Remembering to breathe

Updated: Jun 1

I vividly remember how fatigue clung to my body, heavy and cloying, in my sophomore and junior years of college.



I was sluggish, waking up and feeling as though I’d only deepened my debt to sleep, as opposed to paying it off—mostly because I wasn’t. I was lucky to be in bed before one in the morning, only to wake with the sun in advance of an early class at another college in the consortium, a mile away and uphill.


In my classes, which were almost entirely upper-division seminars that relied on keen literary analyses and acute understandings of historical context, I remained an active and engaged student. Still, I was dependent on the brief ten-minute breaks punctuating the halfway point of class, as well as an unseemly amount of caffeinated tea and sugar.


My schedule would have me arrive late to the dining halls, leaving with a takeout box of whatever was quick and most accessible rather than hearty, healthy meals that required me to sit down and take a moment to nourish myself. I had some awareness that the day-to-day that I was leading was not sustainable, evidenced by the dark crescents beneath my eyes, and all the efforts that went into keeping myself alert at high noon.


My digital and physical calendars, too, told me that, frankly, I was doing too much: most days of the week, I was booked for a variety of engagements that would altogether span almost twelve hours, marked by a familiar spectrum of vibrant sticky notes and my virtual calendars. I wasn’t spending enough time in the sun, and I was forgetting my most valuable engagements, like calling home regularly and letting my family on the opposite coast know how I was doing.



How busy can you get in college?

There were still plenty of bright spots in my life, namely in my on-campus commitments. In my sophomore year, I wore many hats that I loved equally: I was an Office of Black Student Affairs mentor; I volunteered at a local middle school, learning with students through topics like intersectionality and environmental sustainability; I was a Women’s Union staffer, and I was a Writing Partner.


As a sophomore, I lived in one of the first-year dorms as a Sponsor. I was also a lead researcher for a project on the history of Black Studies at the Claremont Consortium, and I led my own independent research as part of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship.


I’m both winded and surprised just by writing everything out again, and that list is still incomplete. This isn’t an attempt to aggrandize myself; my schedule was fairly common among my friends and other highly engaged members of the Pomona community.


Proudly, I wasn’t part of anything that I didn’t believe would have a positive effect on the campus and on communities I care about. Instead, notice something a bit off-kilter: none of my outlined commitments point in the direction of rest, rejuvenation, self-care, exercise, and alone time with myself.



Staying awake, as much as possible

But my habits caught up to me. I remember, after a week of staying up until late to review literature for a class on postcolonial theory and Caribbean literature, I sacrificed sleep for over twenty-four hours to finish an important application. After a long day that only ended at 6pm, I lugged my body to the dining hall, into the shower, and straight to bed.


I woke up that next morning with the worst bout of the flu I’ve experienced, one that only prolonged its stay because my body had few defenses against it. I was frequently sick that semester, and the lack of time I spent on nutrient-dense foods, stress, and spending time outside exacerbated some of my pre-existing vitamin deficiencies. Because everything in our bodies and our environments is connected, my mental health was also negatively impacted.


Not every aspect of my exhaustion was entirely self-inflicted. In many ways, colleges and universities anticipate from students a degree of busyness during heavy deadlines, midterms, finals week, and creating one’s senior thesis or capstone. This is the reason for finals week destress events and endless snacks in our library during midterms, which are attempts to mitigate the intensity of those moments.



But we, as students, should pay attention to how much we lean into these expectations. In my first and second years, among staples like Five Hour Energy and other energy drinks, caffeinated gummies called Go Cubes and Awake caffeinated chocolates were quite popular in our campus convenience store. Go Cubes and Awake chocolates were bite-sized, portable, and delivered an amount of caffeine comparable to a standard cup of drip coffee. These confections were never my favorite, but their presence was a reminder of how much innovation went into the business of keeping people, namely students, awake.


College is work, but such momentum cannot be sustained without rest. I, as well as many of my peers, were failing to find time to rest. It was an immense challenge to find separation—between ourselves and our needs, and the hectic demands of academics and extracurriculars.


I wish that I regarded myself as a person who needed time, rest, and restoration sooner. These are things that every person needs and deserves. I needed to redirect some of the passion that I had for my campus commitments back to myself.



Reclaiming me-time

Beginning in my junior year, I started reshifting my priorities, scaling back my availability, and learning to delegate or ask for help. I set a bedtime that I still had trouble meeting, but by that ‘bedtime’, I was usually finished with my skincare routine, a twice-daily source of rejuvenation for me, and dressed in a comfy set of pajamas, which helped create a decent amount of separation between my working hours and my resting hours.


I started treating my appointments with myself—sketching, creative writing, going thrifting someplace new, calling my mom—as legitimate and as deserving of a place on my calendar (and a color within my code, a relaxing sage green) as my jobs and other leadership positions. I made it a point to eat by myself more often, remembering how to savor my meals as opposed to seeing them as pitstops from one activity to the next.


My senior year was made easier by learning to outline what I could and could not accomplish without sacrificing my me-time. I used learning techniques like Pomodoro and apps like Forest to hold myself accountable to taking more dedicated breaks during longer study and work periods. I also got better at making lists of things with varying degrees of severity and importance: upcoming deadlines that I wanted to cross off that day, having a good dinner, dedicated job hours, 30 minutes of journaling, a few hours of studying, etc.


Those lists helped to put things in perspective the next day or later in the week if I felt poorly because other non-mandatory things weren’t yet accomplished, or if I disparaged all that I did on the previous day before as ‘not enough.’ They helped me to reorient myself from a mindset of lack and disparagement to one of growth and affirmation.


The author with their graduation stole from the Office of Black Student Affairs. May 2020.

Endnote

All of my extracurriculars gave me my current skill sets, or otherwise allowed me to partake in meaningful experiences with people and students that I will not soon forget. However, I would have greatly benefited from listening to future-me and remembering that no project, initiative, or assignment gets done or bettered unless I’m taken care of. I would have benefited from understanding that college is a span of four years that, when completed successfully, only leads to more opportunities to engage with your passions.


In college, I was so excited to be part of a generative, action-oriented community that I dove headfirst into a lot of commitments, and while I do not regret them, other students would do well to seriously consider what roles they have the capacity to assume, over what is available or an option for them to do.


In your college careers, be mindful of the ways that you can commit to resting and taking care of yourself while excelling in your personal and professional goals.


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