I hate first weeks of school.
I guess the good news is that last week was my last first week of school, at least for a while. It hasn't really sunk in yet, though, that this is the beginning of the end. And I really want to go through this semester with some sort of consciousness of that. I want to appreciate these moments before they're gone. I want to revel in the feeling of transition.
But back to first weeks...They're awful when you're an anxious person. My therapist says I shouldn't call myself an "anxious person" because that means I let my anxiety define me, but eff that...All I've ever known is life with anxiety and it does define me; it influences my every moment. It shapes my personality and my actions. People get to define themselves as white or black or Latinex or gay...why can't I define myself as mentally ill? I don't mean it in a bad way; it's just part of my identity, perspective, and experience.
Rants aside, I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on life right now because I've wanted to write about first-week anxiety last semester but never got around to it because, well, schoolwork caught up with me.
First off, I wanted to give a shout-out to all the anxious people starting school again. I learned to dread going to school when I was young, and I think I mentioned before on this blog that I would always cry and cry the week before school started. I didn't have a particularly horrific school experience or anything, but I just hate the stress, the regulation, the loneliness, the detachment, the oppression. Even though I'm a good student and always get things in on time and do a thorough job, I always feel like I'm drowning once school begins. All the deadlines feel so impersonal and even though I know everyone else is stressed, you're the only one who can do your own work, so there's an element of loneliness. I guess it doesn't help that I've never had a ton of friends. It also doesn't help when you have friends who invalidate your fears and anxiety about school when you confide in them.
First weeks are awful because you get syllabus after syllabus of deadlines, due dates, projects, readings, expectations, grading policies, office hours, participation grades...It's like a giant vortex of anxiety. If the mantra to combat anxiety is, "Take everything one day at a time; don't worry about tomorrow", syllabuses undermine all of that. And we've all had those teachers who love to talk up their class to be as intimidating as possible to weed out people. I recall getting so anxious about being in honors math class when I was in sixth grade after listening to the teacher tell us all that we would be covering that semester (I've never been particularly confident in math), that I dropped down to the grade-level math class. It was not an appropriate fit for me and my teacher kept telling me to move up to Honors, but I was terrified. But that was the only year I got an award for my performance in a math class, and trust me, that's never going to happen again...
You think that after, what, eighteen years of first weeks (I guess more if you count semesters...) I would be able to not get freaked out and tell myself, "Hey, you've done this seventeen times and everything turned out alright, even when you were, like, almost dying, so I'm pretty sure you can do this." But no, I still got pretty overwhelmed. Not as overwhelmed as before, but freaked out. And it didn't help that my professors gave the syllabuses in a casual, "Oh, btw, nbd but there's a ten-page paper and two three-pagers but they'll be a breeze." And when I expressed my overwhelm to fellow students they seemed non-surplussed by the workload.
This week, I'm feeling less overwhelmed. I guess I'm just taking the "one step at a time" approach. But my heart goes out to all the people who feel completely out of their element and overwhelmed. It's not a fun feeling to have. That's an understatement. You feel like you're in a pressure cooker. Like someone just placed your head in a crock pot. Maybe you get headaches or neckaches or realize you're constantly tense. Maybe you start having panic attacks again or waking up in the middle of the night. Maybe you feel emotionally like you're drowning and can't possibly get this all done. You need a break just when you can't take one. You feel overwhelmed with inadequacy and uncertainty. Your calendar is your enemy but it is also your master; you can't ignore it but it terrifies you and it's marked up with commitments and deadlines in red ink.
It's okay to feel overwhelmed. It's completely understandable and valid; don't let other people who are excited and blase let you feel like you're crazy. (Personally, I feel like they're the crazy ones...) Give yourself room to breathe though. Take a moment every now and then to pause and say, "I am alive. This moment is mine. I am here. It is a miracle. I am breathing. I am working. I am achieving. I am enough. There is a future, but my job is to do my best today."
Look around you when you walk. Look up at the trees and admire how their branches stretch as if trying to touch the sky. Notice the little things: a house's shutters you like, a plant you've never seen before, a bird flying by, no matter how small. Dwell on the small miracles that all this life is happening. It's not all about this stress bubble that has encapsulated you (I'm not blaming your for the stress bubble, by the way...I hate how life puts us into these bubbles.)
I know the pressure is unrelenting when the semester starts, but I also know that people who are anxious and/or struggle with other mental illness are strong. They are survivors. They are overcomers. Every day is a battle for them, and they beat it. Just getting through a day is achieving sometimes.
When the world is putting pressure on you, be the one to give yourself a break.
You are a miracle.
We will be okay. One day, one hour, one minute, one second, one breath at a time. One sentence, one word, one formula, one math problem...It's going to be okay.
(I do wish there were a couple extra hours in a day though...)