Confessions of an Anxiety Case Part 7: Anxiety and Academics

I’ve mentioned in earlier posts the doubt that anxiety sows. There isn’t an aspect of life that’s immune to it, including school and academics. Although weirdly, I’ve been able to use my anxiety to become a better student…albeit probably an unhealthy one.

I was a pretty good student in middle school, but whatever. By the time high school came along it became difficult to try. It was difficult at times to focus. It was easy. I would sometimes get shit from other students for doing well. Nothing bad but it wasn’t something I easily shrugged off. I never felt challenged so it was kind of easier to act like I didn’t give a shit about my grades.

Then my parents divorced and after which I really didn’t care. I’m not positive that that was a catalyst for my losing interest because I didn’t feel that way at the time. But yeah…retrospectively that stress could definitely have broken what focus I had on school. Especially seeing as how I was the one to negotiate the divorce. Meaning….I met with the judge both lawyers and came up with the terms. It’s a long story and not one for right now.

By senior year I took things a little bit more seriously…I guess. I tried a bit. My senior year history teacher told me I had the biggest turn around of any student he’d ever seen.


But that was it.

I didn’t fall into the typical pattern of college right after high school. My girlfriend’s parents gave my shit. I didn’t know what to do, though. Eventually my dad asked me and when I told him I didn’t know, he told me not to go to 13th grade.

He was right.

But I kind of did nothing. I worked and I hated it. I wanted to be an anthropologist before I realized that that word existed. But either way, it didn’t seem realistic. I had loved science and archaeology for my entire life but I couldn’t be one of those people. Some people watch the World Series and swoon over it. That’s how I would be about ancient Egypt and Neandertal and Australopithecus.

But still. That couldn’t be me.

Then I went on one of my many trips to New York with a friend. On the way home we stopped at some outlet shops in Connecticut. There was a little book store that was having a going out of business sale. I got this book, Gorgon, by Peter D. Ward. And his writing style was so informal. It had so much information but it was about his personal experiences. Going swimming, having crushes, having dreams. And I realized that this was just some guy.

It was then that I realized I wanted to go back to school. But it still seemed like a pipe dream. I couldn’t do that stuff. Not me. I was 21 or 22.

Zoom forward a bit. And at 26, I finally got back into school. I never took the SAT because I worried I would do miserably. It isn’t that I had no desire, the doubts were just more pervasive.

So at 26, after lots of planning and years of therapy I started at a community college as a “general studies” major. They didn’t offer anthropology. In fact they only had one anthropology course and it wasn’t offered once in the few years I was there. They told me I could do a sociology major. Yeah…like that’s the same thing.

Either way, it was different. There was a change.

The students were all kids. I don’t care if you’re 19 and in school and think you’re an adult because you don’t have to ask your parents to go to a party or because you take two classes and work part time and think you’re supporting yourself as a result. All the students there were kids.

Well…almost. Some were older people who want to further their education. And they wree awesome.

The kids were kind of frustrating because they did not care at all. Like…be clearly hungover and sleeping in sunglasses not caring. Like I said. They were kids.

And the professors didn’t feel like they were in charge of me. They weren’t the same kind of authority figures they were when I was in high school. They were authorities on a topic. But they were just people. I befriended a good amount of them and we still talk.

But I was still so worried about failure.

So. Worried.

As in…In one class the professor would give us several possible essays. Said you’ll see two and pick one. So I wrote all but my least favorite of them, and memorized them.

The feelings of inadequacy led to an obsession with academics. I would do assignments weeks in advance. I once emailed a professor a couple weeks before the semester started (once he emailed out the syllabus) and asked him about certain names so I could start writing a paper early.

But I did well.

I did very well. But not out of confidence.

Everything had to be perfect and I really began thriving under the pressure. There were some semesters in which I took 5 courses while working 40 hours. The more I had on my plate the less I could relax. The less I could relax the less anxiety I felt. But I wasn’t alleviating it…I was retrospectively allowing anxiety to run my life in order to accomplish what at the time seemed superhuman to everyone but me.

Eventually though…confidence came. I had one very encouraging professor who knew how to push me in the right ways. We would have great conversations and she knew the types of direction I needed.

And I realized I was good at this stuff. I wasn’t trying to impress these kids. I was there to learn.

I completed an honors research paper in literature. I spent summer 2013 in Kenya. I completed my senior thesis on gender and feminism. I completed an honors thesis in biological anthropology…which was done on my own time.

Yes, I was a good student. But I don’t really feel like it was necessarily smarts. Sure…I’m pretty intelligent. But really I accidentally found a way to harness the most detrimental aspect of my personality as a slingshot to just kind of bulldoze through things. And the doubt persisted until one of my professors told me that she thinks I know more about paleoanthropology than she does. And she was my biological anthropology professor. That same doubt and need for perfection had me email one professor and tell them I was kicking myself over an A-…which was my final grade.

I used to think I had OCD because I read about it being reframed as “perpetual doubt.” And that people with OCD will often get to the point of expertise on a topic before even feeling comfortable with sharing their interest. They doubt their ability that much.

I am under no illusions that this approach to academics is healthy. I have a lot of grey hair. But it’s so far served me pretty well and I feel like it will continue to do so throughout graduate school as I pare down my lifestyle to really not include anything but bicycling, yoga, my partner and my career. I’m working on keeping this drive but making it a bit healthier.

I don’t know that I can. But I’m also working on getting better at not giving a shit. Of putting things off. I used to think I didn’t get stressed but at some point I’ve come to realize that I was only stress. Intense stress was my baseline.

That’s changing. I have actual happiness in my life now. I’m honestly sometimes worried it’s going to swing too far in the other direction and I’ll just be a lazy bastard who knows big words. We’ll see.

For now though, I’m applying for graduate school and need to work on my CV.


About Pedal Powered Anthropology

I have a degree in anthropology from Rhode Island College. My focus was in biological anthropology but I also have a broad interest in cultural anthropology, archaeology and linguistic anthropology. This blog is intended to be for the development of my own positions and ideas, mostly regarding paleoanthropology and paleontology in general, with a heaping helping of evolution on top...but also includes bits about a lot of different aspects of culture, primarily race, gender, privilege, the environment and my own personal relationship with anxiety.

Posted on 11/15/2015, in confessions of an anxiety case, Health, identity, introspection, mental health, personal perspectives and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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