by Kaisa Mäenpää
I recall having a happy, carefree childhood. I remember the cuts and bruises I got from learning to ride my first bike, hanging from tree branches, running in the woods and playing with other kids.
I remember the gorgeous sunsets at our summer cottage that we watched while swimming in the Baltic Sea. I remember my parents always being there and my little brother following me everywhere I went, learning to read and write on my own, playing and creating art with my best friends, watching thunderstorms from our window, and the way our home used to smell when my mum was baking cinnamon rolls.
Despite all the cuts and bruises and angry crying and fights I had with my brother, I don’t remember ever thinking there was something wrong with me.
I was happy as a child, flaws included.
Then I went to school and slowly but surely everything changed for me. After entering third grade at age nine, I was suddenly facing unspoken rules and expectations that hadn’t applied to me before. I was no longer sheltered from the pressures of the outside world.
I realised I was different.
The other girls in my class made it painfully clear that nothing about me was good enough for them.
I was picked last for teams at PE even though I was good at sports. I was laughed at because my jeans weren’t fashionable enough. I was mocked for writing stories no one else understood. I was laughed at because teachers liked me. I was belittled every time I painted, played the violin or sang, even though those three abilities were my best assets.
No one wanted to do group tasks with me or sit next to me even though I was doing excellently at school. They laughed at me because I was too sensitive; because I cried easily; because I was gullible and didn’t know the newest words for items that didn’t even matter.
They ran away from me during recess, and I remember giving up and not running after them because had I caught up with them they would have just stood in a tight circle, leaving me standing behind their backs, confused and embarrassed because I had no idea of why they didn’t let me see their faces.
I don’t remember much from those years, but I do remember feeling anxious all the time.
The kids at school made me anxious and ashamed about everything – even the things I was good at. Attending a secondary school of visual arts saved me: I was suddenly popular and made friends who accepted me for who I was. But my mind was broken, so I never did.
I’ve accomplished so much since leaving secondary school: After finishing my Bachelor’s degree at Stirling University, I’ve completed two Master’s degrees; travelled around the globe; became a professional scuba diver; dived with sharks and manta rays; worked in different countries; met beautiful, resilient people I now consider my closest friends; taken part in hundreds of protests and been to jail for participating in non-violent direct action; volunteered for NYC Pride; taken the California Zephyr across the USA; taught children to read and write; seen grey whales and dolphins breach; created art; walked on hundreds of beaches; written stories; and gained new experiences on my way.
Most people I’ve met see me as a confident and adventurous, which I guess I am.
Yet I still I find myself thinking I’m not enough.
Plenty of my friends are starting to settle down with their nuclear families, permanent jobs, white picket fences and mortgages, just like our society wants them to. Whereas, the uncertain, beautiful and dramatic mess that is my life looks like something you’d see by looking through a kaleidoscope.
No matter what I achieve in life, anxiety always manages to catch me at my weakest, reminding me of that one moment five years ago when I did something embarrassing; making me think about a past relationship that could have gone differently had I not made mistakes; making me regret chances I haven’t taken and envy those who have settled down.
What would I like to tell the kid standing at the schoolyard all by herself?
Would I tell her she was still going to feel inadequate as an adult? Or would I tell her the Universe is so huge it doesn’t give a damn about white picket fences or nuclear families?
Probably both, but I’d also tell her to be patient, because unlearning anxiety would take time. And most importantly, I’d tell her she wasn’t going to be straight, but that she was going to be strong and fierce, like a tree that buries its roots deep into the ground because of all the storms that it had endured.
I’d tell her she would start understanding herself a lot better after figuring out who she really was.
I obviously can’t go back in time. But there are a few important things I need to keep reminding myself.
First, I’ll probably always have anxiety, but that doesn’t mean I should let it define what I can and cannot do.
My anxiety is almost like another entity that appears whenever I’m tired or stressed about something. It belittles me and tells me to quit because nothing I’ll ever do will be good enough. It’s like a toxic friend who tells me I’m not worthy of their friendship, but still has my number on speed dial.
It’s like someone who doesn’t appreciate my best assets, and who therefore prevents me from applying for jobs that I initially considered to be within my expertise.
It is the materialisation of how I thought other kids perceived me at school.
Second, even though anxiety is a part of me, I’m not my anxiety. And I should listen to the people around me when they tell me I’m good at something, and never the kids who tore down my identity at school and never apologised for it. I must come to terms with the fact that I have flaws, and that it’s OK to have them.
I’ve made wrong decisions that I’ve regretted later. I’ve ended relationships that could have become something serious. I’ve let golden opportunities pass because I’ve been too anxious to reach for them.
But the thing is, I shouldn’t punish myself for making wrong decisions, and I shouldn’t always aim at being perfect at everything, because these expectations are nothing short of those that include the white picket fence.
Instead, I should forgive myself a lot more, and realise that even though my life is far from perfect, it is beautiful. It’s beautiful even when it includes my anxiety.
It’s beautiful with all the cuts and bruises.