It is June 7. How did it get to be June 7 already? This year is moving way too fast, although not fast enough for the American electoral season to be done. That nonsense seems to be inhabiting its own putrid timestream.
School is finally over. It wrapped up just eighteen days ago, though as a group of us agreed last night, it’s seemed longer than that.
Over the past few days, I’ve been trying to figure out why this semester felt so much more difficult than others. Objectively, this was actually one of the easier terms I’ve had as a master’s student. A final paper for one class was literally a 4-5 page narrative reflection on an internship, which felt almost obscenely light. In the other class, we spent the first month trying to overcome technical glitches to get the platform we were using for a digital library to work.
In retrospect, this was a difficult semester due to several things:
- It really didn’t feel like that much was actually demanded of me (as per the 5-page final paper in the one class).
- There was a marked lack of structure and clear expectations in both classes.
Now, to the latter, I get that this whole graduate experience is, in some ways, the antithesis of the undergraduate degree. There’s a lot less hand-holding, and especially in a career-focused program like mine, one is expected to start thinking and behaving like a professional. I like this about graduate study because it’s less about the grade and more about proving that you know what you’re doing.
Of course, professors still need to lay out clear expectations for their students and communicate things like due dates, and changes to due dates and course content. Still, a major aspect of graduate-level study is directing one’s self and becoming more of a stakeholder in your education and career. In essence, graduate study asks students to set their own schedules based on what is demanded of them.
As Millennials would say, this is “adulting.”
The day after classes ended, I submitted my final paper and hopped in a car with a friend of mine to embark on a five-day camping trip. This is something I’d been looking forward to for weeks leading up to it, and to finally get away from the city and my job and school, and just be in nature, was lovely.
I did encounter one brief meltdown on the trip, which was followed by a rare breakthrough moment—rare in that it occurred in close proximity to the emotional event, which is a new thing for me.
It happened over the course of one hike that involved several river and stream crossings. I’ll say in advance that I experience serious anxiety over cleanliness and hygiene issues, so just going into the hike knowing about the crossings was hackles-raising enough. My friend went first each time as he wasn’t as bothered by either getting wet or muddy, but even he was a bit surprised by some of the stream crossings.
In brief, after getting stuck briefly during the third stream crossing, I was in the grips of a full-blown anxiety attack. It might not have been so bad had the water been clear, but it was muddy and somewhat deep, and I got stuck in the muck several times.
Here are a few symptoms from AnxietyCentre.com that I experienced that afternoon:
- A feeling of overwhelming fear
- Feeling you are in grave danger
- An urgency to escape
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pressure or pain
- Inability to calm yourself down
- Pounding, racing heart
For the next forty minutes or so, as we continued the hike, I just focused on breathing and bringing my heart rate down. Eventually, the calmer parts of my mind were able to start deconstructing that reaction, and the realization I had is that that anxiety attack was a concentrated version of how I feel all the time.
Basically, I’m afraid all the time. Not consciously, in a phobic sense. More an undercurrent of constant anxiety and fear. I’m afraid I’m a complete failure, that I’m never going to amount to anything, that I’m going to be alone for the rest of my life, that I’m a mediocrity, that I’m fundamentally worthless and unlovable…
What I was gradually able to unpack was that this feeling stems from early childhood, where my fundamentalist Christian parents over-reacted to what otherwise normal child behavior as if it were signs of moral depravity (which, in hindsight, is likely exactly what they thought).
A few months after I became an atheist, I was having lunch with my family, including my nephew who was less than a year old and kept dropping food from his high chair onto the floor. My sister (his mother), exasperated, commented: “There’s his sin nature showing.”
That was essentially how my sisters and I were raised.
Along with this was a reluctance on my parents’ part to allow me to fail. If I struggled or faltered in a pursuit, they generally stepped in to help. Since we were homeschooled, I never developed the coping mechanisms most children do for handling failure or dealing with normal challenges. So I panic, have an anxiety attack, feel like the world’s ending.
Being cognizant of this, however, I also feel stupid for feeling so out of control, for being so irrational. I also felt like a bad friend for ruining an otherwise pleasant hike.
I also realized that this fear and anxiety was holding me back—from my career, from dating, from achieving goals, etc.
About an hour into the hike, during all of this emotional unpacking, I had a moment of clarity. An inner voice said: You have a choice. You don’t have to let this fear control you.
And for a moment, I had a vision of myself crossing the river and actually enjoying the experience without freaking out.
That’s the direction I need to head.