My brain still thinks school should be stressful

I am anxious about homework for graduate school. So instead of continuing with homework, I am writing a blog post about being anxious about homework. Though technically I am in school for writing, so some of my homework for the MFA program is to write. Am I technically avoiding if I am avoiding by writing something else? My brain is a fascinating place.

Though in addition to writing, I also need to be reading, and that seems to be a bigger hurdle. I have a long history of OCD affecting my ability to read. OCD always attacks what we love most, doesn’t it? Plus, I was pathologically a perfectionist. Starting in middle school, I would reread textbooks obsessively trying to catch and basically memorize every piece of information presented. This meant reading was extremely slow and anxiety-provoking. By college, I could barely read for assignments. I either spent an hour on ten pages, or I would just avoid it all together.

Suffice it to say, undergrad was stressful. But I worked hard to regain the ability to read, and to get OCD under control. I put myself through hours of exposures, even taking a semester off and graduating a year later, so I could live a functional, fairly typical life again. By the time I graduated, I was happy again, and even reading novels and poetry for fun. I took a much needed break from school, but it had ended better than it had started.

The thing is school this time around isn’t as stressful. I’m studying something I love: writing. I fully chose to go back to graduate school, to study something I love. I am no longer existing in the highly competitive and often toxic world of STEM and academia. All of my classes are mentorship based with amazing working writers, and I create most of my own syllabi based on what I want to read and write. Graduate school objectively isn’t as “dangerous” or “threatening” as my undergraduate experience.

The problem is that my brain still thinks school is dangerous. After so many years of school=stress, how can I expect those well-trained associations to just go away? Sure, it worked for a while. The excitement of starting a new program had me finishing assignments days early. And sure, after loads of treatment, my OCD is far milder than it was in college, when I was literally just diagnosed. But brains are creatures of habit. If school=stress then, school=stress now.

The hardest part about having OCD is you know it is illogical. Check the stove five more times even though you know you turned it off? Avoid homework because it was stressful three years ago? I know that doesn’t make sense. But logic doesn’t always, if ever, stop me from making the choice to give into OCD and do the compulsion or avoid. It’s a choice, but it’s not. Anxiety can drive the bus, but it still feels like my fault if we crash.

I’m motivated. I don’t want OCD to steal the ability to read again. Books are one of my biggest loves in this world. I have the tools and knowledge to know how to handle OCD. But I’m also scared. Like I said, doing a compulsion is both a choice, and it’s not. Yes, I am nowhere near back where I started. I never will be back at the starting point. Mental health recovery is a winding road, with ups and downs. But I can’t help but sometimes wish I had a less sticky brain.


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