Worriers anonymous

By anonymous (obviously)

I am in the habit of oversharing. A habit whittled in ladies’ toilets the world over, I partly do this out of a compulsion to be honest, partly because I find it amusing to send up that honesty – and partly because I sincerely believe that sharing is good for you, as it defuses anxiety. Many of the things we build up in the confines of our own brains as crippling sources of inadequacy and anxiety are in fact shared by a shocking number of those around us (note how I am able to use the expansive ‘we’ in this sentence, with which I instantly assume you, the reader, will identify). I know this, because my compulsive oversharing is more often than not met with an enthusiastic chorus of ‘me too’ and ‘oh, I get that’. Thus, oversharing has become above all else a coping mechanism, to reassure myself that I am human and flawed in a comparable degree to other people I respect and like. (That it frequently makes people laugh is, I suppose, a bonus.)

This is particularly the case within academia. Not one hour ago, a student who is well known to me, having taken several of my modules, came by my office ‘to talk about work’. After ten minutes of mundane chatter about the lecture, I could sense the student drawing a deep breath. After crossing over the threshold from anticipation from inevitability, they then went on to apologise for having been a bit out of it lately, ‘only I suffer with anxiety’. They couldn’t know, because I hadn’t told them (and because I hide it, so I am told, well) but I have been in their seat on more than one occasion: with my PhD supervisor, my former teaching mentor, my current teaching mentor, my P.I., no doubt others who have balled into one in my memories. I know deeply the shame and the fear that accompanies such confessions, the vicious cycle that generates not only from feeling anxiety but from interpreting anxiety itself as something to be concealed at all costs. I know how insidious it is when that anxiety attaches itself to your academic work – formerly a source of pride – to the extent that you can’t open your inbox, or a word document, without your lungs trying to crawl out of your chest. Above all, I know how important it is for your self esteem to be brave and share, however terrifying it may be.

A recent facebook post on a similar topic raised, likewise, a to-me shocking amount of camaraderie and sympathy. I had an inbox full of messages from academics I had met once at a conference, eager to unburden their similar experiences. I was stopped in the corridor by a colleague I was on merely loose coffee-drinking terms with, who seemed practically overjoyed to tell me that they ‘got it’. More than anything, I read the frantic sense of relief with which esteemed colleagues dispensed hard-won advice, about stifling panic attacks, sleeping through the night, getting through dark periods of writers’ block and the feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness that accompany it. We are all at some level desperate, I think, to expose our inadequacies and thus render normal our sense of abnormality.

I am as yet unsure whether to be comforted or disquietened by all this. Serving as a lightning rod for people’s sincerity is always a deeply affecting and rewarding experience, but I have a quiet fear that I will be marked out as ‘the mad one’ as a result of my blatant encouragement of it. I am comforted to be going through such a shared experience and disturbed that so many of my friends are having to share in these feelings. I am worried that academia fundamentally enables it, not  only by entwining our sense of self-worth with our work, but by enforcing a culture of silence surrounding mental illnesses (and their perhaps less stigmatised cousins, panic attacks and anxiety disorders) such that they are instead poured out into email inboxes and pints at conference venues. I fear that creeping neoliberalisation and an academic culture that is profoundly out of step with the modern job description fosters feelings of intense inadequacy that can in no way be attributed to individual failure. But I do at least know that talking about my feelings, regardless of my fear that it may mark me out within a managerial culture not tolerant of weakness, makes me a better human being. I try to surround myself with people who equally believe that being a better human being makes you a better academic.

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