Mental health issues (or disorders) affect 1 in 4 people. That means millions of people today live with mental health issues like Autism, Depression, Anxiety, Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and others. Unfortunately, that has come with a somewhat negative stigma. Studies on these mental health issues are ongoing, but it has been discovered that many are the result of how the brain is “wired” which can impact behavior as well as create challenges in thinking and learning. Today’s push on neurodiversity challenges the negative stigma by saying that the differences in how the brain is wired that results in mental health issues are simply normal variations in humans and shouldn’t be treated as a defect. These people are simply a normal variation of the human species. To put a spotlight on neurodiversity and to fight the negative stigma often associated with mental health, many people are speaking out and sharing their experiences on their own mental health issues. And I would like to take part in this conversation by sharing my own experiences dealing with my mental health.
Throughout my entire life, there have been very specific situations which make me extremely anxious. It began when I was a kid with minor things like reading out loud in class when I was in grade school. My teachers and parents just told me I was “nervous”. But as I got older, it got worse. In high school, the risk of simply getting picked by a teacher in class to answer a question or read out loud gave me feelings of panic and fear causing my heart rate to skyrocket. It also gave me stomach troubles. Having to present a project in front of the class or participate in group projects made me feel the same way: absolute panic. Anything related to being in major social situations gave me severe anxiety. So, I did everything I could to avoid getting into these situations. I managed this well in high school, but this became more challenging in college. In college, there were classes that required you to participate in group projects to pass the course. I ended up simply not doing the group projects which in turn meant not getting good grades. I didn’t go out to parties. I couldn’t make friends. No matter how hard I tried to convince myself to feel differently in these social situations – it never worked. It wasn’t until my late 20’s when I realized I was dealing with Social Anxiety Disorder.
I continued to do everything I could to avoid the situations that would give me anxiety, even when I started working for Microsoft in 2008. To avoid these situations, I created various excuses. But a few years ago, I realized that by avoiding these situations, I was missing out on experiences and opportunities. I missed out going to product launches and big technology conferences because I convinced my managers that “I didn’t need to be there” because I didn’t want to travel. I missed out on meeting new people and making new friends after moving to Seattle because I didn’t go to social gatherings like happy hours I was invited to. I was given opportunities to meet amazing people I admire like Satya Nadella and I didn’t take them because I “didn’t want to bother people”. I’ve passed up so many amazing opportunities to introduce myself to people and always chickened out. And I’m divorced because my ex-wife felt she was missing out on doing fun things with friends and family which I avoided because of my anxiety.
After my divorce, I decided to take time to self-reflect. In OneNote, I created a list going back as far as I could remember of all the experiences and opportunities I missed out on because of my anxiety. It was a rather long list. But the list served as a forcing function for me to face my fears. I didn’t want this list to grow. In fact, I wanted to create a new list of all the NEW experiences and opportunities I get to have as a result of facing my fears. My hope is that it allows me to grow more comfortable with more social interaction both professionally and personally. Every time I find myself closing up and feeling anxious – I’ll open up the list of all the things I’ve missed to remind myself I don’t want to add to it. It’s a great way to hold myself accountable.
Over the course of the last two years, I’ve had amazing opportunities and experiences as a result of me facing my fears. I’ve traveled to Europe for the very first time and visited London and Munich. I discovered a way to make myself feel more comfortable is to travel with someone I trust and who I am comfortable with. It made a huge difference in the level of anxiety I felt. I’ve spoken in front of groups of people at a big technology conference. Instead of getting up in front of a bunch of people and making a speech, I’ve discovered I feel a lot more comfortable speaking along with someone else on stage who I can work off of. And I’ve done social things where I’ve met cool people. But I have a lot more work to do. I still find myself falling back into my old routine of avoiding things. Dealing with this is really hard for me. I feel like I’m broken because I see everyone else out traveling the world, having fun, making friends – but I struggle so much. But I remind myself of the progress I’ve made so far.
I have so much more to say on this topic and on mental health. I want this blog post to serve as an introduction to me talking more about this and opening to my struggles as well as ways I’m coping and managing my anxiety. I have been signed up by my boss (told) to take part in a neurodiversity session at Microsoft Ignite 2019 in November. Microsoft has been investing a lot in diversity and inclusion in technology and this is part of that effort. I’m glad to be taking part in this conversation!