Believe it or not but a known goody-two-shoe like myself was incarcerated for over 30 years, but not because I did something wrong, at least not in this lifetime.
You see, I was in a mental, emotional and spiritual prison that stunted my development for most of my life, a prison I would eventually break out of but not before some confusion.
I want to share a Toastmasters speech I wrote and presented in my late 20s describing what I then thought was my miraculous escape from hell, but before I do so, a bit of backstory is in order.
Being a total mess in just about every way imaginable and having tried hard to hide in a corner for the entire duration of the program, I had somehow managed to finish graduate school, successfully obtaining an MBA. I was anxious through the roof — a nervous wreck by any definition; found it difficult to put together a coherent sentence; reeling from a number of soul-killing, head-scratching experiences with certain questionable characters; and still living with my malignant narcissistic mother and brother, two of the most evil people anyone would meet. Worst of all, I couldn’t land a job, something I thought would allow me to escape my misery for good.
I was on edge, downright desperate, and just didn’t know what to do. I came to suspect that I might have an anxiety disorder after an online colleague I confided in suggested it. I consulted a psychiatrist and, lo and behold, I was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder.
I would later discover in my early 30s that I was grossly misdiagnosed and was suffering from something far more severe, but that’s a different story for a different time. I digress.
After the incomplete diagnoses, I was provided with two treatment options: medication or therapy. Viewing myself as a strong and highly-disciplined individual, I decided to take the therapy route, which involved getting out into the wild butt naked (figuratively speaking), making a fool of myself and understanding that the exaggerated way I thought people perceived me — negative or otherwise — was all in my head. I figured one of the best ways to overcome this condition was to confront my fear of public speaking once and for all, so I joined a Toastmasters club.
Barely able to function and almost always paralyzed at the club – it’s as if my sanity was being held together by two tiny strings — I somehow managed to piece together and present my first speech, one I titled ‘Prison Break’. Enjoy…
I’ve got a little secret. I recently broke out of prison after being incarcerated for more than two and half decades. You’re probably thinking – Kwame, a criminal? Well, no, I haven’t committed any crime. Nevertheless, I had been locked up real good.
The prison I’m talking about is not the physical kind. Still, it’s probably equally worse, because being imprisoned in your mind, unable to effectively interact with others, is in itself a form incarceration.
Growing up, I wasn’t an inactive child. I was just very quiet. It could have been excused as general shyness, but some things just didn’t add up.
For instance, going to open a new bank out, but only to not be able to utter a coherent sentence to the service lady, and walking out soaked in sweat, heart beating like a drill jack. Did I just rob the bank without even knowing about it? Why was I feeling this way? I did nothing and no one had done anything to me.
I wish that was the first and only time something like that has happed, but unfortunately, it wasn’t—it has been a recurring theme in my life.
Not being able to effectively communicate with people, especially within group settings, and obsessively concerning myself with what people might think about me, even over the smallest things have been troublesome. The resulting fear of interacting with people had made life a lot more hellish than it ought to be. My work life, school life… everything suffered.
I was incarcerated. And years of trying to lock-pick my way out to a normal life lead to nowhere.
It was when I was doing my MBA three years ago that things started to fall into perspective. Now, here was a great opportunity to overcome this life-crippling fear and inhibition. An opportunity to engage with a whole lot of new people. In hindsight, the program was great because it was like a giant toastmasters club — a ridiculously expensive one. It was all about presentations and projecting assertiveness. It was an overall ideal environment for making some life-altering changes, I figured.
Unfortunately, I started off sitting-out on opportunities to properly engage in the environment. Soon every missed chance to engage myself led to the excuse “there will be other chances.” That turned out to be the truth, but not that it mattered— I remained on the sideline, unable to do anything, even in the few instances that I tried. I became mentally and emotionally exhausted.
By this time, the slow picking of the prison lock had turned into a more frantic banging on it. This perpetual state of worry and anxiety—no way was it normal, I finally figured.
Very concerned, I did some research. And after many speculations of what could possibly be wrong with me, a colleague that I confided in, and who had experience counselling people like me, pointed me in the right direction.
And then there it was – as plain as day. A condition affecting approximately 4 percent of the general population. With symptoms such as excessive and irrational worrying, hot flashes, racing heart, inability to effectively communicate and the general feeling of nervousness that have colored my whole life. I had general anxiety disorder. And just to be 100% certain, I got myself diagnosed by several physicians.
While there is no single cause of General Anxiety Disorder, the condition does mess with one’s fight or flight response mechanism. With sufferers, it’s always about flight, rather than the good balance exhibited by non-suffers. Less conquering, more running had been the tagline of my life.
Tired of running, the diagnosis was life-alternating realization. Being able to identify my affliction meant I could finally do something about it. But what were my options?
The first was the medication route, but that was more of a short-term fix than long-term solution. So it was an automatic no in my book. The second route, behavioural therapy, was more challenging but provided a guaranteed fix, which jived pretty well with me.
As part of the road to recovery, a book titled “Hope and Help for your Nerves” has been instrumental. The key tenets of the book were 1) to accept and face the problem; 2) in situations where I am irrationally nervous or uncomfortable, to go along with the flow with the understanding that nothing bad will happen and that no one is judging me, and 3) let time pass because a full recovery won’t come overnight.
It required breaking out of my shell and doing the things I have always dreamt of doing, such has conquering my fear of public speaking. Joining Toastmasters was natural first step.
And just like that I was presented the key to my prison. But with the new found strength to conquer my fears, I threw it aside and instead kicked down the prison door. I mean, the title of this speech is “prison break”, not prison release.
Once I took the first step out, I knew there was no turning back.
Days after this speech, I packed my bags and ran away from home, moving to a totally different city in hopes of starting a new life. This too is a story for another day.