My Salutatorian Speech About Anxiety (Video + Transcript)

Deathly pale and overgrown hair—clearly recorded in the thick of quarantine.

For the speech I’d give for my school, I wanted to convey a history of my anxiety and a unifying final message.

Transcript

I was, still am, and will forever be a scared little kid. My earliest memories are of being nervous. In first grade I wrote over my pencil marks several times to achieve my desired darkness, but it was never as dark as I wanted it to be. I was competitive to the point of dread, even when I was six—I would try my hardest to read most fluently and win games against my classmates. The potential of failure frightened me, so I avoided its possibility whenever I could.

In third grade, I’d check my backpack dozens of times on the car ride to school to make absolutely sure I had brought my homework with me. I forgot my guided reading journal once—my mom’s upset reaction enforced my compulsion with unzipping, leafing through the contents of my backpack with the intent of seeing and feeling my due work, feeling comforted by it, and zipping it up again. I would forget in seconds whether I really had what I needed and so I’d check again. 

By the time I started at PVI, I had become proficient at avoiding competition. Any chance of failure—spelling bees, accelerated math, field day, kickball—was a threat to my sense of self. Even when I played football in second grade and basketball shortly thereafter, I did the absolute most to avoid playing. The fear I felt at games was indescribable, but I had not yet gained the introspective skills to deal with or discuss it.

In sixth grade we took reading tests. In them, we’d answer questions about a story we read as a class. I would often spend time the night before worrying about these tests, and I remember dreading the fact that the stress I’d have to deal with would only get worse as I grew. On one such night, I promised myself to never forget how I felt as an 11-year-old and never devalue the stress of anyone else because they are young or their stress can be rationalized by an outsider.

In eighth grade I took Algebra I. The adjustment was horrible but necessary. As I cried and pulled out my hair over homework, my mom would sometimes hand me a 6 oz cherry coke with a bendy straw to comfort me. So I thank my mothers for being significantly more attuned to emotional troubles than most parents are. That class put me through a lot and I came out with an 87. I didn’t yet want to be academically competitive, so it didn’t bother me—I was glad to be done.

The summer before ninth grade was when I was made ravenously introspective by consequence. I worked at Camelback, and there I recognized that letting my thoughts spin, uninterrupted for eight hours at a time, was really not for me. We all struggle with our thoughts sometimes, and it took a long time and consistent effort to turn that struggle into something positive.

The thoughts I was having at the time made me uncomfortable. This is largely due to the fact that we are taught that emotions are either good or bad. Happiness and love are good, while anxiety and sadness are to be strictly avoided and counter-acted just as they arise. My thoughts had the tendency of dwelling on a subject and repetitively circling it for months at a time. After that amount of rumination, it was easy to grow fearful and frustrated at my thoughts and myself.

I obviously didn’t want my thoughts to behave as they had been, so I tried many different things to try and control or improve them. It took me a few years to realize that trying to fight the natural flow of my thoughts only made them worse. It was like I was laying in bed, trying so hard to fall asleep, and yet was surprised at my inability to do so. 

Despite these thoughts, I was lucky enough to make sure I worried in the right direction. By this I mean I tried focusing on the big picture and refusing myself the comfort of giving up: on my grades, my friends, my family, and the struggle of self-improvement. I would allow myself to get perilously close, but I focused on what I knew I wanted and never fully let my guard down. By doing this, I learned to expect and take anxiety in stride. When I stopped trying to control my thoughts, I only put energy into controlling my actions.

The people I respect most are the ones I perceive live most deliberately. Mrs. Parham is unequivocally good at her job—it takes less than 30 seconds in her room to see that. Although she’s 60 and that, by her own definition, makes her old, she’s freakishly good at interacting with highschool students. She would stand out at any school, but it’s clear how much effort she puts into us. She gives us the right to challenge, talk back to, and joke about her—she’s a refreshing figure in a public school, she and her room a deep breath apart from the rest of the building. My best friend and our valedictorian, Emily, has also shown me through her accomplishments what focused effort and removal of distractions can do. I am so grateful I had the courage to ask her to be my friend on the first day of first grade, within the first hours of my being in the PV school district. Irespect these people because their lifestyles taught me that the less I worried about, the more I could effectively worry about.

The difficulty comes in figuring out what I am willing to fail for countlessly before I succeed; finding goals wherein my tribulation means nothing to me because my grand purpose for doing them is worth it.

No one expects you to be good at everything, and it’s liberating to realize that you never will be. When I stopped trying to be the flawless prodigy I’m not, I could begin focused work on that which I care most about.

I am also continually learning the value of keeping my brain on its toes. Every so often, I make a decision or perform an action in spite of my thoughts which beg me to do the opposite. We are given so many opportunities to go healthily against what our nervous brains tell us to do, and it’s important that we take them, and be braver than we think ourselves capable of. 

There are certainly a few of you that don’t believe in mental health issues. But I implore you to remember that no one wants to be different. No one wants to feel like they’re playing a game whose instructions they never learned. No one wants to fear for their lives and no one wants to lose faith in themselves. So when people are different, remember that they didn’t choose to be that way and empathize with them.

We are much less capable of understanding other people’s motivations than we think we are. We convince ourselves we understand other people’s fears and try to convince them they’re wrong for feeling the way they do. Luckily, you don’t have to understand someone’s motivations in order to just listen to them.

I used to think that I was the only one capable of feeling the way I did. It was selfish and naive for me to believe my problems were insuperable and unlike any anyone had ever had. It comes in different types and under different names, but I’m sure our struggles are much more similar to each other’s than we realize.

So, when you share your emotions with someone, do it earnestly and originally—use none but your own words to explain how you feel—try to make them see they’re just like you. Because I guarantee they are.

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