It was November, and every week was getting worse. My medications had stopped helping. I went to bed early, woke up late and was still exhausted throughout the entire day. When I say exhausted, I don’t mean the way people half-joke, half-lament to each other between classes about pulling all-nighters. I slept through classes, missed meetings and cancelled plans with friends to sleep. I stopped going to therapy because I felt that I needed the extra hour of sleep on Tuesdays. I would lie in my bed in the dark at 2 or even 3 p.m., not having gotten out of bed all day, feeling and hearing my stomach grumble yet not budging because staying in bed was better than taking care of myself.
And yet, at the same time, I was happier than ever. I had friends from many different communities, I had taken on a creative and exciting leadership role in my sorority and I had finally adjusted to Yale. Compared to last year, and especially the lowest point at which I submitted a transfer application to Stanford, I was thriving, at least socially. So why was my mental and physical health so much worse?
The “sophomore slump” is an easy answer, but it doesn’t begin to describe what many Yale students go through. Finding one’s foot socially is one beast; tackling academics here is another. My classes were harder this year, requiring more work and more focus, and I couldn’t perform accordingly. I was confused and angry. I felt like a broken machine. In high school, I had powered through every International Baccalaureate class, earning the diploma and graduating with flying colors.
What had happened to me?
Over Thanksgiving break, I sat and talked with my next-door neighbor, who was a psychiatrist at Princeton University for years. I bemoaned all of my academic struggles, which were only worsened by my ever-increasing levels of fatigue, and she told me, “You know, you don’t have to play that game.”
I didn’t understand and asked her to explain. She told me that, at universities like Princeton and Yale, people are competitive, especially academically. I immediately began to argue.
“People at Yale aren’t like that. They don’t sabotage each other the way they do at Penn or Cornell or Columbia. I know. I have friends there.”
“It’s not always like that,” my neighbor said. “Sometimes it’s subtle. Sometimes it’s a joke about failing a class when really the student is doing just fine or about saying they’re so sleep deprived as if they should be getting a reward for that.”
That shut me up. She was right. I began to think about all the times in the buttery when I’d overheard people in my biology class talk about how badly they were doing. Yale students don’t tend to discuss grades openly, but every once in a while, the friend would ask, “What do you have?” The other student would mumble, “a B plus.”
Or there were the times in Bass Library when people would moan about how they’d pulled two all-nighters and get a “Congratulations!” in return. As a freshman, I began to be conditioned that being constantly exhausted was the norm and that in fact, it was a good thing — and this is why I did nothing about my increasingly worsening health this past semester until right before Thanksgiving.
At home, I began to remember why I had come to college in the first place. I wanted to learn about environmental studies and pursue a field in sustainable urban design. I wanted to work in Australia or Southeast Asia for a while. I wanted to be happy and find love. That was about it. I realized that my expectations for myself had been carved out of my own determination, my own grit and my own dreams. This was my Yale experience.
Words like “happy” and “success” seem to be a sort of jargon here. Happiness is making a lot of money. Success is making a lot of money. Why? A native Californian, I’m tempted to blame the East Coast for this way of thinking, but it’s far more complex than that. This is the game that my neighbor was talking about. The academic culture at Yale is not a utopia. It may not be directly cutthroat, but it can be sneaky, and it can be toxic. Games operate using rules and codes that are understood and accepted by its players, but, if you refuse to play the game, you’re free to travel along your own path instead of rolling a pair of dice and letting that determine how many steps you’re allowed to take at one time. I decided that for the sake of my mental health and for the sake of my happiness, I am not going to play that game anymore — and I urge you to do the same.
Jazzie Kennedy is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .