February 2, 2017

Why We Shame the Healthy

Students at UChicago too often glorify academic success and shame self care.

In the early hours of a Monday some two years ago, I found myself unconscious on my bathroom floor. When I regained my senses, I realized that my entire body was spasming. My clothes were drenched in sweat and my head felt like it was about to crack open. I tried shuffling back to bed but I lost consciousness after a couple of steps. This time I landed right into the bathtub, straight on my head.

I was rushed to the emergency room. I threw up several times, including once while some poor nurse was struggling to set up an IV line for me. I had gotten so weak that my legs could no longer support my weight; I had to be carted around in a wheelchair. They kept me at the hospital for half a day, ran some tests, told me I had a pretty bad concussion from my falls, and that I was not to leave the house for three days. 

What I was suffering from, turns out, was severe exhaustion. I hardly needed a doctor to tell me that. This happened right after my first finals week at the University of Chicago, in the fall of 2014. I had finished my exams on Friday, flown out of Chicago on Saturday, and landed home in Cyprus on Sunday. It was a pretty bad week. I had averaged about three hours or so of sleep each day of that week. This, while consuming coffee and energy drinks as though they were water.

I have a history of sustaining these kinds of bad habits. In high school, I would go for days on end with little sleep and then take a day off each month to sleep in—collapse might be more accurate—and re-energize. During my gap year, I struggled with insomnia, which did not exactly help. And when I came to UChicago, overwhelmed by the stress and the need to succeed that this place unfailingly instills in its eager first-years, things got out of hand. The caffeine, the refusal to sleep, the anxiety, the commitment to be miserable in the name of success, and the weird, fetishistic pleasure that came with that misery—everything had gotten to be too much. I was leading a kind of life that I do not think would count as a human life by any stretch of the imagination.

My post-finals breakdown, regrettably, was not an effective wake-up call. My sleeping and caffeine habits improved slightly when I came back to school after winter break, but they were still far from normal. As the year progressed, they deteriorated back to their most toxic forms. By the time of my spring quarter finals, I was again averaging about two hours or so of sleep per day.

It took a lot to see these habits in their true light; to see them as self-destructive addictions that disabled every meaningful possibility of happiness, and to realize that they were sustained by a profoundly confused outlook about the shape and values of a good human life. It took a series of tragedies to come to my senses, including the sudden loss of one of the most beautiful human beings I have come to know, admire, and love.

Since the beginning of this academic year, I have been trying very hard to restructure my life into something that looks and feels a lot more like a human life. I have made it a personal goal to get at least seven hours of sleep every night, exercise four times a week, go to yoga twice a week, take every Friday and Saturday night off, and never stay at the library past 11:30 p.m. Oftentimes, there are things that get in the way of honoring these goals. Homework, exams, meetings, emergencies. That, I expected. What I did not expect was my peers’ judgement being an obstacle to my health.

An unsettling number of times over these past few months, friends have asked me in a tone I do not appreciate questions such as: “Do you not have work to do?” “You’re leaving the library this early?” “You’re taking both Friday and Saturday night off?” “What is going on with you?”

I initially treated these questions as unworthy of the energies of serious deliberation. But they have started to really bother me, and I think rightly so. What these kinds of questions are expressing, I now realize, is disapproval of the individual who is trying very hard, in the face of real obstacles, to remain sane. They are grounded in and perpetuate the poisonous idea that the self-destructive overachiever is an appropriate and desirable model for students of this university to try and live up to; they place large pressures on those of us who are struggling to resist this idea to question the value of our health and well-being.

I do not think that these questions are asked maliciously. I think that they illustrate the extent to which the toxic idea I have just described has infected students on this campus. When you are confronted with a reality where the good life requires treating sleep and health as luxuries, encounters with the seemingly leisurely, yoga-going slacker become upsetting. I am sensitive to that, because that was the kind of reality I used to live in up until last summer. But I also believe that it is neither appropriate nor helpful to shame those who are trying to live a healthy life on the basis of their choices and values.

What is at issue here is clearly larger than the attitudes which many students have towards those who lead, in their eyes, lives of leisure. The issue here is that so many of our peers see themselves as members of a world where neglect of one’s well-being in the name of a profoundly misguided conception of success is the cornerstone of a flourishing life. This, in my view, is one of the most urgent problems on this campus. It is time we start thinking about how to solve it.

The writer, after publication, requested anonymity. The Viewpoints section permits anonymous submissions when there is valid fear of emotional or physical harm.