4 a.m. fears rarely stand to reason in the morning light. The irrational insecurities that race through your brain, colliding like cars on the Autobahn, slow down as the sun comes up. The monsters stay under the bed. But a couple of weeks ago, I had a middle–of–the–night existential crisis, and it’s been festering ever since.
Alone in the second–floor study room in Huntsman, I was 12 words deep in a 3,000–word paper due the next day. I had already been awake for over 24 hours and hadn’t showered in longer. Overcaffeinated and overwhelmed, I began panicking that I was destroying my body from the inside out.
I’m 21 years old, and I’m supposed to be resilient. I survive on junk food, caffeine and limited willpower. I go out whenever I can, which is often. I don’t sleep a ton. I juggle like the circus freak Penn trained me to be, but I’m not well–balanced.
At Penn, we justify a lot of stupid things. We drink until we have the faculties of toddlers and the brains of goldfish. Because it’s the weekend. We call vending machines lunch and Wawa dinner. Because we don’t have time for real meals. Some of us snort, inhale or swallow pills. Because coping is hard. Or because access is easy. Or just because.
A friend of mine jokes that going to Penn is like being president: after four years, you look like you’ve doubled in age. Perhaps this explains why my dermatologist recently suggested I consider Botoxing my frown lines. But the physical consequences of life at Penn are more than (prematurely aging) skin deep.
Excessive drug and alcohol use kills the brain cells that got us into this school. Unmanageable stress can lead to ulcers, diabetes and eating disorders. Lack of sleep compromises the immune system and can, over time, decrease life expectancy. In my case, it also causes acute bitchiness.
I’m not one to preach—much less judge—but I can’t stop wondering if the consequences of our bad habits will outlast the Sunday morning hangover. The oldest person alive, 116–year–old Misao Okawa of Japan, advises eating, sleeping and relaxing—the unattainable trifecta—for a long, healthy life.
College is only four years, but the pressure to do it all and be it all lasts much longer. Many of us will go on to have demanding jobs with high stakes and exhausting hours. Sleep will remain elusive, and cooking healthy meals will stay a cumbersome chore. Ten, twenty, thirty years from now, we will still strive for success. At what cost?
I don’t think I could pass all of my classes, balance my extracurriculars and maintain an active social life without compromising my physical health. I worry that with every all–nighter, I’m shaving weeks off my life, but I wouldn’t reprioritize. I love my life at Penn, both for and despite its compulsive craziness.
Still, I want to take better care of myself. To start, I’m aiming for an extra hour of sleep each night. Or, when midterms hit, any sleep at all. Baby steps. As I lay in bed waiting for the chatter in my head to quiet, I can rest a little easier. Then, I can wake up refreshed the next morning and do it all over again.