Tuesday, December 20, 2011

And still... the anxiety.

I spent a few days away from any place I could accurately call home. I was a guest, a halfhearted tourist in the mountains. I slept embarrassingly late, responsible for no one else. I took every meal in restaurants and started reading a book from which I will learn nothing.

I drove home late last night, coming down out of the mountains down dark deserted stretches of highway with nothing to see but my headlights bouncing back to me from the reflectors lining the road. I played my favorite album, the one I know all the words to without having to think about it. I drove through the night and into the small hours of morning singing and stewing.

I came back to the house where my husband still lives several hours after he went to sleep, but my dog was there to greet me. It was an unsettlingly familiar experience echoing every night I would arrive home from working second shift to a quiet house. Except everything is just a bit different now. The rooms echo stripped of furniture and everything smells faintly of new paint and drywall supplies rather than something simmering in the kitchen. I do not live here anymore.

It would be inaccurate to say that I'm not feeling just a bit sorry for myself at present. I don't want this blog to focus so strongly on me and my test anxiety because for other students reading this to see what PA school is like it will have no relevancy for them (or at least one would hope). But it is a definite part of my higher education experience.  It would be the miserable part, the only one. Even the long nights studying on campus or cloistered in my study room in my apartment isn't unpleasant since it feels fueled with a sense of purpose.

Railing against the universe wouldn't do much good here. Test anxiety was a part of my life well over a decade ago, I got treatment, I took many classes after it where it wasn't an issue, did quite well at rather important standardized tests, and thought it was all in the past. It was an extremely unpleasant surprise to find out that it was not. However, the fact is that being mad or sulking or collapsing into ball of self pity isn't going to make it go away.

So I told my husband about it because I know from the past that keeping it to myself without seeking help just allowed it to do more damage. I told my course director. I went for counseling and got a prescription to help alleviate the symptoms, which I had for the last three tests of the month of tests we had in October. And it helped. It wasn't magic but it removed me far enough from the anxiety to be able to function. I could still feel it but it didn't take over. The last week of exams was difficult, the anxiety built over the course of the days leading up to the first exam and continued to climb through the end of the week. I almost threw up on a cadaver during the final anatomy practical but I was able to eventually finish it.

I don't want to let the memory of the experience destroy the holiday break. I will go back and talk to the psychiatrist and reevaluate the treatment options I have. Therapy has been less helpful for me since I don't, in regular life, have anxiety, depression or much in the way of complaints. It is just the three hours or so of a given exam out of hundreds of other perfectly nice hours that are the problem. I have an elevated response to a normal and expected stress. It will be dealt with and life will move on.
Now I'm going to go spend time with my dog and start wrapping presents.


  1. If you can't handle the stress of tests, how are you going to handle the last ultimate test of life . . . death? Are you sure you're in the right field? What truly makes you happy?

  2. Well, death is only the ultimate test of my life when I'm dying right? So I couldn't tell you, not having almost died any time recently... Unless you're trying to ask how I handle autopsies? In which case I'm completely fine with them.

    The great big advantage to having three and a half years of experience in surgical grossing is that I can say with a lot of certainty that this is the field I want to be in. I told people for years how much I loved my job (back when I had a job).

    I did say in one entry about the anxiety that if this mattered less, then it would be easier not to be anxious about it. However, since this is what I want to do and this is the program I want to be in, the importance of not screwing up this opportunity elevates the anxiety.

    The last time I had test anxiety like this I was in high school and the early years of college, which involved a wide variety of subjects. Test anxiety is independent of the material being tested, the subject's comfort with the material, and the amount of studying done for the exam. Google it.

  3. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I too am in a Path A program and have suffered from test anxiety most of my life. It is discouraging to discuss material with my classmates, provide detailed notes, help with memorization techniques, only to be shut down when it comes to exam time. Too many times do I hear "You just explained that problem to me yesterday! How did you get it wrong?" It happens; and is a life-long problem I have to deal with. The upside, (and yes, you know there is one) I am great when it comes to job performance. I wouldn't go through this if I didn't know I could perform well on the job. And I think a lot of people who suffer from this are very thoughtful and serious about the profession they are studying for. There is a huge difference between "exams" and performing well on the job. Thanks for posting this blog; it is very inspiring!

  4. I really appreciate your comment! I debated whether or not to talk about my test anxiety since I wasn't sure how other people would take it. I am glad that it resonated with someone. And I completely agree that it has absolutely no impact on job performance! I've worked in pathology and I know I am good at it. You are so right, I wouldn't put myself through this if I didn't know and love the profession. Thank you so much for posting!

  5. It's really nice to read your honest post about test anxiety and the support you are receiving at Duke. I have another undisclosed disability, which until I saw a doctor, I pretty much went through school wondering if I was just stupid because I would literally blank out on exams (though I knew the material) and just freeze up. It was hard to tell if it was anxiety, stupidity, lack of confidence or not having been diagnosed yet (or a combination of everything). It's really nice to know that despite your test anxiety, it gives a lot of hope for someone like myself that I can potentially get into a PA program and do well.

  6. Thank you for your comment and I'm glad that you've gotten a diagnosis! It really helps to be able to have a name for the things that effect us. I can promise that while it isn't always easy, it has been completely worth it to come back to school. Good luck to you through the application process.