grace under pressure (exam post, part one)

Nothing spurs adaptability like a genuine lack of planning.

There’s a feeling – and I’m going to steal and terribly mutilate a great line from Dear Esther here – a feeling you get in the morning an hour or two before an essay deadline, where you stare at the work in front of you and realise that there is nothing more that can be done. It’s over. You’re done. The caffeine and adrenaline are still pounding ragged through you, sleep deprivation has the world bending and blurring and barely making sense. And there you sit, lost in a vacuum of fatalistic calm.

I’ve found myself addicted to that feeling this year.

During the first of last year’s exams, the Late Modern history module that for various syllabus- and incompetence-related reasons I’d basically come to despise, I had a panic attack, comprising twenty or thirty of the shittiest minutes of my life. That was partly the total uselessness and foolishness that surrounded the exam (as detailed there), and partly the pressure. I felt the world bearing down on me; I felt the overwhelming fear of failure (foolishly, really, as first year doesn’t count for jack), and I wasn’t equal to it. I curled up into a useless, worthless, sobbing ball and was led away.

I can’t tell if it’s some sort of response to that, some determination for it not to happen again (after the panic attack they prescribed me diazepam and counselling, both of which I tried but found useless and quickly gave up) but I’ve discovered this year that I seem to get high on pressure. And never more than the manufactured pressure of an essay done in not quite enough time. There’s something about having worked very hard and very fast that has me coming out of the history office grinning sunbeams (before going home, crashing completely, and feeling sick for a week.)

I’ve done what I promised not to in first year, and made a habit of all-nighters. And the worst part is, it works. The marks come out best when I’m writing them locked in a vice marked “deadline”. The essays I do properly, with all plans laid and time to spare, are competent but not great; but the best marks I’ve got this year have been balls-to-wall all-night panicfests, written in a night of tea-sloshed adrenaline with barely time to print. Vietnam option essay, two thousand words, written conscientiously in good time (with a last-minute rewrite, which can’t have really helped) on a subject I was fully comfortable with? 67. Critical Analysis, four thousand words on four books I wasn’t sure I understood, started twelve hours before the deadline (having already spent two days straight without sleep working on Rise of Modern War)? 77.

My dissprep essay was not, by my standards or in my estimation, that good. In particular, I was worried about the last third or so, which was written pretty much in blind panic (even more so than the rest, which was done under standard “oshit 20 credits in 12 hours, GAME OVER MAN, GAME OVER” conditions) as a planned twenty-minute nap with twelve hundred words to go and plenty of time to finish them off accidentally became a two hour snooze and an absolute blur of panic up to execution hour. When Rob and I were talking over the essay, he asked me what happened to the last third of it; as I launched into some impromptu excuses, he took me completely by surprise in saying that it was so much better than the rest.

Not only do I find a horrible adrenaline joy in pressure, it seems I work at my very best when the world’s squeezing me. And exams bring all that out at once. There’s nothing, no distractions, no way out; only the pressure of how much this exam means to my life, and the fear of failure, and, as each second in turn flies away, the knowledge that it cannot be regained. And my hands fly across the keyboard, and I think: some fools pay for this kind of high.

Yep, I’m the lamest adrenaline junkie who ever lived.


6 thoughts on “grace under pressure (exam post, part one)

  1. I’m exactly the same. Pressured conditions just bring out some ninja like ability to write faster, think clearer and express myself better than under normal conditions. It’s actually quite a good thing imo, as it means you know you’re not one of those poor unfortunate souls who walks into an exam room and goes blank or falls to pieces and does worse than they otherwise would.

    1. Mm, and it’s comforting going into exams resolved that the panic attack thing is not happening (that confidence alone probably helps!) but I’m a bit worried one day I’m going to go too far artificially inducing pressure and fuck myself up, deadline-wise or otherwise.

  2. I find this really interesting, because for obvious reasons I can’t pull all-nighters – until I realised that the trigger was getting six hours’ sleep two nights in a row, I’d ended up bedbound for about a week twice. I don’t know what would happen if I got no sleep and I don’t want to test it :P As a result, because I know I have an unmovable point at which I have to sleep whether or not my work is done, I get big panic attacks if it’s midnight and I’ve got more than about two or three hours’ of work to do before a deadline the day later. That said, during exams I do become a lot more productive approaching the time of the exam – but we’re talking days here, rather than hours!

    1. Last year I was similar (though, yes, for obvious reasons, not the same) in that I could barely function without enough sleep and an all-nighter would wipe me out for a few days. This year that just hasn’t been true, and I’ve been thriving off a lack of sleep. No idea why.

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