It was the end of the final Speech and Debate season, and we’d filled up the private room at Tony K’s Bar and Grill. We were a meager public school team, a spunky upstart that somehow had grown from a team of three freshman with quivering voices to a 20-force of high-ranking actors and orators who had taken State and District tournaments and gone on to Nationals. We were the only public school team in our region to send anybody to Nationals, in fact, and once there I’d made it to the final ten in Impromptu Speaking.
But now it was all over, for some of us forever, and we were celebrating in a weak mockery of what big-name private teams did: we were having a banquet. In a shitty bar across the street from a feed store, sure, but it was a banquet nonetheless.
We ate mozzarella sticks with our parents and peers and gave away little awards accompanied with plastic trophies from the dollar store. Team Spirit Award, Most Improved, stuff like that. I was the Team President and the Debate Captain, so I was supposed to dole out some of the awards and give a speech.
It was the only time I was truly a part of something. It was the only time I cared enough and had enough confidence to truly excel rather than judge and aloofly imagine what I was capable of from the sidelines of life. In debate, I was witty, blood thirsty, and capable. Everybody in the state knew me and my partner. We had a reputation. People feared us and considered themselves well-off and well-placed if we liked them. Among my teammates I was hard to know but easy to look up to, cruel but correct.
I’d spent the whole week working on my final address. I first composed it in AP European History class, scrawling notes in blue pen on the inside of my book while the teacher read from the text to us. Then I painstakingly typed my draft up in the library, muttering aloud to see if I had the timing and cadence right. With MS Paint and Powerpoint, I made visuals, to bolster my jokes. I had props. There were moments of satire and pastiche; I did a mean George Carlin, with a Lewis Black twist. It was for nothing, no trophies, no ranking, no National Forensics League Points, yet I poured more energy into it than I had any class assignment or college application.
The day came. And trust me, dear reader, I killed. Rarely if ever have I been so funny. Standing in the middle of the private room with a tiny wood gavel and a ream of shittily made images, time seemed to slow down and become endlessly capacious. I filled each instance with levity and sharpness. I connected with everybody in the room. The laughter was melodic, perfectly orchestrated; the jokes were apt, the delivery was better than it had ever been.
Kids and parents and coaches alike were impressed with it. Somebody I barely knew came up to me over a year later to tell me she remembered it. People at district competitions were still talking about it six years later, at which point my partner and I had become the stuff of legends.
And when the performance ended and the dinner was over, everybody got up from their chairs and started to mingle and reminisce. And I was frozen in my seat, wide-eyed and unmoored, with only my mom beside me. I watched all my teammates and proteges and classmates laugh and socialize mere feet away, with only a thin table separating us, their backs slightly turned if at all, but they seemed an entire reality away, a whole alternate timeline apart from me.
I stood and stepped towards them until I could go no further. Two steps at the most. My eyes started to well up with tears. I knew these people thought I was funny and smart, but I was frozen at the prospect of their rejection all the same. And then my mom asked me if I wanted to go and I said yes, and the shame rolled over me like a wave, engulfed me, and dragged me home where I sat in my room in silence.
This is how I picture my social anxiety. This is the moment I go back to in my mind every time fear pins me in place. There was a time when I had all the accomplishment and laughter and poise I could ever ask for, and even then it was not enough to save me or bring me love.
So why do I keep chasing after it? Why have I spent years accumulating degrees and saving money and publishing stories and prying laughs out of mouths from atop a stage? I keep thinking that someday I will hit the right vein and the whole earth will open up beneath me, flooding me with love and safety.
But I know this is never going to happen. I peaked early, and impressed people to the point of intimidation, and it made nobody embrace me, least of all myself.
Success goes numb until you cannot feel it. Wit dissipates into the air and floats away as soon as your words have left your mouth. I am still that girl standing in the wake of my own impressiveness, waiting for somebody else to envelop me in a hug. And I know better than to expect accomplishment to warm me from the inside, or for people to be drawn toward my brightness as if I’m a lamp and they are lost moths. But still I cannot stop it. I am ramrod, frozen feet away. I want you to love me and give me a prize. I want a reward that never ends. I want to impress you enough that I impress myself. I’m waiting at home in the dark and the party is over, but I’m also still standing in the banquet hall on the edge of the crowd, lingering, hoping that this time you’ll notice.