stress

“You Have It All Together,” People Said.

Today’s blog post is brought to you by Erica.

I’m obsessed with being busy.

Last year, during the first semester of my junior year, was perhaps the pinnacle of my busy high school career. I was taking nine classes, working 9-10 hours a week, going to karate 9 hours a week, being tutored for 6 hours a week, and participating in a school club (the Planning for College Club, no less).

It wasn’t the busyness I loved; it was the reactions I got. I’d gotten so used to people raising their eyebrows in amazement when I rattle off the things I do, to people telling me “wow you have your life together”, to people telling me they could never do it themselves.

Jokes on them—I couldn’t do it either.

With only 2-3 hours a day to do homework, it never actually got done. Homework was always this perpetually unending flow of assignments, this cascading river that would never dry out. Eventually I learned how to prioritize, and by prioritize I mean figuring out the ultimate bare minimum I could do for each class in order to still get good grades. The grading system was a game, and I was forced to play. Soon, each day was turned into skimming assigned reading, turning in my first drafts of papers, and pretending I had it all together when I really, really didn’t. The only thing that stayed pretty were my grades—but the person behind those grades was crumbling.

I was in highest honors—you know, that small group of VPSA kids that applied to that one program, signing away their lives and agreeing to take a miserably large amount of classes with a bajillion requirements and hardly any breathing room, including those that felt like death (like Organic Chemistry and Calculus II.) Even the name “highest honors” comes along with an air of elitism and precociousness and an inferred obligation to maintain that air. The obligation was simple: talk about your stress, talk about your busyness, but never, never talk about how it was taking a toll on your sanity, how it was making you crack, or any other thing that would let people know you were anything else but an academic Super(wo)man.

“You have it all together,” people said. And I would smile. They’d never know how many times in the past week I stared at a blank wall wanting to just stop trying or how many times I pulled all-nighters because I didn’t have any time to do homework during the regular hours of the day. They’d never know how many times I was able to count the hours of sleep I got on one hand because I was so stressed I couldn’t sleep, or how many times I sat in Calculus class shaking and staring at my blank notepad because I couldn’t understand a thing my teacher was saying. I felt stupid, incapable, and fraudulent, but no one knew.

Life was, for me, about waiting to hit the bottom so I could bounce back up again. Buried under my hectic schedule, I kept waiting and waiting for the school assignments and responsibilities to become too much so I could finally crack under the pressure and have a breakdown so I could reevaluate my life and take a breath and slowly begin the upward climb. My life would then subside, and things would get better, till the busyness kicked in again and the cycle repeated.

It went on for months. Sane, surviving, stressed, breaking, broken, repeat.

I would be fine.

Then things got rough.

Then I was holding on.

Then I was flying off.

And I fell off.

And it repeated.

The cycles always lasted a few or several weeks. I still remember, because during my mini breakdowns I’d pour out my stress into a Word document and save them, and sometimes even now I go back to them and read them. I wish I could’ve told myself it would get better.

I knew there was a problem, but it was an ego thing. I liked having a busy schedule and the impressions and reactions it created. It gave me hope that one day it would all pay off. People telling me I “had it all together” fed my ego, and that ego drove me and blinded me and kept me on that toxic cycle.

So I kept lying to myself, day after day, week after week, about my capabilities. I kept telling myself to fake it till I made it and that if I believed I could then I could. I continually believed I could work for hours on end without a break, I could do without studying for this test, I could write a paper in two hours and I could live with 5 or less hours of sleep a night.

But one day, at the cusp of one of my breakdowns, I was ranting to my friend about my stress levels, and she, fairly bluntly, told me I had to start doing something about it. I had to get rid of things. I couldn’t do everything.

And I fought back. I didn’t like being told that I couldn’t do everything—I don’t think that’s something anyone likes to hear. She, being a brutally honest friend who didn’t really enjoy seeing me throwing myself repeatedly into the same hole, and I, being a brutally stubborn person with an ego bigger than the Great Wall of China, clashed and clashed.

But after a couple more hours of conversation, I began to realize she was right. My ego protested, but my sanity followed through. And so I shaved off the lesser responsibilities, stopped taking more on, and began to reevaluate everything I was doing. The upward trend had begun.

That wasn’t the end of the craziness however—I still had a lot of hell to go through after that. But I fought my way through. The only way out was through, and with gritted teeth I drove through those ACTs and SATs and APs and midterms and finals and everything else until it was all over. It was brutal, and the second semester of junior year was even worse than the first, but it was the first time I started looking forward instead of down.

And at the beginning of that second semester, several people were dropped into my life—and they couldn’t have appeared at a better time. They were the sources of laughter and sarcasm and undying support, the sources of encouragement and reassurance, the sources of Skype study sessions and late night conversations about whether a camel milk company would be a viable business idea. They were a distraction, a good distraction, from school and life, and a good reminder that not everything revolves around being perpetually busy. The end of junior year was messy, but they helped me get through.

