Academics and Anxiety: A Story of My Own

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Adam Kotsko, over at An und für sich, linked to a wonderful piece by Suey Park on academic anxiety. The piece, being as good as it is, solicited in me a desire to share a bit of my own experience; so what follows is a part of my story as it relates to anxiety and mental health disorder in a university context – at undergraduate level, so take it for what you will. I offer no solutions to any structural problems, just a story.

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In my final year of university I had, what approximated, more or less, a total mental collapse. It was brought on, I suspect, from a most intense manifestation of an underlying anxiety disorder. It came in my penultimate semester of study at undergraduate level and it witnessed a change in me, where I went from a second year at university in which I was totally on top of and completing work (complete with above average grades), to a total inability to even write and manage my life and study.

I’ve never really talked about or broadcast my experience in a lucid and/or public manner – mainly because it was not a good time. However, a number of factors were, I think, at play: for example, 1) I had 8 hours of class a week – spread over 2 days(!), 2) term started after a four month summer, 3) my first two essays were to be handed one week after the other, 8 weeks into the term (that meant 6 months between completing any official university work), 4) I had a non-existent social life, 5) I had (and still, to an extent, have) a terrible sleeping pattern.

However, I do not pretend or think my experience is reducible to any of these factors – not at all. They contributed, no doubt – but they were not all. I went from consistently and easily getting more or less above average grades, to some of the worst grades I received. I went from finding the work I had to do, more or less, simple, to not knowing how to write, think, or articulate anything – seriously.

This all lead to not just some thoughts about, for example, “Oh, I’m rather stressed right now” but a serious hope that I might be killed or kill myself. My anxiety reached such critical levels that I genuinely considered and regularly thought about ending my life. No one knew. No one noticed. Besides my immediate family, that is. I was never encouraged to seek help. I never thought to. I tried to just push through – despite, you know, me – and that, funnily enough, made things worse. I wanted to quit. I wanted it over.

At the time, I felt totally isolated, not just from any friends I had, but also because the university system was and is constructed to distance itself from students’ lives. How could any of the staff or lecturers notice any meaningful change in my life and study – they rarely saw me!? Which is what they wanted, of course – who wants to deal with a student who has actual problems that don’t manifest in clearly physical ways? (Would they identify with that attitude personally? Probably not; but they were complicit insofar as they participate in a system that actively fails students and precipitates these forms and feelings of anxiety.)

Now, I have always been a fairly anxious person – that’s who I am. However, the quality and intensity of my anxiety, at this time of my life, reached such a form and level – in tandem with the factors specific to final year university – that the very nature of who I am was affected entirely. I have carried the wounds of that time with me since. I’ve never really got over the exact nature of the anxiety disorder that became amplified and fully manifest then. The anxiety I have found myself experiencing, on occasion, since, often approaches the same quality as that which I experienced then – the same thoughts, the same feelings. It’s still not fun, it’s still not good, at times, and I suspect it is mostly situational factors that stop my anxiety from reaching fever pitch levels again.

That said, I am several years on from that experience and life is different. Being and getting beyond that context has offered the possibility for moving beyond the nature of that exact form of anxiety, and I am thankful for that.

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At any rate, check out Suey Park’s piece on this topic. It is seriously great – and puts forward some serious advice in regards structural and individual changes in light of a recognition of anxiety disorders. The lesson? Shut the fuck up and listen in! Anxiety disorders are a real problem. A real problem, in a truly pathological manner, because capitalism (if you want a one word assessment).

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