People tell me my health comes first, but so much depends on my grades
What do you get when you cross an artist, a mental illness, and perfectionism? You get a fun combination of Robert Schumann, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. You also get me. I had assumed that, for my whole life, I would just secretly relate to these poor artists, and silently see myself in Beth Harmon’s spinouts (shout out to the Queen’s Gambit). It is hard to keep a steady sleeping and eating routine in university, and I just accepted I would be chronically ill until I met my demise. I always knew a steady routine is important for physical and mental health. With all the chronic mental and physical illness I have, I should have known better.
After I got diagnosed with a shocking and severe mental illness in February, I knew I needed to take my health into my own hands (disclaimer: I am working closely with a mental health team to ensure my safety). This illness depends on keeping a steady routine so I do not spin out. How am I supposed to keep a good schedule when I want good grades, and I have a job and class schedule that makes it impossible to sleep at a good time? I will walk you through the process I started recently.
I woke up Monday feeling awful. It starts with the nightmares; my dreams were telling me I am not taking care of myself. How could I take care of myself? It was production day, I had hours of class, and I had to teach – not to mention I have an exam the next day. On the way to teaching, I landed my car in a ditch. My car was spinning out. I was spinning out. All the music I listened to for my music exam the next day sounded like static. I look at myself, and I see someone who cares more about a pass/fail class than her diagnosis. The first step was emailing my professor to tell them that I may not do the best on the exam, and that I need help. I went to bed early, and made sure I could get up at a good time in the morning to calm myself before the exam.
How many people know that they have put their schoolwork before their own health? When we are young, it seems like all the coffee, the skipping of meals, and lack of sleep is fine. I know that for my whole undergrad I have put my school over my health, and one time I even ended up in emergency. I still didn’t listen to my doctors and body, and immediately went back to trying to focus on school. Why do we do this? Well, for people planning on going to grad school, we want good grades to get into a program. Scholarships are usually reliant on good grades. In Western society, worth is highlighted by our grades when a lot of what we do in university and high school does not matter in the real world. Employers and colleagues prefer people who are reliable, empathetic, and passionate. No one is going to look at the listening exam for my pass/fail class that I am crying over.
So, what can we do about this problem? I did not take any of this seriously until I heard that my chance of a spinout increases when I don’t sleep and I drink too much coffee. First, I was honest with myself, and then my professors. I told them what I am capable of right now, and what I may need to “take the L” on. Now, I need to take steps on my own. I need to look at my perfectionist personality and learn which balls are plastic and which are glass in my homework juggling routine.
Being faced with a scary illness is hard and can make you realize how much you need to focus on your health. It is hard when there is so much emphasis on grades and doing well in school, but when faced with the possibility of spiraling out or an extreme low, maybe it is time to look at what is important. I cannot think of any solutions for this systemic problem, but maybe we can learn to be compassionate with ourselves and our friends. A routine of sleep, eating, and water is more important than making the Dean’s list or having the most As in your program.