Anxious child.

This is a continuation of a piece I wrote for Stigma Fighters in July about my struggle with anxiety. The response to that column was so positive that I wrote some more about what my life as someone with anxiety has been like. Thank you all for your kind words and support.

I was a nervous kid. That gets chalked up to all kinds of things – someone being shy, nerdy, socially awkward – but in my case, it was brain chemistry, exacerbated by the fact that I was a year younger than all of my classmates, a year less mature both physically and emotionally. That in turn meant that I didn’t have size or athletic ability on which to fall back – I wasn’t blessed with any kind of athletic skills anyway, although I didn’t learn the reason for that until my daughter was born with an inborn error of metabolism – and I was always a step behind everyone in my understanding of behavior and social norms. All of that, and it’s a lot, would have added up to a rough ride on the social side of the equation, made even worse by the added scrutiny that came with being a good student whom everyone knew as the kid who skipped first grade.

But no one ever seemed to grasp that my nervousness was more than just nerves, although maybe at the time, the late 1970s and eary 1980s, that wasn’t even something people would look for. They weren’t going to give a kid Valium, although Lord knows it might have helped. So instead, I was just unhappy a lot. I had friends, and I did have fun at school sometimes, but I was always much happier outside of the school calendar. My daughter can’t wait for school to start again; I dreaded the arrival of September the way I now dread the arrival of winter. School meant being put in situations over which I had little or no control, and I had absolutely no coping skills to handle that at the time.

I have memories of social anxiety going all the way back to preschool, and they become more frequent and more acute as early as second grade. Jumping into any grade from outside the school would have been easier, but moving from kindergarten, where I had made many friends (some of whom I’m still in touch with, one of many blessings of social media and the way the passing of time smooths over a lot of rough edges), straight to second grade, where I was immediately labelled as the kid who skipped a grade, was difficult. I didn’t feel academic pressure; I probably could have kept going, and there was a later discussion about skipping me another grade that my parents wisely shot down. Had that happened, I would have graduated high school a few weeks after my 16th birthday, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I was not emotionally strong enough to survive what that would have entailed. Doogie Howser might have made for a cute plot point on television, but that would be a shitshow in real life.

Acquiring those labels, and the associated attention from teachers who knew that I’d been singled out for different treatment by the school’s administration, didn’t invoke rough or mean treatment from other kids; I don’t think I got it any worse than anyone else did, at least. But being different, and knowing that everyone else knows you are different, carries its own kind of pressure, one that I placed on myself. I wore every awkward or unpleasant social interaction as an open wound. I became increasingly hesitant to try anything new or different socially, something that lasted more or less until my junior year of high school. If I didn’t do anything different, I could stay out of the center of attention, and that was more or less my goal, because I was always convinced that everyone’s eyes were on me.

I say “more or less” because I didn’t view all types of attention as equally painful. Doing well in class was fine; it was almost expected of me, and I know I expected it of myself. I hated not knowing the answer, but because I was always a self-starter when it came to learning, reading anything I could get my hands on in my spare time, it wasn’t a frequent problem for me. (That said, I do remember my sixth-grade math teacher, a lecherous man whom I’ll call Mr. J, enjoying a laugh at my expense by because I gave the answer “subtraction” when he wanted “difference.” That was 31 years ago, and I remember it well enough to tell you where I was sitting in the room when it happened, and turning to the left to see Phil, a neighbor and sometime friend, mocking me for it. I should really have been able to let go of that memory by now, but it is mine for life.)

Instead, my anxiety – not that I understood it as such at the time – emerged outside of the classroom. I watch my daughter now, and I see so clearly how she has what I lacked, and how much better off she’ll be in life for it. She can walk into any situation and introduce herself, make a friend, and take off to play. She’s fearless like that, despite being the child of two parents who’ve fought anxiety, and when I see her do it, I’m beyond proud – I admire her for it. Even today, it is a real effort for me to go into any group of people I don’t know and do anything more than stand at the edge and listen. I can’t even tell you what I’m afraid of anymore; the behavior is so ingrained at this point that it’s no longer about fear or anxiety over some specific outcome. I am anxious, full stop.

Third grade, age 8, turned out to be the tipping point for me, although in this case I don’t remember any specific incident or even series of incidents that pushed me over the edge. For whatever reason, and there may not have been one, my anxiety began to wreak havoc on my stomach, to the point where I had to go home for lunch most days because I was getting sick for no apparent reason. I’m still not sure why it happened, but the fact that the symptoms that appeared 33 years ago went away almost immediately when I started taking an SSRI (escitalopram) in 2012 tells me that it had to be mental or emotional in origin. I have other GI issues – when a gastroenterologist tested me in 2011 for lactose intolerance, my test results were so bad he started laughing – but no treatment or medicine worked until I started taking medication for my anxiety. And suddenly my stomach became somewhat predictable again. Part of me wants to rage at every doctor I saw about my stomach troubles over the last twenty years for failing to even consider the possibility that the cause was psychological, but most of them just fall under the axiom that a man with a hammer sees everything as a nail.

