A recent opinion piece by Buzzfeed made waves by reminding us of a few things we all knew and wish we didn’t: burnout culture is real, it’s unprecedented and it’s harming us. And despite understanding and identifying with every point made in the piece, I still make decisions that drag me deeper and deeper towards crushing stress, because I don’t really know any other way of living.
In some capacity, we all learned this way of navigating work and life: work all the time; use your social life to talk about work; spend your free time also working; sleep only to have the energy for work and even while off the clock, think about ways to optimize your work.
Do all this, and to the best of your ability, or fail.
And so, I volunteer for more responsibilities at my college’s radio station. I try to write an article that won’t slip into the digital ether every week. Every Wednesday, I sit in class from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. and then read case files for my required law class until the sun comes back up. Every week, I run a podcast, I budget for groceries and I research apartments and scholarships and internships and study abroad programs. As a tutor, I take on more students despite my worries that I can’t handle them. It feels like fearfully running away from failure straight into the arms of burning out, and choosing between melting down or giving up.
My usual days proceed as so: I wake up, go to my classes, go to a tutoring session, come back from a tutoring session, go to a meeting, come back from a meeting, scramble to finish an assignment due before midnight and somewhere in the midst of this, find time to eat while writing or editing something. Scheduling and delegating certain amounts of time to things caused me so much distress that I resorted to covering up the clock on my laptop. So many of the things I allocate my time and effort to demand giving my all, that there isn’t a lot of me left to allocate towards keeping my friends or myself functioning. Why get lunch with my old friends from freshman year or call my brother back when I have a lab report due by midnight and a lesson plan to finish for my Saturday online tutoring session?
We might think that burnout plagues only the those in the league of the most powerful lawyers or the most studious medical students. But like a threshold for pain, the last straw is relative. The line between finishing your degree and fleeing the country to abandon your education varies in thinness for everyone. At this point, my line between surviving an education and falling to pieces almost doesn’t exist anymore. Burnout feels like my base temperature or my regular state of existence. I got used to living off of four or so hours of sleep, coffee and anxiety. It doesn’t feel like “somethings gotta give”, it feels like something gave a long time ago and I ignored it. I might constantly joke about forfeiting my American citizenship, running away to France to start a farm where I’ll grow lavender and cherry trees, carve soap, forget English and only think about my abandoned degree in journalism in my nightmares. But with the way my relationship with living to work and working to live progresses, this option looks more and more attractive.
I’d like to be able to say that I do it all for the students that I help, but that would dance around the nitty-gritty truth of the matter. I do love helping a student understand a difficult topic. Sometimes I truly understand all my past teachers when I can help someone get to their “A–Ha!” moment. I wish I could say that despite exhaustedly coming home from work every single Tuesday and Thursday only to scramble to attend some sort of meeting or finish an assignment before midnight immediately after a session with a student, I would do anything and everything for my job.
But the honest reason I keep this job revolves around money. Of course, I feel a duty to help my students understand their school work, and I want nothing less than the utmost success for them, but the feeling of duty towards my students won’t replace a full night of rest or take the weight of all my obligations off of my shoulders. My only other options include finding another job (and stumbling into this job gave me enough trouble for a lifetime anyway) or just forgetting about buying groceries every week by resigning myself to complete broke-ness.
As much as I complain about this job endlessly, to all my friends, my parents, social media and random people on campus, I need it. My pre-semester planning and budgeting, if not almost my entire life, all precariously balances upon my having this job. My parents and I most commonly traded one phrase in the months leading up to each new semester, while picking meal plans, apartments, classes, supplies and more: “If I make [insert amount of money] by [insert date] then I’ll be able to get [insert expensive necessity].” This way of living turned me into a hawk, constantly watching over every penny in my bank account, always keeping my head above financial choppy waters.
I also got this job for the independence. Sure, I primarily keep this job so that I can afford the groceries I need to supplement my tiny and cheap meal plan. But in a way, I also subject myself to the rise and grind work culture of my generation, so that I can enable a little fun financial stupidity every once in a while. Once in a blue moon, I want to blow $40 on a concert ticket, and I should exercise my freedom to do so with my own money. It softens the edge on the migraine that work, school and general existential stress brings me every so often. Treating myself won’t remedy my toxic relationship with work ethic, but it makes sprinting from responsibility to responsibility a bearable endeavor; it makes it easier to convince myself I triumphed at something by barely beating back the broke-ness clawing at my ankles.
But some days I convince myself that this is no triumph, that everyone in college also balances work, academics, extracurricular, social life and mental health miles better than I do, and that my laziness knows no bounds which is why going to work feels like shaving a year off of my life expectancy every day. I feel as though I live in a time and place where self-sufficiency is just the name of the game, and while every excels at it, I barely scrape by. Sometimes I like that idea too, of only relying on myself, in an every-day/feeding myself kind of way, but Jesus does it drain you very quickly.
But I can’t confirm nor deny if this image that I created of other student’s lives shows any accuracy. Not everyone shares the same academic experience. My exhaustion feels real. I can’t keep shaming myself for wanting leisure time, and being denied this because of my insane fear of failure. I shouldn’t keep shaming myself for feeling the burn when I light my candle at both ends.