Celia Kramer is a writer living with debilitating anxiety. In her weekly column, Celia will write about the horrible and hilarious world of fear, dread, paranoia, phobias, panic attacks, and trying to function as a halfway normal person. Some names and inconsequential details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people in her life.
I was privileged enough to attend a high school with excellent resources to educate its ungrateful students, one of which was the ability to book a certain level of speakers for our weekly assemblies. While we studied French flashcards and texted boys from our brother school, feminist icons spoke to us about campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment, a journalist told us about reporting from Ground Zero on 9/11, and one day, a member of the Little Rock Nine came to talk to us about the Civil Rights Movement. We snapped our gum and coveted each other’s Juicy tracksuits.
The Germans, bless them, have the word fremdschämen, which describes what we would call secondhand embarrassment. Your face turns red and you avert your eyes when someone trips and falls. You bury your face in your program when your cousin sings terribly off-key in the school play you’ve been dragged to. Someone tells you they’re planning to start a YouTube channel, and the back of your neck gets hot. Sometimes, as in the case of tripping, the person you’re watching feels embarrassment, and you empathize too acutely. But the YouTube guy feels totally optimistic about starting his channel of video game reviews, and so you are the only person to absorb the shame. He doesn’t know how embarrassing his life is, but you know better. Life is a series of humiliations, and if he doesn’t have the decency to feel it, you’ll feel mortified for him.
Most people wouldn’t think twice or not even notice that something humiliating is happening, but my particular brand of anxiety makes me painfully aware of every emotion of every person around me, and it’s contagious. If someone in close proximity to me is embarrassed, I catch it. The sting stays with me, as if it happened to me. And humiliation confirms some of my deepest anxieties–I’m an idiot and everyone knows it. Everyone is watching me bumble around like a fool, and they feel badly for me.
In my senior year of high school, I made a rare appearance at school (I’m painting myself as a Spicoli-type rebel, and until I write about my long term absence from high school, please continue to think of me as some sort of renegade) and found myself in an assembly led by Terrence Roberts of the Little Rock Nine. He fought through tormenting and screaming crowds to go to an integrated school after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and we slumped in our seats, studying our color coded study guides concerning the Visigoths. At the time, I was going through a borderline-agoraphobic phase, and it was hard for me to be in crowded rooms full of people. I traced shapes into the dry skin of my thighs with my fingernails.