I think back on that year as the place where my life forked. Had that happened today, it’s at least possible that my symptoms would have been recognized as anxiety, or at least as a mental illness rather than a physical one, and I might have received treatment – medication, therapy, both – that would have stopped it in its tracks. Instead, it developed into the condition that dictated my life, creating a vicious circle that made me into someone whose answer to anything was always “no.” I didn’t want to go to strange places, because I might be put in uncomfortable social situations – and might get sick. I didn’t want to go to a new restuarant because I might get sick – and I found that, even just having to spend more time in the bathroom, deeply embarrassing.

As hard as dealing with the emotional and physical aspects of anxiety was, I think I was most hurt by seeing the gulf between myself and close friends when it came to just being comfortable with who I was. I could watch friends be at ease in social situations – with guys, with girls, whatever – and understand exactly what they did that I didn’t, but I couldn’t emulate them. You can’t fake feeling safe in your own skin.

It did get better, eventually, although it took a lot of effort on my own part and a good bit of luck as well. I knew to some extent that I was high-strung, at least enough that it was creating a barrier between myself and many of my friends and even classmates. For reasons I’m not even sure I understand now, I decided that the way to get around that was … to be funny. Whether I succeeded in that endeavor is both another question and a story for another day, but it was nothing more than a band-aid on the suppurating wound of anxiety that ruled most of my life. It did, however, lead me to a group of friends that made my last year of high school by far the best year I had in school at any level, and I’m still close to many of those friends even today.

But the fundamental problems – the anxiety, and the way it discouraged me from being social the way most people my age were – persisted into my 30s, with some facets lingering until I finally got treatment two years ago. Habits I learned as a child – avoiding situations that might make me uncomfortable – came to dominate my life. I still don’t like to ponder the cost.


  1. Very much relate. When my anxiety and depression came to a boil a few years ago it was as a result of personal reflection I had gone through at the time where I basically started to ponder everything I held back from because of anxiety. I looked at myself as a trapped failure with no way out and while I can manage that a lot better today now that I sought out treatment it’s still a hard thing to deal with and accept. There’s a ton of regret in my past and it still bothers me. I denied myself a lot of great experiences because of fear they’d be bad ones. It’s a bit hard once the thirties rolled around where a lot of my peers thrived and I still am trying to battle out of my rut.

  2. Thank you for another insightful post. It’s cathartic to read a successful person’s story that forces me to reevaluate myself and the help I choose our choose not to seek.

  3. Keith,
    Thanks so much for the honesty. I only recently, through similar experiences, came to get my anxiety diagnosed and am working through it with counseling and an SSRI.

  4. Thank you for sharing such personal stories.
    Just wanted to say two thing
    1. You’re the one who opened my eyes to sabermetrics, but more importantly, to look at things analyticaly and search deep behind questions myself, not just trust whtever silly reasons/stories people will try to tell you.
    2. I was/am a person who liked being alone rather than be put in uncomfortable social situatuons, who laughed big on the outside amongst people, but was very careful and uncomfortable inside. People like you who are able to share such personal stories give people like me strength to go on as well give courage to seek help.

    Again just wanted to say I’ve been a big fan, and just say Thank You

  5. Thanks for writing this. It’s important to be shared.

  6. I’m glad you mentioned your GI issues. Right now I’m in the throes of a terrible cycle of GI problems. I say “cycle” because, although I had bad anxiety before I started having GI problems, right now my anxiety is primarily in response to my symptoms. I can’t shake the idea that my abdominal pain and bowel problems – which have increased in severity – is an indicator of a very serious, potentially fatal condition. This anxiety is preventing me from taking any pleasure in anything. I’m basically forcing myself to endure each day until my appointment with a gastroenterologist. Then, maybe, if I don’t have the things I’m so worried I do, I’ll have some relief, until another strange symptom shows up that I can decide is the beginning of the end for me.

    I’m seeing a therapist right now, but I’m not all that optimistic that it will be much help. Maybe I should consider medication.

  7. As always, thanks for sharing and thanks for the honest writing.

    You mentioned a book a while back, I think it had to do with “mindfulness”, what was the title?

  8. This is a very familiar tale. I suffered until I got treatment in my late 20s. Some days are still hard, or course. But I am fortunate in that I have learned how to manage my anxiety without medication.

