Adventures in Anxiety, Part One: Beginnings

A few weeks ago I took an online version of the GAD-7, a test that can help measure anxiety. I scored 13. This classifies as moderate anxiety, one that could be diagnosed. Interestingly, taking the test made me anxious. Did I really experience these symptoms every day? What about over half those days? Exactly how many days did I experience a symptom like a headache? I might have. At least, I might have experienced those symptoms a lot over the past week, but that didn’t mean I experienced those symptoms a lot over the past two weeks.

These questions should have been easy to answer, and yet they weren’t. That should have been the first sign.

I’ve been a worrier as long as I can remember. What exactly I worried about varied from day to day, year to year, but one worry remained consistent all through my childhood: my academic performance. Not because I was a bad student, mind you. Quite the opposite. I was the straight-A student, the student every teacher loved because I was quiet and reserved and let’s not forget smart. My love of doing well in school was innocent enough at first, but as the years went by, my love of getting the best grades turned into an obsession. By late elementary school and early middle school, everyone had figured out that I was one of the smartest kids in the class, comparing their grades to mine and celebrating when they did better than me. Straight A’s, usually high A’s, accumulated, and with them came fear. What if I made a B? How was I going to deal with that?

The first near-miss was in eighth grade. That year my reading class started a program called Accelerated Reader. It was similar to the Electronic Bookshelf that I loved so much in elementary school (except for the freaking out over failing a test once in fifth grade). The concept was simple: read a book in the program, take a 10-question computer quiz over its contents, and get a score. If you got an 80% (eight out of ten questions), you passed. Otherwise, you failed, and you had two more chances to take and pass a slightly different quiz. And the score was recorded in Miss Kay’s gradebook as a book report grade.

I don’t remember what book I was reading, but there was one quiz I could not pass. I read the book. I took the quiz. I failed. I read the book. I took the quiz again. I failed again. This left one more chance to read the book and take the quiz, and by this point I was freaking out. What if I made a B? I asked myself, knowing the B looked more and more likely at this point. I would no longer be a fixture on star roll or a Gold card holder for the school’s Renaissance program. I would no longer be the best at academic things. Then what?

I waited until after class and talked to my teacher. Miss Kay, an older woman with her poofy perm and probably-dyed hair and brightly colored dress of the day, sat behind her desk as I leaned over it.

“I made a C in college once,” she told me. “Imagine how I felt then.” I couldn’t imagine. If the threat of a B was this bad, what would a C be like? That had to be even worse, right?

I don’t remember what I said to all this, but Miss Kay offered to let me write an extra credit report. We were reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and she gave me an assignment: write a short report on something related to Shakespeare. I wound up writing about his poetry, concentrating on his sonnets. A few days later I turned in the report. Miss Kay said she had something to show me: my grade. Even without the report (which I got a 100 on), I was still clinging to a low A. Whew.

It was only a matter of time until the real first B arrived, and my fear’s buildup got worse. High school came with class ranks, and after the end of freshman year I was ranked second in a class of 200+ students, a rank I carried all the way to graduation. (Funnily enough, the valedictorian–someone I recognized from spelling bees–moved to my school freshman year.)

I took my courses at the local college during my last year of high school. Calculus I was among those courses, and despite my aptitude at math, this course was nothing like the math I knew before. Limits were fine, and even derivatives were okay, but their applications? Pfffft. I made a D on that test and spent the rest of the semester worrying that I’d make a B in the class.

Those worries were realized on Boxing Day 2004. And you know what? The world didn’t end. In fact, I was freed of my academic chains, the ones that tethered me to straight A’s and being the best at everything.

As I echoed in my original blog post about the B, I was finally free.

Parts Two and Three are coming soon, so stay tuned!

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