RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — As first impressions go, I am an extrovert. I love to connect with people and have been described as personable. My mother says I’ve never known a stranger.
What many don’t know, including friends and family, is that I struggle with social anxiety.
With less than a week of notice, I was assigned a TDY to march in the Bastille Day military parade in Paris, one of the largest and highest-profile military parades in the world.
I fell asleep on the ride to Lycee Militaire de Saint-Cyr, close to the Château of Versailles. I popped my head above the seat periodically to remind occupants I was alive in the far back seat of the vehicle, comfortable there was a physical barrier between awkward conversation and me.
Throughout my most stressful moments in life, I’ve asked myself the same question – “Is it possible to have social anxiety and be extroverted?”
My anxiety can come unexpectedly, or when I’m thrust into a situation I’m not mentally prepared for.
The excitement I felt stepping out of the vehicle was crushing. It was the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, and France had asked 200 U.S. service members to lead France’s Independence Day parade. I didn’t know how I had gotten the opportunity.
The sun beat down on us as we were told where we’d be staying the next eight nights. Listening to the chatter of my fellow Airmen, I could tell they had formed friendships on the way to our destination.
Constantly forcing myself to come out of a shell no one else is aware of is exhausting. Some days I can’t function, and I’ve spent most of my life thinking I was awkward or someone who talks too much when she’s nervous.
During the first two days, I was interviewed by a French news station, CNN and American Forces Network. A part of me believed I was only picked because I was public affairs and people assume I can be in front of a camera. Excruciatingly slow beads of sweat began rolling down my back and I had doubts as I prepared for the interviews.
When the interview began, there was a rush of adrenaline. I wasn’t stumbling like I always imagined. I felt so happy in that moment and a completely different person.
Amid the excitement, no one could tell that under the fire and enthusiasm I was emitting was a quiet, suppressed panic, which only I could feel. Make no mistake, I am beyond honored to have been picked for this TDY, and after the experiences I’ve had while there, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
In a matter of days I met the president of the United States, World War II veterans, and had the honor of meeting and receiving the coin of U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., the 19th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
How crazy does this sound? That Friday I ate fancy finger food and sipped champagne in the Hôtel national des Invalides while watching fireworks over the Eiffel Tower with some of France’s and America’s highest ranking individuals.
I did my fair share of hardcore fangirling, and by that I mean going to the bathroom and dancing in a stall after a few glasses of tasty champagne.
With these small victories, the sinking feeling of doubt still lingered.
It’s a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, the constant questioning of yourself and your surroundings.
Walking in a crowd, I feel as if all eyes are on me, a flush spreading over my body. The gathering of sweat everywhere causing my legs to speed up. I don’t feel that I’m in danger, and I don’t want to imply that people want to make me uncomfortable, but there’s always a feeling of panic, an anxious need to walk faster.
All week, being an American in France incited the same reaction within me, despite my best efforts to squash what I told myself was irrational. People stared at our foreign uniforms, whispering as we walked by.
It was a new experience to have my photo be constantly taken, that so many people were excited to see us. Why I was there and being conscious of the fact that we were representing our country helped me get through the discomfort I sometimes felt.
With feelings of uneasiness, I also experienced a lot of awe during my trip that helped balance out dealing with my insecurities as I navigated my way through the week.
Every other day, the French organized tours for the Americans, skipping hours’ worth of waiting in line for the Palace of Versailles, the Lourve and the Musée de l’Armée, forcing me to talk to people I didn’t want to talk to, and some that I’m glad I got the chance to meet.
I met a lot of high profile people while in Paris, and my hidden social anxiety played a huge part in how I felt about the experience. However, it also helped me to overcome it a bit. I believe there’s power in vulnerability, and I learned that I was capable of things I was too nervous to try before. I mean, who gets to say they met the POTUS in Paris?
This TDY was an opportunity I never believed I would experience. I can’t begin to explain the pride I felt standing beside other U.S. military members knowing that I serve the greatest country in the world. I stepped out of my comfort-zone more times than I can count this past week, and it makes me feel more confident than ever in a social environment.
Meeting the people I’ve met and making the memories I’ve made in places I never thought I’d be continues to reaffirm that I’ve made a choice I’ll never regret, and I couldn’t be more proud to represent the U.S. Air Force every day as I face some of my biggest challenges.