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The Spectrum: Don’t burn out before you get the chance to shine

Isabella Soto, Columnist

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This essay is part of The Spectrum, a forum in our Opinion section for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. To submit a piece for The Spectrum or discuss story ideas, please email spectrum@dailynorthwestern.com.

Quite a lot has changed in the past two years of my life. I started college. I moved into a dorm and made friends. I joined clubs. I was assaulted. I took on internships. I ended a long-term, long-distance relationship. I joined executive boards. And it goes without saying that as a woman of color with immigrant parents, I was profoundly affected — and continue to be affected — by the presidential election and its fallout in ways I didn’t expect. It also goes without saying that I’m living a pretty different life than when I walked through Weber Arch as a starry-eyed freshman in September 2015. But along the way I never felt compelled to seek out any sort of counseling or help because I didn’t feel something was traditionally “wrong” with me.

The way I learned to understand my own mental health was in that it only made sense to take action if something was “wrong.” And I don’t use “wrong” to make it seem like living without mental illness is “right” by any means. I use it in the sense that in order to seek out resources and support, I had to be unable to function normally. Sure, I felt fatigued and my attention span was giving me grief, but as far as I knew it was business-as-usual for a college student.

Northwestern students happen to be some of the most high-stress, high-functioning people I’ve ever met. We juggle internships in Chicago while taking a full course load and holding positions in student organizations. We casually drop how little we’ve slept, or eaten or how many extra shots of espresso we had to add to our drink at Norbucks in the morning to push through the day. I say “we” because I’m not free from this either. It’s easy to sit back and assume this is normal — this is college! This is #MyTrueNorthwestern! But it is a dangerous assumption to carry and an even more dangerous behavior to normalize.

On NU time, two years seem like an eternity. The fast-paced nature of the quarter system often forces us to think of traumatic events or life disruptions as limited to those 10 weeks, destined to disappear once finals end. But trauma doesn’t work like that. Calling it by a different name doesn’t make it go away. Neither does sweeping it under the rug or willing it away because you have an exec board meeting to attend. It builds and seeps into your life in insidious ways. In my experience, it made things like connecting emotionally with others all the more difficult — something I attributed to simply not having time to get closer to people. I told myself the fatigue was from my classes and lack of sleep, as was the sudden drop in my attention span. But even in the summer, when I was supposed to be resting, it didn’t go away. It wasn’t until I sat down and processed everything with a professional that I managed to look at it all from the outside in and discover exactly what was going on.

This isn’t a call to drop everything in the name of self-care — unless that’s your particular brand of focusing on yourself and your health. Nor is it a call to say everyone should go seek out help from a mental health professional. Not everyone has access to mental health care and counseling, and therapy is an expense that many cannot afford as a student. But in my experience, students put their commitments before their own well-being, not recognizing that you can’t give your all to an organization or group effort when you are not feeling your fullest self to begin with. We often don’t examine why we may not be feeling like ourselves at times. Maybe we’re afraid to ask ourselves the tough questions or just haven’t learned how to speak to ourselves in that way. One thing I know is that if we keep up this dangerous cocktail of stress and continue to ignore the moments when we need to take a step back, we’re setting ourselves up to burn out before we get a chance to truly shine outside of NU’s campus.

Isabella Soto is a Medill junior. She can be contacted at isabellasoto2019@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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