Difficult, but Necessary

This blog has allowed me to accomplish a lot of things over the past year and change; I’ve written somewhat faithfully (or compulsively, if you want to look at it that way) about academia, about writing, about narration, and about juggling the multiple roles and responsibilities that go along with my admittedly crazy life.

I have had to manage (or had to have others around me help me manage) anxiety for quite some time, and definitely for most of my adult life. My anxiety has often been school-related or work-related; it is very rarely related to narration, voice work, or writing. There are some types of interactions that trigger my anxiety; they are often very mundane and are usually based upon prior or stressful interactions with people.

Complete strangers are never a problem. I don’t have any issue with going to a coffee shop or store or convention or what-have-you and interacting with people. Grocery stores and pharmacies, not too much of a problem. Shoe-shopping is never an issue, just a frustration with my size ten (sometimes wide) feet.

I did theatre all through college; getting up on stage was not a problem. I practiced a lot, there were others with me, and it was a grand game of let’s pretend that people were allowed to come and watch. Public speaking, lecturing to students on topics with which I am familiar, and meeting with my kids’ teachers presents very little in the way of problems and anxiety.

The problem often comes with the issue of social judgment; clothes shopping often evokes a twinge of anxiety because I don’t have the best body image. Certain aspects of my dayjob where I must present without preparation or without adequate preparation induce anxiety. Being judged or evaluated without my knowing the parameters (and having that evaluation determine whether or not I have a job the next semester) has sent me into panic attacks that have resulted in very unpleasant situations.

For the past two days, I’ve been dealing with panic attacks, the sort that go on for hours and induce a state of almost-paranoia in places where people know who I am.  In this specific case, twelve days until an exam and the knowledge that there are too many priorities and responsibilities that will prevent me from studying in the way that best meets my needs is crippling. I have sat down at my desk and stared, shaking, at an outline and paper and wondered where I need to start. I already did a LOT of work to prepare, and it’s not enough to help cement the ideas in my brain.

Studying, for me, takes a long time. I have to write and re-write; I have to take the time to organize and re-organize information, and it can’t happen all at once. Given all my responsibilities and deadlines, this goal of twelve days is NOT realistic.

Two days’ straight of panic attacks is too much for me; I wake up in a cold sweat and wonder why. When I remember, my heart starts pounding double-time, all of the muscles that were relaxed in slumber decide to knot up. It takes several minutes to convince myself to get up and get showered, that it’s really worth the effort to have clean hair. I’m not at the “put on make-up” mode yet, but that’s because I don’t want to smudge the liner with crying and face-rubbing. The smells of breakfast make me nauseous; I only had one cup of coffee yesterday, and I forced myself to sit with my usual two while I bang out these words because… well, I know that routine and some semblance of normalcy will help.

I sat down with two people on campus for their perspective. Both told me that my delaying exams would not cause anyone to think less of me (which is often my biggest concern) and that I would not be the first person to do so. One stressed to me that my health was paramount; this is someone who knows the caliber and quality of my work, and the level of honesty and acceptance was exactly what I needed. The other said that the department feels that I’m ready and that if I decided to sit for the exam, I wouldn’t really have anything to lose, and that delaying the exam would be okay, but the concern is that I would lose much of what I’d learned already from classes.

The more I think about the “loss of learning” argument, which goes along with the lack of discipline to keep studying and not give up… I don’t think that is a concern for me. I can self-study rather well; I read books and take notes on areas I enjoy learning about, like writing and theories regarding self-regulation and motivation.

