We Are All Sick Again

by Payton Aper, Blog Staff

Art by Anna Isabella Schmidt (@annamachtart on Instagram).

This morning, my English professor began discussing the idea of white feminisms as working within a system, rather than trying to destroy it. It’s a topic that’s come up several times in my education: you cannot use what is broken to fix what is broken. As I was half-mindedly taking notes, I realized something awfully ironic. How am I, a self-proclaimed workaholic, supposed to use a capitalist education to combat capitalism?

While I try, generally, not to be cynical, I’ve come to the realization lately I’ve got a CEO on one shoulder and an umpire on the other. I’ve taken the messages from parents, teachers, companies, and capitalism, and swallowed them like they weren’t the worst thing I’ve ever tasted. If this is the cost of success, then I wish I’d never bought into it. Rather than externalize my resentment and change my own behavior, I’ve ended up exhibiting it in physical stress and sickness. And from the looks of this three-quarter finished semester, I’m not the only one. 

As I write this, sitting in the LSA building and watching some men in blue jumpsuits wash windows of what is likely Anne Curzan’s desk view, there’s a cacophony (pun not intended) of illness around me. Students have purple rimmed under their eyes, a bug in their throats, and for me, chronic shoulder tightness and recurring migraines. St. Patrick’s day seems to have gotten the best of everyone- myself included, as I was coming down from a head-cold all last week. That, coupled with reduced mask use requirements, and I can’t help but wonder what microorganism sits to greet me in the communal bread at Mosher Jordan dining hall.

And yet, we soldier on. One of my favorite ongoing jokes on Twitter (attached from @mimicacas below) embodies the samsara that is a Umich semester. You ask your friends and associates how they’re doing and they mumble some variation of “fine”, before proceeding to admit that “fine” means quite literally drowning in work and pressure. Being on top of things, for even a moment, comes seemingly at the cost of your physical and mental health. Sure, your grades are good, and you landed an internship, and on and on- but at what cost? 

I had a discussion with my roommate the other day about how one of the worst parts of being a workaholic is that you never appreciate what you’ve actually accomplished. A moment of happiness, of celebration, or a day off is allowed before you return to your laptop and textbook, to LinkedIn and the Opportunity Hub. Overworking yourself as a student is inevitably going to lead to sickness, especially with a college student lifestyle. But there are no built-in sick-days for college students, and for people who went to rigorous high schools, there weren’t any back then either. I feel like Jonathan Larson in Tick, Tick… Boom! or Mitski in “Working for the Knife”. An even better metaphor and major spoiler: in the final scene of Black Swan, Nina, portrayed by Natalie Portman, collapses onto a mattress following her Swan Lake performance. She gazes, chin upward, into the camera before breathily announcing “I was perfect” and succumbing to a stab wound.

In a Women’s and Genders studies course I took last semester, we discussed physical pain as a subconscious form of resistance to internalized capitalism– which is, to say, that my body knows there is something inherently wrong with my lifestyle. So when will I yank the subliminal Michigan fight song out of my head and listen to it? It’s so easy to keep my head down and drag myself to class, because I don’t know what else to do with myself. If the work stops, if I pause too long to catch a breath, I’ll have a rude awakening when it’s time to work again. It’s one of the reasons that I feel so drained after breaks: they’re just long enough to give me a sense of balance and normalcy before I’m “forced” to give that up. I sleep in, make a coffee at 11:30 AM, maybe even sit outside in the sun. I do my work until I’m tired, and then I stop. I bother making social plans outside of weekends and regularly watch TV. I let my body slowly start to release all the stress that it has been holding in since I turned eighteen. And then I step back on the Diag, just to take it all in again. 

I truly believe that the most important thing I could stand to learn as an undergrad is that my education is not that important. My professional and academic success should not, cannot, be what gets me out of bed in the morning, and yet, right now, they are. Being a college student has taken my mantra of “Work hard and you can do anything” and exacerbated it, to the point where rest can be an act of self-sabotage. Worse is that, at the end of the day, institutions don’t care if I run myself ragged with their slogans on my tongue. Capitalism will not care if I die of broken pride. I could be struck down by lightning on the block M and someone would probably make it into a Barstool T-shirt. 

There isn’t a class in the LSA course guide on deconstructing your own personal meritocracy; it’s too bad, because if there was I’d certainly backpack it. For now I’ll have to settle with my own lessons on self-care, shutting the damn laptop, and allowing myself to truly appreciate my accomplishments. My professor for that same Women’s and Gender’s studies class would always ask us to consider the question, “How can I be useless to capitalism today?”. It isn’t a matter of knowing what I want to do with my free time, but giving myself the permission to actually do it. Accomplishing nothing in the name of self-sanity has got to be better, at some point, than whatever award you would’ve chased otherwise.

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