The Day I Graduated From My Crippling Anxiety

From the outside, I was the quiet girl with straight A’s, who was headed on the path to success. On the inside, I was a sad mess and I did not think it could get any worse.

For ten years, I had been wrestling with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. By high school, I had worked hard to get rid of the exhausting symptoms of this disorder and to change the chemistry of my brain. But as a result, I developed severe anxiety and a penchant for perfectionism. Great.

On a bright, sunny, and glorious day, I was called to the Principal’s Office with another girl from my Spanish class.  I knew what was coming, but I was praying that it was not true. As I walked past the school doors, I had to restrain myself from breaking free, running to my car, driving home, locking my doors, and never returning (I can be a tiny bit of a drama queen).

I anxiously walked into the principal’s office, while my companion knowingly strode. Neither of us looked at each other. Our principal, vice principal, and guidance counselor stood in a straight line. They looked like a group of Rockettes preparing for their final performance. Immediately, they stuck out their hands and announced that my friend was Valedictorian. I was the Salutatorian of my class. Yay for me. I put on a smile and pretended to be ecstatic about this news as I shook their smooth, yet cold, hands.

Immediately after I was given this “extraordinary” news, I was told that I would have to prepare a speech for graduation. The only advice that was given to me was that I would have to talk about “memories and such.”

Anger flared up inside of me to accompany the anxiety I felt toward my supposed victory. How was I supposed to write a speech about memories that I never had? The only memories I have of High School are of a whole lot of inner conflict.

In the months that followed after my “victory,” I became depressed. I cried almost every day and prayed that my speech would go away. I felt that my OCD was coming back from my past to haunt me, while my anxiety threw tomatoes at me from the sidelines. I became lost and scared, but I still felt human enough to realize that this was not what success was supposed to feel like. I should have been proud. I should have felt like a kick-ass, female leader. I should have celebrated. But, the thing is, I couldn’t. I could not muster up the strength to bask in the glory of someone else’s High School dream. Not while my speech loomed in the distance.

After I realized that my emotions were not temporary, I enlisted the help of a therapist. I needed someone to guide me through the tunnel that had become one of the darkest points of my life. My therapist gave me the tools to realize that my negative feelings could be conquered. She taught me that I could channel my degrading inner voice into something worthwhile. Now, these changes did not, by any means, happen over night. It took some time (months actually), but eventually I got there.

The morning of my graduation, I was a nervous wreck. To combat my nervousness, I compulsively looked up quotes about anxiety and watched Beyoncé’s performance videos online. Seeing this strong woman explode with passion and strength on stage inspired me and helped calm my nerves. If she could do something so brave and powerful, then so could I.

Later on, my family dropped me off at my high school. I remember walking through the halls and smiling at everyone I saw, even if they did not smile back. I entered the gymnasium where we were to line up. I sat down in my assigned seat and, all of the sudden, a wave of calmness washed over me. I knew that I had written a speech that I was proud of. It did not include “memories and such,” but it was entirely my own.

An hour later, on that warm day in June, I gave my Salutatorian speech. I channeled all of my nervous energy into making a speech that represented who I really was. Finally, I stopped caring about what everyone else would think and I just read the words that were on the page. My speech, it turned out, was all about conquering my anxiety over public speaking. Here’s an excerpt:

“Writing this speech was an absolutely terrifying concept to me, since I am not very fond of Public Speaking (to put it lightly). Every time that I think of Public Speaking, I am reminded of the scene in “The Princess Diaries” where Anne Hathaway’s character almost vomits in a tuba while attempting to make a speech in front of her peers. So, as a precaution, please make sure that all instruments are covered, at all times, during this speech.”

Laughter. Relief.

“Now, while writing this speech, I went through three stages. The first stage was procrastination. I thought that if I pretended this graduation speech did not exist, then maybe it would go away. As you can see, it did not go away. The second stage is what I like to call “My Crazy Stage.” During this stage, I would laugh like a crazy person and my eye would twitch when I remembered I would have to make this speech. I also convinced myself, during this stage, that a speech would magically appear without me even having to lift a finger. So much for that.       

Finally, I entered the stage of realization. During this stage, I realized something. Go figure. I realized that the only reason I was afraid to write this speech was because I did not believe that I could deliver this speech and I was afraid of making a fool of myself in front of all of you. At this time, I was reminded of Winston Churchill, who once said, ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.’”

It took all of my courage, but I continued right through until the end of my speech. For the first time in my life, I felt victorious. Not because I gave a speech that no one would remember in a day’s time, but because, for once in my life, I allowed myself to feel pride. I allowed myself to stop second-guessing and just be me. After living eighteen long years with mental illness, I was finally able to not just survive, but to thrive.

Anna Gragert is a student, passionate writer, avid reader, cat lover, and Audrey Hepburn enthusiast. She has written for Thought CatalogHope Inside LoveWhite Ash Literary Magazine and The Horror Writers Association’s Horror Poetry Showcase. Anna also has a photo blog, which you can find here. Follow Anna on Twitter here