I took a seat at a large conference table in the university’s counseling center. I looked around nervously. I kept my hands in my lap, fingers (figuratively) crossed, hoping that I wouldn’t recognize a single face that walked through the door and into the Anxiety and Stress Management Class that I’d signed up for. It was a six-week class that I’d discovered via a flier posted on a bulletin board outside of my second home, the university library. As I sat and waited, my heartbeat felt large and uncomfortable. No doubt, I was anxious.
I was a first-semester graduate student at the time, trying to keep up with the 200+ pages I needed to read each week for my classes. It was just too much reading. (I hadn’t yet fully realized the fine art of skimming and scanning.) Theories would blend together and famous philosophers like Hume and Locke would inch their way into my dreams, uninvited. Even during the waking hours, I couldn’t relax. I’d try to zone out by watching a sitcom; instead, I’d find myself thinking about how little I know about designing research studies and I needed to know for that exam on Monday! and I’d only end up flustered and feeling unproductive when the credits rolled by. I couldn’t keep my anxiety level in check. Not even through the traditional notion of relaxing sitting on the couch, remote control in hand, pleasant faces and canned laughter on the screen. Nope. Didn’t work.
I held my breath as a handful of fellow students began filtering into the conference room. “He looks unfamiliar,” I thought, as I eyed up the other anxious twenty-somethings walking through the door. “And that girl looks friendly…maybe. Wait, maybe not.”
I had been nervous enough while walking up the stairs to the Counseling Center, and I’d tried to hide my face in an issue of the school’s weekly newspaper while I was in the Center’s waiting room, eight long minutes early. This was almost too much for my anxiety-ridden self. I never had a problem with social anxiety before my anxieties have always been a result of workload issues but I suddenly felt like I’d had a new diagnosis. I just didn’t want anyone else to know that I was having a problem. I was excited for the content of the class, which advertised cognitive and behavioral techniques that promised to get me through my first semester, but not for the company. Sitting in that conference room, I felt stigmatized. It was like I had a banner flying over my head that read “Yes, I do have a problem with anxiety!” There was no going back.
Students continued to walk in. “Oh no, I’ve seen him before. Somewhere in the library, maybe? A student worker at the circulation desk?” I couldn’t remember. My heart felt like it was vibrating.
One of my professors would open each evening class by asking our class where we fell on the 1-to-10 “How ready are you to quit this program?” scale. That week, I was running on a 9.5…only because I was scared to admit the truth and give myself a 10. I had already been dressing my own academic grave and calling around for quotes on health insurance. Meanwhile, my classmates had all reported scores of 5 or below for that week. How could they be keeping their heads so level while I’m slowly cracking up from the pressure? How could they sit and watch television in the evening, or read a book for pleasure, or go for a walk knowing that there was a major amount of work to be done?
The halfway point of the semester was upon us, and the same professor with that brilliant scale idea had described the next seven weeks as a “downhill train ride” with no brakes. Oh, and the train was full of explosives. And there was a baby tied to the tracks ahead. (I’m not kidding; he actually said that!) How could the rest of my cohort sleep at night? Everyone knew that grad school wasn’t a walk in the park, but honestly? Explosive downhill trains to terror & babies tied to the tracks? I didn’t understand how everyone else projected such an A-OK, hunky-dory, we’ll-get-through-this image.