Our July Guest Blogger isSamantha Piper who was a Toronto Cast member of Kinky Boots! Sam talks social anxiety, and pushing through the awkward!

For a long time I never understood why I would often feel out of place, and deeply uncomfortable in social situations. Somewhere along the way I just accepted it as a norm for me. I could never control when, why, or how these feelings would surface. I could be out at a party, a family BBQ, day camp as a kid, school lunches/recess, or even my own birthday party. I could be with my best friends or complete strangers. I could even be by myself. It could be triggered by the most harmless offhand comment made by a friend. It could happen frequently, or it could be weeks or months between, but inevitably, what I now know is my social anxiety, will rear its ugly, jerk head.

People are always very surprised to hear (and often reluctant to believe) that I suffer from social anxiety. The truth is I had become an expert at hiding it. A master at faking it, so to speak. Outwardly I am boisterous, attractive, confident, loud, seemingly a social butterfly. Inwardly, my stomach is in knots. And it’s all I can do to try and shove away the little voice in my head that keeps pointing out all of my flaws while it repeats things like; “shut up, idiot”, “why did you say that? You’re so embarrassing”, “you’re too much”, “people think you’re stupid”, “you’re too loud”, “nobody wants you here”. Or having a conversation with someone and not being able to shake the thought that, “I bet this person would rather be talking to ANYONE else than me…” And don’t even get me started on running into people on the subway, or street- I have literally hidden from friends and acquaintances, simply because I don’t want them to feel obligated to engage in the awkward small-talk with me.

There is comfort in KNOWING, deep down, that none of those poisonous thoughts are true- nobody is ACTUALLY standing around talking about or thinking the things that my anxiety tries to convince me of. But that’s the thing about anxiety; in the throes of it, there’s just no stopping the shitty little turd who lives in your brain, who delights in pointing out every insignificant little thing and twisting it into your worst nightmare. Social anxiety is every childhood bully you ever encountered, living inside your head. And, as with all bullies, it’s a real dickhead.

I have always suffered from some level of anxiety, though when I was younger I very rarely allowed it to rule my life. As a kid I was strong, independent, energetic, and generally very happy. I loved life, I loved my family, my friends, and most importantly, I loved myself. I thought I was pretty fricken cool. I had idolized confident, strong women like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hermione Granger, and the Pink Power Ranger. I was tough. I didn’t let words hurt me. Or so I thought. However, the last few years (particularly through most of theatre school in 2012, and the years that have followed), had become increasingly worse. I just couldn’t seem to keep the self-doubt and fear at bay. It doesn’t help that I chose a career that heavily features rejection, and criticism, in every day life. But it was only last year that I found myself in a situation that required me to face the beast head on. I got so used to shoving my feelings aside, never talking about it, never seeking help, never confronting- just assuming it was normal, and believing that nobody would care anyway.

The winter of 2015, I had been having one of the worst times, emotionally, of my life. I felt alone, I felt sad, I felt useless. The stress of adulting, in general, was at times too much. I was struggling with my career that seemed to be going absolutely nowhere, while I sat and watched my friends flourish. I was in the midst of a very hard, and very confusing end to what I had hoped would turn out to be a promising relationship. I was lonely, and didn’t quite know how to reach out to my friends, even though I know they would have reached out with open arms. The feelings of uselessness were completely overwhelming. Worse though, was how I had allowed all of those feelings to influence my personality. I felt jaded, bitter, angry, jealous, and overall just not the person I wanted to be. Not the girl I knew was in me; she is kind, loving, happy, energetic, and lighthearted- but she had gotten lost.

And one night, sitting with one of my best friends in my apartment, just watching a movie, I started to have a full-blown panic attack. I didn’t realize at the time what it was (I had been lucky enough that my anxiety had never quite peaked THAT much before), and I thought I was dying. My chest felt tight, my heart was racing, my breathing was coming in short and fast, and my head felt foggy and heavy. For a good fifteen minutes I sat silently next to my friend, freaking out, staring at the tv, trying to ignore what was happening. I was just thinking I would have to tell my friend that I thought I was having a heart attack, and would need to go to the hospital, when she realized something wasn’t right, and asked if I was okay. It was around that time that my logical brain kicked in and I realized what was happening- I wasn’t going to die, and I didn’t need to go to the hospital… “I think I’m having a panic attack,” I said. “Let’s go for some fresh air,” she replied and helped me up and outside. I am so thankful that she was there.

Breathing in the night air, I decided right then and there that I never wanted that to happen again. It was time to put up a fight. I had to figure out how to work on myself, to focus on my well-being and mental health, to learn how to create the life I want. I began work almost immediately (and trust me, it is hard work.) On the advice of a friend, I picked up a copy of The Four Agreements and read it cover to cover. That book spoke to me on so many levels, and the lessons I took from it have changed my life (seriously if you haven’t read it, now’s the time!) I began to put the lessons from the book into practise, working every day to make sure I was incorporating everything I’d learned into my daily life. I started to accept myself fully, and especially for the things that I always perceived as flaws (how loud I am, how emotional I get, how big my personality is, how clumsy I am, how I’m maybe just a bit “too much”) I learned to embrace my greatest strength, love, and all of the incredible things that it can accomplish if you just let it shine. I started to educate myself on mental health, started to research panic attacks, depression, and anxiety. Slowly, I stopped trying to keep it all buried inside of me. I started to talk openly about my issues. If I’m at a party now, and I start to feel anxious, I talk about it. I will fully, an unashamedly say, “woof, my anxiety is through the roof right now!” And what I have found, more often than not, is that I’m not alone in those feelings, and that people actually appreciate when you open up about it, and they feel like they can too.

Now, just over a year later, I am floored by how much things have turned around. I just finished up my first professional acting contract, the Toronto Mirvish production of Kinky Boots- a literal dream come true, and one that I was beginning to think never would. I am happy, healthy, and excited (as opposed to fearful) of the future and what comes next. This isn’t to suggest that I no longer suffer from the crippling self-doubt and anxiety, as a matter of fact, it hit pretty hard even during Kinky Boots, when I was undoubtedly at the best place ever. The difference now, is that I refuse to silently suffer, and I refuse to beat myself up. And the occurrences are definitely fewer and farther between.

I feel it’s beyond important for us all to share our experiences, especially when it comes to mental health. I admit that I count myself very fortunate that I’m able to fight against my anxiety, and I’m glad that enough of that strong girl was left inside of me to counter the jerk-off bully. If I had let it fester any more, it would have only gotten worse and worse, and harder to break free of.

Friends, please know you are not alone. You matter. You’re important. You’re loved. And as the great Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore famously said, “happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” Love is the light. Love for yourself. Love for your friends. Love for your family. Love for life. Love is always enough to beat even the baddest of bullies.

Samantha Piper

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