I dread sweating wherever and whenever it may happen (the only time it’s welcome is during physical exertion, when it’s cause is not anxiety). But one of the hardest forums in which I’ve had to manage it is at work.
Whether it’s work or school, most of us have responsibilities where we need to interact with others. I work as a lawyer. I know, I know…probably not the best choice of professions for a person with social and performance anxiety. That wasn’t lost at me when I started the path to attorney-hood. The rationale in my head was this: I was anxious regardless of the setting. Even as a box-boy at the grocery store at 15, I can recall feeling anxiety speaking with customers. So the idea was that, if I’m gonna feel it anyway, it shouldn’t dissuade a career aspiration.
Not surprisingly, this road has not been easy. In law school, there was a lot of performance involved. The professors often use the Socratic method, calling out students at random with questions on the material. Just this idea was mortifying. The forecast for my first week of law school was a torrential downpour of sweat, amidst an unhealthy and overwhelming cloud of cigarette smoke.
I was terrified to attend the first day of classes. How could I, a person with a clinical anxiety disorder, with uncontrollable sweating, with performance and social anxiety to the Nth degree…How could I, of all people, handle this environment? Could I handle it at all? Was this something that was just not possible for me to overcome?
I ruminated on this thought in the months leading up to the start of classes. I went to a therapist. I got a prescription for an anti-anxiety/anti-depressant. I believe the flavor of the day was Paxil, although it’s tough to recall seeing as I’ve been through a catalog of prescriptions over the years.
My mentality was that I was going to war. A war for my world, and to defeat my inner demons: social anxiety, performance anxiety, fear, doubt, and sweating. Regardless of their origins, I would be facing them head-on. It was a war I could not lose. I bought brand new bright white undershirts, knowing all-too-well they’d have a severely shortened life expectancy – doomed to yellow underarm stains on account of the sprinkler valves embedded in my ‘pits. Collateral damage, I suppose.
The questions about whether I could weather the law school storm were bouncing around my head incessantly. They were pressing. Could I manage sweating in this high-pressure environment? How would I make friends if I was always uneasy? How would I react to being called on in class? How could I hide my sweating? If I couldn’t, what then would I do? Would I quit?
More generally, the questions were existential. What was I going to do with my life, in light of the anxious sweat-storm that had befallen it? Should I head for the hills, and seek sanctuary in some (potentially non-existent) occupation where I don’t interact with others and wouldn’t have daily situations that make me severely anxious? Or did I need to face anxiety in this laboratory, so to speak, where everyday was yet another round of exposure therapy?
To put things in context, this is not hyperbole. Every day that I went to campus ended drenched. There were no exceptions. There were days my mood was better, and others more defeated, but always DRENCHED. So if you believe I am overstating the magnitude of my sweating issue, hopefully that puts it in context. I imagine there are others who sweat more than me, but I also submit that I may be in the top 1% of sweaters walking the planet. In fact, I think that’s a conservative estimate.
Anyway, I’d be bullshitting if I didn’t disclose that there were some tears – of agony, of anguish, of hopelessness and self-pity – that were shed that first week. More than a few.
I recall a conversation after my second day of classes. It was with my father, in my parents’ backyard. One of those conversations in your life where you recall every detail, large and small. I dribbled a basketball to distract myself from the discomfort of the conversation. The weather was brisk, and there was a slight end-of-summer breeze that, upon hitting my damp underarms, drove home that even in that moment I was sweating about sweating…The irony. And I recall the view of the horizon as the sun went down, granted it was blurred with tears of despair.
Months of worry and concern had now come to fruition. My journey through law school had begun. And I wasn’t so sure it would last past the opening week.
My dad told me this: “If you quit now, you will be quitting your whole life.” Now, I don’t know if that is good advice or not. I don’t know if that’s the proper mentality. But I do know that every psychologist will talk about avoidance. If you suffer from anxiety, avoiding the anxious situation reinforces that behavior. Left unchecked, I suppose one would become a recluse or sorts.
So at the time, his sage advice resonated with me. I might have been a sweaty mess, but I was standing up for a good cause – myself. Somehow (maybe I’m masochist) I just thought that if I could do this, I could do anything.
To my surprise, I was wrong. Had I dropped out of law school, I would have met my anxious self elsewhere, inevitably. Maybe I would have quit again, or maybe I would have taken up the fight there. So maybe I wouldn’t have been quitting my whole life.
But I didn’t quit law school. I completed it. I also got an MBA at the same time. And I was relatively successful, finishing in the top 20% of my class. But, having done it, I realized that doing it did NOT mean I could do anything. The front had moved, but the war raged on.
Next Up: Taking Anxiety to School – Sweating in Class (Part II – A Detailed Account of My Time in Graduate School)