Don’t go to Burling on a Saturday

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.

7 Comments

  1. I agree with your point that the administration should not be blaming drinking for mental health issues, and that they are not actually doing enough about mental health given that they supposedly care enough to have a stringent substance use policy. With that being said, college isn’t a daycare. Part of growing up is learning how to take control of your environment to the best of your ability and create your own “extra space”.

    • Well obviously, but the fact is the administration has control over the environment. We can only look after ourselves to the extent that they do not micromanage our behaviour and recommend 8, or 10, or whatever crazy number of homework hours they do recommend each day. We operate within the confines the administration allows on pain of being asked to leave the school. When our mental health fails, we are asked to leave anyway.

    • Don't be a part of those who "[believe] our unhappiness is our own fault".

      October 7, 2016 at 3:01 PM

      The writer is addressing the administrative issues. The point isn’t that the college isn’t a daycare; the point is that the school is violating students’ rights to learn in an equitable environment. Personally, being a Queer person of color with no financial support from my parents; I do not feel supported by the College. This college does not support its students, it supports its own branding ethos.
      For example, only looking at the state of mental health on campus:
      1. We currently don’t have a permanent mental health director.
      2. We do not have culturally-competent nor trauma-specialized counselors at the College or any surrounding area.
      3. There are no psychiatrists in the surrounding area. We are promised tele-psych–an online psychiatrist.
      4. There are no ride options in order to reach alternative mental health facilities to supplement these lacks.
      These are only a fraction of real material issues with the way this College is structured. The only reasons I can think of why you would react like this is either that you are privileged, or that you have been marketed the Grinnell College brand and you can’t seem to see past the surface. Please take your head out of the sand and listen to those who point out the problems. The author makes fantastic points, I hope you read it again carefully and try to understand that not everyone lives in your world. Please do your research on the College, and then try to say that it is on us.

  2. I think the author brings up excellent points. Academics at Grinnell (meaning how students do and talk about them and the incredible workload we’re often assigned) encourage rather unhealthy behavior, and alcohol should not be regulated in order to encourage “wellness”. Doesn’t it really encourage students to do their social drinking off-campus? And while reading this I wondered, what is this “wellness” or “wellbeing” we all talk about? Shouldn’t it be redefined as normalcy / functioning normally? Eating, sleeping, and exercise are key components of maintaining overall health and humanity. Those things should never be eschewed or sacrificed for the sake of obtaining good grades.
    Allow me to also vent about some other things that irk me about alcohol policy changes: sexual assault also happens without consumption of alcohol, and inebriation may play a role but is definitely not the root cause; alcohol and other drug use/abuse happen outside of the Grinnell bubble and we will be exposed to it many more times in our lives without RLCs/campus safety participating in that dialog, and meanwhile culture and advertising will probably still continue to blindly promote it; nothing about having authority-like figures regularly monitor communal residential spaces and activities to cite this-and-this code or law if they see something unfit is “non-punitive” nor “educational”.

  3. My heart goes out to you. I wish I could say to you that what you are experiencing is only at Grinnell but I think it also exists at many schools of that caliber. It’s not just about homework. The pressure that your generation is under is a microcosm of the pressure that the greater world is under. The sensitive ones have a much harder adjustment as this time on the planet does not feed the souls of those who feel things deeply. There are ways to survive but it takes courage to decide that you can only do what you are able to do, that you need the time to rest, reflect, become inspired, be creative, and make your life your own. It is difficult but doable to decide that this life is yours and yours alone. No one, no teachers, no administration, no parent, no employer can tell you how you must live. The most difficult and yet the most liberating and empowering discovery is that you have a choice in everything that you do. Even the tenderness of your heart, and the beliefs that you hold there that may imprison your creative spirit, and your ability to love and receive love is your choice. Easy to say but so difficult to embody. With every choice there is a consequence, good or bad, and anticipation and deciding whether or not you want to accept the consequence is a fundamental to making that choice. If you choose to have coffe with a friend instead of going to the library to study, examine whether or not you can accept the potential consequence. Perhaps it is that you are blessed to be able to reflect off a friend who has shared a deep and poignant narrative that inspires your own thought process. It may be that that opportunity to sit down, and feel with another is a way for you to deepen your knowledge, so that you are more able to receive your studies. It’s hard, when having to cram so much into a day, to have time to synthesize and integrate.

    I experienced this all my life and had the learn through much suffering that I can make the choice. Choices are more often hard, not easy as one would like. Dealing with anxiety is paralyzingly and the way to heal from anxiety is to slow down, breathe and deepen into yourself. It’s like your jumping off a train that is moving too fast, demanding too much. It’s frightening to think if you leave the train, then that you might miss something, you might be dropping out of society, but you are not alone ever in wanting a slower, richer life. Maybe this isn’t the right train for you? To ask that question has nothing to do with who is weaker and who is stronger, but more to do with is this a good fit?

    Finding your voice and speaking up about your experience and the pace may be exactly what you are there to do. Writing these essays, starting this conversation, opening up a dialogue could be your thesis. Speaking up for those who are struggling with mental health challenges may feel like a minority opinion but it is not. It’s the majority. As for the lack of mental health support at Grinnell, I am so sorry. There should be ample support at any college as young adults are very vulnerable.

    As for the administration blaming alcohol for the level of mental health problems, it’s a distraction. Abuse of alcohol, will certainly contribute to mental health problems as it is a way to forego ones truth. But the problems exist, not just at Grinnell, but the society at large. There is a lot of pressure to do well, make money, be a good student, citizen, lover, parent, friend. All of this while managing injustice, grief, mental or physical health problems, caring for others who cannot care for themselves, the list goes on. The pressures are on all of us in one way or another and it is our opportunity to decide how much is enough and what are we willing to give and sacrifice in order to live a more meaningful life. I don’t say this to increase your anxiety but to support you whole heartedly to continue to speak out about this sociological and cultural problem in your arena amongst your peers. I send you visions of fortitude and strength, and it is my wish for you that through your voice and words you are able to find peace in your troubled heart. I see a woman finding her power, and even though I have never met you, I somehow have a feeling that you come out very strong.

Leave a Reply