On Anxiety & Activism

Original artwork by Aaron McBrine

Aaron McBrine

Original artwork by Aaron McBrine

Sarah Ryan, Editor in Chief

Do you think that you could ever make real change? Maybe not. Maybe you’re too shy, too awkward, too nerdy, too anxious. Maybe your hands shake when you speak. Maybe you stutter your way through class presentations. Maybe you have a hard time speaking to one person, let alone one hundred. Maybe you just think that change is reserved for a certain kind of person – that it’s genetic or something. Maybe there’s some kind of quality that you just don’t possess.

Maybe this, maybe that. The truth is, there is no perfect person. There is no gold-star example of what it means to be a leader, what it means to have a voice. There is no “key” to success. The only thing you need to make a difference is passion. Fire. Something that inspires you, something that angers you, something that you just can not stop thinking about. You could be oh-so well-adjusted, without any fear, without any embarrassment, without any regrets. None of that means anything if you can’t find something to care about.

I am the “maybe” that I described. I stumble over my words and my hands tremble and you can probably see the fear in my eyes. I have never considered myself to be particularly extroverted. I’m perfectly, painfully, perpetually anxious. I laugh through my nervousness and I cry through my anger. I’m terrible at hiding my emotions.

You may be wondering what this has to do with anything. Why am I explaining all of this to you? Well, my perfectly, perpetually anxious self has spoken to hundreds of people about tobacco prevention. I’ve facilitated trainings, attended legislative visits, and lead statewide events. I haven’t let my anxiety keep me from making change.

At fourteen years old, with racing thoughts and numb fingertips, I helped convince our Board of Health to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco to 21. That day, in teeny-tiny room at town hall, I helped my dreams become a reality. At sixteen, with the same anxiety and the same ambition, I spoke at the statehouse with twenty other teens. Twenty one teenagers pushing for Tobacco 21, a bill that would raise the legal age to purchase tobacco statewide. Just weeks ago, our collective voices were heard throughout legislature. We spoke to the media, then to our senators and representatives. We used our own strengths and our own stories to spread a message. We fought for tobacco prevention. We fought for public health. We fought for ourselves and we fought for our peers.

It’s too early to say whether the bill will pass, but it’s not too early to say that we made a difference. We allowed our legislators to see things from our perspective. We showed them that youth care about the changes that they are making. We gave ourselves a chance to be heard, and we used our voices to do good.

My story does not mirror that of anyone else. There isn’t a roadmap or a checklist for learning how to use your voice. There isn’t an application fee or an interview. There isn’t anything standing in your way, except you.

You don’t have to speak to hundreds of people to make a difference. You don’t need to join a club or be designated as a leader. You just need to stand up for what’s right. Speak out against injustice. Stand up for the truth. Show others kindness and compassion. Believe in something greater than yourself. Be an advocate, an activist, a leader, a changemaker. Learn to use your voice, even if it shakes.