Why I Owe My Successes to Anxiety

“Generalized Anxiety Disorder with Obsessive Compulsive Tendencies is great for work but not so great for life.” -Dr. LaFrennier

Two years ago, I walked through the door of my psychiatrist’s office, sat on the familiar couch, stared at the familiar rug, and answered the familiar questions. Bear was getting ready to start his pre-school 4’s class and already I was getting anxious about how life would change when he started Kindergarten in a year. Being kept awake at night worrying about not being around him as much in a year meant that my anxiety was kicking into a ridiculous overdrive, and I needed medication again. Fair enough. I’ve never been one to hate being on meds, they make me a better me.

When the doctor asked me about work, I said that things were going well. I was consulting and teaching. I was working through audits fairly quickly. Working with my dad was great in that it brought us closer together, but our working styles were very different. I was highly organized while my dad was not. My dad’s lack of consistent planning, something that had plagued our working relationship for nine years at that point, was nothing new.

That’s when Dr. LaFrennier told me that GAD with OCD tendencies was great for work but not for life. I laughed, but this hit home.

Recently, I’ve been more meaningful about sharing my GAD and OCD with others. I make a point to talk about it in front of my students. Recently, I mentioned this on my Facebook account and realized, my GAD with OCD have led to all of my successes, as well as my miseries, in life.

It took a long time for me to get diagnosed. I was in my mid-twenties the first time I realized that maybe my responses, my personal norm, weren’t the norm for everyone in the world. That was a pretty weird moment. As a college instructor, I always point out to my students the reasons for my oddly weird behavior because maybe, just maybe, someone will see the similarities between us and realize at eighteen that s/he should seek help.

The older I get, and the better I am at recognizing and managing my GAD with OCD tendencies, the more I realize that my life wouldn’t be as successful without them as part of who I am. The single-mindedness that comes with GAD and OCD can have benefits.

In elementary school, school bored me. I was ahead of things. If we knew in the 1980s what we know now, we’d probably have termed me a bit of an asynchronous learner. Then, in sixth grade, I left my science book at school the night before a test. I remember, it was probably late fall. My mom, livid with me for being so lazy and irresponsible, drove me back to school. The doors were locked. We managed to catch the janitor on his way out for the night. He unlocked the doors, let me into my classroom, and I took my book home. I made sure to study rainbows that night. I don’t even remember how I did on that test.

Why does this even matter?

This matters because that is where I can pinpoint how my GDA and OCD began to make me a successful person. I never forgot a book again. In fact, my OCD meant that at night, after my parents put me to bed, I would sneak downstairs while they watched TV, check my book bag to make sure everything was there, go back upstairs, feel I hadn’t seen everything, go back down, check again, go back up, get nervous, go back down, and repeat. It’s funny, this nightly routine probably started in middle school, but it continued all through high school. My constant obsessive fear of forgetting work can be totally traced to that one night in sixth grade.

That same dogged persistence is what made me finally learn algebra. In eighth grade, I hit a math wall. For some reason, algebra and my brain were not instantly compatible. I remember that my eighth-grade algebra teacher told my mom that I could come in for extra help. He told her that if I didn’t get it by November, then maybe we should think about backing me down a level.

If I’d known in eighth grade what I know now, I’d probably have recognized that my consistent after-school tutoring sessions were mainly because my anxiety amped up worrying about failure and my obsessive compulsive tendencies meant that I had to do it until I got my brain to a place where it felt “right.”

It’s funny. I think about that year a lot. I can see my eighth-grade algebra teacher in my mind. I remember he had a black handlebar mustache. He was Italian. He would visit Italy in the summers. We spent so much time together that we got to be really close. My undiagnosed mental health issues made me a particularly perfect student.

This perseverance continued through my life. In high school, I was never the most innately brilliant person. I was the plugger. I plugged along. I mean, fair enough, I was in Honors and AP classes back in the 1990s, back when they were more selective. I took pre-calculus with the super hard teacher, the one that scared kids. I was terrible at it. Pre-Calc was Algebra Redux. Every morning, at 7:00 am, I would show up at Mr. Korp’s classroom. I’d sit outside the poor man’s room waiting until he arrived. Some mornings, I’d bring him Dunkin Donuts coffee because I felt bad for bothering him so much and taking up his prep time. I would go over every single problem I didn’t understand. I would sit there and have him work with me until I understood it.

I can remember him asking me one morning, “Karen, why don’t you just memorize the steps like everyone else?” I looked at him, and said, “But then I’d just be memorizing; I wouldn’t be learning it. I need to understand it.” At the end of the year, he invited me to take Calculus. For the record, I spent all senior year meeting with him in the morning for extra help. I was doggedly determined. In fact, I was obsessed with doing well. I was anxious about failure and obsessed with learning the material. I earned a 4 on that AP exam. I graduated 4th in my class.

These same obsessive qualities led to my college success as well. I went to college with a single goal: making Phi Beta Kappa. My first exam in college was in BIO152: the introductory to biology class intended to weed out all the pre-med majors. I earned a D+ on the test. I will never, to this day, understand how fern reproduce.

All those GAD with OCD tendencies that had led to my previous academic success caused me to hole up in my dorm room, not talking to anyone, fearing that I didn’t belong in college, that I would fail out now, that I would be a failure. My GAD with OCD caused me to double down on that education business. I studied harder. I spent more time in the library that semester than I did in my room or my classes. I aced the genetics exam in that class with an A+ and brought my final grade up to a B of some sort. I wrote the kind of term paper for my first-year seminar class that got me nominated to be a writing tutor.

