I’m kind of big on anniversaries, but this story doesn’t have a firm start date. It all happened so gradually that I didn’t even realize anything was happening until it was all very much happening. So I’m starting from a date I remember, but it should by no means be considered day one.
Tomorrow I’m leaving for Greece, except I’m scared that I won’t be. You see, my trip to Greece is a part of a seminar I’m taking, a seminar that had two ten page papers due almost two weeks ago. One of mine was finished by that time, but not the other. I was already at home since I can’t stand to be on campus during finals period, I had told my parents that I’d already submitted everything, and I was working while they were at work so they wouldn’t find out that I hadn’t. I don’t know why I felt the need to lie really, it’s just what I’ve always done about school work. Yes I’ve finished all my homework. They’ll keep asking me about it if I tell the truth, but I no longer know why that’s such a bad thing anyway.
So I turned in my papers late, I think it was about three days late to be exact. I hadn’t been checking my email during that time, I didn’t want to come across any hounding emails asking why I hadn’t submitted my work yet, and luckily the online submission was through a Moodle drop box and I was able to continue ignoring my email inbox. And so I was able to relax for a while, my Sophomore year was done, I had about a week at home and then I was going to have an amazing summer in Greece before spending a year in Paris.
Then it was May 16, that day I was driving up with my mom to Northampton and the next morning I was going to fly to Chania, Crete with my class. And suddenly I was worried about what was lurking in my inbox. I hadn’t checked it at all in about two weeks. What if I turned in my papers too late and I’m no longer allowed to go? What if they’re surprised when I show up tomorrow? My thoughts were irrational, but they worried me, and I was too scared that checking my email would prove me right to try and look to prove myself wrong. So my mom and I drove up to Northampton and I didn’t say anything. I had my bag fully packed for nine weeks in Greece and I was scared and half convinced that I would just be taking it right back to Long Island.
The next morning I walked up to the group. No one was surprised to see me. My professor’s only question was if I had returned the library books he’d lent me which were checked out in his name (I had). I got into the van with the other students, and three flights and twenty odd hours later I was in Greece. I was relieved and ready for the summer to start, but still not ready to check my email.
Over the course of those three weeks of traveling around Greece, email thankfully remained a non issue. When my six weeks of work started it remained a non issue. There were permission forms, registration forms, at the start of my job that I hadn’t filled out, but it wasn’t a problem and life went on easily.
But two weeks into the internship I hit my first stumbling block. The trip to Greece was expensive, my scholarship covered part of it, and to cover even more of it I was using my PRAXIS fund. PRAXIS is an excellent program of Smith’s, it’s a fund that will pay every student to do an internship once during their time at Smith. Before I’d left the U.S. I had filled out a good amount of paperwork for the fund, now I had to do the mid-internship report. And I would have to email it in.
I got all my paperwork in order, scanned all the hard copies, and then … Did nothing. It was a Thursday, I’d worked all day and I told myself I was tired. I’d do it that weekend. And I kept telling myself I’d do it soon. I was tired, I was waking up at 5 to go to work and digging in the sun all day, but I wasn’t too tired to do the paperwork. I just couldn’t face having to use my email account, so I didn’t.
By now my nebulous fears of the lurking messages in my inbox had shifted. I still thought the emails about Greece existed, but by now I thought I also had some about France as well. There was a lot of things I was supposed to respond to and fill out, and I hadn’t. I also knew that some people had been told who their homestays would be with, I really wanted to know if I had that particular email, but I couldn’t look and see.
One day soon after I was sitting in my kitchen with my two roommates and a friend. It was a nicely sized kitchen for Europe and it’s where we would hang out instead of our slightly awkwardly laid out living room. So we were just talking, and my friend asks me if she could borrow my iPad to look something up or I offered it to her or something. Anyway, she goes to hit the Safari app but hits the email one first, she says oops and goes back to looking up whatever it was on the internet. When I get my iPad back I’m panicky, the little red bubble has some ridiculous number over one thousand, and I just feel like somehow the people sending me emails will know that I opened my mailbox, that I’ll get even more now. But I think I managed to brush it off, I closed the app without letting any of the subject lines load and continued with the conversation. I don’t know if my friends noticed how scared I was. But what really bothers me about this memory is that I have no idea what we had been talking about, the only thing I remember about the conversation is that my email was opened and I absolutely hate that my anxiety erased everything else about that moment for me.
end of august
My time in Greece continued to pass as time tends to do, and before I knew it or wanted it was time to fly back to the US and get prepared for my Junior Year to start in Paris. I also had to do a third set of paperwork for PRAXIS, the end of internship questions, which I also did not do. But everything was going ok, after a small hiccup I got my visa for France and was able to spend a week with my cousins in New York before flying out to Portland to spend what remained of my summer with my parents.
