#MHYALit Knowing When to Talk About It, a Guest Post by Kathryn Holmes

I’ve always been pretty even-keel. It takes a lot to send me into an emotional tailspin. But twice in my life, anxiety has done just that. The first time, I was a sophomore in high school. I was an honors student, a new member of the school newspaper staff, and a dedicated, hardworking dancer. It […]

MHYALitlogoofficfialI’ve always been pretty even-keel. It takes a lot to send me into an emotional tailspin. But twice in my life, anxiety has done just that.

The first time, I was a sophomore in high school. I was an honors student, a new member of the school newspaper staff, and a dedicated, hardworking dancer. It was this last one that was causing trouble. Thanks to puberty and genetics, I had curves I didn’t want. Compared to my willowy classmates, I felt fat. I felt wrong. Only months before, the dance studio had been a safe, positive space. Now it was a minefield of unwanted dieting advice and costumes that didn’t fit and mirrors that magnified my every flaw.

I felt the anxiety build and build. It started out compartmentalized, only peaking in situations that highlighted my poor body image, like auditions and costume fittings. Then it emerged during regular dance classes and rehearsals. Eventually, I was anxious to stand in front of people and be stared at, leotard or no. I saw judgment everywhere. I imagined whispered conversations about my appearance. Wrinkled noses. Mocking smiles.

I didn’t tell anyone how I was feeling. I kept dancing and studying and hanging out with friends. I held the nastiness inside. I waited it out. And after a long while, things did start to get better. I still wasn’t happy with how I looked—getting there would take another decade, at least—but I wasn’t ridiculously anxious about it, either.

(For more on my struggles with body image as a teen, check out this post, which I wrote for Epic Reads last month.)

The second time I succumbed to severe anxiety, I was in my mid-20s and working full-time at a magazine. Thanks to staff turnover and a corporate merger, I’d recently been promoted to Managing Editor. I was committed to proving I was right for the role, despite my youth. I stayed late. I agonized over articles and layouts. I went to photo shoots and filed invoices and balanced the budget and wrote cover lines. And then we started planning a major redesign. And my boss took a lengthy leave of absence. And we had other staffing changes, which meant training new people. And and and and—

This time, I didn’t realize how anxious I’d become until I was buzzing with it. It snuck up on me, this sense of looming disaster. A friend even noticed that I’d taken to wringing my hands to self-soothe in stressful situations—and not just at the office. When I tried not massaging my palms during the next group planning session at work, my pulse raced and my gut clenched.

That same friend recommended a local therapist’s office that accepted payment on a graduated scale. I checked my schedule and my bank account. I made an appointment, mostly because I thought it couldn’t hurt to get an impartial opinion about my work situation. I ended up going once a week for several months.

On the surface, these seem like two completely different scenarios. Honestly, it’s only recently that I’ve been able to see how they fit together. How one episode led to the next.

Writing my sophomore novel, HOW IT FEELS TO FLY, helped me put my anxiety in perspective. When I started the first draft, I thought I was writing a book about body image. Over the course of revisions, the manuscript became much more.

The main character in HOW IT FEELS TO FLY, Samantha, is a ballet dancer who has started having panic attacks because she feels like her changing body is threatening her professional dance dreams. She’s sent to Perform at Your Peak, an anxiety-treatment summer camp for teen artists and athletes. Her peers at the camp are dealing with similar issues: perfectionism, high parent/coach/teacher expectations, fear of failure, and the desire to be the best at what they do.

When Sam’s ability to reach her goals is put at risk, and she starts to crumble internally as a result, she copes how I did—twice: she keeps smiling and pretends nothing is wrong. She tells no one about her feelings and fears. And the wound grows. It festers.

I was Sam, as a high school sophomore, coming apart inside with a smile on my face.

I was Sam, in my 20s, trying to look cool and competent when it felt like making a single mistake would end my career.

Why didn’t I open up as a teen? I was already the “fat” dancer; the last thing I wanted was to call further attention to myself. I didn’t want to look like I couldn’t handle a tough training environment. I also didn’t want to quit dance. I loved it.

Why didn’t I open up as a 20-something? I was young; the last thing I wanted was to call further attention to that fact. I didn’t want to look like I couldn’t handle a fast-paced work environment. And I didn’t want to quit my job. I loved it.

Here’s what I’ve realized about being both a very goal-oriented person and one who is generally known to be “even-keel”: it can be really, really hard to let people in when you’re vulnerable. In fact, the more anxious and upset I got in both of those situations, the less I wanted anyone to see it—in part because I didn’t want to disappoint people who were used to watching frustrations roll off my back.

The biggest lesson I learned from talking to a therapist was that, well, talking helps. That’s what I do now, in the moments when I feel the edge of the cliff approaching (and let’s be frank: publishing comes with its fair share of those…). I tell someone I’m anxious. I’m frustrated. I’m sad. I’m feeling feelings, and they’re nothing to be embarrassed about. They don’t make me less of a hard worker, less successful, less fun to be around—less. They make me human.

In HOW IT FEELS TO FLY, Sam gets this lesson when I could have used it the first time: as a teen in the thick of the struggle, a girl who hates how she looks and what her looks mean for her future. Telling her story gave me permission to tell mine.

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KathrynHolmes_headshot_8x10_lores.pngKathryn Holmes grew up in Maryville, Tennessee, where she was an avid reader and an aspiring writer from an early age. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and piles upon piles of books. A graduate of The New School’s MFA in Creative Writing program, Kathryn works as a freelance dance journalist, among other writing gigs. She is the author of The Distance Between Lost and Found and How It Feels to Fly.
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