The Man Who Cannot Speak, Speaks: My Journey from Social Anxiety to TEDx-Speaker
By Leon Tsao
People were fairly amused for my inability to produce words adequately and fluidly. I remember back when I was in high school we were to give presentations, and my voice shook and stammered as I spoke in a whisper, sensitively as if any word would set off a bomb. As the class grew quiet and awkward, I observed how the class mischief was having quite a good time, smirking away. I remember back when I was in college, someone put me on the spot to explain a concept we learned. To say that I was bad at explaining things is an understatement; whenever I tried to explain anything, I was utterly incoherent. I knew I was doomed and my brain froze, but nevertheless I went forth with a pitiful attempt. It sent this girl laughing indignantly as I muttered my way through my “explanation,” unable to string sentences together. Through high school and college, I developed the habit of digging my nails into my hand in order to alleviate the pain I felt when interacting with people.
When you look at the title of this piece you may believe that I am going to tell you how I had slowly grown out of my anxiety and inability to speak, but this was no gradual journey of progression. Even a year ago my anxieties and issues with speech actually became more severe than what I endured in high school or college. I had gained a reputation for it. I remember as I stood on a porch as the neighbors playfully teased about the way I talked. When my friends from college came all the way from New York to Georgia to come visit me for a week, I barely spoke the whole time, and they noticed the sharp difference in my ability to speak.
My life had been marred by social anxiety disorder. I had a fear of even leaving my house, and when I did, when I saw someone approach on the other side of the sidewalk I was walking on, I would switch over to the other sidewalk. I had a fear of going up to cashiers of any store, and if I bought something I would start sweating profusely and hesitate before walking up to them. It was isolating being around the other boys as they purposefully exclude you because they cannot withstand your silence. At camp I remembered they would form a circle and talk while they left me behind. I had a fear of going to work, because I would feel so nervous and hypersensitive to the work environment that I would become awfully clumsy and forgetful, and my bosses would disapprove of me, which would only exacerbated my fear.
As I turned 26, it only got worse. When I could not take it anymore how my social anxiety deprived me, it would only take more away from me. In graduate school I lived an isolated life because I was busy all the time, working 12 hours a day, and thus I was unable to form social connections. When there are less connections, the anxiety increases manifold, which is a pattern I noticed in my life. The symptoms became unrelenting as I felt a tense, clenching pain develop around my throat, jaw, and tongue. During graduate and social functions I would hide in the restroom as my heart thumped wildly and sweat would stream all over me.
It came to a point where one night in my room I just lashed out at the universe that I was living a nightmare it created and I could not take it anymore. I spent all my life patiently coming up with adaptations and coping mechanisms for my condition, slowly chipping away at an iceberg armed with a windshield scraper, and to encourage my efforts the universe decided to make the iceberg even larger. Then after cursing at it all night I thought I could send it a prayer to help me. Praying was something I simply do not do, but it was all I was able to come up with because I felt desperate. It was bizarre, like cowering before the feet my abuser to ask for assistance.
That night I had a dream that felt so real. A stream of rainfall came down from the sky, and it powerfully splattered into my throat, the same sensation you would get standing under heavy, pouring rain. This energetic force just pounded away at my throat and then spread from there throughout my body. When I woke up, my problems were all still there, but I felt a persevering sense of hope.
Then I did something that was impossible, and I had trouble forgiving myself for doing. I decided to apply to do a TEDx Talk. To this day I did not know what drove me, and I remember chastising myself for being insane enough to take such a drastic measure to combat my social anxiety. Maybe I should had been inspired to go to a speech therapist after that dream, but no, I had to apply to talk in front of hundreds of people. My application was accepted, and I entered into the speech competition phase. Every day preparing for that speech was more nightmarish than my life before TEDx entered into my life. I tried to memorize my lines as my mouth felt like it was twisting and squirming about in protest because of the pain it felt, but nevertheless the dream still pushed me madly into this seemingly disastrous idea.
I did not succeed in the competition, but the year since I grew much more confident. I started to talk with others with greater ease and smoothness, though I was still shy. I applied to do TEDx again. I was much less nervous preparing for the competition phase this time and I passed it. Then it hit me: I was going to speak in front of 800 people. I was going to do something that even a social butterfly who hosts parties would rather wish for death over: public speaking.
I felt nervous for sure, but at the same time I was confident. On March 2015, I got in front of 800 people (and more, since I was life-streamed) and gave my talk about how different cultural perspectives on creativity influenced psychological wellbeing. I remembered getting into the zone, and then in the middle of the speech I woke up a bit and started to think of my situation from a meta-perspective: I am the man who cannot speak who is giving a speech.
Today that speech has opened the door for me to continue doing stuff that would seem impossible to my former self, which I would never even thought of doing because they seem unfathomable given the condition I had. I always thought I was going to live a relatively quiet life in the sidelines. My greatest fantasy back then was about how nice it would be if I was invited to people’s dinner parties, sitting quietly and listening in (nevertheless appreciated for my silent company), and by the time I was in my thirties I may be able to be relaxed enough to not go running off to de-stress in the bathroom from time to time. Wouldn’t that be lovely?
My life became greater than my fantasies. Now I organize Meetup groups in the New York City area, initiate social outings, and own a Youtube Channel in which I talk about personality types. As the one who formally cannot connect with others, I created and led a popular networking event between creative minds for a group I organize called Creative Instigators. I continue to be a speaker, giving workshops for companies, and I work as a life coach.
My life is far from a utopia and I continue to struggle. Even though I have the confidence to speak (I even earn money for that once impossible task of “explaining things”), there are more obstacles I have to tackle, like how to keep up the momentum of the Meetups I form, how to be a better, more inspiring leader, and how to say “um” less when I speak. It is funny how today I can berate myself over these prickly problems when my old arch nemesis was good ol’ Social Anxiety itself. I forgot what I used to deal with and thus I can be rather harsh on myself. Those obstacles are simply a few levels up from dealing with social anxiety, as they belong to the same theme. This theme for my life is called “How to Connect with Others,” and in order to play it, I had to start from the ground up, unlike many others who start closer to the middle level.
And that is it. In order to fully understand the theme of connection, unlike many others I had to start from the very bottom. I had to experience how it was like to feel complete powerlessness and deprived of any ability to connect. I think back to my lashing out at the universe and then coming back asking for its assistance as if I were in a tragi-comical relationship, and I knew why what happened to me happened. This journey I had taken was a painful one, but in turn the pain turned into a beautiful story for my life that I will never take back, even if I were tantalized with the option of going back in time so that I can be given the relief of being “socially average” for over the first two and a half decades of life. This terrible sense of lack allowed me to be appreciative of the abundance I was given, to truly understand what it means to connect with others because I had to struggle with it even at the most basic level. And for that, I think the universe made my life into a meaningful artwork.
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