'The Anxiety I Spent My 20s Fighting Started With My A Levels'
The Debrief: School and exams taught me that an 'A' was ok, and everything less was a failure. But how do you undo that thinking into adulthood?
Hello, 18-year-old Daisy. It’s the morning of A level results day, and here’s what you need to know.
Firstly, stop using Sun In. You might as well make a conditioner out of petrol. It’s not making you blonde, you’re ginger. And there’s nothing wrong with being ginger, but it doesn’t suit you at all. Also, I can’t stop you from drinking two litres of green WKD and a mouthful of Aftershock in a couple hours’ time. But I can tell you that the vomit will be copious, and you’ll feel a bit sick for years to come every time you see the Skittles ad that tells you to ‘taste the rainbow’.
But most importantly, I want you to realise that it isn’t normal to wake up each morning and feel as though an enormous, invisible cat is sitting on your chest, sinking its claws into your skin. That being told you ‘did your best’ isn’t a consolation prize of condemnation – it means you completely killed it, and did everything you were capable of within that moment. That unconditional love only has meaning when you apply it to yourself, and you can’t get it confused with meeting the criteria of a conditional offer. That it really, really doesn’t matter what’s in the envelope.
I love you,
Daisy (aged 30)
PS. (It’s definitely worth saving up for an iPod. They might sound a bit gimmicky now, but you’re going to bloody love them.)
I think A level results day is a little bit like a wedding, in that we want it to feel like a perfect ending, when the best we can hope for is an interesting beginning. In August 2003, I found that I had the grades I needed to go to the university of my choice. I’d learned enough about history, economics and English Literature to be deemed fit for further education. But I knew nothing about myself, my emotional dependence on achievement or my total inability to deal with any kind of failure.
My school was for girls who were considered ‘academically able’. I’d been taking tests since I was 10, spending sad Sundays practising on old entrance exam papers, as my parents set an alarm clock and summoned me for 90, silent minutes of non-verbal reasoning. Once I’d got into the school, there were SATS, flute exams, piano exams, end of year exams.
By the time we reached our GCSEs, you’d think we’d be into it. ‘Hah! A test, you say? I’ve done at least three a week since my age reached double figures. Bring it on, motherfucker!’ Instead, we quivered, quaked and cried in the corridors. One hunderd and eighty girls and not an unbitten fingernail between us.
Before secondary school, I’d usually been the smartest girl in the room. Also the fattest, the nerdiest, the weirdest and the least popular – but absolutely the cleverest. Even the coolest, meanest kids had to talk to me if they wanted their homework to get done. My entire persona was crafted around my intelligence, down to my unflattering wire-framed glasses.
At my new school, I thought I’d be safe among fellow nerds. One last big (test) score, then I’d be in and I could relax. But, every week I found something new to be shit at. I wasn’t the cleverest any more – I wasn’t even in the cleverest half. So I started working in the library, getting up at 5am to finish my homework, pushing myself to the point of collapse. I stuffed myself with knowledge like someone cramming a sleeping bag into a slightly smaller storage bag.
Soon I saw results. But my clutch of top grades didn’t make me feel clever or celebratory. An ‘A’ was OK, and anything less was a failure. The more I gained, the more I had to lose, and I became used to the palpitations and breathlessness that accompanied any returned papers. I became addicted to the feeling of relief that surged through me as the adrenaline tailed off and I saw that I’d kept my form.
The most dangerous drug I ever tried at school was cortisol, the fight or flight stress hormone that’s useful in times of danger, but desperately damaging when your body is manufacturing it all day, every day.
By my final year of university, I was having secret, nightly panic attacks about what might happen if I were to fail my degree. I passed, and immediately got a job that I hated in order to preserve the perception of myself that I felt forced to maintain. I was an achiever, I never slacked off and I wasn’t allowed to be anything less than the best.
Eight months later, I got fired – and had no tools to cope with the consequences. Even starting a perfect job on a magazine couldn’t quite soothe the acid self-hatred I felt for failing something. Every minor mistake, bad relationship or accidental trip on the wrong bus was proof that I was an idiot who didn’t work hard enough to ever amount to anything. Every success and happy moment was a fluke.
At school, I learned to be anxious, and to manage the anxiety with a useless, short term coping strategy – achievement. But I never worked out how to celebrate those achievements, or accept that my best could be different from the best, or to stop comparing myself to everyone around me and finding myself wanting. I have spent my twenties trying to unlearn what I picked up during my A levels.
I think the smartest students aren’t the ones who score stellar A levels, but the ones who have the wisdom and perspective that I lacked, who know that a grade is nothing but a marker on a path – not a fixed, fatalistic sign post. As adults, we have to deal with all kinds of dilemmas and situations that don’t have a marking scheme, and it’s much healthier to know that you’re coping with bereavement or broken dishwashers as well as you can, without hearing a small, sniping inner voice muttering ‘That was only worth a B’.
Addictions become damaging when you compromise your health, happiness and lifestyle to get what you crave. My addiction to As started before my teens, and caused me a great amount of mental distress throughout my twenties. If you’ve taken A level exams this summer, or ever, you’ve done fantastically. It doesn’t matter what the letters spell. It’s important that we all remember every achievement is positive, personal and something to be celebrated, regardless of what it might precede.
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Picture: Li Hui
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