I told my mom that I really didn’t want to go to the commencement ceremony. At the time, she was desperately scrambling for extra tickets to accommodate as many members of my family at the event as possible. She mostly brushed me off, telling me it would be over soon, and that afterward we could celebrate all my hard work at my favorite restaurant on the Upper West Side. I nodded, but the anxiety I had about the approaching date was still brewing within me.
I also talked to my dad about it, about how I’d rather not go to the ceremony and just celebrate privately with my friends and family instead. He told me this is just what we do for our families: endure the moments that make us less comfortable for the purpose of memories and appeasing our parents. That infuriated me, and I wondered why we would try to repeat any toxic and uncomfortable behaviors from his own unhealthy childhood. But I let it go.
The thing is, I had already bought the tickets, the cap, and the gown. No matter how much I hated events like these, and no matter how much anxiety I knew to expect from my body on the day that I walked across that stage, I felt compelled by a similar made up obligation that this is what my family would want. This is the right thing to do. They paid for my education, and so they deserve to watch me walk across that stage to receive my diploma, even if my hands are shaking and the room is spinning.
Then, the day of graduation came, and it was overwhelming to say the least. I clumsily maneuvered into the building in my long robe and a cap that I could just not manage to keep still on my head, after getting a stomachache over trying to find a parking spot at the event hall’s busy lots. My fear of loud noises and crowds were immediately triggered as I lined up with my fellow classmates in a stuffy basement for over an hour. I was so anxious I could hardly look at my friends, and desperately avoided eye contact with everyone I had made an enemy of over the past four years. A reunion with a friend I hadn’t seen in a about a year shook me from my crippling anxiety for only a few minutes. And then, it was time to walk.
As we entered the huge stadium of people where the ceremony was held, I almost passed out from sensory overload. The loud band, the hundreds of people crowding around my body and excitedly yelling for their children, the sheer size of it all made me want to puke and lay down for awhile. I imagined what it would be like if I just broke away from the line and ran outside into the rain. Would my family be disappointed? Would my friends judge me and laugh? I knew in my moment of desperation that my increasing need for a wide open space to breathe in and some peaceful quiet greatly outweighed any social concerns of mine. But I followed my peers into the event hall instead, endlessly dizzy from adrenaline and lack of hydration.
After listening to speeches for a couple of hours and gathering my nerves a bit, it was time for me to walk. Even though I felt like a scared bleary-eyed woodland animal of the tiniest proportions, I gathered confidence in myself as I waited on the long line leading to the stage. I reminded myself what a good job I had done over the years by maintaining good grades, getting a ton of freelance work, staying engaged despite mental and chronic illness, and finding the love of my life in the very halls of this school. This school I had spent years getting to know myself and learning that being genderqueer is okay. The place where I learned all about the radical politics I hold so dearly now, and became truly enlightened about the racial injustices all around me. The place where I first found my passion for writing and journalism.
But as we all slowly moved closer to the stage, the end of my undergrad career, all I could feel was the knot in my stomach and the overwhelming will power I was exerting not to run away from facing a professor I’ve had conflict with for years as he read my name to the audience. I cringed and waved them away as my family loudly cheered for me, pointing at the camera. I was fighting back tears, but not the happy Graduation Day kind. The kind that was from years of anxiety and enduring these completely overwhelming events for the sake of the “memory,” to appease my parents who love me dearly and proudly watch me accept my diploma from the robed woman on stage.
I broke down after the event, my body shaking and spewing uncontrollable sob after sob. I had my mom drive my car back to campus for me because I was too anxious to trust myself behind the wheel. I cried over the stress and the overstimulation, but also because I was ashamed. Because yet another day, another major milestone, was enjoyed less because of anxiety once again as my mother looked on, concerned and supportive but confused.
My younger sister, who also struggles with anxiety recently said to me, “I’m tired of my anxiety tainting all of my good memories.” And honestly, I feel the same way. I was so caught up in my crippling anxiety that day that I couldn’t fully appreciate the gravity of the moment. But of course, that’s not my fault. My anxiety is nothing new, and neither is my desire to live as if it doesn’t exist for the sole purpose of impressing my parents. As a child, I endured party after party and school event after school event in tears and with trembling limbs. I’m 21 now and live away from home, but still the urge to impress my parents and appear as if everything is fine is as strong as it’s ever been.
Even if my mom doesn’t understand, she cares for me so deeply and hates seeing me in distress. Each of my parents don’t realize that pressuring me to live “normally” doesn’t help. Because I’m not “normal,” and that’s okay. I have anxiety and I want to celebrate in a way that I’m comfortable with — in an intimate setting with my loved ones, reflecting on my last few years of education. I knew I wouldn’t regret skipping out on all the fanfare, as my parents have warned countless times. And because I forced myself to take part in a ceremony that I knew would be triggering of my anxiety, I robbed myself of yet another memory in the efforts of being like everyone else.
The day after commencement, I promised myself I would never again forcibly celebrate such an achievement in the exact opposite way that would be conducive to my more sensitive body ever again. Because the pressure of impressing my family and being “normal” is real. But the need to be my lovely sensitive self and the idea of celebrating myself without unnecessary stress greatly outweighs any unreasonable obligations I feel that I need to fulfill.
So, days after, I spent the weekend with my partner in a peaceful bed and breakfast upstate and took time to reflect: on all the friends made and lost, the boys that came and went, the assault, the queer community that was as exclusive as it was informative, the professors that didn’t believe in me, the readers that did, and the way that my anxious and amazingly resilient self pushed through class after class until the day I was handed my diploma. Well, I was only handed a leather case for a diploma, a prop until the real one gets delivered in the mail in August. That’s basically what Graduation Day was for me anyway: a placeholder for the real celebration that would follow, laughing in bed with my loving partner as the crickets chirped outside our window.