    This experience helps me in my day job as a teacher. I see students suffering and can help them in ways I couldn’t had I not had this disease.

    Thanks for sharing.

  9. Longtime fan of your work, and while I am fortunate not to struggle with the brain-chemistry issues, I really identify with the skipping-1st-grade-and-ending-up-an-alien part. In my case it did lead to various degrees of bullying, and to me developing a caustic sense of humor that had the same effect of driving others away from me.

    I can’t imagine how you managed the kind of career you’ve had with the issues you’ve described. Hope the upward trajectory will continue for you.

  10. Orange Julius

    KL., thanks for sharing. I share similar youth and young adulthood. The “cost” is something I still lay awake nights, now at 49 less so, and think about. All the missed experiences, opportunities, and most importantly relationships. We do what we can now. Love to hear about your daughter’s success and this regard.

  11. Thanks for sharing this very personal story, some of which strikes all-too-familiar chords.

  12. That’s an incredible post. Thanks for sharing, Keith.

  13. Really enjoyed the post.

  14. This post struck a chord with me. As someone who also skipped a grade (second not first) and is an early summer birthday (so I was on the young side anyway) I can 100% relate to that feeling of being emotionally and physically behind everyone else, as well as the domino effect that feeling can have on your life. I’m glad to know that I wasn’t alone in that feeling. Your posts on our struggles have truly been inspirational to read. Congratulations on your successes and I hope they continue for you.

  15. Keith: Your article struck a chord because it is like you were describing my teenage son. My wife has often stated we should consider therapy or medication and I have always been against it, since he has always been the top student at school and had no behavior issues. I’ve always figured he would outgrow the anxiety and “irrational” fears and learn to make friends, but now I realize that it is probably just wishful thinking on my part. I had my wife read both of your articles and she looked at me like “I told you so” and, for once, I have to agree. Not sure what exactly we are going to do, but your honesty and willingness to share have been eye-opening. I admire your success despite the anxiety issues and will use what you wrote as inspiration as we try to do what is best for our son.

  16. Keith,

    Thanks for this post, the Stigma Fighters one, and all your other work — baseball and otherwise. Escitalopram (generic Lexapro) has been a lifesaver for me to avoid panic attacks and depression. Keep up the great work.

  17. I really related to the Anxious Child post. I think if you have never experienced generalized anxiety, it is difficult to understand the physical toll it can take. I woke up nauseous everyday for years, but it is mostly under control. I still feel uncomfortable meeting people/networking and my awareness of it has only compounded the problem. Luckily my wife points out every awkward interaction so I can relive it and dwell on it for the next time. I can see the signs of anxiety in my daughter and I really worry about her experiencing, the day in and day out discomfort of generalized anxiety. I am amazed that you have such a public job and can stand the judgement that comes with it.

  18. Thanks for this–given the fact you are on tv, I’m surprised your anxiety is similar to mine. At this point, I will not go up to a group of people I don’t know well and say anything. Even standing on the outskirts and listening feels very uncomfortable for me and I don’t know why. The idea of talking to a stranger about myself makes me feel sick. Like you said, this anxiety is ingrained. And my rational side tends to beat myself up for my irrational fears, which is not helpful. Besides medication and therapy, my current coping method is avoidance, which I don’t think is serving me. Your post gives me some courage that maybe it’s time for me to amp up my effort level again to try and get control over some of my fears.
    I also have a sixth grade memory I can’t let go of. A science teacher marked my correct answer incorrect because it wasn’t an answer covered in the chapter the test was on. I probably obsess about this because like you, school is what I was good at, an area of my life I could control. If I wasn’t close to perfect in that area of my life, I wasn’t sure what I was at all.

  19. Thank you for sharing this article. As I was reading this article, a new student that I have this year kept popping into my mind. As a teacher trying to help an anxious child as best as possible, what can I do to help him? I realize that the best answer may be brain chemistry and out of my control; however, I feel that I need to help this student in any way I can to at least ease his anxiety, even a little. Any suggestions from personal experiences or ideas any of you wish your teachers would/could have done for you would be appreciated.

  20. @Jeff: Don’t make him the target of humor, even if you believe it’s good-natured. Any attention that I didn’t directly seek was unwelcome for me, and 30 years on I still remember a lot of those incidents. His mind will put a negative spin on anything of the sort. If he wants to be the center of attention, that’s fine, of course.

    Many people with anxiety have GI issues, but not all. If you sense he’s having these problems, or is eating less because of them, then you might want to suggest a medical solution.

  21. Thank you so much for sharing. This has helped my wife and myself talk about our own anxiety issues. Your strength to share these posts are so empowering, Thank you again.