Thursday 12 December 2019

Leaving Cert students, you are braver and smarter than you think

Author Bernice Barrington obtained maximum points in her Leaving Cert, but she also suffered chronic anxiety. Here she recounts her conflicted feelings about that period and offers advice to students preparing to sit the exam

'The first few minutes will be scary as hell but, as each day goes by,
you will feel more relaxed, more confident.' Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire
'The first few minutes will be scary as hell but, as each day goes by, you will feel more relaxed, more confident.' Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

Bernice Barrington

So, the Leaving Cert is here - and if you're one of the 60,000-plus students sitting these exams, you're probably feeling pretty anxious right around now. Be warned - over the coming days you're going to hear lots of middle-aged radio and TV presenters telling you that 'it doesn't really matter', 'it will all work out in the end' and 'sure they're just a few exams - didn't I fail everything except art, and now look at me - CEO of this Fortune 500 company', or whatever.

Don't feel bad if you want to slap these people (hard) for their patronising dismissal of something you've been working your ass off on for the past two years. They don't understand, or maybe they do and they've forgotten. It's OK for this to feel like the most important thing in your life, ever. Because, guess what? It probably is.

Okay, first things first, let me tell you a bit about my own Leaving Cert story. I sat my exams back in 1997, three weeks after my 18th birthday, and I wasn't just 'pretty anxious', as I alluded to back in the first paragraph, I was a nervous wreck. All my life I had been a straight-A, people-pleasing exam machine, but somewhere around the age of 17 - and on the back of severe bullying, low self-esteem and more than a passing tendency towards obsessive perfectionism - things started to unravel.

I didn't notice it at first - although the fact that I felt constantly tired, moody and my periods had stopped ought to have been a warning sign (and just to clarify, there was zero chance of being pregnant. I mean literally zero). It was only when I became crippled with overwhelming panic attacks that warning bells began to sound. Even though I'd experienced anxiety all my life, this was different. Panic seeped into every facet of my life: public speaking, driving and, most damningly of all, exam-taking. If I didn't have that, what did I have?

Nothing, seemed to be the most obvious answer. Absolutely nothing.

During that time I was so overcome by fear I wasn't able to take my house exams at the end of fifth year, and so my parents arranged for me to see a psychiatrist, who diagnosed anxiety and depression and prescribed me Xanax and Prozac.

I had barely taken aspirin before this, and suddenly I was mainlining sedatives three times a day. It didn't feel normal but I had to admit it kept the panic at bay. For a while, at least.

Once summer was over, I returned to school, to begin the dreaded Leaving Cert year. I entered it as St George might have entered the dragon's lair. How would I cope with this thing? This enormous, terrifying beast?

My answer was by studying. Hour upon hour of joyless, airless cramming.

The night before the Leaving Cert started I found it impossible to sleep. I felt so terrified I thought I would be sick. What if I panicked in the exam? What if my hand shook so hard and I couldn't hold the pen? In the middle of the night, I slipped down to my parents' bedroom, tears flowing down my face.

My father hugged me and went to the other room, while my mother held open the duvet and allowed me to crawl in beside her. She reassured and soothed me, telling me everything was going to be OK. At some point I took a Xanax (I had a large stash of them ready to go - to carry me through this torturous time.)

Next morning, I woke up and my father drove me to my school - to my fate.

I felt every part of me shivering - I didn't know how I was going to do it, but I knew I had to face it. I couldn't turn back like I did during my fifth year exams - and so I walked through the door, to my friends, and prepared for the fight of my life. I took another half a Xanax. I took a deep breath.

I got through all 10 of my exams and didn't die.

(The bigger challenge, though I didn't realise it at the time, would be somehow learning how to live.)

As it happened, when results day rolled out, it turned out I'd scored maximum points - or, to be precise, six higher A1s and a higher B2 in Maths. I was interviewed on the local radio and featured in the local newspaper. Apparently, I was the only one in my county to get such high grades. I decided not to mention the psychiatrist or the Xanax. It didn't really fit with the 'golden girl' headlines.

Suffice it to say, as the coming months and years went by, the feeling of success waned somewhat. It turns out getting the perfect score in your Leaving Cert does not buy you the perfect life - or a sense of identity, or the confidence you so desperately crave.

But that's a whole different conversation. People tend to forget this, but the Leaving Cert can be about so many things - none of them connected with actual college courses.

Maybe you feel you need to do well in these exams to finally win your dad's affection, or to fly in the face of those bullies who've been putting you down for years - or because you don't feel pretty but you know you're smart and you want to show the world that it's your brain that will pull you through this life, not your face.

Whatever the reason, it all boils down to a desire to prove yourself and a belief that failure is not an option. (Although, of course, the irony is that once you declare something like 'failure's not an option', it suddenly becomes all you can think about.)

I was like that. I was that kid. I felt that the Leaving Cert was the most important thing I had ever undertaken - that if I didn't ace it, my life was over. I genuinely believed that.

But here's the truth. Yes, it is important. Yes, it will determine what college you go to, what course you take. It's undeniable that it will, to a greater or lesser degree, affect the path your life takes.

But here's what the Leaving Cert is not: it's not a definition of you as a person. It's not a moral guide to your inherent goodness or badness as a human being. If you do less well than you hoped, that's disappointing, but it doesn't mean you, as an individual, are a failure. It just means you had a bad day at the office. The converse is true - all the A grades in the world are not going to make you happy or fulfilled or content in yourself. Believe me, I know what I'm talking about here.

But, at the same time, it's complex. Would I give back my 600 points if I could turn back time and erase all that pain and anxiety? The psychiatrists, the Xanax? The truth is, I don't know. Because, in the end, I'm proud of what I achieved, of what I proved myself capable of.

When I was struggling to complete my novel 'Sisters and Lies' - on the brink of giving up because it felt too hard - the memory of my Leaving Cert spurred me on. I remembered that I had experienced these feelings of inadequacy and fear before, this sense that I was not up to the task. But I had proved myself wrong back then, and I could do it once more if I just trusted in my own abilities - if I had the courage to believe in myself.

And I suppose that's what it boils down to for you now: courage. Right at this moment, you have to gather every ounce you possess and face this thing head-on. It seems huge and terrifying and, in many ways, it is - but I'll let you in on a secret: most of the hard work involves simply showing up.

If you make it to that exam hall on the first day of English Paper 1, you're more than halfway there. The initial few minutes will be scary as hell but, as each day goes by, you'll feel more relaxed, more confident. By the final exam you'll probably be wondering what all the panic was about.

But if the panic does strike, promise me this - that you'll do your very best to ride it out. Do not be tempted to get up and walk out. You'll regret it.

Finally, may I wish you the best of luck tomorrow and remind you of the wonderful AA Milne line from 'Winie the Pooh': "You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think."

Because you are. Have no doubt about that.

Bernice Barrington's debut novel, 'Sisters and Lies', published by Penguin Ireland, is out now

Irish Independent

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