MERCER-GOLDEN: Outing anxiety

Meditations

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 zoe.mercer-golden@yale.edu .

Comments

  • Athanasius

    Thanks for your honesty, Zoe. I hope this and other articles lead more anxious and unhealthy students towards resources and, eventually, stability.

  • MikeConrad

    If you can fall asleep by accident your anxiety isn’t out of control.

    • Jess

      The only way to stop something from getting out of control is to, you know, keep it under control.

      Thanks for this piece, Zoe–this is an incredibly common problem at Yale, one that I’ve seen absolutely eat people up before they realized they needed help.

  • domlawton

    This is, almost to the letter, why I ended up having to take this year off. Thanks so much for the article. There needs to be a discourse about anxiety at Yale (and its kissing cousin depression) which neither glorifies it as a necessary part of the Yale experience nor constantly falls back on pathology.

  • River_Tam

    I think a related phenomenon is loneliness. There are an extraordinary number of Yalies who seem to feel lonely all the time. They’re in an amazing residential college system designed to foster community, they take part in many extracurricular activities designed to promote their happiness, and they run around and dance at Toad’s all night, and then they still come home and feel like they have no real friends.

    I’ve seen this happen more with girls than guys but it’s a pretty widespread phenomenon as far as I can tell. Lots of acquaintances, but no one you can really turn to. It’s pretty sad.

    Seek out real friends – ones you have nothing bad to say about, ones you can trust completely with your most personal secrets (ie: the ones you go to therapy for), ones who will always take your side even when you are 100% wrong, and ones who you would sacrifice yourself for.

    And try to be that friend to someone else. It’s healthy and will make you happy.

    • penny_lane

      My guy friends used to talk about this problem, too. I’d say it’s universal.

      I think the two issues feed into one another: People who are too anxious or preoccupied to focus on anything but work make bad friends. People used to always come to me if they needed to talk at 2am or needed someone to walk them to YUHS, because they knew I’d stay up or skip class for them. It’s hard, though, to be the only one willing. Eventually you have to say no because you need to take care of yourself, and it breaks your heart.

    • ldffly

      From “The Underground Guide to the College of Your Choice,” published 1971, page 139:

      “Yale abounds with an unhealthy number of wit pickers–sarcastic and indifferent types. Dinner is a daily chore, a mental fencing match. Memorize “Games People Play” for survival.”

      I don’t know whether that description still applies, but I found it to be largely true when I was a student. I never gave it a great deal of thought while a student, but looking back, I can see from a distance that you were better off never really needing friends because you could bet you wouldn’t have any to fall back on. While based on what I heard and read, Yale wasn’t the most competitive place in the country (I heard Northwestern and UCLA were meaner), it certainly was tough. I believe I came out much stronger for it, but I have to say that’s not an ideal situation for a typical 18 to 26 year old. If you spend 9 years in a place, as I did, and walk away with a few acquaintances, that makes for trouble getting started in life. I’m not complaining, but I’m sure that could be disastrous for some.

  • ldffly

    ” . . . professors call me out for being hyper-busy . . ”

    Wow. There’s something new. Not that I think it’s wrong, but in my experience, you could never work enough.

  • candide

    we only do college once – i wish more yalies would leave their schedules open for moments of total spontaneity that we’ll never have again, rather than booking their gcals top to bottom with endless meetings

    • ldffly

      I followed that advice and at this stage, I don’t regret it. For what my situation is worth! LOL