I’ve always felt like an ugly duckling. All the world can see is a drab little bird, bobbing to and fro, awkward and confused. And under the surface, I’m paddling wildly, trying to appear calm and in control. Hoping desperately that the calm swan I wish I could be would emerge already.

When you’re a kid, it’s hard to articulate that sense of differentness. I had a sense that certain things came easier to my peers. So many things that seemed exciting to them were could be terrifying for me. Friends dove into new experiences, while my mind bobbed on the surface, too afraid to join in. The tummy aches turn into headaches, turn into migraines.

As an adult, I suspected that ugliness and confusion were something more. In college, I did my best to pretend I fit in. On the surface, I was fitting in with some of the swans. Underneath, I was paddling harder than ever. After six years, I finally gave up pretending and admitted I was depressed. While my family was supportive, what I was going through was foreign to them. It was at this moment, a friend’s mother took me out for lunch. It was the first time I talked to someone like me. (At least knowingly). She was fearless in admitting her battle with anxiety and depression and it was the first time I saw how strong that made her. Her courage was beautiful.

For years, I rode the waves and imagined that was doing a great job. But my body began feeling uglier than ever. I had migraines almost every day. I lost weight. My hair fell out. I went to my doctor, who ran some tests. He looked at me and smiled benignly. “I think you have generalized anxiety disorder. You seem to be under a great deal of stress and you need a break.” (He actually suggested that my husband should take me to Hawaii.) I was devastated. How dare he think I’m messed up when I’m trying so hard! I chose to ignore him and keep paddling.

It wasn’t until my daughter started dealing with panic attacks her freshman year, that I finally admitted that I too had an anxiety disorder. To see my beautiful, confident girl facing the world despite her fears has given me the strength I have needed to admit to myself and to the world that I am struggling. While there is not a day I don’t wonder how much of my own problems have influence her or caused her problems, it has made us closer because we understand each other and see how our differentness makes us special. Her openness about her struggles is brave and bold.

I’ve noticed recently that I find myself swimming around calm and rough waters with ducklings like me. My closest friends have all felt awkward, misfit or invisible because of mental illness. I believe all of us are drawn to a shared vulnerability and shared resiliency. To the world, we may appear to be a bunch of ugly ducklings. But paddling furiously together, we are a strong and beautiful flock of birds.

imageAnxious middle aged educator in the Pacific Northwest

Jennifer can be found on Twitter.