By then my flight to Paris was rapidly approaching, and my parents increasingly started asking questions that I struggled to answer. I couldnt tell them where I was living or who I was living with. I did know that I couldn’t pick classes until I actually arrived, but the ambiguity did not help to answer their questions. In a state of cognitive dissonance, when I knew I couldn’t divert their questions anymore, I was actually able to open my email for the first time in months, I did the paperwork that the Paris program had been missing without offering a single word on why it was late. I could barely do the paperwork, I definitely couldn’t explain it. I didn’t answer a single email that would require an explanation and I didn’t open anymore than necessary. It was incredibly hard and I felt guilty ignoring concerned emails from deans asking if I was still going to France and if not what they could do to get me ready to start back in Northampton in the Fall, but in the end I had done the absolute minimum that was required of me and I closed my email again with relief. I still couldn’t tel my parents where I was living, but I now knew that wwe were staying in a hotel for the first night, and that information was enough to stop any further inquiries.
Then almost immeadiately it was time for my flight to Paris. I stayed up all night to pack since I would have to wake up at five anyway and since I never pack a reasonable amount of time in advance. My mom drove me to the airport, and again I had the same fears as with the last time she drove me somewhere to start and adventure. Even though I had seen emails that should have proved to me I was still expected to start this year in Paris, I was terrified that I would arrive at the hotel to find I was not supposed to be there, that after my late replies I had been dropped from the program and that I would have to explain to my parents that I needed to fly back to Massachusetts. I once again didn’t say a word.
Being in transit, taking three flights from Portland to Vancouver and from Vancouver to Toronto and from Toronto to Paris, was great for forgetting that anxiety for a little while. I was just a little cog in a machine, I wasn’t able to be proactive so I had the opportunity to relax, and most of the time I didn’t have an internet connection anyway. My anxiety didn’t actually come back until the moment where I was checking into the hotel, in the space between when I said I was with Smith and when I gav my name, there was an instant of pure panic where I was sure there would be no reservation for me. But of course there was, and I got a packet full of id cards and information that sure made it look like I would indeed be staying in Paris. Soothed temporarily I went up to my room and napped. At the welcome breakfast the next day, I was still wary that our Associate Director would call me over and explain that I wasn’t supposed to be here, but as the day went on, as I opened a bank account and went home wiht my Host Mother, I finally accepted that I really was going to be spending my year in Paris and that everything would in fact be okay.
In the end though everything wasn’t okay because I was unable to realize that it wasn’t. I didn’t start checking my emails when I realized that nothing bad had happened. I was actually able to manage semi-well, my papers from Orientation were due over email, and I could just send them as Google docs without ever opening my email, I kept in check with everyone through Facebook messenger, and I was around the other Smithies enough that I knew what every important email contained so it wasn’t until October, a whole six months after I stopped checking my email that anything actually went wrong like I had expected it to.
October 16 was actually a really important day to me before this year, which is why I remember the date. On October 16 of my freshman year of High School, me and my friends went to a Manhattan book signing of John Green’s Paper Towns, we had all been watching Vlog Brothers videos since they started in 2007 and were so excited to actually meet them. We all got John and Hank’s autograph and a few of some of our other favorite vloggers who were also there. Every year since we have celebrated this auspicious occasion. While we were still in High School together we would all hang out together, and since we’ve been in college we’ve scheduled skype dates each year. This year would be the first where the three of us who continued to celebrate would be in different countries, we were really excited.