And here I am, in my senior year of high school. School is still crazy, don’t get me wrong, but I’m happier. I have more breathing room, more time to sleep, more time to do homework and more time to actually read books and take them in instead of skim them. My weeks aren’t spent waiting to hit the bottom anymore; my weeks are spent constantly awaiting the new things life will bring.

I’m thankful for those occasional Thursdays where I can take three hour naps, for those school nights where I can afford to go to bed by 10:30, and for those friends that will Skype with me till 4am. I’m thankful for all those trips, adventures, and bevy of memories that were created all because people helped me realize my life needed a little breathing room. And I know it’s crazy, but when I woke up for class every day this week at 6am sharp, I was well-rested and didn’t feel like murdering anybody. I wasn’t able to do that junior year.

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This Week’s Obligatory Post About College

Erica.

While going through the posts on this blog I realized that in the entirety of its one month existence I have never posted about college, and frankly that’s unacceptable. So here it goes.

I’ve been preparing for this my entire life. Ever since I was little, the majority—if not the entirety—of the things I did were with college in mind. How would this make me more appealing to colleges? How would this benefit my resume? I was taught to run every decision through my head and view its level of practicality in terms of college. If it had no benefits, or if the benefits were purely of leisure, I was taught that it wasn’t worth my time.

Instead, I was told to direct my energy into other things. I first took the SAT when I was 12 years old. I’ve taken the it every year since then. I’ve spent every summer since seventh grade in some kind of academic camp, class, or internship. I don’t think I’ve talked to my dad about anything but college since eighth grade. The older I got, the more responsibilities I accrued, and soon my life became a constant humdrum of responsibilities. School became my life and every waking moment was dedicated to homework, college prep, work, or karate. My end goal was college, and this monotonous routine was what I had to go through to get there.

Now, I don’t necessarily regret all of this. This fervent college preparation has manifested itself in standardized test scores I am constantly proud of. My GPA and resume aren’t shabby and no one can tell me I wasted away my summers lounging around doing nothing, because I didn’t. I’ve learned a lot and grown a lot and done things I never thought I would ever do but surprisingly enjoyed—like working as an intern in a civil engineering cement lab. But despite all of this, I feel surprisingly inadequate. Years and years of strategizing have led me to college applications and I still don’t feel ready.

I started these essays in June. It doesn’t make sense. This should be easy.

I’ve done bigger things. I’ve written couple-thousand-word essays on the justification of the Trojan War and written speeches at 3am and given them at 6:30am and gotten perfect scores on oral exams and somehow went from failing my first Organic Chemistry to finishing the class with an A. I’ve gotten through stressful homework and four-hour Omnibus tests and projects that made my stomach turn yet somehow, SOMEHOW, in the face of these 650-words-or-less college essays, I feel like I won’t be able to do this.

I don’t want to write anything. I don’t want to write anything because I’m afraid that I won’t be able to properly articulate how much I want to go to *insert name of university here* or how much I want to become an engineer or how much I care about karate. The things I write sound fake and unenthusiastic. In reality I am enthusiastic about all of these things, but somehow as I transfer my thoughts into words the substance gets lost in between, leaving only an empty shell of a thought on my paper. So I save my draft and close Microsoft Word, hoping to return to it when I feel more driven and more inspired.

But that time never comes.

And somehow June became July and July became August and August completely skipped over September and spit me out into October. And somehow here I am, on October 17th, two weeks away from my early action application deadline and hardly anything to show for it. My Common App essay is on its 13th draft and it’s still not ready to be submitted.

It needs to be perfect. These schools with less than 10% acceptance rates won’t settle for anything less than perfect. My life of college preparation won’t be fulfilled unless I produce perfection. After years and years of telling myself that I can handle eight classes and a job and karate and hours of standardized test tutoring per week and have a thriving social life and a semi-healthy sleep schedule, I feel like I have to transfer it over to these college applications too.

Every time someone tells me I don’t have to try to be perfect, I look at the kids who have won international science competitions and have invented things and have even higher SAT scores than I have and see that they’re applying to the same colleges that I’m applying to. Every time one of my friends tries to intervene and tells me I need to take it easy for the sake of my sanity, I smile and nod but then go back to doing what I was doing before.

All of these conflicted thoughts and dreams and cold hard realities are coming together and manifesting themselves in my college essays. This is it—the one thing I have left to control. My GPA, my test scores, my extracurricular activities, and my transcript are all set in stone. They’re finished. They’re over. The one thing I have left is my essays.

After years of trying to be perfect, I’m struggling to deal with the fact that I can’t be.

(To keep the whole bread pun thing going, I’d like to note that this is my e-leaven-th post on this blog.)

Why I Didn’t Do Physics Homework

By Allison.

This post was mostly sparked by Erica, who asked me the other day why I let myself get a full chapter behind in physics class. At first, I was shocked myself, at my seeming lack of passion, at my decision to ignore a week’s worth of physics homework, at my apparent poor choices. But after some introspection, I knew there was more to the story, I knew there was a different perspective to be gained. So, here’s some more of me.

