Most of us have experienced a moment of anxiety or two in our life. The butterflies before a make-or-break your career presentation; the urgent need for a shot of whisky before delivering a best man’s speech; the tremble in your stomach as you disrobe in front of a new love for the first time. It’s important for us to feel anxious from time to time, it keeps us human, anchors significant life moments and enables us to grow as individuals.
The moment anxiety becomes an issue is when it affects our ability to function day-to-day. For the person overcoming abuse or rape, locked in the nightmares of PTSD or the socially anxious soul unable to connect with the world, anxiety is a prison not unlike that featured in The Dark Knight Rises; easy to get into, but nigh on impossible to climb out of.
Yesterday I wrote a little about the anxiety I feel in sharing opinions. Although this impacts on my life it could hardly be considered a severe impediment to my day-to-day functioning. However, when you look at how anxiety has impacted on my educational career, it may become more apparent the damage this condition can cause.
The Impact of Anxiety
For those who don’t have a working knowledge of the British educational system, A-Levels are the examinations that come after GCSEs (the exams you take after five years in High School). Once you’ve completed your GCSEs you are allowed to leave school and never return, but in today’s age, A-Levels are pretty much compulsory should you desire a career outside of fast food or dole bludging.
When I came to choose which A-Levels to take it was a no brainer. I’d known for months what I was going to do; Media Studies encompassed my love of film, television and print media; English Lit, my passion for literature and writing; Theatre Studies, covered my fascination with acting and theatre. With these three subjects under my belt I would be well on my way to university and, in turn, a career in film-making and the arts.
So, for two years, I studied Media Studies, Math and Computing.
Yep, you read that right. For months I knew what subjects I was going to do – but when it came to registering for them, I chose two subjects I had absolutely NO interest in whatsoever.
A large part of my anxiety is an intense fear of being evaluated or scrutinized by other people to the point that I will completely remove myself from the situation in order to keep myself safe and avoid any humiliation, judgment or criticism. It dawned on me that if I were to do English Lit, my writing would be subject to scrutiny by the rest of the class and presentations would need to be made that I just couldn’t do. The latter – obviously – being a pre-requisite for Theatre Studies. So in order to protect myself, I opted for two subjects where I could hide myself from the critical gaze of the class behind a text-book or keyboard.
They were the worst two years of my school life; I failed Math and barely scraped a pass in Computing. Whereas Media Studies, being a passionate topic for me, I excelled in.
No matter how I look at it, my anxiety controlled my A-Level decisions and, with the inevitable snowball effect that followed, it has haunted my life ever since.
Following my disastrous A-Level experiences it is no surprise that I didn’t go to Uni straight out of school. I knew by the end of the first year of A-Levels that I would not achieve the grades I’d need to gain a place. I also knew that the courses I was interested in – film-making, writing and publishing, arts and acting – I hadn’t taken the correct subjects for. Plus, the damage done to my self-confidence and self-esteem made me believe I would never be able to handle university life.
Basically, I was screwed.
So it comes as no surprise that my mood took a massive nose dive that summer. The realization that you’ve screwed up your entire life will do that! It was a realization that became a major factor behind my running away from home that summer.
Following two years of full-time employment and eighteen months backpacking I had built my confidence to a level I deemed sufficient to try to correct the mistakes of my past. I craved to return to education and achieve my dream of going to university, but wanted to make sure I was studying what I wanted. A course at Inverness College called ‘TV production, photography and sound production’ had everything I desired; writing, film-making, photography, acting, arts, film studies…everything was perfect.
By the end of the year-long course I’d caned every aspect of the course. In terms of written coursework, I was told it was university standard. In terms of practical assignments, although not perfect, were of a high standard. Classmates told me I should have my own radio show. Others told me it would be a waste if I didn’t pursue a university course.
So it comes as no surprise that, once again, I didn’t.
Only this time it wasn’t wholly the fault of anxiety, for I’d fallen in love, meaning I had to make a choice between my initial plan – of going to Vancouver to continue my studies at University (where, revealing one of my big life secrets, I’d been accepted) – or continuing my relationship with my girlfriend, which if I did, moved Canada off the table.
Although love was a major part of the choice I made, anxiety did play a part, for (like with A-Levels) not pursuing my dreams was a safer option than opening myself up to criticism, scrutiny and humiliation.
It would be nearly six years before I re-entered tertiary education. Throughout that entire time I attempted various night courses (all of which went uncompleted because of my employment commitments) and continually dreamed of going to university.
By this time anxiety was ruling my life. I rarely took chances. I rarely opened myself up. I had become safely coccooned in my safe little life with dozens upon dozens of protective strategies implemented to reduce the humiliation and insult I’d grown to fear since my teenage years.
When my relationship ended in 2006 it provided me the opportunity to reflect on my life and perhaps build a new future; hence, my decision to return to college.
I have written of this event several times in the past. Of how I was shit scared of returning to tertiary education after so many years in safe full-time employment, of how terrified I was of being in a situation where my writing would be regularly criticized, of how petrified I was of the numerous presentations I would have to give in front of dozens of people, but…for the first time in my life I felt confident enough in my abilities to believe I would be able to excel in the course.
A course specifically chosen not only on the basis that it reflected all of my passions but that it provided a pathway into several university courses I would have sacrificed a limb to get into.
Alas, as previously documented, things did not go to plan. The abuse fed into the glandular fever which fed into the anxiety which fed back into the abuse and cost me the course, my dreams and ultimately, my chance of tertiary education.
Although I do still cling to the hope that I’ll be able to return to education – albeit rarely – I know in my heart my chances have passed. If I can’t write my opinion as a blog comment, how could I write it in the form of an essay? If I can’t walk down the street to purchase food without a panic attack, how could I walk to a university lecture hall? If I can’t talk to a single human being without fear of humiliation, how could I present coursework without fear of public humiliation?
When I look back on how anxiety has shaped my educational choices – from the selection of my A-Levels, through turning down Vancouver, and ending up in the abuse fuelled loss of my college course – I wonder how different my life would be if anxiety didn’t have such a hold over me.
I’m aware it’s not all the fault of this disorder, that I must – and DO – take some responsibility for my choices, but they are choices that would have been easier to make had anxiety not been a factor.
Something that, if your only encounter with anxiety is making a presentation, being a best man or slipping your undies off to flash your boyfriend, is difficult to understand.
When it comes to my anxiety, we’re not talking fluttering little butterflies.
We’re talking a life-altering, heart-stopping fear that I have no idea how to fight anymore.
If I ever did to begin with.
Previous articles in this series:
- Anxiety and its effect on sharing my opinion (myjourneywithdepression.wordpress.com)
Tomorrow: Anxiety and its effect on my body >>>