Stress in the Achiever Culture
Changing the Traditional Path to an Open Field of Opportunity
The first time I remember being introduced to an ‘advanced’ classroom was 2nd grade; that also happened to be the first year I began to be concerned about my grades, and the first year that I cried to my parents because I was afraid of leaving home to go to college—I was seven years old. Elementary school is when grades become associated with success, I distinctly remember thinking that missing a couple words on my spelling test was going to ruin my chance of getting into a good college. As a second grader it was already drilled into my head that good grades equaled getting into a good school which equaled getting a good job and that would lead to having a happy and successful life, thus began the dichotomy between those who go to a good four year college and lead a successful life, and those who fail.
As the grades wore on and I reached the end of my junior year of high school, I was still blissfully unaware of what lie ahead in the next three months. I had battled generalized anxiety, social anxiety and OCD my entire life, and although this made living a ‘normal’ life difficult, it never interfered with my ability to attend school. Part of my anxiety actually surrounded missing school as I was terrified of getting in trouble. The summer of 2015 life as I knew it came crashing down around me, my OCD became pure O (pure obsessional), and the obsessions were more disturbing than the constant compulsions I had experienced in the past. The picture of my lifeless bleeding body on the side of the road because I purposely rode my bike into oncoming traffic, was placed on a running loop in my head as I rode to work. “I don’t want to die, I am safe, I am not going to swerve the bike,” would then play in my head as I tried to stop some of the anxiety. Soon my social anxiety, which had improved immensely the past year, became overwhelming, I suddenly had a fear of seeing anyone my age that I knew. This made it extremely difficult to maintain friendships, but I trudged on exposing myself to social situations and pushing through the obsessive thoughts. I figured the symptoms would subside slightly by the time school came around again, that was the usual cycle of anxiety throughout the year.
By mid-August after making the difficult decision to start my first SSRI in July, I realized my anxiety wasn’t letting up and the start of school was quickly approaching. I was still fairly convinced that I was going to be ready for school, despite the panic attack that ensued when my parents tried to drive me to my best friend’s birthday party in mid-July (that one ended with me sitting in the car screaming and crying, while rocking back and forth hugging a beach towel), and then in August wanting to climb out the window of my bedroom before a friend came over to visit, and then avoiding eye contact or physical contact the entire two hours she was there. My mother was (rightfully) concerned about the start of school, and wanted me to try going to the school before classes. She dropped me off at the front door of my high school and drove to the other side to pick me up—all I had to do was walk through. I thought it was ridiculous, I’d been going there for 3 years it wasn’t going to bother me this time, and I was fine—until I heard people in the hallway. At that moment I completely panicked andproceeded to run out the side door of the school, hiding in the shadow of the building as I ran along the outside perimeter to find where my mom parked the car.
After a week of continued exposure and response prevention therapy at school with my parents by my side, it was determined that I was not going to start my senior year with the other 266 students in my class; I was going to start the year on a homebound program. I was relieved and devastated at the same time, the thought of going to school on the next Tuesday was terrifying, but it was severely disappointing that I wasn’t going to be there for my last ‘first day.’
I was supposed to be out of school for the first few days, which then turned into the first couple weeks, then the first month, and then Thanksgiving break, which then became Christmas, and after months of exposure therapy, medications, doctor’s offices, and evaluations I returned to school after the first of the year.
Those six months were the hardest I have ever endured, I have never seen so many doctors, had so many chemicals pumped into my body all of which caused horrid side effects, or endured that much pain in my entire life. There were times I was desperate, worried that nothing would ever help, that the panic wouldn’t subside, the physical agony felt permanent. One of the scariest points for me was when I wondered if being at home was the best thing for me, or if a mental hospital was a better option, however even this idea sent me into a panic as my separation anxiety caused terrible fear of being away from my family for even a few hours.
When I was finally able to return to school I was met with the deadlines for college applications, yet at that point all I was thinking about was getting through the hour, I had no idea where I was going to be in 6 months. Throughout high school I fully invested myself in the path I had been put on starting in elementary school, taking as many honors, and college level classes as possible. I put my academics before everything including my mental health; and on track with the traditional path I had learned in elementary school I felt immense pressure to go to a prestigious 4 year school, even though I knew that was not the right decision for my mental health. I waited until the last possible minute to decide where I wanted to go to college, and on that day I made the gut wrenching decision to decline my acceptance to the schools I applied to and rather attend the local community college. This decision should not have been gut wrenching, I should have been empowered by the choice I made to put my mental health first, but instead I felt like I had failed myself. I followed the traditional path to success for 12 years and then just as I was able to take that next step down the path I was convinced was my only way to success, I instead took a turn down what I saw as a dark alley. Due to the stigma around community college in the achiever culture, there were times I did not want to tell people where I was going to school, and when I did I felt like I had to explain myself; I was afraid of being perceived as unintelligent, or that I wasn’t living up to my potential.
The achiever culture of honors students puts a high value on stress leading to students who equate stress with intelligence, so the more stress a student has the more intelligent he or she must be. The achiever culture values stress, and because of this teenagers feel as though the higher someone’s stress level the more intelligent he or she must be, yet when someone makes a decision to put their mental health first whether due to mental illness or the affect stress is having on their mental health they are continued to be looked down upon in the eyes of the achiever culture. When I faced this with my decision to attend community college I realized just how much the values of the achiever culture need to be challenged and this can only be done by reducing the stigma around talking about one’s mental health. The only way to stop stigma is by going against it, and it was then I began to openly share my story of struggling with mental illness as a high achieving student while swerving away from the traditional path.
The more I began sharing my journey with mental illness with others the more students I met who had gone through similar situations in their short lives. Despite the prevalence of these issues society continues to tell us that mental health is a subject that should not be discussed, it is something to be handled alone, and all you have to do is ‘suck it up.’ Schools continue to expect more of students and put more and more pressure upon them, yet they also continue to ignore the growing problem of mental health issues associated with the increased stress. Every high school student takes physical education, yet there is no mental education class. Mental health and physical health are directly linked, you cannot have one without the other, but young people are only taught how to deal with one aspect of their health, this is leading to students whose stress levels affect functioning. If nothing changes today’s students who don’t know who to take care of their mental health will become tomorrow’s workforce whose mental health affects functioning.
Whether you are currently a student going through the school system or you know young people who are students, remind yourself or them that mental health is not a subject to be ignored, and that it is something we have to address together. I was fighting for my life those few months, and it felt like the battle would never end, but I had an outpouring of support from my immediate family members, extended family, friends, teachers, therapists, and doctors. Without them I would not be where I am today, I am still not where I expected to be but I am happy with where I have landed. Taking control of my life and taking the power away from the achiever culture I have gained perspective and I have been empowered by my situation to share my story with others to hopefully help someone else make the decision to share their ever important story.
The best way to decrease the stigma is to increase the conversation, you may not think that your story is significant but you never know who you could touch, or what change you could make in the world. It only takes one raindrop to create a ripple on the ocean, be that drop of water that changes the way the world sees mental health.
Any information on this blog is not a substitute for professional advice. It is written from personal experience and research only. If you are in crisis, go to your nearest emergency room, call lifeline on 13 11 14 or dial 000. If you live outside Australia, link to worldwide crisis numbers can be found in the sidebar.