And… I just thought of something. Something funny and ironic and oddly fitting for this entry. One of my biggest, biggest, biggest worries in all of this is that I’m going to be compared to others who take the exam, including those with whom I work, and if I don’t move ahead with them, in spite of not being ready, then it’s some kind of failure. Several years ago, I agreed to take a jump-rope exercise class with my boss. At the time, my boss (a former high school gymnast who runs and works out somewhat regularly) was in far better physical condition than I was; for me, this was well before my re-evaluation of my eating and exercise regimen. I pushed myself through the whole class, refused to quit (except for the two minutes where I stepped back because I couldn’t breathe), and threw myself into the shower afterward with the triumphant thought of, “Ha, I kept up.” Two weeks later, I was at the doctor’s office with a slipped disc and back spasms that made anything but a slow walk very painful. It took me several months of physical therapy and adjustments (which amounted to a lot of lower back massage) as well as slow-paced strategic exercise to get back to a point where I could even consider starting a more workable fitness regimen. Trying to keep up with a benchmark that had no bearing on me as a person, giving my preparation and abilities, crippled me for months.

My husband’s biggest concern (and rightfully so) is that regardless of whether or not I pass on a first attempt, I will be ruined for the rest of the semester and I won’t be able to recover from the experience. He knows that I am more than just the degree, and that I want to be able to continue to write and record and teach my students. In order to do that, I need more time to prepare so that I know that I am ready.

It is going to take a lot of courage to go into those offices and say that out loud. At the same time, these people only know one facet of my personality; they know the student and administrator. They don’t know the author, the narrator, the teacher, the mom, or the spouse.

(Of course, I type that and my pulse skyrockets.)

I emailed my advisor and told her my decision. I’m not in tears, I’m not shaking. I’m a little nervous and my stomach still hurts, but I am going to manage this. No one is going to judge me because I am putting my health and my other roles ahead of this.

I am not giving up. I am taking more time because that is how I learn and how I function.

(Hooboy, cue the tears, good thing I am sitting at home…)

All right. Biggest challenge is going to be my getting through the next few days and not feeling wretched about my decision… because that’s just the nature of the beast. I am going to experience self-doubt, and I am going to come back to what I wrote during these odd fits of clarity and…

Well, I’m going to persist and maintain perspective, won’t I?

This entry was posted on Thursday, January 16th, 2014 at 8:43 am and is filed under PhD Ruminations. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

5 Responses to “Difficult, but Necessary”

  1. Scott Roche (@spiritualtramp) Says:

    You got some great advice. Kudos for putting it in action.

  2. Nobilis Reed (@Nobilis) Says:

    Trying to keep up with a benchmark that had no bearing on me as a person, giving my preparation and abilities, crippled me for months.

    And this can happen to us emotionally as well as physically.

  3. Tim Dodge Says:

    You know more than anyone else what’s best for you. Congrats on making a tough decision! It will work out for you, I’m sure.

    Hugs & prayers,


  4. Anne Elizabeth Baldwin Says:


    I took 13 semesters and 11 incompletes to get my master’s degree, when most students get it in three semesters and no incompletes.

    I also did it with one to two hearing aids to compensate for my moderate hearing loss. Plus one to two canes and an electric wheelchair to compensate for severe permanent vertigo. I also had an increasingly restricted diet as my stomach decided that several common food additives and half the produce department were reasons to produce entirely too much gas to allow me to sleep at night. And I also have a tendency to catch things illnesses no one else gets sick from.

    None of the students who went thru so much more quickly and easily had to deal with any of that.

    Neither professors nor staff – even the office secretaries – at the school seemed less proud of me than of the others. If anything, they were prouder, because they knew how long I’d worked at it, and how much other trouble I’d had to cope with. {odd smile}

    Just like my parents, and my friends.

    I hope you’ll learn what I did: the folks who know the full story never think less. Most of the folks who don’t know the full story don’t think less, either. The few who do really are the ones who don’t matter. {lop-sided but sympathetic smile, pat hand comfortingly}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  5. Doc Coleman Says:

    I am sorry that I’m getting to this post as late as I am. I know that by now you’ve made your decisions and dealt with the problem. All I have to offer is my support and a thought that I have had to share with several people who have struggled to match the accomplishments of others.

    It’s not a race.

    We each progress at our own pace. We don’t have to keep up with anyone else. Our accomplishments are admired on their own, not in comparison to anyone else’s. You have done great things in your life, and will continue to do more. In your own time.

    You can’t hurry a souffle. It rises when it rises. Hurrying will only ruin it.

    Don’t ruin your souffle.