A friend asked me a question the other day: “Do you think other people are as anxious as we are?” I almost laughed and then actually thought about the question. Are other people as anxious I am, and as my friend is, and as so many of my other friends at Yale are?
I have continued to meditate on this question for the past several weeks. Of course I will never live in someone else’s head. By thinking about who is anxious on our campus and why, I have been reminded that many of us — including me — live in something of a panicked frenzy, doing too much, worrying about what we are doing and not doing and feeling profoundly guilty that we can’t balance our extremely high expectations against our increasing exhaustion.
So I out myself: I am an anxious person. I fall asleep reviewing everything I have to get done the next day. My room is covered in post-it note reminders, lists of class assignments, deadlines, weekend trips and upcoming events. My planner (thus far I have avoided GCAL, because it would make too clear the extent of the chaos) is a disaster, covered in more scribbled post-it notes. I don’t even want to mention my computer’s desktop screen, which has an uncountable, breeding number of sticky notes.
These rectangles are my attempt to impose order on a life that I have allowed to become disordered. But all of my attempts at containment and control fail because I am still anxious: about my grades, my relationships at school and away from it, my extracurricular commitments – worried always about my future.
Like many Yalies, I arrived at college a perfectionist who had been trained since middle school to prioritize markers of success — academic, professional and social — over living a balanced life. While I am somewhat unusual at Yale because I took a year off between high school and college to think about resetting priorities in my life, within months of being back at school I found myself in the same broken patterns: taking on too much, sleeping too little, trying to cram more than should be possible into 168 weekly hours.
Friends and professors call me out for being hyper-busy, wondering why I feel a need to take so many classes and carry so many other commitments. Can’t you just do less, they ask? While many of the people who ask me this are as incapable of taking their advice as I am, the answer for me is both yes and no. I could do less, but I won’t — because I am anxious.
We — as a campus and as a generation of overachievers — are stuck. The problems with sex, alcohol and mental health on this campus are intrinsically tied to anxiety about performance and the insecurities produced by anxieties. It is, as ever, a chicken and egg situation: Everything feeds everything else, and many of us don’t — I certainly don’t — know how to break these cycles of personal, social, professional and academic anxiety and learn how to do less and feel better about it.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this problem is how uncomfortable people seem to be talking about their mental health and how challenging it can be to get help and support on campus. In the last few weeks alone I’ve spoken to several people who can’t get appointments at Mental Health or who have been so turned off by an initial appointment that they’ve refused to continue. No, these friends are not suicidal, but it’s hard for them to live their lives because of anxiety or depression.
Their disarming honesty about what they are living with is a charge that I put on all of us: If you’re struggling, talk about it. If you’re struggling, get help. We need to find ways to make it okay to talk about mental health on campus and come clean about what we’re doing to ourselves and to each other.
So here I am, anxious, and tired of not talking about it.
Zoe Mercer-Golden is a junior in Davenport College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .