Two Teens with Social Anxiety, Evan Hansen and Me

If you’re someone with social anxiety, I think you will like the 2017 Tony-award winning musical, “Dear Evan Hansen.” As an introvert diagnosed with social anxiety disorder (SAD), I easily related to Ben Platt’s character, Evan Hansen, an awkward kid desperately wanting to make friends and connect with others.

Reading the musical’s plot and listening to the tracks on Spotify brought back some painful memories. Ben Platt did an amazing, honest depiction of what it’s like to have a crippling social anxiety: fidgeting, biting nails, poor posture, averting one’s eyes, trouble finding the right words to say.

Watch Ben Platt’s performance here:

Having social anxiety doesn’t mean we’re antisocial or dislike being around people. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. We’re often lonely and misunderstood, yet we have trouble communicating and expressing ourselves.

A little background about me: in some ways, I am what you call a parachute kid. I moved to the U.S. for college when I was 17, while my parents stayed back in the Philippines. I lived with my two older brothers, whom I wasn’t very close to due to a 10+ year age gap.

I chose to be an English major, because I wanted to be a writer. America was a blank page, and I wanted to write my story.

But still, I felt alone in a new country and I longed for friends. The thought of having a diverse range of friends actually excited me. And I tried. In my classes, social clubs, at concerts, at choir or at work, I usually said hi to the person next to me and attempted to make small talk. But for some reason, I would always fail. I’d always be the shy, awkward guy. Smiling too much.

It was especially difficult in community college. During my two years, I’d say the closest friends I had were:

  • A mother of two teenagers. From singing class. She even helped me audition for the community choir. But she didn’t really have time to hang out.
  • A grandma from creative writing class who loved my short stories. Only lasted one semester though.
  • My professors. I would always go to “office hours” when I felt lonely.

Looking back, I think it would have been easier for me had I chosen the recommended 1st-year course plan, to meet other first years. But I was arrogant, and chose the advanced courses.

Or maybe I should have chosen more practical, science-oriented classes where I could meet other parachute kids and international students.

Instead, I ended up in classes where other students made derisive remarks at me for raising the curve – or classes where people made fun of my accent.

One time, I was in an American Studies class of 40+ students, and we were discussing Pop Culture and the idea of “Cool,” how people express themselves by the cars they drive.

The professor asked me, “If you can drive anything in the world, what would it be?”

I had just been to the LA Auto Show, and I was pretty amazed by the new Lamborghini, so that was the answer I gave. Except, I pronounced it as “Lambor Genie.”

The whole room erupted in laughter.

“You want a Genie?” The professor smirked.  “You mean a Lamborghini.”

Social AnxietyHaving social anxiety plus being an introvert, it took me awhile to process my mistake. I just laughed it off and slumped slowly in my seat.

There were a couple more instances like these, but for 2 years, I didn’t really have any close friends. I’ll save those stories for later.

This is why I related deeply to Evan Hansen’s I Want song, “Waving Through a Window,” which aptly describes the unspoken reasoning behind our anxieties:

Listen on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/0gMW8XpPFPjoApDii5Tj1u

I’ve learned to slam on the brake
Before I even turn the key
Before I make the mistake
Before I lead with the worst of me

Give them no reason to stare
No slipping up if you slip away
So I got nothing to share
No, I got nothing to say

Step out, step out of the sun
If you keep getting burned
Step out, step out of the sun
Because you’ve learned, because you’ve learned

Eventually, I started to give up. I learned to stop talking to classmates, and to just mind my own business.

Oh, and by the way, I also struggled with hyperhidrosis (really bad sweaty palms). Remember those fruit and vegetable plastic bags at the grocery store, which were so annoying to open?

My brothers would often tease me and ask me to use my superpowers. I can conjure sweat with my mind, and slide the plastic open with my wet fingers.

I went to see a few doctors to have my superpowers fixed. One of the doctors asked me a few questions, and diagnosed me with social anxiety disorder. He prescribed me Lexapro, an SSRI used to treat anxiety and depression.

