By Stephanie White

Fighting the Fear: Towards Stopping Freaking Out

Stephanie's past writing at The Well, including the popular piece Clearing the Way: Six Questions for Setting Goals, came out of her ups and downs in graduate school. In the fall of 2014, she moved to Ontario to teach at the University of Waterloo. Only a few months into her position, she and her husband Andrew welcomed their beautiful baby girl, Maggie. Considering her first year a sort of practice round, as she was on leave for most of it, she now begins fresh and has agreed to share with us her reflections on the stresses and fears that can overwhelm new faculty. We welcome you to join the conversation!

A few years ago I had to decide whether or not to be tested for a genetic disorder, a choice that for me came down to whether or not I would live in fear. I remember putting it to an agnostic friend that way as I parsed through the decision with her: “I’m a Christian,” I concluded. “I can’t live my life in fear.” As if fear and faith in Christ were mutually exclusive, as if, really, on the ground, here in the foxhole, we might get by with never being afraid. No, there’s a reason one of the most common phrases in the Bible is “stop freaking out” (or words to that effect) — it’s because we never actually stop, at least not for very long.

Not long after I made my decision I sat, rapt, at the 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College and scribbled non-stop notes as Marilynne Robinson spoke to the crowd about how corrosive fear can be. Robinson told us, “If you’re frightened, you’re not a good judge of circumstances. You’ve already given in to the enemy.” Her reflections on how “perfect love casts out fear” had reference to U.S. foreign policy, but I couldn’t help but take her words into my heart. I’ve watched them shift my thoughts since then, a little this way or that way, out of the path of fear that tornadoes through my brain when I have a big decision to make. You see, I was right, when I made my choice about genetic testing — I couldn’t choose my way from a standpoint of fear, but needed to choose with hope. And yet so many of my small, quotidian actions continue to be driven by fear. When the wind whips its blind way through me, I forget to step out of the way before selecting my next step — I just run headlong and unseeing, directly into the tornado.

This past summer, as a new faculty member, still blinking in the post-dissertation sun, and a new mother, I’ve been banging into walls that make me terrified. I’ve been inordinately afraid in ways that I suspect are mainly borne of interrupted sleep and lots of major life changes, but I’ve been shaken to my core by how very afraid I’ve been. How I spend my time each day, how I write emails, where I set up shop to grade papers, how I interact with my colleagues, what I’m thinking about when I walk to pick up my daughter from daycare, even what I wear — all of these (what should be) unconscious choices have led to anxious thoughts, panicked reactions, a short temper. I know it’s a lot to navigate a new campus and a new city, make the shift from TA to professor, publish at least parts of my dissertation, understand what counts as “service” and what doesn’t, come to grips with the fact that I’m a lecturer and not on the tenure track, all while learning what it means to be a mother — but I’ve been overwhelmed by fear.

As so many friends have pointed out, I’ve been pummeling through three of the top stressors humans can pummel through, all at the same time. But I know that many, many of us women in academia are doing the same thing. We transition out of grad school and into a new job, which necessitates moving to a new city, and so often we have major family changes (leaving a partner or getting married, a new baby, some other major life event) right around that same time. Most of these changes are good, yes, but they are still stressful. And that stress seeps into our day-to-day existence. For me, it has led to anxiety and to fear that is preventing me from seeing my way clearly. So what do we do when we’re afraid? What do we do when we, as women in academia, need to choose how to spend our hours and our days, on what tasks, with what people, and toward what goals? This daily decision-making has been wearing on me, and I need a way forward. One thing I know to do is to be honest with myself about what I’m facing, to commiserate, to share, and to listen. It’s not coincidence so many articles here at The Well address our fears, after all.

Over the next few months, then, I’ll be adding to those articles. I’ll tell you about the fears I’m encountering at work and at home as I continue to peer through the fog of teaching, writing, administration, departmental politics, mothering, and personal life in a new city. And I’ll share the insights I have, the moments of hope, as well as the tools and responses I’m crafting that help me fight the fear. I welcome you to do the same in the comments.

I’m actually terrified to commit myself to writing this series, since every day is precarious. My mood and my abilities as I get started on my work each day are entirely reliant on whether my baby wakes in the night, and how many times, and at what intervals. And my evenings are charted by how my chair talks to me and about what, or whether my colleagues seem to think I’m capable of whatever task I’ve decided will convince them I’m not an impostor, or whether my students seem to like me.

Okay, so not all the time, and not completely. I do know who I am, at my core — a cherished child of my God. But I forget. As Robinson put it: “Fear is a stimulant. It gets addictive.” I hope that telling my troubles here will interrupt that cycle of addiction, will remind me — and you — to stop freaking out.

About the Author

Stephanie White is on leave from her position as the Undergraduate Programs Manager at the University of Waterloo’s Writing and Communication Centre in Waterloo, Ontario. She and her husband Andrew have two amazing kids and very helpful family and friends.

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