First Day… by JoAnn
It was a cool September morning in Virginia, and I was sitting on the back porch with my mama. It was early, and she was enjoying her daily cup of coffee. I had already gotten dressed and eaten a bowl of cereal. Today was the first day of a new school year. I would be entering the 8th grade, which meant attending a new Junior High that I had never been to before.
As hard as I tried, I could not relax. I was so nervous at the thought of a new school building, new teachers, and all the other “news” that came with it. Although my old friends would be moving along with me, there would be kids from other schools combined into one Junior High, which meant lots of new people to meet. It all felt overwhelming to me. So much so that I was experiencing anxiety, only in the early 1970’s, no one talked much about anxiety. In fact, it wasn’t talked about at all. Being nervous was just that. Nervous was the word to explain every feeling of stress, no matter how complicated or all-consuming it was to a person’s mental or emotional health.
This morning, the anxiety was so bad I had already thrown up once and felt like I was going to again. I didn’t understand these feelings. Why were they so debilitating? My mama’s love and assurance helped, but it wasn’t enough. One thing for sure, I knew I had no choice but to grin and bear it. I had to go to school today and just deal with it. I was already looking forward to returning home that afternoon and hadn’t even left my house yet. This was going to be a long day.
That is what my mind told me. In reality, the day went by rather quickly and painlessly. I saw all of my old friends and was happy to have many in my new classes. There were a lot of new boys I had never seen before. That piqued my interest. But what really surprised me was how the old boys I knew had changed over the summer. My girlfriends and I giggled at our lockers in between classes at how tall so and so had gotten and how that one’s voice was so deep now. It was a lot of fun that I hadn’t expected to have.
The first day over, I returned home with an armful of books and a long list of assignments. I already had homework to help take my mind off what day two would be like. It helped calm my nerves. I had a good night’s sleep. But the next morning, that same stomach bug was back. His name was anxiety, only I didn’t know his name at that time.
These bouts of anxiety would last the remainder of my life. Mainly with all of the firsts in my world. First dates, first doctor visits, first job interviews, and first jobs. Always the same. I learned to live with them and push forward. But there did come a time when I began adjusting to the anxiety by avoiding it altogether. I learned to avoid the triggers that would frazzle my nerves. And when times got really tough, I avoided life in general.
That’s when I sought professional help. I was diagnosed with chronic clinical depression and social anxiety. Most of my depression stemmed from my inability to cope with social settings. They both fed on each other and went around in my head like two dragons battling a war. But the best thing about this diagnosis was that I finally had a name for it, and I wasn’t crazy. The second best thing, I learned I was not alone. There were thousands of people all over the world who had the same problems that I did.
All these memories came to mind this week as I watched my grandchildren begin their new school years. Seeing how comfortable they seemed with their futures made me so happy. One is going back to college, her second year. One is a senior in high school, and the youngest is in 3rd grade. I looked closely at every picture my daughter posted on social media. There they stood with their new school clothes and new backpacks filled with supplies, and they smiled joyfully. I’m sure they may have been a little nervous, but I didn’t see the awful anxiety that used to consume me at their age. At least now, we know what to do if they ever feel that anxiety. We hopefully know what to say to them and how to help them. Mental health has come a long way in the past 50 years, and I, for one, am very grateful.
As the new school year proceeds, I will dream of the smell of freshly sharpened pencils and the crispness of a new pack of notebook paper. I will long to take a shopping trip and pick out a new backpack and clothes that all my friends will comment on. Those really were simpler times and more enjoyable times. There were indeed good memories made. But I would never want to return to the anxiety I felt and had to battle for so long—my prayers for all the kids facing it today. I’m sure their struggle is real, and I pray they have help available.