Of course, when you’re in an Asian and Christian family, you’d quickly denounce any form of mental illness other than autism. In fact, I’ve heard from the pulpit that social anxiety was a sin because we think too much about what other people think, thereby putting our selves as idols.

My family quickly denounced the “quack doctor” and said I was fine.

But I wasn’t fine. Unable to make friends in real life, I found community in online games and books (like Isaac in my novel). This could be the part when I say video games spared me much misery, but I’ll explore that idea later.

Like Evan Hansen, I make stuff up (well, other than living lies, I write fiction, too). Of course, I escaped into video games. Evan Hansen’s escape is central to the plot of the musical – pretending to be the only friend of a boy who committed suicide, which launches Evan to become a motivational Internet sensation.

But his character’s transformation begins by being true to himself. Telling the truth. Giving up the lies he so carefully crafted to win the girl and family he always wanted.

“Words Fail” is the reprise of Evan’s “Waving Through a Window” I Want song quoted earlier.

Listen on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/32bZDrurIGh2Cts0l2tRtL

No, I’d rather pretend I’m something better than
These broken parts
Pretend I’m something other than
This mess that I am
‘Cause then I don’t have to look at it
And no one gets to look at it
No, no one can really see

‘Cause I’ve learned to slam on the brake
Before I even turn the key
Before I make the mistake
Before I lead with the worst of me
I never let them see the worst of me

‘Cause what if everyone saw?
What if everyone knew?
Would they like what they saw?
Or would they hate it too?
Will I just keep on running away from what’s true?

All I ever do is run
So how do I step in
Step into the sun?
Step into the sun

I started stepping into the sun when I saw my first therapist, back when I turned 18. I mean, it was free in college, and I was curious…and I admitted to myself that I needed help. And yes, the counselor did confirm I had social anxiety, and that was causing my loneliness, along with other things.

Eventually, I did take the medication, which did help. Of course, I had to hide it. I succeeded for a couple of months. But when my brothers found out, they kinda flipped.

You have to understand, the Virginia Tech massacre just happened, and like the shooter, I was a quiet English major who had issues. And according to Google, Lexapro is an antidepressant. So you get what I mean.

I’m happy to say that I’m a lot better now, a decade later. I’ve made several close friendships that continue on for years. My palms no longer sweat (surgically fixed). I no longer need medication, and like Even Hansen at the end of the musical, I think I’ve learned to accept myself for who I am.

My road to self-acceptance and self-love was an arduous journey. I wish I could tell you I’m done with SAD, but honestly it’s a daily struggle. Being with people is very draining, even if I love my friends and enjoy intriguing conversations.

Like Evan, I often say the wrong things, appear awkward and aloof. I have the more passive, reserved type of SAD compared to Evan’s reactive one, so when I panic, it’s like the gate to my vocabulary has shut and I couldn’t think of anything to say.

So I just smile, fidget or lurk back into the shadows until my battery’s recharged and my brain could process the right words to say. But I don’t let that stop me from being with friends or meeting new people. It sure is draining, but it’s also rewarding.

If you’re struggling with anxiety, take a deep breath, wiggle your toes and be hopeful. Tell yourself, it’s all going to be okay! Like the last letter Evan writes to himself in the musical:

Listen on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/7vU9VpbmB4ZoztAigpXLlJ

Dear Evan Hansen,​
Today is going to be a good day. And here’s why: because today, today at least you’re you and—that’s enough.​

All we see is sky for forever
We let the world pass by for forever
Feels like we could go on for forever this way
This way

All we see is light
Watch the sun burn bright
We could be alright for forever
This way

All we see is sky for forever

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One thought on “Two Teens with Social Anxiety, Evan Hansen and Me

  1. This is beautiful, Albert. I didn’t know this about you, and I admire your vulnerability. Knowing you now, I can’t imagine you as that 17/18-yr-old! I am always blessed by your words whenever you share your thoughts and opinions in sdq group.

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