Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

The disease called Shyness

on October 28, 2014

That year, as a new student in the first year of a high school, I finally experienced something tremendously meaningful for me. It was the first time in my life that I would start the school year not only on time, but with a group of students who all were new too. For once, I would not be the circus clown with all eyes on me. I would not be the odd one out, in a place where everyone already had fixed social circles. That in itself was a wonderful experience I was looking forward too expectantly!

entrance to Taipei First Girls High School

Entrance Gate to Taipei First Girls High School

The first thing I noticed, was how well planned the registration, orientation and other start-of-school affairs were. Thousands of students, and we all lined up in a long queue that took us from booth to booth — or rather, doorway of classroom to doorway of classroom with a desk across it —  and by the time we finished the obstacle course, we had everything processed, from Student ID card to fee payments, to picking up books, uniforms, etc.

On the first day of school, I happily surveyed the faces around me. All shy and uncomfortable. I suddenly felt like a veteran of first-day-in-schools-filled-with-unknown-faces. I felt on top of the world. Poor girls! I was going to mentor them all! Say hello and make friends with everyone, put them out of their misery! Yes, Fawzia to the rescue!

mighty mouse to the rescue

Then, we sat in class for our first meeting with our homeroom teacher. She had already lined us up by height and assigned class numbers, then seated us accordingly. Being tall — well, not in the West, but yes, I am supposed to be tall in Taiwan — I got seated somewhere in the back, I think it was the last row.  Then Teacher Yang asked us all to stand up in turn, starting with Number One, and introduce ourselves. They were all very shy, and murmured rather than speak out loud, and all followed the same format: “My name is so and so; I am ranked Number such and such among my siblings; I come from such and such Junior High School. Please direct and guide me!” How very boring. I thought my speech out. I’m going to say my name, mentioning that my last name is Mai as in Buying something, that it’s a rare name because I’m Muslim; I’m going to tell them I came back from Paris, that my Chinese is not as good as theirs, … then I would add some interesting details, then end up with the proper Chinese etiquette, “Please direct and guide me!”

In the Far East, a common ending to self-introduction speeches is to ask for everyone else to guide the newbie.  This shows humility and knowledge of one's place in the pecking order.

In the Far East, a common ending to self-introduction speeches is to ask for everyone else to guide the newbie. This shows humility and knowledge of one’s place in the pecking order.

Happily, I waited for my turn to come. I stood up, opened my mouth, then it happened. Again. Again. The same thing as always. I stuttered. I stammered. I sweated and trembled, and choked on my words. I don’t think anyone understood what I managed to get out of my constricted throat. I gave up and sat down again. I felt my heart beating as fast as galloping horses and my hands were still trembling uncontrollably. I hung my head. I realized at that moment, that my shyness had spiraled totally out of control and was now pathological. A disease. Mortified, I heard some neighboring voice whispering, “She speaks very strangely…!”

Shyness, or social anxiety, can be extremely crippling.

Shyness, or social anxiety, can be extremely crippling.

 Today, I can analyze clearly the situation. Rewarding previous anxious moments with the relaxation of avoidance had led to today’s automatic switch to the default spasms in my throat and an outpouring of sympathetic nervous system transmitters. The unwarranted fear-fight-flight reaction exaggerated to an extreme.

I made a vow there and then that I must cure myself of it. Somehow. Face the world without fear. Or I would live a crippled life forever.

Strangely, it was the decision that led to the gradual recovery and near-total cure. I had no knowledge of how to cure myself at the time. But I knew I did not want this to happen any more. The only thing I recall to have done knowingly thereafter was that whenever I came across situations that would have frightened me previously, I would now purposely refuse to seek Saadia’s reassuring presence and brave the situation alone. As of today, I look back and see that long road to recovery, still strewn with obstacles and relapses, but slowly taking me to a strange new land, that of individual freedom and happiness.

Actually, a couple of years later, it swung to the total opposite, and I became obnoxious, and loud, and always the life of the party. But eventually it swung back again, back and forth with smaller distances, over the years, until I now find myself in a comfortable zone.

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