‘Orange Is the New Black’ Star Daniella De Jesus on Battling Social Anxiety
"It’s the monster under the bed or in my head that keeps me up at night."
January 28, 2020
Being an actor with social anxiety disorder around other actors can be quite difficult. So many of them have big shiny personalities and pretty faces and it’s easy to feel eclipsed or swallowed up or like there’s no space for scared, quiet me. And maybe I’ll get a brief moment of courage to say something but no one will hear me and I’ll have to repeat myself and they still won’t hear me and I’ll have to repeat myself again and they STILL won’t hear me and then I’ll realize that it’s not that they can’t hear me, it’s that they weren’t listening to me in the first place, like at all, and maybe if they do finally listen and hear me, what if what I have to say is gonna be something so stupid and unnecessary and embarrassing or sad or upsetting and everyone will think, “Why is she even here?”
Social anxiety feels like your brain is telling you conspiracy theories about yourself. And I don’t know about you, but my brain makes very convincing arguments. My brain tells me I’m boring, embarrassing, stupid, a downer all before I’ve even opened my mouth. Before I say anything, I’ve tumbled the words in my mind anywhere from 5-50 times, practicing, perfecting, so that by the time I’m finally ready to speak the moment has passed, everyone is laughing at something else, another discussion has started and now I have to catch up and now people are starting to wonder, “What’s wrong with Daniella? Why doesn’t she speak?”
In 2017, I was diagnosed with social anxiety and depression, but I’ve struggled with both since childhood. The thought of going to a party and being pulled to dance, or being forced to greet relatives I barely knew, or having to talk on the phone or to cashier would make me cry or panic. For years, I’d have explosive diarrhea before auditions. And between the ages of 8 and 11, I stopped playing outside because I was so afraid of strangers.
My social anxiety is the thing I hate most about myself. The thing that is just always in my way. It’s the monster under the bed or in my head that keeps me up at night. Because not only have I been blessed with an irrational fear of meeting and being judged by new people, I’ve also been blessed with a desperate need for attention from other people, which I guess is why I’m an actor, which unfortunately involves constantly meeting and having to impress and be judged or evaluated by new and sometimes very fancy people. Being an actor with social anxiety is one big joke. It’s truly hilarious to me. I’m expected to be friendly and charming and outspoken and confident but I am often so terrified of giving the wrong impression, I sometimes cannot even form a full sentence, or worse, I go totally silent. I have no words. I feel myself grasping for words in my brain and they are all just out of my reach, I cannot get my mouth to move, I cannot get my mouth to open, my lips feel like they’ve fused together, I remain stone faced and silent. And maybe if I were a white man, this would read as a cool confidence. And maybe if I were a white woman this would read as an endearing shyness. But more often than not because I am who I am, which is a Puerto Rican and Dominican woman/Afrolatina, I am seen as an angry bitch, at best, and a scary bitch, at worst.
In 2018, I was fortunate enough to be nominated and invited to the Screen Actors Guild Awards alongside the rest of my “Orange is the New Black” cast. As an actor, I was thrilled. I would get the chance to be in the same room as many of the artists I’ve watched and admired since childhood. As a person with social anxiety, I was mortified. The days leading up to the event, I couldn’t sleep. I was constantly re-thinking everything about myself and the way I looked and convinced myself that I didn’t deserve to go. And I tried, using the logical parts of my brain, to tell myself that I’d rather be myself and be impressive than attractive. But the irrationally anxious parts of my brain wouldn’t let me believe it and instead I convinced myself that my first impression is rarely, if ever, impressive because when I’m in social situations with lots of new people my personality shuts off and I become nobody. And who even is “myself”???? My first impression is almost never “she was charming” or “she was funny” or “she’s a boss” (even though I know all these things exist within me) because it’s usually “she was rude”, “why doesn’t she talk”, “she looked mad”, etc. and from many years of experience, I’ve learned that few people want to talk to someone who looks like they don’t want to be there. And I would wish and wish and wish I had a key that could unlock my personality whenever I wanted.
But I learned something at the SAG awards. While withdrawing to the perimeters of these parties I met and spoke with a number of actors who admitted to feeling the same fears. I saw actors more experienced than I, waiting outside afterparties, wide-eyed and shivering, barefoot, clutching their gold shoes, just wanting to go home. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to be there. Most of the people in these rooms are scared or insecure or have that deep, twisted desire to be given attention and be admired by everyone we encounter. Some people are just better at hiding it or masking it with alcohol or drugs or have had enough money for years of therapy and/or medication that they’ve learned to manage it. And I’m happy to say that I am learning to manage it too.
I guess I’m fortunate enough that social anxiety doesn’t get so far in my way that I need medication to manage. Though, on a few occasions, I have taken CBD pills to relax me before certain high stress meetings–it helps sometimes. Therapy has helped. Training my mind to unlearn defense mechanisms that no longer serve has helped. Forcing myself to meet new people has helped. But that’s taken 3 years of therapy, which I am very lucky to have had. And I’m still learning and unlearning. My social anxiety isn’t gone, by any means. There are still days when I’m afraid to leave the house. Days I’m afraid to pick up the phone. There are still parties or networking events or meetings where I barely speak or go home early or never show and I tell myself I had an episode and that’s ok and next time I’ll try harder. What helped me the most is naming the thing, being honest with folks, telling people I have social anxiety or difficulty in social situations. And I’ve learned there is always, always at least one other person in the room dealing with the same thing or something similar and sometimes knowing that makes it easier too. Being diagnosed was actually one of the best things that happened to me. It sounds counter-intuitive, but suddenly I didn’t feel as crazy. My therapist gave me my diagnosis and I felt a weight off my shoulders. I could point to something and say “that’s why, that’s what it is, that’s the monster in my head.” And once you know who the monster is, you can start taking steps to deal with them.
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