I’m crying again. I shouldn’t be. Nothing so simple, so barely disappointing, so easily fixed, should make me cry so much. But now I can’t stop. Again. Now I can’t help myself. What is it, the fourth time this week? The fifth? I break down over little things. A bad quiz grade or a mean comment from my mom. I panic when a stranger tries to speak to me and I burst into tears when I answer a question wrong in class. I cry over everything and here I am, crying, again. I need to stop. I need to do homework. I need to read two books and submit three calculus assignments and write a well crafted essay before 11:55 EST. I need to text my friend back. I need to stop avoiding making plans. But I can’t. I can’t do anything. So I put on headphones. Music drowning out my thoughts helps, sometimes. I can’t think as well with the music blasting. All the horrible things in my brain tend to fall apart, unformed, less threatening when they’re not fully equipped with my hyperactive imagination. I lay on my bed. I want to sleep. If I sleep, I’ll feel better, I tell myself.

But the next day is always worse. I wake up empty. My eyes are red, puffy. I put on makeup to feel pretty but I feel hollow. I get dressed to be presentable but I’m a wreck. My heart is deflated, it does not feel like it can possibly pump enough blood to circulate through my arms and legs. My lungs cannot supply enough oxygen to my brain, I am sure of it. I am half alive. I wonder if my organs were scraped from my body last night, taken from me. This is not how a human should feel.

My motivation feels weaker than my body. It is not laziness. It is not procrastination. It is total, consuming inability. I can barely move from my bed. I cannot sit at my desk. I can’t fathom doing homework. I cannot make myself care. My hands feel restless but my brain is numb. Sentences fall, unfinished, from my mind. Even without the music blasting like the night before, I cannot process what I want to think. Everything feels cloudy, foggy, like I am just learning a language and cannot translate every word of a sentence. I try to answer texts but stare at my phone screen for long minutes before turning it off again. I do not know what to say any more than I know what to think.

My mom tells me I am wasting time by sleeping. I’ve been in bed too long, she says. I should wake up earlier, she chides. But she does not know I am here because I cannot move. Friends tell me I am behind in school work. I know I am. But I cannot do it now. I do not have a brain to do it with; I am only half alive, after all. The homework is due tonight, they say. But this is not about avoiding my responsibilities. This is about being utterly incapable of facing them. I am dedicated and passionate when I am well. But, right now, I cannot find those qualities within me. I am sick.

I have a brain that quits sometimes. A brain that is irrational, that cannot process things and keep the significance of events in their proper magnitude. I imagine one bad grade, one bad day, ruining my future. I see my dreams crumble around me, I feel my existence decay to dust. It does not cause me to panic. Instead, I become numb. I stop picturing my future when I am afraid it is ruined. I pretend I am dead, I pretend my life will not stretch beyond the next day’s sunrise. I lose hope and I lose interest in having hope.

Days like this happen less than they used to. I once spent weeks in bed because everything felt grey, everything felt insurmountable. I once went months without feeling like I could function normally. Now a few hours haunt me. I live normally, I am healthy, mostly, with short bouts of grayness. A few days maybe, not a week. I have grown. But it does not mean what I am trying to do isn’t incredibly difficult. I am trying to manage a healthy person’s schedule without the resource of a healthy brain. I am not ignoring my responsibilities. I am not bad at managing time. I am simply hoping I have the wherewithal tomorrow to handle what my brain could not today. I will not apologize for suffering from depression. I will not make excuses for bad grades when I am handed them. It is not my fault I didn’t do work yesterday. It is not my fault I couldn’t sleep and it is not my fault I spent three years of my life trying to be healthy instead of learning an ancient language. I’ll be better one day, but right now, recovery takes my time and my focus. When I have no energy for school, for friendships, for life, it is simply because I spent it all trying to stay alive.

Perspective on Senior Year

By Allison.

How do seniors have time to lead rational lives? I’ve had too much homework, too many essays, and too few hours of sleep since school started. I have three jobs and three bosses who don’t seem to understand my life doesn’t revolve around their scheduling needs. I have six classes, all of which seem to think answering every single question in their respective textbooks is a reasonable amount of homework. I’m applying to seven colleges who think demanding three essays for their university alone is manageable amount of writing to require.

Do people who accomplish all of this actually sleep, or eat, or sometimes hang out with friends? I’m three hundred pages behind in reading because I spent an afternoon with my mom instead of finishing a novel. I’m falling behind in my homework because I’m posting this instead of doing physics problems.

I spend most nights trying to figure out how much I need to do before I pass out from exhaustion, because there’s always more to do. I could make a list, but I would spend time writing the actual list that could be better used to actually finish one of those assignments.

It’s irrational. I’m losing sleep and I cry every few days. I keep fighting with my mom because I’m stressed. I’ve lost touch with some friends because I keep forgetting to text them.

But I’m also learning more than I ever have. I wake up knowing I’ll learn more, knowing I’ll do something I’ve never previously done. Each day of work I pick up new skills, and each class teaches me something different. My faith has grown; how could it not, when I know I cannot humanely accomplish all that’s before me?

So, yeah, it’s stressful, I’m tired, and I’m only a few weeks into a months long journey.

And maybe I’m crazy, but I love it.