February 21, 2020 | Narrative
confessions of a recovering workaholic
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
– Edna St. Vincent Millay, “First Fig”
Dublin, December: overcast skies, deadlines looming ahead. They told me studying abroad would change me. They told me it would be exciting and rejuvenating.
Instead, I am trudging down the street more slowly than I have ever moved in my life because just being alive feels so exhausting. I am sitting in the library for hours without speaking to a single person. I am staring at my laptop without the energy to proofread my draft. I am crying silently for no reason in the dark of my room. I am crying silently in a cathedral I’ve wandered into. I am Googling things like “sad and tired for no reason” and getting results about depression.
Then, finally, I am home! Quickly, I realize I should be figuring out my summer plans like everyone else and reading all the books I’ve wanted to and writing now that I finally have time to and getting my sleep schedule back on track for the spring semester, and how has it already been two weeks since I got home and I haven’t done anything?
Then, we are eating dinner one night. My brother is talking about a trend in South Korea that emphasizes identifying moments of “small but certain happiness.” I realize that the things that used to make me happy just don’t anymore—that I have turned everything into work, and I am so, so tired of work.
Then I am wondering if it is always going to be like this, all the rest of my life.
Suddenly, I am crying.
I didn’t know what being burned out meant until then. Sure, I knew what being tired or unmotivated or stressed felt like. But this—this was something else.
Studying abroad itself is not what burned me out. It was spending five semesters, both at Brown and abroad, with a self-berating mindset of I should be working and I should be more productive and I should be doing more. I held myself to a strict sleep schedule, which involved getting up early to get things done, and I held myself to it even during breaks so I wouldn’t get out of the habit. I jam-packed my to-do lists. There was no reason to stop working if it meant being on top of my readings—they were endless, so I figured I might as well get ahead if I miraculously had the chance. When I wasn’t working, I was restless because surely there was something I was supposed to be doing. I made lists of things I needed to do during breaks—pieces to write, books to read. I was determined not to waste time, and as time went on, the category of things that counted as “wasting time” expanded.
I didn’t just burn my candle at both ends. I set each side on fire with a flame torch, attached dynamite, and wondered, “But is this really enough?”
In an Opinions column for the Brown Daily Herald last October, Anna Kramer ’20 wrote that Brown has embraced and endorsed the unhealthy mentality of “do it all — and more.” Overcommitted overachievers, we are burning our candles at both ends. Maybe the short-lived light that results is somewhat lovely—Brown was, after all, ranked as one of the happiest colleges in America—but we too often end up the way candles do: burned out.
Maybe this is why Brown is also often ranked as one of the most stressed universities in America. Here—and everywhere, really—work is not only a socially acceptable addiction, but also one that is encouraged and admired. We dedicate ourselves to work, classes, and extracurricular activities—all of it. We admire the people who work a lot. We’re proud of being busy. It feels like busy people are the ones who are somehow doing it all, the ones who are going to go the farthest, the ones taking the most advantage of being at a place like Brown.
And if I’m not busy, then surely I’m not doing enough. And I never quite felt like I was doing enough—which is perhaps part of why, even as I grasped that I was burned out, I found it so difficult to accept. I didn’t have enough reason to be burned out, did I? I felt almost embarrassed: What would people think if I, an English concentrator, was burned out? How could I be burned out if I wasn’t pre-med or CS or engineering or anything that people typically consider difficult? I didn’t have hours of lab to cram into my schedule or the MCAT to prepare for or a consulting firm I was competing to get into.
But I knew, as I sat there crying at the dinner table, that I was undoubtedly burned out. That I couldn’t keep going on like this in the same way.
Providence, February: sunny days and gray ones, mid-semester quickly approaching. They told me studying abroad would change me, and they were right.
I still have to-do lists. I still have club meetings and work shifts and classes. I still feel, sometimes, the urge to be working and the worry that perhaps I’m not doing enough. But I also remember my parents watching me cry and telling me the things they quit in college when they were tired. I remember the exhaustion, the weariness, the terrifying feeling that I might just get stuck in this deadness if I didn’t change something.
This semester, I allowed myself to drop an activity I think I should be doing. I am trying to stop saying should all the time. I stay up at Jo’s on a Friday night and say crazy, sleep-deprived things. I decide spending meaningful time with people is going to be the most important thing to me in the long run. I wake up late one Saturday just in time for brunch with friends. I try to be kinder to myself about not accomplishing this or that, about when I get up and go to sleep. I let myself stop working sometimes and sit in the bean bag in our suite just to talk. I watch a movie with a friend in the middle of the week. I “waste time” by making art on my own. And I think maybe this is a lovelier light than the short-lived midnight blaze—this softer, quieter, steadier glow.