Within hours of confirming my schedule for this semester, I posted a screenshot on Facebook with a string of “lol”s. I wanted to openly advertise the fact that I was taking 6.75 credits, working in two labs, and trying to maintain my social media presence. Just like most posts to Facebook and Instagram, this picture sent a message of how I hoped others would view me: intelligent and brash, a dedicated pre-med student, the farthest thing possible from a slacker.
For a time, my course load served as a source of confidence. Every morning during drop-add I greeted the day thinking, “Almost seven credits? No sweat.” I subconsciously looked down upon other students taking the standard four; they weren’t the people who were going to change the world, I told myself. Only by stretching one’s limits and bearing the burden of a rigorous course load, like I was doing, could such feats be accomplished.
The novelty of the semester also added to this hubris. I breezed through those first two weeks of drop-add, finding time to attend office hours and T.A. sessions, leaving the library at a reasonable hour each night, and making a hefty stack of flashcards for all of my courses. Like clockwork, that blind optimism waned almost as soon as my opportunity to drop courses without repercussions ended. Any time I brought to mind the amount of credits I was taking, my stomach lurched and my pulse accelerated, manifestations of the anxiety and stress that now filled my waking hours.
Lunch was the first luxury to go. Most days I grabbed a sandwich and an apple from Weshop and trudged back to the library to catch up on week-old readings. Sleep came next. There never seemed to be enough hours in the day to complete the assignments that lined my to-do lists. The fact that I would have to wake up at 7 a.m. the next morning to train for my upcoming marathon didn’t faze me at first. I was still mired in a delirium of caffeine and adrenaline.
Training for the two marathons I was slated to run during the semester went last. For about a month, I was able to get by with consistently running more miles than hours I slept, but soon the immense physical stress I placed on my body caught up to me. One morning after attempting to run seven miles, I returned to my room and stared at myself in the mirror. I finally told myself the truth: I couldn’t have it all. Something had to give.
And so I gave up running, my most cherished activity, hating myself all the while for it. I went so far as to claim this instance of self-care was instead selfish and that as a physician I should be prepared to continually sacrifice my own wellbeing to improve that of others. Such a path, of course, would prove unsustainable. If not for the weekly fitness class I led, my physical health would’ve deteriorated further. In time, my mental health would take a similar beating.
Stress is perhaps the most insidious, self-imposed force known to humanity. A check of my adrenaline and cortisol levels would’ve suggested there were predators trailing me around the clock. Indeed, there were, in the form of weekly organic chemistry lab reports and cognitive neuroscience exams. I am fortunate to have never suffered a panic attack, although the warning signs are now all too familiar to me. Heart racing. Constriction of the airways. An enveloping sense of anxiety that obliterates nearly all other emotions. For me, the only feelings that remained were failure and isolation.
I began questioning my place at this university around the same time I stopped running consistently. My ability to gain admission to medical schools and eventually become a physician increasingly raised doubts in my mind. The good grades I received did bolster my confidence, but I also routinely dismissed them as flukes, or mistakes on the part of the professor or T.A. Soon enough, I would be found out, my lack of aptitude for collegiate academics discovered, and I would flunk out of Wesleyan.
I hungered for any opportunity to dissociate myself from my work and subdue the feelings of being an impostor. Like for so many others, alcohol provided just that. I drank heavily on the weekends whenever my schedule allowed, continuing after my friends had already stopped. I wanted to forget the late nights I spent alone in the library, huddled over a textbook, and the fact that I could no longer run five miles without stopping.
I now envied those students who supposedly weren’t going to change the world. They were free to attend lectures by visiting alumni, debate epistemology with friends late at night, and immerse themselves in a field of study they were particularly drawn to.
They could embody the very purpose of a liberal arts education: the free inquiry and pursuit of knowledge through academic and empirical study, the exposure to a diverse range of opinions and backgrounds; the skills to critically think about society and the natural world around them long after their time at Wesleyan was over.
Though my rigorous schedule seemed fitting for a selective northeastern college, the course I set myself on wasn’t going to effect any real change in the world. In rushing from commitment to commitment, I wasn’t able to focus on any one area for very long. My mind was always preoccupied with which obligation I had to attend to next. The insights and revelations that might otherwise stem from deep, dedicated study would never come to me. I’d get my name on research papers and have a few extra lines on my resume, but I was unsure if I would ever truly feel fulfilled in life. My desire to accomplish so many different things would restrict me from achieving even one.
I wanted out. I wanted the stress to end and my life to return to some semblance of normalcy, GPA be damned.
I was lucky enough to have some inexplicable quality in me that limited the impact of the stress on my emotional stability. Platitudes offered in self-help books identify it as mental fortitude or resilience or some other nebulous virtue. Perhaps it was built up in my childhood, or learned during high school while studying for the ACT. Whatever the source, that perception of strength is by no means a way to ameliorate the extensive mental health issues that might have resulted had my situation been only slightly different this semester. Even seemingly without any genetic predispositions to depression, the stress I encountered in the past three months almost brought me to my breaking point.
A few weeks ago, I had dinner with the student I hosted for WesFest last year. His first year was by all accounts a success: He has a large group of friends, has settled on his majors (for the time being), and has a thriving Instagram account. He seems happy and full of resolve. Still, much of our conversation centered on understanding how I was able to take more than six credits in a semester. Surely I had some novel study strategies or time management tools that allowed for this feat.
I didn’t give him an inch. It took me almost eight weeks of classes and near misses with substance dependence and panic attacks to realize that no one should undertake such a burden at this point in their lives. “Don’t even try,” I told him.
Ayres is a member of the class of 2017.