I’ve finally finished my exams and I must say the last three weeks are definitely ones I would not want to revisit if I had access to a time machine. Even though I was happy overall with them, these past weeks have been so stressful. The last few years, I’ve been dealing with panic attacks and they were pretty bad this year.
They started when I was seventeen when I was doing my Leaving Certificate exams (the big state examinations we have here in Ireland before we leave secondary school). It was the day before my Irish Oral (the exam is basically a conversation through Irish with the examiner so they can access how good you are at speaking the language) and my teacher was doing some last minute preparations with us in class. I remember her asking basic questions and then trickier questions to my classmates and the way everyone seemed to answer so fluently. And then she asked me and I got this sudden fear; suddenly all the things I feared about this exam were haunting me (there was one reason in particular that made me dread this exam, but I’ll probably talk about that in a future post). I saw how good the students around me were and how bad I was at speaking and I just broke down in tears (in front of everyone) and ran out of the room, completely panicked. And you just know things are bad when even the strict teachers are trying to comfort you. My teacher was amazing though; she’d been afraid I wouldn’t sit the exam at all, but she managed to calm me down and in the end I did sit it. I never forgot that day though and I’ll always be thankful to that woman.
Since then, I’ve always been extra nervous before exams. I know everyone gets “the last minute jitters”, but it’s so much more than that for me. I go through long bouts of insomnia and even the thought of exams will freak me out.
The worst panic attack I got happened before one of my college exams last summer. It was the subject I was most worried about- not because I found it hard, but because it was the only one I didn’t feel passionate about and studying it felt like a total chore. I’d been stressed enough, but I had been dealing with it. That was until I got a text of a girl who I thought was my best friend (same girl who stood me up in “Tea with a Stranger”. Since starting college, I’ve met such wonderful people, but she’s been the only one who’s turned out not to be… the person I thought she was. As I mentioned in that post, we have a complicated history and it’s easier to be on good terms with her than bad. I don’t see her as much these days since we’re doing completely different subjects but to be honest, I can’t say I’m overly saddened by that).
Anyway, at the time there was a guy who I was totally crazy about. He didn’t feel the same way about me though; he preferred the girls every other guy seemed to want: the stereotypical hot girl. The same ones who laughed when they realised he had a crush on them and pretended to be lesbian.
In the text, my “friend” managed to refer to how that guy didn’t like me, but that was okay because there were so many guys after her and she would reject them. When she broke their hearts (her actual words), they’d be so desperate, they’d even consider me an option. And obviously if I turned them down, they’d just turn gay, since after all, what hope did they have of girls liking them if even Qcat didn’t want them?
And that was it. That text message was enough to push me over the edge. It wasn’t just what she had said (bitchy or not, it hurt a hell of a lot), but it was the fact that I knew she deliberately said it to hurt me. She knew how stressed I’d been about the exam and she knew how sore I was after that other guy rejected me. Yet she went ahead anyway and went out of her way to make me feel worse.
And even though I had been managing my stress, suddenly, everything was too much. I remember putting my phone down calmly and picking up my lecture notes again and attempting to read them like as if nothing had happened. But I couldn’t take anything in. I was reading the same line over and over, but all that was in my head was all these insecurities I’d been trying to ignore: I’m not the easiest person to be around. I’m not the nicest. I’m obviously not the prettiest. I’m not like those other girls. Grades are all I have. I need to do well! If I don’t, I have nothing!
I read the text again. I looked at the lecture notes. I re-read the text. I looked at the lecture notes. I thought back on 101 screwy things that had happened that year. I thought of all the consequences of me doing badly. And I started shaking uncontrollably. My heart was beating like crazy. My head was pounding, but unlike the time in school, this time, I actually couldn’t breathe. It couldn’t have gone on for longer than a minute, but it felt like hours. I had curled up on the ground, struggling to breathe; my face covered in tears, feeling nothing but horror and misery.
I eventually managed to calm myself but the way I felt that night is a way I’ve always been afraid of feeling since. The whole not being able to breathe thing especially wasn’t fun…
Thank god, I haven’t gotten a panic attack that severe since, but I went pretty near a few times. I’d never told anyone about the panic attacks- not even my family- before a few weeks ago. They figured it out when they realised I wasn’t sleeping at all and when they saw how jumpy I was. Funnily enough though, I hadn’t realised I had a problem until three weeks ago when I had two exams in one day. I was feeling wrecked after the first exam since I had gotten no sleep the night before, and by the time the second one came along, I was feeling physically sick. Since starting college, I’ve always retained my calmness in public but I just couldn’t keep calm that day. I hadn’t realised how bad it was until my friend messaged me a few days later telling me she was really worried about me. She’d never seen me like that before and I know it freaked her out.
Normally, I can control my stress levels and stay calm, but exams trigger my panic attacks. If anyone reading this suffers them, my advice is to tell someone. I think the reason my attack was so severe last year was because I kept everything secret. This year, people figured it out by themselves something was up and even though I hated that initially, it made a big difference. The other night when I was in tears and shaking, my brother made me hot chocolate while my parents reassured me that everything would okay. If they weren’t there for me, I know for a fact, things would have been so much worse.
Recently I posted a poem about the silliness of worrying. It seems ironic, but one reason I posted it then was so I could remind myself that life is too short for all this worrying. I know getting this stressed out before exams is irrational, but I’m trying to overcome these panic attacks. And hopefully one day I will.
Thanks for reading