When I was 12 years old, a girl in a pink fuzzy sweater decided I was cute. I don’t remember her name, but it was something white and suburban and smelled of watermelon lip gloss. Her hair was teased in a Farrah Fawcett frame. Meanwhile, I was a nerdy little kid a year younger than my classmates, addicted to reading, puzzles, and wearing turtleneck sweaters.
She publicly declared me her boyfriend in English class. I don’t know why. She was far out of my league. I thought maybe she wanted to cheat off me, but it was English class. There’s no cheating in middle school English class.
I also wondered if this was some sort of weird practical joke, although I still hadn’t seen the raft of teen comedies from the 1980s that made this a standard trope. Those movies hadn’t yet been made.
I accepted her declaration because, why wouldn’t I? I may have been a marginalized beta-wannabe who would later identify with Piggy in Lord of the Flies (or maybe Simon, since my older brother had decided my friend was Piggy), but I was enough of a boy to realize that arm candy like her would increase my social standing.
And so, for about one week of my life, we were boyfriend and girlfriend.
I have social anxiety. I think far too much about what other people think of me. I also have depressive fits. It’s difficult for me to maintain friendships, in large part because I convince myself that people think I’m not worth the bother.
I’ve also struggled most of my life with understanding my identity as a man. I’ve gotten clear messages about what manhood was. Boys don’t cry, but I did. Men take control, but I don’t. Men are emotionally detached, but I’m a deep well of tears. Men are strong and athletic, and I played center field in Little League only because our team had a player even worse than me.
Growing up, most of my friends were girls. My father did try to pair me up with boys, a lot, and so I had a revolving door of shallow friendships with boys, and deeper friendships with girls. At points in my life, I’ve wondered if I’m transgender. I’m sure my father worried that I was gay.
So when a Seventeen cover model decided that I was the love of her life, even though she knew nothing about me except that I got good grades, I went along with it.
One day at the beginning of English class, I had a hot flash. I’d had one or two smaller ones recently, but this was the worst one. I felt like I was going to burn up from the inside. My flesh was on fire.
I didn’t know what was going on. Part of me thought it had to do with rising sexual feelings for the girl in the pink sweater, and that shamed me deeply. My father had made it clear that I wasn’t supposed to have feelings like that until after I’d woken up with crusty underwear.
Years later, I learned that my hot flash was probably tied to low testosterone, which was in turn probably tied to my feelings of being a misfit among men. But at that point, in that desk in English class at Milburn P. Anderson Middle School, I was terrified. I was terrified that I was dying, and I was terrified that I was being overtaken by sexual urges.
The girl noticed I was bent over, flushed, and she asked me what was wrong. I told her I didn’t feel good. She told me to go talk to the teacher, but I refused. I didn’t want the teacher to find out that I was sexually aroused by Sister Golden Hair.
My social anxiety took control of my muscles. I was strapped down to the desk. I could move my head, but little else.
The girl stood over me and persisted. She told me she was going to the teacher, and I told her she couldn’t. She got increasingly agitated, which caused the straps on my wrists and ankles to tighten more. The hot flash got mixed in with a panic attack, and I wanted to run, screaming, out of the room.
I wanted that with every fiber of my being, but instead, I sat there, tears welling up in my eyes, keeping my head down. I looked up just enough to see the nap of her sweater haloing around her waist.
She finally gave up, but not without issuing an ultimatum: Either I took care of myself by going to the teacher, or we weren’t in love anymore.
And with that, we weren’t in love anymore.
The girl in the pink fuzzy sweater talked to me two other times after that, because she had to. She sneered and rolled her eyes at the broken little toy she’d pretended to love.
I don’t know if the girl with the Farrah Fawcett bangs really thought I was cute. I believe she did. What I know is that, as soon as I became challenging, she ran away.
I’ve had many relationships since then like that: People who admire me for some reason from afar, who decide to become friends with me based on my outer presentation, and who run away when I become challenging.
I’ve become wary and guarded with new people. Who else befriends me without really knowing who I am, and then storms off the moment the monster that is my anxiety straps my arms to my side and takes over my mouth?
This is the voice of my internal demons, of course. Part of being a social being is experimenting with friendships, and accepting that some of them collapse. And I assume the girl in English class has long forgotten about me.
A few weeks ago, I had a lucid dream in which my dream characters insisted they were real. I told them they weren’t, and one countered: “If we’re not real, why are you interacting with us?”
I replied, “We never interact with each other anyway. We interact with our images of each other. Everyone I talk to, I’m really talking with who I think they are in my mind. We can’t ever really fully know each other.”
Part of living with anxiety, for me at least, is living with the tape loops of traumas that should have been set aside. We don’t interact with real people in our memories: We interact with the images of them that we’ve encoded in our brains. For many people with anxiety disorders, we make those images as mean to ourselves as we can muster.
Sometimes our demons wear fangs and scaly skin and claws. Sometimes they were pink fuzzy sweaters and watermelon lip gloss.
Photo credit: Getty Images