When I was 7 years old, I had a panic attack at a restaurant while on vacation with my family in Greece. We were in the middle of dinner when suddenly inexplicable feelings of dread and fear began to consume me. My throat and chest tightened, my palms grew clammy. I felt physically sick. My eyes darted back and forth frantically looking for an escape, but the fear of making a scene at the dinner table with my parents and their friends paralyzed me. I felt confused, alone. I had suddenly been transported into a room with no door, and I desperately wanted out. The only thing more overwhelming than the confusion of what was happening, was the realization that I was completely alone with these feelings.
I hid my anxiety and panic attacks from my family for 10 years, in part because I didn't think they could ever understand it, but mostly because I couldn't understand it myself. I spent years listening in awe to my parents telling me incredible stories about my grandparents: the devastating loss they overcame during the war in the 40s, the incredible resolve they displayed in the face of extreme poverty. My parents were taught by their parents to survive. My father is the type of street-tough you see in movies. My mother is Spartan...enough said. My irrational fear of death, and sudden panic in random social settings seemed so utterly petty in comparison to what my grandparents and parents had endured growing up. It saddened me to think that God had made me so different from the very people whom I yearned to be just like.
As a child and teenager, my anxiety was my worst enemy. It followed me around like a shadow, engulfing me at the oddest of moments - in movie theaters, at concerts, during basketball games, at church. As I grew older, it manifested itself in different ways. I over analyzed situations and conversations. I beat myself up over the tiniest of errors, battling with myself for perfection in school, in relationships, and in life. I eventually began to realize the pattern that had developed so many years before: the fear to not disappoint those around me, to please and appease those whom I respected and loved, was the very thing fueling my unease.
What has been freeing for me is the ability to now see this "flaw" as a wonderful gift. With anxiety comes the ability to feel deeply, to experience emotion and life on a level that others cannot. It provides you with compassion and empathy for others; opening up your senses to details in things -- people and experiences -- that would otherwise go overlooked. It carries you through all the great moments of your life. It's the hand dragging you up on stage before nailing every speech you ever make. It's the rhythm that flows through every flawless presentation you ever give. It's the invisible force relentlessly pushing to compete, to excel. Ultimately, it's the best friend that takes a back seat and lets you shine in your proudest moments.
As women, we are often ashamed of emotions that appear to weaken us. As children of immigrants, we are embarrassed by emotions that make us appear weak in the eyes of our parents. We spend an inordinate amount of time allowing what others, or what we, perceive as flaws, to weigh us down. They become backpacks, and then suitcases, that we carry around with us in the workplace and in relationships. We become consumed by instances where we weren't "our best selves," obsessed with fleeting moments in time where we disappointed ourselves, or others.
I will never face the hardships that my grandmothers, or even my mother faced growing up. I will never feel poverty, or loneliness the way they did, leaving behind families and homes to come to a foreign place. That doesn't mean however, that their inner strength doesn't live in me. It doesn't make my experiences as a young woman today any less valid. I am lucky to have a family that loves and supports me unconditionally, even when they don't understand me.
The truth is those closest to us may never fully understand us; it's most important though, that we understand ourselves.