Thursday, April 10, 2014

Anxiety, Academics, and Acrostic Poetry

Marathon of
Practically no

That's how I began today's reflection on my other blog.

My other blog, where I am writing this week about my comprehensive exams, is a semi-anonymous-but-not-really blog associated with my academic work, so I haven't been absolutely candid about mental illness - although it is an undercurrent, and probably fairly apparent in my writing as I talk about anxiety. I do have an anxiety disorder, among other diagnoses. Nothing like a mountain of high-stakes work to draw it out of me in its least rational manifestations.

My terror surrounding this exams has many overlapping elements. Fear of failure, of course, as I never feel like the quality of my academic work is adequate. But in addition, there is the fear of what will happen to me emotionally if I fail, or if I panic too intensely before I'm done, and thus bring about my own failure due to inability to emotionally cope. It is hard for me to separate what must be a normal extent of anxiety for these exams from anxiety stemming from being someone who struggles with anxiety on a more pervasive level. I've heard the horror stories: one person whose description of her oral exam uses similar language to what I would use when describing the odd sort of dissociation I felt while being raped; another who was hospitalized for dehydration after his comps. There isn't space in academic relationships to ask other people whether (or how) mental health has influenced their comps, and how comps has influenced their mental health.

When scheduling the exams and realizing that one of them would be on a date that I still find difficult, I was afraid that I would be preoccupied with thoughts of trauma while writing. I'm not. I'm preoccupied with a sense that the questions are purposefully designed to showcase my weaknesses, that my failure is a foregone conclusion. My academic fears are overtaking my triggers and trauma in their race for my attention - and perhaps that's a good thing, although it doesn't exactly feel that way.

Exam anxiety is something I've struggled with before. At 18, I was unable to write midterm exams after having a breakdown while studying and being unable to find my way home when I went for a walk in my neighbourhood. Then I spiraled downward, terrified that I could be having a psychotic break (I wasn't) with my fear of my own mental health overtaking my fear of grade twelve chemistry. The high school found other ways to evaluate me, and I am grateful that they accommodated my needs as I otherwise would not have passed my midterms, with attendant academic consequences. The trouble with comps is that there simply is no other way, in practice, at least. Theoretically, another system is absolutely possible - comps procedures less focused on stamina and more on intellectual ability are in place in other departments. Our handbook technically says that questions must be given to students "at least" one week in advance, but most professors interpret that as "no more than" one week in advance. The only reason this is done in such a short time frame, as far as I can gather, is tradition, and perhaps as a mechanism of weeding out students who are not prepared. The trouble, for me, is that I'm academically extremely prepared - but emotionally, I don't know if I ever will be. My friends and committee have assured me that I'm ready. I have thousands of notes as a tactile reminder of this. If I fail, it will be because of my mental health more likely than my academic ability - and that would be a tough thing to stomach.

I'm rambling now. Longer post to follow, I think, about how this system works with and against mental illness. Something more engaged, less navel-gazing, once comps are done. For now, I'm going to read some poetry and then go to bed early and hope that self-care doesn't count against me in the long term. Tomorrow I'll probably work on campus to be around people who are also working (but hopefully less distracting than a litter of two-week-old kittens). These people tell me it's all going to be OK. I'll only be able to believe them once it is over.

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