Careers My Anxiety Disorder Has Prepared Me For
by Sydney Bufkin
Home inspector: Thanks to my constant fear that my house is falling apart (not entirely unfounded, but that’s another story), I now scrutinize my surroundings constantly for evidence of stress. This means I know every crack and loose floorboard in my own home, but it also means that I’m constantly scanning every building I enter for fissures, chipped paint, and warped facing.
Pros: Am getting better at differentiating structural flaws from cosmetic blemishes.
Cons: People constantly ask what I’m looking at, and I have to lie, because no one wants to hear, “That crack in your drywall.”
Personal assistant: My anxiety has convinced me that I have to do the right thing at all times, otherwise, unspecified calamities will occur. This means I need to know everything about everything in order to figure out what the right course of action is in any given situation. The best place to get your car repaired? I know that, because picking the wrong place might damage my car forever. The permits needed to make minor changes to your house? Looked them up when I added stairs to the back door, because failing to do so might result in the city condemning my home. You need something done, I will figure out how to do it right, because if I don’t terrible things will happen.
Pros: General feeling of omniscience.
Cons: Aforementioned conviction of impending doom.
College admissions consultant: Needing to do the right thing at all times meant I absolutely had to go to the right college, and then make A’s in all the right classes. So I figured out how to get into all the best colleges, and I did. Then I went to the one that would leave me with the least (actually, no) student debt. In the process, I learned all about how colleges weigh different parts of the application, how to write a compelling essay, how to frame a high school career so that it appears to have focus and drive, and how to figure out which college will suit you, personally.
Pros: Being able to help confused high school students navigate a dizzying process is actually a legitimate and gratifying service to be able to offer; I’ve done it a few times over the years.
Cons: Parents of high school students.
Productivity expert: My anxiety increases in inverse proportion to my sense of control over the tasks in my life. In order to keep it at bay, I have a system that captures every to-do, categorizes it, and gives it a due date. I review the day’s tasks each morning, and once a week I work systematically through my task manager and calendar to follow up on undated tasks, responses I’ve been waiting for, and upcoming deadlines. I’ve researched every popular productivity technique and created a customized blend of the best elements of each to make sure I don’t forget anything, because forgetting something would not be doing the right thing, and would bring on the above-mentioned unspecified calamities.
Pros: Interest in productivity systems identifies me as a nerd, rather than outing me as a deeply anxious person.
Cons: Nerd isn’t always something I’m aiming for.
Personal shopper: Doing the right thing extends to buying the right thing, because I really should be saving everything all the time in case of emergency, and if I’m spending money on something, it had better be exactly suited to fit my needs. Also, I should probably justify the purchase to everyone I come in contact with in an attempt to assuage my buyers’ anxiety. But I also need to research whatever it is I’m buying in great depth and then comparison shop every store and internet venue that carries it.
Pros: Very rarely subject to impulse-buying.
Cons: Time spent researching often exceeds savings from comparison shopping.
SAT prep teacher: This is the one job I’ve held periodically over the years that has almost nothing to do with my anxiety. I’m very good at taking tests, and I’m quite good at teaching other people how to be better test-takers. In fact, test anxiety is one of the few anxieties I don’t have.
Pros: Pays well, and is a nice fallback for employment dry spell.
Cons: Trying to overlook my moral qualms with the fact that I am contributing to the systemic achievement gap in standardized testing. I mostly got over that years ago, though.
Actual career path: Academia, where anxiety-fueled perfectionism is one of the few ways to get ahead.
Pros: Compulsion to research and constant need to be right necessary prerequisites for publication.
Cons: More anxiety. No end in sight.
Sydney Bufkin is a graduate student by day and an anxious person all the time. You can find her on Twitter, and her occasional musings about technology, the academy, and reception study here. Photo: Shutterstock/Reinhold Leitner