February 23rd, 2021
As the snow melts in Chicago, I feel a sense of relief. Stepping out into the bright morning the cool air hits my face and runs its fingers through my hair. I am now finding comfort in the cold instead of detesting it as I have all winter. You can almost smell it in the air, or maybe it is just the scent of melting snow: spring is here.
I walk with my jacket unzipped through the neighborhood and past the piles of snow that were now succumbing to the sun. Just yesterday they towered, mountainous, tall enough to bury me, shoveled from sidewalks with haste as to clear a path to wherever it was that people were in such a hurry to get to.
Now they had been reduced to waist deep piles or disappeared completely in some places. A week ago I might have said that it felt like the snow has been there for months, a never ending winter that had become a part of the environment. The puddles collecting at every cross walk tell a different story however, and for some reason it comforts me.
There is something so calming about stepping into a winter morning. Each breath you take is crisp and not without notice, filling your lungs with the cold and converting it into warmth before exhaling again. It is almost meditative and intentional. You feel every breath.
As I continued down the street I forgot all my stresses for the moment. There was just me, the sidewalk and the sound of the last bits of snow crunching under my boots. I needed this. The distraction, the meditation, the vitamin D, the outdoor activity, the movement: one foot in front of the other.
The past few weeks I certainly bit off more than I could chew and I was entering the panic zone. To be honest, I feel like I am still there but for now I have one foot on both sides of the line: half of me in panic territory, the other half in a resting state. It is an uncomfortable position to be in, but I suppose it is better than complete debilitating stress and burnout. There is so much to do and so little time and mental energy available to do everything, but I want this year to be different from last year; I need it to be different.
Last year around this time I was in the first stage of panic mode and had burnt out about 2 semesters prior. I was writing my thesis, conducting experiments in the lab that kept failing/yielding no usable results. I also thought it would be a brilliant idea to take Calculus based Physics II while finishing up an incomplete Physics I course from the previous semester that I had yet to get a grade in. All while taking my Women & Gender Studies Capstone seminar for my minor and trying to take my final bio elective- Molecular Biology, with a known strict professor who had high expectations.
Recounting this now I don’t know how I didn’t realize how insane the workload would be and how nuts I was for thinking I could do this all with a smile on my face and come out the otherside, diploma in hand. Of course at some point, something has to give, and that something for me became starkly apparent when in March they announced the first lockdowns in America.
The overachiever in me will always wonder if I could have done it. If I could have adapted to the abrupt shift to online classes, extended my thesis, Physics II and Molecular Biology into the summer and finished them up, maybe not with flying colors but enough to get me that bachelors I had been working four years for. There was a time a few months ago when I felt so guilty for dropping those two classes and putting a pause on my thesis. Why couldn’t I just grit my teeth and muscle my way through it? I was surely being overdramatic. I felt like a failure.
Now it all makes sense. There is no way I could have finished in Spring of 2020, even if there wasn’t a global pandemic. My plate was overflowing with so much it was a miracle that I was able to function at all looking back on it. All those classes, the thesis, I was working two jobs at the time to support myself and was looking into applying for a third. I had burnt out 2 semesters ago and was constantly having panic attacks and anxiety about school to the point where I could no longer give class presentations without breaking down in tears.
There was also something narcissistic in the struggle, a pride in the feeling of overcoming adversity. My grandmother never finished elementary school. My mom never finished high school. I had to be the first one to finish college; they expected me to do better than them and so I in turn expected better of myself always. Every comment from friends, family or professors added to the fuel I was dousing myself in: “You are doing so well”, “You out here girl”, “I am so proud of you”, “Just look how much you’ve accomplished”. It was a validation that what I was doing was yielding results, no matter how unsustainable it was.
So there I was, March of 2020, two and a half months before I was meant to graduate, mentally and emotionally exhausted, stressed and burnt out, and then the pandemic and lockdown, and I just lost it.
Now I am not here trying to garner sympathy by rattling off my struggles, trust me I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me or even say “You are so strong”. No. This is just a recount of things that happened and how I reacted to them. I am in no way saying I have struggled the hardest or that my struggles compare to anyone else’s, this is purely my experience and I am not ignoring the fact that others have gone through much worse than me during this pandemic. Everyone’s experience matters and should be listened to. I only want to put this into words so I can see how ridiculous I was being for expecting such greatness from myself given the circumstances. I want to write it out so this year I can be kinder to myself and recognize when I am asking too much.
Lockdowns hit and the world is on fire. Almost overnight, I lost all of my jobs, I couldn’t see my friends or family and the fear of unknown set in. This was a shared experience for many people when the pandemic started. I was no longer allowed into my lab to do my thesis work, I no longer had in person class and at the time I had no wifi in my apartment and was previously relying solely on coffee shops and on campus wifi for my internet access. My partner (and now fiance) who lives in the Netherlands had planned to fly over to see me in May for my graduation but then the travel restrictions took effect and I wasn’t sure when I would see them again. Graduation was no longer my top priority, figuring out how I was gonna pay my rent and feed myself was my main concern. Social distancing turned into social isolation for me. I dropped two classes, barely passed the others, put the thesis on pause and slipped into a depression.
Everyone told me it was understandable, given the state of the world that I couldn’t finish my degree. But it didn’t stop me from feeling like the biggest failure. Like I didn’t try hard enough. That maybe if I was mentally stronger I could have finished everything. But I know now that that is all bullshit.
It has been almost a year since all of this began and here I am at attempt #2, trying again to do this whole graduation thing. In some ways, it feels just as hard as it did last time, but unlike last time I am not setting unrealistically high expectations of myself and my mental fortitude. I am allowing myself the space to not be perfect, to have those bad days where I can be stressed and take time for myself and not feel like I have set work back to an unrecoverable level.
I would be lying if I said everything is rainbows and kittens, it isn’t. It is fucking hard and stressful, and I still wanna cry a lot. But I feel better prepared to deal with that stress and not let it debilitate me. I understand my limits better now and know when I need a break, and I allow myself that break. Sometimes I feel guilty for taking a break: going for a walk, attending a dance class, watching some YouTube, cooking a meal. I feel guilty for not doing school work 100% of the time, like having leisure time is wasteful. But I know now that finding the time to take care of myself mentally and physically needs to be mixed in with the time I spend on school. It is a vital part of being successful and not something I should feel guilty for. It is crucial I find a balance or I will quickly burn out again.
By no means have I perfected this balance, and lately I find myself tipping into the panic zone more and more as midterm exams and project deadlines edge closer and closer. However, there is always something therapeutic about stepping out into a cool February morning, sun on your face, slush under your shoes, breathing in the frigid air, as you watch the snow melt away.