead for everyone on the Internet to see. It was my way of announcing that it’s time to stop treating people who are vocal about their anxiety as less than capable of dealing with any of their problems.

After the session, I didn’t feel the same sense of guilt I had when I would tell a friend or peer about my anxiety. Before, I would often feel a lingering guilt that I was putting an unnecessary burden on those closest to me. Talking to a therapist made me feel an overwhelming pressure to change, but Rosenfield was the catharsis I was looking for. Making a public declaration felt like a signal that it was OK to be this way – an affirmation that was missing from the conversations I have had with countless people over the years.

When the photo went online an hour or so after my appointment, I felt a combination of pride and fear. I was proud of myself for stepping out of my shell, something that has been much harder to do since my sophomore year. But I was also terrified that people would make fun of me for doing something so public and dramatic.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. The amount of support from my friends and family was overwhelming, from a simple Facebook “like” to my best friend telling me that there was a “new queen in town.” For the first time, I felt like I had a group of people surrounding me who understood what I had been trying to vocalize about having an anxiety disorder.

The night I sat for my photo I also went to a yoga class, something that I’d usually be too anxious to do. At the end of the class, as I laid silently on my yoga mat for the meditation session, my yoga instructor soothingly reminded us to “let go of all that does not serve you.”

I smiled to myself. After finally acknowledging that I was so much more than my anxiety attacks, I could finally start the process of letting go.

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