| Words Unspoken |

Dear High School Principal

You’d mistaken my anxiety-driven silence and avoidance for snobbery


Dear High School Principal,

I chose your school because I hoped it would be a cozy place for me to thrive. The other school I applied to hands out acceptance letters like they’re marketing samples; your school has barely 100 students. It wasn’t a hard choice for an introvert like me to choose your institution.

I started high school with the typical trepidation. I’d had my fair share of trials in elementary school — including bullying so serious I was forced to switch schools in the middle of an academic year. But as I pulled up in front of the quaint, homey building that first day, I davened I could put all that behind me. I’m going to try my best to be happy here, I promised myself.

And I did. For months, I attended school events, even though they made my stomach churn with anxiety.

Then Covid struck.

While my classmates bemoaned the resulting lack of social interaction, I was secretly thankful to be rid of all the pressure. My mushrooming anxiety was even easier to hide now that we were all sequestered.

Besides, it seemed even more irrelevant than ever. People were gasping for air under ventilators, crushed under the weight of financial burden and food insecurity. And I was nervous — so what?

Then one summer afternoon, everything changed. I fell asleep. Fifteen minutes later, I woke up sobbing. In an instant, my entire world shifted. I was overcome by panic, and I had the petrifying sense I was going insane. It felt like my consciousness was swirling away from my reach as I fought for air in this new nightmarish dimension. Later, I pinpointed this symptom as derealization — a terrifying sensation of unreality.

The room began to spin in sickening circles, as if I were spiraling down the drain, and I choked on intense waves of nausea,  heaving into the trash can. I remember thinking, I’ve gone totally insane. The waves of terror finally subsided 30 agonizing minutes later, but I struggled on and off with intense panic attacks that induced crippling agoraphobia for weeks at a time.

I was in my own personal Gehinnom.

The next week, I was diagnosed with social anxiety, OCD, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Naturally, when the annual fall shabbaton was announced a few weeks later, I wasn’t exactly excited. The panic attacks had largely subsided due to the highest FDA-approved doses of medication, but I was still feeling battle-weary and fragile from my raging anxiety.

I emailed you, asking for understanding during one of the scariest points of my life. You responded to my email with kindness, and I felt instantaneously reassured. “We care, we’ll miss you, we understand,” was the gist of your paragraphs-long response.

Months passed, and my homeroom teacher announced we’d be heading to a local amusement park. I figured I’d explain later, away from 20 pairs of eager eyes, that I didn’t wish to attend. To my surprise, my teacher responded to my explanation by informing me that I was “betraying” her (a word, I later learned, that you’d planted in her mouth) personally by not going, and that she was “truly disappointed.”

I could have swallowed that. Then I was informed that if I didn’t attend the trip, it would be canceled.

I spent that Shabbos distraught. I didn’t want my classmates to resent me for being the cause of the trip they were all thrilled about being canceled. At the same time, a trip like this would be agonizing for me, and as I explained to you later, had the potential to pull me out of a period of delicate equilibrium, after finally getting to a point where the only panic attacks I ever had were during events like this.

After speaking with the school guidance counselor about the issue, you called me into a meeting the next day, and in a breach of personal trust and state confidentiality laws, blamed me for the deep divide in our class. You’d mistaken my anxiety-driven silence and avoidance for snobbery.

You plowed on. “Your classmates panic when you don’t join,” you said, an assertion I challenged later by gathering up the courage to ask them (and which was very quickly dismissed with laughs). “Just something I want you to think about,” you added.

As I tried not to cry in your office, I silently implored: What about me?

Please understand that what prevents me from attending isn’t apathy or impudence, but rather a challenging mental illness I wish more people would try to understand — not only for my sake, but for the other students with mental health challenges you’ll encounter.

I desperately wish I could join in the fun. And with the help of Hashem, someday I will.


A Not-So-Standoffish Absentee


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 814)

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