When you’re away from home for a while, you’re most probably going to have some expectations for your return. That can be things you look forward to, like a loved one picking you up from the airport, or less pleasant outlooks, like getting back to a cold house because you forgot to turn on the heating or whatever.
When I came back home after ten months of travel, any possible expectations I could have had became outdone in both these senses: I was greeted by my family and closest friends at the airport – and by many more beloved people gathered in my parents’ backyard as a surprise for me: A memory I will treasure forever. But what else I had awaiting me was a new level of anxiety, one that so seriously messed with my life that I soon knew I wasn’t going to get back on track without professional help.
It was when I went for my first shift in my old job as a waitress that I made a decision: I’d been anxious about going to work all day. What if I’d freak out while I was there and wanted to leave? What if I’d feel sick and had to get out? What if I just couldn’t deal with not being able to leave when I want to? What if what if what if. Needless to say, I was already a mess before I even left the house and I had good reasons to believe that I wouldn’t make it through that night. So before I walked through the door of my old workplace I said to myself: If you can’t go through with this shift, you have to tell someone and you have to get help. Up to that point, I had been trying really hard to convince myself I was just having a hard time to readjust, that I just needed a little longer to get used to everything, that this was just a normal phase I was going through.
Over the weeks that followed my return, as I found myself struggling in more and more everyday situations – it was getting harder to keep this belief up with every time I had to get out of somewhere.
It took about ten minutes behind the bar that night that I knew I didn’t stand a chance. I grabbed a cloth and set out to clean the tables outside much more thoroughly than necessary, dreading the moment I had to go back inside and STAY there indefinitely.
When I had no more excuse left to stay outside and clean the spotless surfaces, I got back behind the bar. Another five minutes later, I found myself telling my boss something about a stomach bug and that I was too sick to work that night. Under a hundred apologies, I fled the scene like I had known I would.
Defeated, I stood outside the building.
I wouldn’t let myself back out of this. I just couldn’t. I had just proven to myself and everybody in that place that I was not capable of functioning for even one night.
I don’t remember if it was a warm summer’s day or one of these inappropriately greyish times that Germany seems to get a lot in July. But I do remember the absolute lack of surprise or hesitation in my mum’s voice on the other end of the phone when I said Can you come here and go for a walk with me?
I was lucky to find a therapist in a matter of weeks. If I hadn’t started therapy in the late summer of 2011, there is no chance on earth I would have started university in October that same year. There is no chance I would be where I am now.
It’s funny how these two major influences on my life happened simultaneously – and were pulling me in such different directions. I think if my biggest obstacle had been going back to school, I might have figured it out quite easily with my therapist by my side. But that’s not what life is about in your twenties – about staying where you are. In fact, that’s probably never what life is about but never mind that now. Instead of going back to the old, manageable challenges, I had bigger, more serious, more important obstacles ahead of me. So my work with the therapist was not only to keep me going for now, which was obviously my most urgent desire then. It sometimes felt like a race to me: What would come first? The exam, presentation, project that I was panicking about – or my ability to cope with it?
The truth is: I would have never made it through uni without my therapist. The opportunity to face the challenges thrown at me every day with a professional by my side who taught me how to look these situations in the eye and get through them was of such a high importance to me that I’m lacking to words to describe it. There have been countless situations where I seriously thought of quitting instead of facing what was coming and it is no overstatement to claim that many of these obstacles I was only able to get through because of my therapy.
Maybe you’re wondering what such a therapy is like and I would love to answer this for you, but I don’t think my answer would be very applicable to anyone else’s therapy. For me, it was a lot of talk about expectations, my own and other peoples’, a lot of (self-)perception, a lot of what’s the worst that could happen in this situation and why is that bad?, a lot of trying to see what the underlying fear at the root of my everyday anxieties was. It helped, that’s what counts I guess.
As for my uni experiences – it was a lot worse than school, I’ll tell you that. Panic attacks to some degree were a daily thing. I think I acted strange in a lot of classes and probably left a lot of people wondering what the hell was wrong with me. Sometimes the solution was simply focusing on the subject A LOT, like really getting into it and trying to forget about everyone else in the room. So I had some classes that I pretty much did by myself with the teacher, classes where I was always vigorously prepared, had read every text no matter what, and ready to discuss them in every little detail.
Sometimes the solution was distraction in a different sense. Sometimes needed to completely ignore the class that was going on and draw pointless sketch art in my calendar. Sometimes I would browse through my phone for a full hour just to stop myself from focusing on the room that I was in and could not bear. Sometimes I had to take every opportunity to laugh and chat with my neighbours in order to get some relief from the stress that I was feeling, no matter what impression that would give.
