If you could take a pill that would nourish you for the whole week so you wouldn’t have to eat meals, would you?
My roommate asked me that question a few days ago, and for a minute, I was split in half. One side of me, the practical, goal driven, already over-stressed student said “of course, I already feel stressed taking time out of my day for meals, this would prevent that anxiety and I would have more time to finish work.” The other half of me was horrified that sort of logic seemed so natural.
It’s my third year, and I’m tired. And I know from talking to other people, we are all pretty tired. I don’t have to explain to you all that we have a heavy work load; I don’t have to convince anyone that students are pushing themselves to meet high expectations. But I want to explain why this scares me so much, why I can’t stop thinking about it or being angry about it.
This summer I could not leave my bed. For a long period of time, I was not functioning. Anxiety about money and home life and self worth compiled, and left me paralyzed. Everyday hurt exceptionally, from the moment I woke up to light creeping under the window blinds until I finally managed to get to sleep. I had to relearn the most basic self care. Getting ready in the morning took me hours: the process of leaving my bed, brushing my teeth, eating breakfast were made up of a succession of pauses and little victories, the smallest moments of functionality feats of my own self-preservation. Slowly, I got better. I was able to hold a job, see friends, get up without priming myself for a 30 minutes. It was a process.
Self care is incredibly difficult at Grinnell. Often I hear people discussing their day scheduled out to the minute, and they are constantly weighing if they can afford to take enough of a break to eat dinner, let alone take the time to go for walks or do other gentle acts. And I’m afraid, because the fact that someone is weighing feeding themselves versus homework isn’t surprising anymore. It’s normalized. I have thought too many times in the past month that I don’t want to take a break from reading and go through the ordeal of going to dhall because I’ll feel guilty about not studying. For someone who spent a month working to believe I even deserved to feed myself, those thoughts are terrifying. Those thoughts are dangerous.
My recovery feels like it is paused. I’m not worse, I’m eating, I get as much sleep as you can expect, and I see my friends now and again. But I don’t have the space to really work on the things in my head that aren’t so kind. Instead of dealing with them and working through them, I ignore them. I ignore my body telling me it has a headache from reading for so long or that it wants exercise I don’t have time for. I ignore the loneliness that comes after a day of classes and work shifts and then more reading with little to no meaningful interaction with even my roommates. I’ll just put them out of my head until I have time, but that time never really comes. Then, ignoring bad thought patterns doesn’t make them nonexistent. Instead, they manifest as exhaustion at the idea of leaving my room, or fear when I run into a group of people.
I put blame on the administration. Sure, professors assign tons of work but I understand that they are passionate about their fields and their intentions are to provide us with a great education. However, I’m not so sold on other attitudes towards students, namely the dialogue around the alcohol policy changes. It’s been made very clear to me how little the administration cares about students health and well being. As someone who has struggled with mental illness for years, the fact that drinking has been framed as a cause of our depression, insomnia, and stress is straight up offensive. You know what’s a bigger cause of all of those things? The expectations of our rigorous education imposed on us by our administration, and as much as they try to gaslight us into believing our unhappiness is our own fault, I blame them. I can live without beer pong in lounges, but I can’t live with the school taking zero responsibility for the rampant mental health problems at this college.
I was terrified to come back to school this semester. After taking hours to get ready in the morning, how could I possibly manage the pages and pages of daily stresses and assignments at Grinnell? I’m smart and I like learning so I want to be here, but my struggles with mental health and the increased indifference of the administration toward student well being made me feel like this place isn’t meant for someone who requires extra space to be okay. That makes me angry, because while my mental illness has made me fragile and perhaps less efficient it’s also made me wiser and more empathetic. It’s changed the way I interact with the world, and I think that’s valuable for the people around me. I believe my experiences gives me a different perspective that is important to hear, but I feel like my individuality and self-expression is unwelcome because it’s inconvenient. I am not the ideal student when the ideal student is someone who essentially needs nothing but food and minimal sleep to be happy and functioning. School shouldn’t be the only thing we do every day.
So I guess what I am asking for is empathy. I am asking for an acknowledgement of what it takes to be a Grinnellian. I am asking for understanding that I can’t perform at top-notch intelligence all the time, or concentrate every moment in class. I am asking that taking care of myself isn’t a missed class that I then have to explain and apologize for because I shouldn’t have to beg for self care. I’m asking that it be built into our lives here, that the school stops expecting sad or stressed 18-22 year olds to fight to advocate for their wellbeing when it’s a fundamental part of the school’s job to teach us how to do so, and protect us as we transition into adulthood. I’m asking for the ability to learn and grow as an academic, and also as someone who is still trying to figure their shit out.