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Battling Anxiety Alongside a Million Strangers

By Mark J. Williams

I didn’t want to go to The Women’s March. Friends asked, even demanded, that I join them, but I didn’t think I could handle the crowds. I have terrible anxiety about being in large groups of people. It gets ridiculous sometimes. A few years ago, friends dragged me to watch the Halloween parade in Greenwich Village. I got so freaked by the number of people pushing and shoving their way to Sixth Ave that I hyperventilated into my Dracula cape.

I felt awful about not going. A 38-year-old gay man and lifelong New Yorker and who grew up with a quartet of strong females — mom, grandma, and two sisters — as my role models, I should been there to show my support for women’s rights, LGBT rights and so much more. In the morning, I scrolled through Facebook and admired all of my friends who’d gone to march. I was proud of them for taking a stand and impressed by the number of people who’d flooded Fifth Avenue. Yet, seeing the crowd reaffirmed that I made the right decision to stay home. Yet, I was jealous. My friends and so many others were part of this momentous occasion in history, while I was at home folding socks.

I felt a void. I tried to distract myself. I invented more chores to do around the house, like dusting the rugs and framing pictures that had been sitting on my kitchen table for months. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore.

“I feel so conflicted,” I told my significant other, Michael. “I should be out there marching, but you know how I get in crowds.” I wanted Michael to say something like, “we’ll go together and I’ll make sure you’re okay,” but he was bedridden with a sore throat and a nasty migraine. Madame Secretary played in the background. “What a stupid television show,” I muttered. “I can’t believe you watch this crap.”

“Maybe you should go for a walk,” Michael said, sensing the hostility that often takes over when I can’t make a decision. “Playwright brain,” he teased. I took his advice, but ended up walking toward the train station. To my surprise, I boarded a train headed for Grand Central Station, a hub for the marchers.

The train was quiet. I’d imagined a pumped-up crowd, but it was now after 2 p.m, so it was just me and a few other stragglers, including two women who wore them pink hats and carried signs that said “Dump Trump” and “Uter-this” with a middle-finger high in the air. I wished I had their courage. At the very least, I hoped that I could tell them how proud I was of them or compliment their posters. Instead, I quietly moved past them and took a seat a few rows ahead. I put on my headphones and listened to Tori Amos and George Michael, which seemed befitting for this occasion.

Grand Central was a much livelier. I could hear the buzzing voices before I’d gotten from the train platform to the main hall. Though I’ve passed through here thousands of time, the atmosphere was different than usual. People weren’t hurrying about or shoulder-blocking each other to make a train. They were gathered in small groups, socializing, laughing, and ready for a fight.

I stayed in here for a while. I could get a sense of the march but there was a decent amount of space and it was easy to find a quiet corner or get back on a train if needed. Plus, I had access to a bathroom, a major plus on the account of my overactive bladder. The men’s room was filled with women, but no one seemed to mind. No one seemed to mind anything today. People were friendlier, more talkative, and smiled more. It reminded me of the days following 9/11, and I hadn’t experienced something like this since then. A tall woman with red hair and three teenaged girls, all wearing t-shirts that said “I’m Still With Her” hurried past me. “Sorry, we really have to go,” she explained. “Would you mind?” I stepped aside and let them get ahead. I wanted to apologize for not marching with them, but I thought that might be strange considering we were in a bathroom.

I made it onto 42nd Street, where any sense of personal space quickly evaporated. I wanted to run back inside and get on a train, but being in this space, even among the massive crowd, was a rare moment that forced me to stand still and take in every second — even if I had to overcome nausea and hug the side of a building to do be here. Behind me, a woman floated her poster of a butt with a toupee. “Donald Rump…Donald Rump!” she shouted. It seemed befitting to me.

Men, women, and children held hands while drums blared and loud chants of “Love Trump Hates” reverberated between skyscrapers. Yet, with all of this energy, there was also a sense of peace. Smiles, laughs and hugs. I didn’t expect to find this kind of joy at a protest, but I was relieved. This was a crowd I was drawn to, not one that scared me. Their energy was euphoric. I almost wanted to go back home, get a rainbow flag and pink hat, and make a clever sign. Though I was here by myself, I felt a sense of unity.

Finally, adrenaline outdid anxiety. There were no physical barriers between the sidewalk and the march, only my nerves holding me back. I seized the moment and jumped in next to two women in their twenties yelling “Pussy Power!” They asked me to take their photo, and I wanted to go a step further and praise them for their efforts and discuss what this moment meant for all of us, but I remained too shy for that. Instead, I weaved in and out of the crowd, smiling at others way more than I usually do, until we came to a complete standstill and I got really anxious again.

I didn’t make it to the very end. Yet, I’m not sure that really matters since there are many more steps to take. I went home to Michael and as we watched Netflix and had a quiet Saturday night, I knew that he — we always be worth marching for. Even if I have to keep overcoming my phobias it. Who knows: maybe next time I can take on an even greater fear: public speaking.

As first published in Medium

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