And sometimes, none of that was enough. Sometimes, my hands would start running through the stuff on my table, rummaging through my bag, playing with my hair. I would start shifting around in my seat uncomfortably. I would clear my throat all the time or blow my nose just to give me an excuse to move, an excuse to cover my face for some seconds, an excuse to make some noise. It was pathetic. And often enough, it still didn’t help – and then I would run.
What had happened very seldom at school became a constant at uni: Me leaving the classroom because I couldn’t take it anymore. Sometimes I was able to go back inside after a while, sometimes not, it never went without a fight though. I hated myself in these moments. I sometimes spent 30 minutes plus in the bathroom, just staring at myself in the mirror and demanding an answer from my stupid trembling reflection: Why why why WHY can’t you be normal? Surprisingly, that didn’t help to calm me down.
Presentations were the worst. With everyone staring at you, everyone listening to you, your grade depending on your ability to present yourself in the best possible way in this one moment in time, the fact that your presence was mandatory and crucial – it was horror for me.
But my problems didn’t start with the big exams or important presentations, the once-a-semester type of things that can easily scare the shit out of you when you’re new to all of it. Instead, I had trouble just being present in class. It was the same dynamic that had dominated my last years of school. Classes were rated by endurability – and their endurability was determined by the type of room, my seat’s proximity to the door, the number of people, the atmosphere of the class, the overall importance of the class for my studies. Even those that had the best possible combination of room and feeling to it weren’t easy, ever. I struggled through each and every one of them. In the four years of university, I never once felt completely comfortable in a class. Although it did get very close when a teacher brought his dog to class once:
My unconquerable urge to sit by the door didn’t exactly make it easy to get to know people either. While everyone around me was making new friends, I found myself actually refraining from contact with people that seemed likeable because I was scared they would find me weird for my constant nervous behaviour in class. When you start a program at uni and you know you will be around the people you meet for the next years, the last thing you want is to come across as the weird one from the very beginning.
Instead, I actually chose to sit with people I didn’t like that much at first because that made it easier to insist on getting my door-seat every time. If I didn’t like them so much, the thought of them not liking me because I was bonkers wasn’t as bad. Also I found myself not wanting to get too attached to classmates at all because I was scared that if I had friends to sit with every week, I would have to explain myself to them and they would just think I was weird and they wouldn’t want me as their friend anyway, so instead I chose to stay without friends in the first place. First semester sure does sound crazy to me when I think about it now.
Luckily, over the course of my therapy, I got a little better and then even well enough to realize that there’s no point in going through uni without any friends. So long story short, I did make uni friends and they’re the coolest bunch. Some of them I talked to about my issues, I think most of them who shared classes with me will know about my door-thing, but I don’t think I ever explained myself fully to any of them. So if you’re reading this, uni friends, sorry for acting weird around you guys. I should have just been honest with you. But I was too scared you would think I was crazy. I know you probably did sometimes, but thanks for liking me anyway!
Feeling any of this? Some tips for… uni / therapy / seriously losing your shit:
Have I added this section only because I had it on every other post so far? Well, maybe.If I had any good ideas about how to get through uni with these issues, I swear I would tell you. But the truth is: I really struggled, I did. The only thing I can recommend to you is, don’t hesitate to confide in someone that you’re struggling. I know it’s scary because you’re just getting to know people and you don’t want to scare them off, you just want to blend in and whatever. I get it. But it makes your life a lot easier if someone is in on your bullshit and has your back.
- Another uni related thing that I know sounds impossible but isn’t: Talk to your teachers. It’s embarrassing and personal and many other terrible things, but it can make your life so much easier. I only did this when I was in an extremely bad phase and really really struggled with every single one of my classes, but turns out it was a really good idea. Teachers are people and they’re educators, too, so they will most probably show some understanding for your situation. Just maybe explain to them that once in a while you might have to leave the classroom for a bit – and boom, you have one opinion less to worry about when you’re freaking out in class. Takes out a lot of pressure in my opinion.
- Also: Don’t give up. I know that presentation or exam or party or whatever it is that you’re terrified of is coming your way and I know you think you cannot go through with it. I’ve been there. I’ve had presentations that I couldn’t sleep about for weeks and that has made me feel sick to my stomach for a year in advance (unfortunately, not joking). But if I could go through with it, so can you!
- About the therapy thing: Obviously, this is a very specific issue that is not only dependent on your struggles but the country you’re living in, your type of health care and I don’t know how many other things. But what I know is this: Admitting that you need help is the hardest part. After that, it only gets better. And yes, it’s weird sitting in a leather chair facing someone whose first name you don’t know and crying your eyeballs out in front of them. But damn it helps, too!
This post is part of series I am writing about anxiety and the many ways it has interacted with my life so far. Anything I write here is my personal experience and thus just one little dot in the whole picture that can be painted about mental health issues. If you have any questions, concerns or personal experiences you would like to share, feel free to leave me a comment below.