I had just messaged them to schedule a skype time, it would be that following weekend when we would all be free enough to plan around the time differences. Then I got another Facebook message. It was from my parents, they had just gotten my bill for Smith and it was more expensive than expected, when they called to ask why, it was explained that I had never finished the PRAXIS forms and they had been charged for fund I had already been given. They were understandably confused and shocked. What followed me reading that message was an absolute meltdown, I couldn’t hide my anxiety any longer. For a little while I was paralyzed, I was sobbing and panicking and trying to think of anything I could do to not face the situation. But I realized that this was the end of the line and I finally had to come clean. So I wrote out a Facebook message explaining everything that had been going on in my head in the last six months. It took a long time and I kept having to stop because I couldn’t see my phone screen through my tears. But I finished it, and I sent it, and I cried some more.
Right after I sent the message was my lowest point, even now six months later I’m tearing up writing this. I had messed everything up and now everyone knew that I was such a freaking mess that I couldn’t even handle a goddamn email account. But the thing about low points is that afterwards everything starts to get better. My mom called me back on skype, I cried, she told me it would get better. My other mom called me on skype too, I missed that call, and she was actually at work at the time when I called her back she was in a meeting. She told me she’d call me right back and she did, she’d ended the meeting early to make sure I was okay. And by now I knew I’d be okay too, but I would need some help.
During Orientation, an American psychiatrist living in Paris had come to talk to us, she told us to call her if we ever needed help and left her cards for us to take. I didn’t take one, I didn’t think I would ever need to talk to someone. So I messaged a friend who sent me her number, no questions asked. I called her that evening and left a message, I tried to sound as much as possible like I hadn’t just been crying for hours but I don’t know how well it worked. And things got better. I saw my psychiatrist, my mom went through my email account for me, deleting everything obviously unimportant and outdated. We started having skype sessions where she would go through my inbox at the dining room table in Portland while I told her what was worth keeping or deleting. I was too wrapped up in my own head to realize it then, but almost all of these emails were in French, a language my mother doesn’t speak at all, but she was still able to decipher it enough to help me deal. Soon I was able to open my email, then get my phone to gather email instead of waiting for me to open the app. I got better. I check my email regularly, several times a day now, and it doesn’t stress me out the way it used to. I still get a little anxious about it but the sense of absolute dread is gone.
I said I didn’t know where this story started. I’ve never liked email, and would never check it over breaks or weekends since High School. It got worse last fall, when I had a Professor who would send out of the blue home work assignments weekly, and even worse last spring, when my job created seemingly endless email exchanges that I was never sure if I had to reply to to show I’d read it. At one point in the Spring Semester I was checking my email once a week and had changed the alert tone for new emails on my phone since the standard one had caused a Pavlovian response of sinking anxiety in my stomach. Sitting in class and hearing someone else recieve an email was awful.
I spent six months of my life living under fear of my inbox, my trip to Greece was one of the best experiences of my life, I absolutely loved it and I hate that I will forever associate those great memories with the shadow of my anxiety. I know that I missed out on opportunities in Paris because I could not use email. Operas I didn’t go to because they had e-tickets, trips I didn’t take for the same reason. I can check my email now but I’m not at all certain that I won’t relapse in the future. I am certain that it will never be that bad again, and that I will be better able to cope in the future, I never want to be controlled by my anxiety the way I was this past year. Knowing my support system is there in the abstract is great, but knowing it really is there and will work is amazing.
The final assignment of my autofiction class was of course to write our own. I could not come up with a topic, it took me several weeks to realize that this is what I should write about. I don’t feel embarassed or ashamed to talk about it like I did while it was happening, like I did when I would google “anxiety disorders” read that the basis of diagnosis was that it interrupt your life for six months and count off months on my hands, if it was only five I didn’t have a problem, didn’t have to talk about it. Since October 16th though I’ve been able to be open about it, I’ve said the words I have/had an anxiety disorder about emails to many people and it has been okay. But part of keeping it okay is being clear about it, that’s why I ended up writing my autofiction about it and why I wrote this blog post. I consider myself a very well adjusted stable young woman, I like to appear emminently in control. That’s part of why I started this blog, to be able to be more open and that’s why I had to write about this even if I had to take frequent breaks to watch funny YouTube videos to stop myself from crying. I’m not perfect and I don’t have to be and that’s okay. I’m okay.