I was in a boat the day I decided to drop out of school.
A kayak, if we are being precise.
I was paddling along the ocean shore at my cottage in Nova Scotia. The cottage had always been a source of comfort—it was calm and served as an escape. But not that summer. Not that afternoon.
I was weeks away from starting a general studies program at CEGEP and I was uneasy about it. General studies felt like a cop out, but the future scared me, and thinking about it long enough to pick a precise field of interest had seemed impossible. As the days trickled by, it became difficult for me to ignore the fact I had settled.
That afternoon in the Kayak, my oars stirred the water and I felt everything spinning out of control. I paddled hard, trying to get somewhere, anywhere, as fast as I could. I needed to get away from the shouting in my head. Then, all at once, I stopped.
The kayak slowed and I looked around, watching how nothing really moved. A gull screamed in the distance. There was no one in sight. The sun warmed my skin and turned the ocean into a shimmering beacon. The sea breeze ruffled my hair, like a mother seeking to console, and the current moved along—unhurried, without purpose. It was beautiful and it just was. Expectations, ambitions, and even failure—they didn’t matter. Not here. Whatever choices I did or didn’t make, the current would keep going, and this place would still be.
My hands shook, still gripping the paddle, and I thought: “Hey, it’s ok. You don’t have to do this.”
I let go and an immense pressure lifted. It was freeing. I was terrified.
General Anxiety Disorder
I first came across the term during my Introduction to Psychology class in university.
I’d felt something was “wrong” with me for a long time. I hesitate to use the term as it implies there is a “right” way of being, but I knew something about me often got in the way.
I didn’t talk about it. As best I could, I made sure no one noticed. I even hid it from myself. I would look around, see people who had it worse, and think: “There’s nothing wrong. You must be really self-centered if you think there is.”
In high school, I wondered whether that “wrong” thing was depression. They talked about it enough. I say wondered because I thought it would be presumptuous to diagnose myself. I didn’t want an official diagnosis, either. I felt I should be able to rationalize my bad feelings away. It would be a sign of weakness to admit I couldn’t.
Skip forward a few years and, as a young adult taking a psychology class, it’s easy to start thinking you have every disorder in the book. Knowing this, I avoided drawing conclusions, though I recognized I might have some form of anxiety. I thought it was probably mild social anxiety brought on by minor depression as a teenager. It would have been arrogant, I thought, to believe I still had depression. It would have been arrogant to believe I had general anxiety disorder.
I was half convinced whatever troubles I felt were imagined and best kept to myself. Paradoxically, I somehow thought telling someone I felt inferior would be a demonstration of self-importance. I also hated the idea of unloading on someone—I didn’t want to be a burden.
My first semester back at “real school”—I’d taken some online courses the previous year—had gone relatively well. The same could not be said for my second semester. Early on, I dropped a class when the notion of taking a lab, of interacting with people, was too overwhelming. Then, my physics professor talked too fast and I struggled to keep up. The class made me anxious and, defaulting to my bad habit of avoidance, I skipped more and more classes. Predictably, the midterm didn’t go well and, sure I had failed it, I ran from the classroom in tears, the tears bothering me more than my performance. I lacked a sense of control. I felt pathetic and ashamed.
I avoided my classmates. If my highschool friends invited me out with their classmates, I was instantly filled with dread. I would make plans and cancel them at the last second, panicking about meeting new people or going to new places. When I did go out, I spent most of the evening with my mouth glued shut. Saying the wrong thing terrified me, sometimes even to the point of physically shaking.
I cried a lot. I felt sick a lot. I often wanted to throw things. Or scream.
“Maybe you should talk to someone,” a friend finally said.
My stomach dropped.
“Maybe,” I said. It would be months before I did.
That second semester turned out to be the last I spent in university.
“What part are you most excited about?” a friend asked as he drove me home one night.
“Lunch?” I said. This conversation took place during the summer before university—we were discussing my nerves about going back to school. Questions like these only made the nerves worse.
He rolled his eyes and we fell into silence as he waited for an actual answer.
I knew he was only trying to help. If I gave this a chance, if I actually tried, it might. I fought my impulse to run from the topic, and I forced myself to consider the question.
“I’m looking forward to things being scheduled and regular,” I finally said. There. I’d done it. I’d found something I was genuinely eager about, something I found soothing.
“That’s not a real answer.”
The words hit me like a physical blow.