As my college career continued, I took classes that challenged me. I accepted every academic challenge that came my way. I won essay awards. I was a Presidential Fellow for The Center for the Study of the Presidency. I was published by them, and then later published by the college academic publication. I did a summer program that included classes, applied those to my course work, added extra courses my third year, and graduated in three years instead of four.

Despite only needing to take nine classes a year, I always maxed out my credits. If I was paying the same every semester, I would take everything I could to maximize my dollars spent. That OCD tendency pushed me to think about these things.

And yes, despite graduating a year early, I did make Phi Beta Kappa.

Despite these academic successes, my social life was a mess. As anyone with GAD and OCD tendencies will tell you, every aspect of a relationship is also subject to the same malcontent as work would be coupled with the need to repeat a process to perfection. For example, my sophomore year boyfriend was the lucky recipient of my inability to watch him peck type one finger at a time. My compulsive tendencies, which I didn’t have a label for at the time, twitched at his time inefficient typing method.

Another college boyfriend broke up with me soon after I realized that I’d be graduating early. I spent a solid portion of that year obsessing over whether I had made the right decision in graduating and then analyzing the minutia of our continued flirtatious friendship.

I began isolating myself more and more from a lot of people I knew. I assumed that by leaving my cohort, they were uninterested in remaining my friend. I checked out from personal relationships knowing that I was a short timer. I burned social bridges over and over, not realizing that the same qualities propelling my academic success were imploding my social happiness.

Today, these same problems and successes remain the same. My students may intensely dislike my required adherence to strict deadlines. However, they get their papers back within a week. I am compelled to complete tasks in as little time as possible. The lack of them being finished plagues my brain in a continually running itemized list.

My audit supervisor knows she can count on me to keep her updated about the status of my work. When focused in, I can meticulously work through a spreadsheet in about 20 hours. My inability to shut off my mental to-do list ensures the completion of self-regulated projects.

Simultaneously, the continuously running list includes a tally of every social mistake I think I’ve made. A night out with friends, not even strangers but friends, can lead to days of questioning a single sentence that garnered what I perceived as an awkward silence. The argument I had with a friend in June can linger in the back of my mind until late September. Meeting a new friend means asking questions to ferret out whether the person’s job is one that includes relocation on a regular basis. Sometimes, thinking about all the possible social mistakes I could make by accident paralyzes me into a slightly hibernated state.

Even now, my anxiety makes me afraid of this post. Perhaps, I sound too proud, too snooty, too better than. Perhaps talking about accomplishments makes me seem like some kind of arrogant prat.

This irrational fear of other peoples’ perceptions is the monster lurking underneath the successes.

In many ways, I wish that I had been fortunate enough to have been diagnosed earlier in my life. Despite my anxiety having been diagnosed in my mid-twenties, I never focused on my obsessive tendencies. About six years ago, not long after having my son, I told my therapist at the time that I had been known to start driving to work, forget whether the garage door had closed, drive back, leave again, and repeat the process up to at maximum four times. I also explained that I would spritz three sprays of cleaner on each kitchen tile and scrub them by hand. Somewhere during that conversation, I remember she leaned back, cocked her head to the side, and said, “Wow, I didn’t realize that your obsessive tendencies were quite that strong.”

For the first time it occurred to me that this was not everyone’s norm. I was in my thirties before this realization happened.

In some ways, I’m grateful for my anxiety and obsessive compulsive tendencies. My professional life would have stagnated without them. Without my obsessive anxiety when it comes to failure, I would never have continually pushed myself into new endeavors. Without my need to perfect things, I would never be writing this article, teaching students, or working on my own terms. In other ways, I hate my anxiety and obsessive compulsive tendencies. Without them, I would be more carefree in social situations, more willing to take risks, and more flexible with other people.

My GAD and OCD have been amazingly wonderful for all the things that society deems success. I have been told that I am a hard worker, that I persevere, that I am reliable, that I am diligent, that I am organized, that I am efficient, that I am strict, that I am detail oriented. When I think about the ways in which I can use my mental quirks to my advantage, I almost have to say that I feel somewhat privileged to be aware of how they work so that I can use them to my benefit.

Not everyone can. I recognize that. I try to be honest and up front with people about who I am. My Generalized Anxiety Disorder with Obsessive Compulsive Tendencies are part of what makes me, well, me. I wouldn’t be the socially awkward, over-talking person at the party without them. I wouldn’t be the GeekMom, first year writing instructor who does internal audit without them.

I share my story with my students so that those who recognize themselves in it can learn earlier than I did how to negotiate these often at odds characteristics. My story is really just one story of one person. However, really, according to The 11th Doctor, we’re all stories in the end so I’m just trying to make mine a good one.

Karen Walsh is a part time, extended contract, first year writing instructor at the University of Hartford. In other words, she's SuperAdjunct, complete with capes and Jedi robe worn during grading. She also works as a contract internal regulatory compliance auditor for banks. In addition, she writes comics and artist reviews at www.cosplayconnectuniversity.com.She works in order to support knitting, comics, tattoo, and museum membership addictions. She has one dog, one husband, and one son who all live with her just outside of Hartford, CT.