Navigating the path to being forged in the crucible of anxiety

Story and photos by Airman 1st Class Savannah L. Waters
86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
U.S. military members stand in formation during a Bastille Day military parade rehearsal July 10 at the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, Paris. The U.S. marched in and led one of the largest and highest profile military parades in the world. The parade included more than 7,000 military personnel and is the oldest military parade in existence dating back to 1880.

I readjust my shorts for the tenth time as I walk toward the group of people waiting around the van, reading the requirements for appropriate clothing.

“Are they too short? It’s too hot outside for pants, but what if I’m the only one wearing shorts? Oh, she’s wearing sweats and a hoodie. I feel a little better. But she’s wearing pants, too. Do I have time to change? Maybe I should ask her if she thinks they are too short. Nah. Great, it’s raining. Now I’ll look like a wet trash bag.”

I whisper out loud to myself as I obsessively rummage through my bags, “Pants, shirt, coat … red debit card, license, CAC, passport …”

As first impressions go, I am an extreme extrovert. I love to connect with people and have been described as a very personable woman my mother believing that I’ve never known a stranger.

But what most people don’t know, including my closest friends and family, is that I struggle daily with varying levels of social anxiety.

French military planes fly over Avenue des Champs-Elysees in Paris during the July 14 celebrations.

With less than a week of notice, I was recently assigned a temporary duty to march in the Bastille Day military parade in Paris, one of the largest and highest profile military parades in the world. The Bastille Day parade included more than 7,000 military personnel and is the oldest military parade in existence dating back to 1880.

I’m not one for car rides that don’t involve me being the driver, so naturally I passed out all four and a half hours to Lycee Militaire de Saint-Cyr, located at Saint-Cyr l’Ecole, close to the Chateau of Versailles. I groggily popped my head above the seat periodically to remind occupants I was alive in the far back seat of the vehicle, comfortable in my hiding spot that was a physical barrier between me and potentially embarrassing myself and the others with awkward conversation.

Throughout my most stressful moments in life, I’ve asked myself the same question, a question I was unable to put into words until now: “Is it possible to have social anxiety and be extroverted?”

My anxiety isn’t something I feel every second, like a constant cloud hanging over me. It can come unexpectedly, or when I feel singled out or thrust into a situation I didn’t have time to mentally prepare for.

When my office told me I’m getting paid to go to Paris for eight days, without thinking, I went, “Where do I sign?”

Members of the French Foreign Legion stand in formation during a Bastille Day military parade rehearsal July 10 at the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, Paris. The parade included more than 7,000 military personnel and is the oldest military parade in existence dating back to 1880.
A U.S. Navy Sailor and a member of the Armee de Terre switch hats for a photo July 12 at Camp de Satory, France. During rehearsals, military members from different countries had the opportunity to interact and learn from the other’s military traditions and culture, further strengthening the bond between old allies.

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 what was essentially their Independence Day parade. I honestly didn’t know how I had gotten the opportunity.

The sun beat down on us as the first pair of strangers came up to show us where we’d be staying the next eight nights. Listening to the chatter of my fellow Airmen, I could tell they formed friendships on the way to our temporary new home.

Camille Sturman, a writer who labels herself as a gamer, coder and eater of snacks, posted this very relatable thought to Quora, a question-and-answer site, when asked the question: “What does it feel like to be an extrovert with social anxiety?”

“… this is a very uncomfortable situation, I crave social interaction and attention, but when I get it, I feel all the pressure of being around people. When I’m alone, I want to be around people, when I’m around people, I want to be alone,” she said.

This describes me in certain situations perfectly.

Constantly forcing myself to come out of a shell no one else was ever aware of is exhausting. Some days I can’t function, and I’ve spent most of my life chalking it up to being awkward or just someone who talks too much when they’re nervous.

I had no idea the opportunities and emotions I’d be going through in just one week.

During just 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 part of public affairs and people tend to assume I can be in front of a camera, no sweat. I was told that I seemed well-spoken and was thrust in front of the cameras, excruciatingly slow beads of sweat rolling down my back.

It may surprise people who know me, but I had doubts in preparing myself for the interviews.

There was a rush of adrenaline, and I couldn’t believe I wasn’t stumbling like I always imagined I would. I felt so happy in that moment and like a completely different person.

Amid all 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 and World War II veterans and had the honor of meeting and receiving the coin of U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph E. Dunford Jr., the 19th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

How crazy does the sentence, “Last Friday I ate fancy finger food and sipped champagne in the Hotel National des Invalides while watching fireworks over the Eiffel Tower with some of both France’s and America’s highest ranking individuals,” sound?

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 and 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 constantly taken and so many people 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 lines to the Palace of Versailles, the Lourve and the Musee de l’Armee and forcing me to talk to people I didn’t want to talk to, 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. But 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 I ever have 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.