“Yeah, it is,” I told him. I was annoyed. He was equally frustrated.
He pulled over and turned off the engine.
“You have to be excited about something,” he said.
I was seething. Silent and utterly still. The warm air was thick and stifling, but I felt cold.
“Oh, come on. It’s not that hard.”
“I already gave you an answer.”
He shook his head.
Was I overreacting? Was I wrong? Should I have had a better answer? I was still mad, but now I was also doubting myself.
A few minutes later, when it was clear I wasn’t saying anything else, he started the car.
“You don’t have to cry about it,” he said.
Sure enough, my traitorous eyes had welled up. I ground my teeth and wiped the evidence away.
“I’m not crying, you jackass,” I wanted to say. “This is my anger leaking out the only way it knows how.”
I said nothing. I had a long history of saying nothing.
When I first met my therapist, I was surprised how quickly I took to her.
I think I’d expected someone a lot older. A lot sterner.
Instead, the woman who welcomed me into her office wasn’t that much older than me. She wore her hair down and she was stylish without being intimidating. If I’d been expecting a scary teacher, she struck me instead as a caring older sister.
The office itself put me at ease, too. The rug was plush and purple, and a painting of a silver saxophone hung on the far wall, small details that made me feel an instant complicity with her. My eyes zeroed in on the tissue box near the couch and I hoped I’d have no use for it.
I’d been nervous about coming in, but not nearly as nervous as during my doctor’s appointment a few weeks earlier.
“I think I might have some kind of mood … problem.”
I’d practised the sentence over and over before going in, and even that almost failed. It was too easy to fall back on old patterns and bottle it up, say nothing and pretend everything was ok. But I was determined. I fixed a point on the wall, I stopped thinking, and I made myself say it.
After some talk, I finally got an official diagnosis. I was depressed. I had social anxiety. But, at the root, I had general anxiety disorder. She prescribed some medication and recommended a few therapists specializing in anxiety.
At first, I was reluctant to accept the diagnosis. I knew general anxiety was characterized by constant worry and that hadn’t seemed to apply to me. Later, I would see worrying had become second nature and I was simply unaware I was doing it.
Two events helped me come to this realization.
The first happened in therapy. To overcome negative thought patterns, I was told, I needed to learn to recognize them. We think millions of things in a day, many of which go unnoticed. I had an assignment: Pay attention to my thoughts.
So I had.
I quickly realized my first instinct in every situation was to worry. And to do so in completely irrational ways.
A phone rang? Someone had died.
A friend took ten minutes to answer a text message? They must have been hit by a car.
A barista messed up my order? I must not deserve a properly-made drink and I might just be unworthy of love.
If that seems extreme, it is. But I really did think that way.
The second thing that happened was my medication kicking in, right around the two-month mark as I’d been told it would.
I was calmly watching TV when it dawned on me.
Holy shit. I was calm.
It was a little overwhelming. I tried to think back to the last time I’d felt like this, and I couldn’t. I thought I’d understood what being calm meant but, it turned out, I’d been wrong. It was suddenly clear: I’d spent the last however many years of my life in a state of constant anxiety. No wonder I was exhausted.
Now that I was beginning to understand how present my anxiety was, and how much I had let it run my life, I was able to start learning how to live with it.
Anxiety is never cured.
That’s one of the first things my therapist wanted me to be clear about. The purpose of what we were doing was not to remove anxiety—that was impossible. What we were doing was learning to recognize it, and then learning to make room for it.
That’s the most important thing I took away from my time with her.
Years later, I sat on my cottage porch, gazing out at the same ocean aglow in the afternoon sun. If I sometimes envied the still water, that was alright. The summer was coming to an end but, for now, I could just bask in the salty air and enjoy a quiet moment with my family.
“Looking forward to school starting?” my grandfather asked.
“Actually, I am,” I said.
Before, the same words would have sat heavy and bitter on my tongue—a necessary lie, practiced and effortless. Now, my answer was carefully considered and, more important, it was true.
A blue heron stood watch in the distance and I felt at peace.
Yes, there are still bad days. And there are still really bad days. But I know the sea breeze will still be there waiting for me, so I live with them, learn from them, and move on.
Amanda is an aspiring content creator currently trying to navigate the world of blogging. When she isn’t busy tripping over her own feet, she can usually be found with either her ukulele or her phone in hand. An avid reader and a dedicated friend, her writing reflects her many passions.