Mental Illness and Academia: Part One

The first time I had a panic attack I didn’t recognize what I was experiencing.

It was an odd time to have a panic attack. I was out on the Blue Ridge Parkway late at night with my best friend, who was driving. We were listening to Natalie Merchant’s Ophelia album, which was one of a handful of CDs we could agree we both loved for those long late-night drives. I had just moved back to Asheville to resume school after a yearlong absence. Classes hadn’t started yet. There was no other traffic, and both starry sky and winding road were clear, but suddenly my entire body was seized with an all-consuming need to go home. My heart was pounding, my face was burning. I told my best friend I wasn’t feeling well. We went home. Once I was back in my dorm room, I felt a sense of relief. I was safe.

It happened again a few days later. I was at another friend’s apartment, drinking tea and talking on a cozy evening just after classes had started. I had had a good day. There was no obvious reason why I would be anxious. But there I was, watching the clock and trying to figure out how long I had to stay before I could escape back to my dorm room where I felt safe. This was no ordinary Attack Of The Introvert. This was something darker.

It happened again. And again. And then again. And then one night I was back on a friend’s couch, drinking tea and talking. I said to her, “So…something has been happening lately that I can’t quite explain. I’ll be out somewhere doing something, having fun even, and then I get this…overwhelming urge to go home. Like I have to go home where it’s safe right now dammit.

“Honey, that sounds like a panic attack,” she said.

“It’s happening a couple times a week,” I said. “…And it’s happening in class.”

That was arguably the worst part. Having your social life disturbed on occasion because of some weird bullshittery your brain was pulling was one thing. It was a particularly special level of hell to have it set in while you were in class and unable to escape. The more my heart raced, thudding in my ears, the less I heard of the lecture, the more prisonlike my desk and chair were. I couldn’t take notes, because my hands were shaking. I couldn’t talk, because I knew if I opened my mouth I would lose the tenuous control I had over maintaining an outward calm. The longer I was there, the worse it got, and if I had a class after that, I sometimes didn’t make it to that second class: the raw animal fear would overwhelm the best of my intentions and I would be forced to retreat to the cool calm of my dorm room, where I could self-soothe with organizing my books, notes, cosmetics, whatever, until I felt a sense of control again. A sense of control–and a a sense of self-loathing, because I so badly wanted to be a good student and to Do Well, and here I was, being beaten by some asshole part of my brain that was convinced there were bears in my class or something.

“I think you should go to the counseling center,” she said.

So I went. It was not the first time I had seen a counselor. I had battled depression before; that was a familiar beast, although a beast that never grew easier to fight. This anxiety was a new beast, and an even more debilitating one, one that didn’t just make me tired and apathetic, but one that actively sought to make me miserable, to claw at me until I fled to safety. This was a beast that peeled back the layers of me and shredded my raw nerves.

The counselor encouraged me to talk to my professors (This would not be the first or last time I was encouraged to Go Talk To My Professors). However, that’s always easier said than done. No one wants to be that student, the one who misses classes and sometimes (or all the times) hands in assignments late because their brain isn’t working right. No one wants to be that student who goes to talk to their professor, who dresses nice and rehearses what they’re going to say and does all the things they’re Supposed To Do to give themselves confidence, and then breaks down in tears and incoherent sobs in someone’s office. No one wants to try to explain what exactly is going on in their brains. It’s hard to explain how exactly anxiety affects you in an academic setting, because it’s different for every person, for every class, for every semester. It’s especially hard because many of us know that it sounds “crazy”. No one wants to be that student, the one who’s crazy, who’s not tough enough to get through their program.

I was, as odd or perhaps sad as it may sound, lucky that semester. That semester, where I was having panic attacks a couple times a week, was one of the better semesters. My anxiety had not yet reached the point of being an all-consuming monster that threatened to swallow me whole. I was able to keep it at bay more days than naught.

But even beyond that, I found a way to manage it when it hit. I wanted to do well in my classes. Getting up and leaving because my stupid fucking brain wasn’t working right wasn’t an option, nor did I want to drive everyone around me crazy by fidgeting like a toddler. I had to find some way to release some of the raw, painful nervous energy coursing through my body. A friend had recently taught me some origami, so I began keeping sheets of origami paper tucked inside my notebooks. Whenever the hot, sick feeling of anxiety began to slide through my system, I would quietly pull out a sheet of origami paper and began folding a crane (the only pattern I actually retained from my origami lesson). If the simple act of folding the paper didn’t quite soothe away the oncoming panic attack, then the extra level I added did: I had a magnificent stash of slick little gel pens, which I would use to doodle increasingly elaborate designs on their little paper wings.

I also had another bird project I liked to do, courtesy a friend who left one outside my door one afternoon: Nani birds. The original site is no longer up, but they can still be found in various places, like the ones pictured here: I printed off a blank template and would soothe myself by painstakingly coloring in complex designs, then folding the little birds to perch around my room.

Somehow, this worked for me. This was also the start of my love affair with birds. This allowed me to get through that semester.

Other semesters, I would not be so lucky.


2 thoughts on “Mental Illness and Academia: Part One

  1. Carly January 29, 2015 / 5:03 am

    Sounds absolutely miserable 😦 Trying to “tough out” in-class panic attacks/anxiety sounds about as horrible as (or maybe even worse than) trying to sit through a class with stomach flu and thinking you should be able to just power through and magically not feel sick :-/ I’m glad you found a coping mechanism, but sad that the barriers to talking about mental illnesses in the classroom are so strong.

    Also thinking about how I could have perhaps been a more sympathetic/encouraging TA to students who were facing issues with anxiety. I had a student one semester who regularly alternated between visibly freaking out (lots of serious outside stressors combined with a tough course) and then completely disengaging/doing stuff to distract themselves. It was tough to reach out to him/her or give them the extra support that she/he needed in class, but I wish now that I’d tried harder to reach out outside of class just to see if there was anything that could have helped them cope more easily. I let my own frustrations and crazy schedule get in the way, which is really not cool looking back on it. Thanks for talking about your experiences – good reminder to watch for people when they might need some extra kindness or help.


    • AuroraBirdialis January 30, 2015 / 3:32 am

      It is in fact pretty horrible trying to tough it out. I’ve done it for years. Sometimes I don’t always succeed. I haven’t had to leave class too many times, but in many cases, I just never made it to class to begin with. There was one time this past semester when I had to go to physics, and knew there was a quiz coming up and I knew I wasn’t fully prepared. I left my apartment and got halfway to class and couldn’t remember if I had my calculator with me. I started freaking out because even though I knew I could just ask my prof if I could borrow his, I was CONVINCED he’d think I was a terrible person and I just. I could not make myself go any further. I stood there in the snow and tried to talk myself down from the freakout and just could not overcome my own bullshit. It was stupid and I knew it was stupid, but I just could not convince myself to go to class. So I turned around and went back to my apartment and missed the quiz.

      Don’t beat yourself up for having been stressed out and trying to deal with your own life’s chaos. 🙂 Everyone’s got their own burdens to carry. Just be the best you can be with what you’re given, and accept that you’re gonna screw up sometimes, or that you’re not always gonna be able to help someone. It’s okay.


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