About halfway through last semester, I was convinced I was dying. My lymph nodes were swollen, my body ached, and I felt entirely exhausted. I went to the student health center to have blood work done, and as I waited for the results, my hypochondria ran amok. Was I anemic? Or maybe I had mono? It was probably lymphoma, I thought – that’s why the doctor kept asking me so many questions about my lymph nodes. A few days later, I received a call that my blood work was in, and I prepared for the worst. But I was fine, except for a bit of Vitamin D deficiency. The doctor said there was no diagnosable illness – I was probably just stressed and sleep deprived.
Sometimes I think that all my problems would be solved by sleeping for a week straight. I feel like I can never rest because my academic work seems to fill into every available moment. Even when I don’t have any school work, I feel guilty for doing nothing because if I’m not doing anything, I’m falling behind. I do readings for my film seminar on the train, I type thesis chapter drafts while driving home from family vacations, and I run through my to-do lists and brainstorm writing ideas while I work out so not a minute of time is “wasted.”
I’m afraid to say no to anything. ‘Sure, I’ll go to that campus lecture’ or ‘I can write a draft this week’ or ‘I can’t really handle a job right now, but I should probably still apply.’ Even though I feel like I barely have room to breathe, I wind up cramming one more thing into my calendar. Sometimes I think of myself as the character from The Crucible who gets pressed to death with stones on his chest: he keeps saying “more weight” until it is too much for him to bear. Only instead of my brave demands for more weight like that character, I am just afraid to admit when things are too much. Most mornings, I wake up with a caffeine pill (I bought an enormous bottle from CVS—they must be safe if they sell them in the vitamin aisle, right?), then drink two and a half cups of coffee at breakfast. When my heart starts to race, I can never tell if it’s the caffeine or crippling anxiety of not doing or being enough.
Maybe college is supposed to be this way…or at least that is what I have been telling myself. I knew it would be difficult, I knew I would be challenged, and I knew I would have to work hard. But lately I have been feeling like my brain is just too crowded – I can’t stop procrastinating, and sometimes I feel too exhausted to even try tackling mundane tasks. Sometimes, it takes me over an hour to send an unimportant email—administrative work, a quick note to a professor, a message about scheduling a meeting—but I get stuck on the words, unable to type a single letter. Every once in a while, it takes me forever to remember the lock code to my dorm room, and I just stand there dumbfounded until my brain wakes up. I know I’m not alone in feeling burnt out. Practically every other friend I talk to, regardless of university, has expressed feelings of utter exhaustion at some point. My university sponsors some self-care “study breaks” from time to time, whether it be painting nights or free succulents and bubble tea. But even calling them “study breaks” seems to imply that we are expected to work right up until the supposed-to-be-fun event, and then go right back to work after. Self-care often feels like an afterthought, a buzzword tossed around on Instagram, or by me when I want an excuse to buy junk food from Wawa or watch Netflix instead of studying.
But is it ever possible to truly prioritize self-care in a place as high-stakes as college? Beyond the time and emotional effort, there are economic costs involved in even being able stop working for a minute or worrying about finding a job and focus on myself. I am privileged to go to a great school and get to study what I want, yet I still feel like I need to prove that I am worth my parents’ investment and wring full use out of every last second of my college time so that I’m not flushing away tuition dollars. I’ve held four internships during the academic year while at Princeton—and I know the mere ability for me to choose to take on that (often unpaid) extra work is one not everyone has. I come from a family who supports me emotionally and financially, and I am not obligated to do that out of necessity. Self-care is a privilege, and I’m trying to recognize it as such and not take it for granted. Many students literally cannot afford to stop working, and even those students with the means to do so can feel guilty for not doing more. Burnout manifests itself a million different ways among my friends and fellow students, but it doesn’t seem that any of us, no matter how well-off or well-adjusted, can avoid it in some form entirely.
In 1988, Audre Lorde wrote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” Sometimes it is hard for me to see myself in those words and get past the mental roadblock of feeling selfish when pausing to focus on myself for a minute and stop worrying about the weight of expectations placed on me (or that, more likely, I place on myself). But maybe acknowledging that I am tired is the first step: I can feel grateful for all the wonderful friends and knowledge and opportunities that college has given me, but at the same time say that at times, it straight-up sucks. Loving college and having it completely wear you out aren’t mutually exclusive.
As I enter my last semester before graduation, I’ve been working on taking time to do things on campus, like finally going to the art museum or taking long walks to the edge of town. Yes, it is a little cliché to have a college bucket list, but it gives me a concrete way to focus on enjoying things right now, even if it means putting off my work a bit. I don’t want to keep putting off my happiness to some indefinite future, saying things like ‘I’ll hang out with my friends after I apply for a few jobs’ or ‘I’ll watch that movie I’ve been dying to see over spring break’ or ‘I’ll finally have time to just relax after I graduate.’ I don’t exist only to go to school and get good grades. I need to stop letting my worries about the future consume me, and from time to time, I need to allow myself to turn off my alarm, go back to sleep, refuel and just enjoy moments of relaxation without trying to calculate their cost.
By Katie Duggan
Princeton student, feminist film enthusiast, and lover of all things spooky.