It is Friday night, three days before the beginning of my second semester of seminary. I have spent the afternoon working on one of three papers for the two classes I took during Jan term, “Camps, Conferences, and Retreats” and “Curriculum Critique and Development,” and I just lost about three hours of work when Microsoft Word crashed unexpectedly and failed to “auto-recover.” I know: I should have been manually saving every few minutes.
When I realized Richard could not recover the work, a familiar feeling of panic set in. The same panic I woke up to earlier this week, in the middle of a nightmare. The details of the dream had already vanished, but the overwhelming emotions remained. For moments or minutes I lay in bed, the sheets wet with sweat, feeling small and worthless, incapable and ashamed, fearful, furious, and paralyzed. I kept thinking, “I can’t. I can’t do it. I am not going to make it through the next semester.” No matter how many times I pull up my grades online and see the evidence that I am capable of academic success in graduate school, I cannot shake the feeling that the next class, the next quarter, the next assignment, the next book will be insurmountable.
I have always been on the anxious side of the spectrum, but I was not diagnosed with Generalize Anxiety Disorder until I became very sick with a stomach condition in 2010, which turned out to be unrelated (but that is another story). I had no idea that academia was a trigger for my anxiety until I arrived at VTS in August and discovered there was no system of accommodating those with learning differences (I am Dyslexic). At first I was confused because when Richard and I visited VTS last February, I asked if VTS provided services for those with learning disabilities and the Academic Dean told me to contact the Writing Center. Over the summer, I contacted the coordinator of the Writing Center, explained my situation, expressed my needs, and arranged to meet with her once I arrived on campus in August. Shortly into our first meeting, I realized that while she is a wonderful editor but does not have experience working with learning differences. Certain that there was someone who could help me navigate course scheduling and assistive technology, I met with one person after another until arriving in the office of the Academic Dean. Our meeting took place a full twenty-nine days after I arrived at VTS, as I was completing my August term classes. Almost two weeks after that meeting, I finally received confirmation that the Dean would reimburse the purchase of Optical Character Recognition software that would allow my computer to read aloud PDFs and scanned books.
Those first six weeks I struggled with anxiety every single day. I felt stupid for not making sure that VTS had disability accommodations before applying. I felt trapped into failure having moved not only myself, but my new husband 400 miles to this program I now had no hope of succeeding in. I felt ill prepared compared to the other students. Unworthy. Alone. And furious that VTS provided no one to help me.
I had two anxiety attacks. Something would remind me of the impending academic work and my heart would beat faster, my hands would sweat, my chest would tighten, and my breathing would get faster. The trapped feeling would become overwhelming. And I would just cry, my thoughts circling downward, “I am not capable of doing this work,” “I am not going to be able to keep up,” “I am not smart enough for this,” “I am going to fail and disappoint.”
All of a sudden, in my late twenties, I was in middle school again being made fun of for mispronouncing words as I read aloud in class. I was in second grade again, comparing the paragraph the girl next to me had written to my scribbled sentence. I was in high school again, asking my friend to check what I had written on the board before I turned around and let the whole class see it. I was in shame.
I thought about dropping out, but it didn’t seem like a great option considering I had no job, we had just spent a bunch of money moving here, and we had no other place to live. So I stayed. I listened to one book at a time (thanks to the OCR software), wrote one paper at a time, and completed one exam at a time. Until the semester was done.
But here I am again, face to face with the book list for the coming semester, the reading list for next week, the classmates who have already started the work, and the software program that failed to save a nearly completed assignment. But even in this hopeless moment, I know I am not alone. The people that love me will never stop reminding me that I am enough whether I graduate from this program or fail out. That every insurmountable obstacle is tackled one step at a time. And, that we are an Easter people. Death and fear do not get the last word. I get to write the story of my summit.
A Note About Anxiety
It is hard to be with someone as they struggle with anxiety. You might not understand why they are so worried about whatever it is. The kindest thing you can do is listen. Ask them to tell you what they are feeling, affirm how difficult it must be to feel that way, and find out more about what they are experiencing from a reputable source such as Mental Health America.
Photo Credit: Richard Allred