It was bound to happen: the burnout. I went straight from undergrad to a masters/Ph.D. Program with nothing but a (relatively) short summer in between, and was only just beginning to recover from four years of near tortuously rigorous education at UVa when I rolled up to William and Mary.
Considering how challenging mentally and emotionally UVa had been for me specifically, I really ought to have given myself more than a three month respite from academic heavy lifting. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, I have an unquenchable burning desire to know, to learn, and to be in an environment of constant stimulation. Academia is the perfect place for a person like me, except for one thing: academia tends to push you too hard, and more often than not, you’re not really in a position to push back.
It started with discovering an entire class had been cancelled on me. My tinge of annoyance turned into frustration and then to panic as I tried to find a solution. Panic turned into a constant and heightened state of anxiety as I’ve struggled to make up missed reading for the class I’ve since substituted for my original, keep up with the weekly assignments, write my lengthy (w e e k l y) précis as I can’t attend Tuesday classes, and find my footing generally in the class. This course was an imperfect solution to a decidedly perfect and well planned semester.
Let me be clear: Academia is my stability. I can control very little, but there is something calming and steadying about sitting down each week, copying down all my assignments and readings, organizing it into manageable chunks that stabilizes my ever changing life and my incessantly active mind.
It was nothing but a misstep. It was like missing a step walking down the stairs and your heart flies into your throat.
I still haven’t quite recovered.
Add all this to the fact that I’ve switched from working on the William and Mary Quarterly to OI books this semester, where the chapters are long and the turn around are short; that I’ve had 800 page texts for the last two weeks; and I’m attempting to orchestrate an art exhibit for the end of the month? And of course, now is when family issues intensify and time is slipping between my fingers, like my days are two hours shorter than everyone else’s.
In the midst of all of the insanity, I managed to fall ill (which I’m starting to think is just as much a reaction to stress as it is actual sickness), Donald Trump was sworn in as President of the United States of America and I’ve been to a protest almost every week since.
The emotional energy it takes to simply exist these days in a political moment that is less political than it is a circus of baffoonery takes away from my ability to do even the most basic things, like properly feed myself. I get caught in a maelstrom of cynical tweets and lengthy facebook posts and articles and photos and videos, a never ending stream of panicked negativity, and when I finally get my head above water, it seems impossible that I have to work and study when the world seems to be ending.
I am absolutely not the only person feeling like this. But it’s particularly isolating these days.
I console myself by playing the Harry Potter movies on repeat, eating a small mountain of dark chocolate chips every day and ignoring responsibility by teaching myself to hand letter via instragram videos and Pinterest. I spend more time decorating my (bullet)journal, which I use for class notes, than I do actually taking notes. I can get through about a half hour of work at a time before everything gets overwhelming and I have to watch the first three minutes of Finding Dory to cheer myself up.
And a surprising amount of my comfort has come from reading (parts) of my 800 pages monstrosities of African-American history. In two of my classes, we’re wading through texts from the Nadir, the period of after Reconstruction and into the early 20th century that has been classified as one of the worst periods of racism in U.S. History. I’ve read The Philadelphia Negro and Black Reconstruction for one class, and have been encountering more and more Ida B. Wells in my supplementary reading. My teachers often talk about the W.E.B. DuBois’ hardness of personality and I think to myself, was there any other way to be? Was there any other way to endure the hardness of life during the Nadir? Was it not the grit of surviving the Nadir that gave Ida B. Wells the steel to not run when her printing press was burned down? Not only did she stay, but she got twice as loud and twice as fierce.
I like to think that it was their belief in the ability of humanity to improve and in their own personal ability to do what they felt was just that sustained them. I like to believe that it was a combination of faith and passion and a strong sense of morality that kept them going. Trying times reveal the worst and the best of us, and I’m just hoping that my current weakness will give way to strength. All I can do is move one day at a time, having faith each day, feeding my passion, and doing at least a little good each day, for myself and for others. I have to have faith that each small, positive thing will add up to a happy life in a larger picture.
So I read a little Black history every day. I thank God for their strength and pray for my own. I admire the intelligence and tenacity of those who came before me, and pray that I can do my forebearers justice. I praise the good they did this world and it inspires me to do good in my own way.
Thus far, that’s been the best medicine for Burn Out– taking it day by day, and letting my work inspire me to do just a little good each day.