Facing the Fear: Graduation Ceremonies
To continue with my post series on Facing the Fear—of Panic Attacks, I delve into my experience with graduation ceremonies. This has been a rollercoaster experience for me and I hope it inspires you to take action against your own fears.
Any situation that involved sitting for a long period of time without the option of leaving terrified me. It wasn't the fear of fainting or dying that scared me, it was having others see me panic was the worst part for me. That being said, graduation ceremonies were at the top of the list. How the hell was I supposed to sit in the stands, in front of a large crowd of friends and family, for two-full hours?
high school graduation, 2010
This wasn't just some random chorus concert, this was High School Graduation—the pinnacle of life. The blue gowns, the diploma, the tossing of the caps. It was the staple scene in every teen movie (minus the hot naked guy).
Having a panic attack at my graduation for my entire grade to see was my worst nightmare. My biggest fear. They'd talk about it for years. I'd go to the 10 year reunion and they'd say "Hey, there's the girl who ran off in the middle of graduation." As I sat on my porch hours before the ceremony, watching my neighbor sprint from his red Mustang into his house during a torrential downpour, I begged for the rain to never stop. I begged for the ceremony to move indoors, into a stuffy gymnasium with exit doors I could leave through and hide in the bathroom, instead of a tent in a large open field. Five minutes later, the sun came out.
What saved me that day was distraction and preparation. One of my best friends was paired beside me for the procession into the tent and we laughed and joked the entire walk to the stage. I hid my cellphone in my bra and I carried a spray bottle with a fan attachment (it was 80F/26C outside). I was in the middle section, the third row up out of four rows in a heavy, crisp blue rented gown. There was one moment during the speeches when I felt my heart pace quicken, but it quickly faded away when bubbles started flowing along the stands. One of the boys in my class brought a bubble-making bottle and was blowing bubbles. My classmates were all reaching out to grab at them until they popped. We were all laughing and having a great time.
Okay I'm taking way too long to explain my high school graduation... I survived. I faced the fear! Nothing happened at all, except for what was meant to happen. The blue gown, the diploma, the throwing of the cap, I did it all.
college graduation, 2014
But the fear didn't go away. College graduation was a whole other breed of monster. High school graduation brings with it opportunity, possibility, growing up. College graduation brings with it the reality of the adult world and most of us were unprepared. I was suffering anxiety throughout my last year of college and the fear of the graduation ceremony kept me up at night. The fear I felt was so overwhelming that I gave into it, convincing myself that I would rather take the safe route and skip out on the ceremony.
I sat in the friends and family section, watching the ceremony projected on a large screen as my classmates walked on stage and my name got skipped over. When it was done, I threw on the cap and gown hidden in my bag and posed with my friends for pictures like a fraud. They all bashed the hollow red tubes they were handed when they went on stage like lightsabers, giggling with adrenaline that it was all over, and I had to hold back tears of regret. It fucking sucked.
masters graduation, 2016
Before my masters program even started, I was terrified for the inevitable ceremony. My parents put their foot down, saying I could not by any means skip the ceremony. I decided to see a therapist leading up to the "Big Day" and she suggested I contact the University's Graduation Ceremony Committee to see if they could accommodate me, or at least have them explain the run-through so I had some of an idea. I learned that I do better when I have some control over the situation. To control it, I really just needed an aisle seat close enough to a door that I would allow a quick escape unseen if I had a panic attack.
The woman in charge of the ceremony responded to my email by saying she accommodates people with my similar issue every year! You can't imagine how happy I was to hear this. I met with her and she explained the entire graduation process, showing me everything on a map of the auditorium, and then I met with her again on the day of the ceremony and did a full walk-through of where I'd sit, when I'd get up, walking on stage, walking off stage, and added that if I wanted to leave immediately after getting my certificate, I could.
Although I got a few confused looks from my fellow graduates as I sat in one of the pop-down chairs on the side during the ceremony, I was happy as can be. I slipped into line with my classmates, walked on stage, laughed out loud as my family screamed in the stands like it was a football game, got tapped over the head with a rolled-up bonnet, and walked off stage absolutely glowing.
My graduation experiences remind me that I've been battling with panic disorder for awhile. There were many factors that contributed to me not being well enough to walk at my college graduation, which makes it even more special that I walked at my masters graduation because it shows the progress I've made. I'm much stronger than I was in 2014.
Facing fears are incredibly hard. If they were easy, they wouldn't be called "fears". Every one that I "face" just proves another thing I am capable of. My goal for 2018 is to continue to remind myself that I've faced many fears and to not let the fear of having a panic attack stop me from doing something beneficial to my life.
Also, a huge shout-out to the team behind the University of Edinburgh graduation ceremonies for making my experience a happy memory.