Wellness: The Sky’s the Limit

PJ’s back! Back to school, back to blogging (at least for this brief moment). Since it’s been a while, let me take a second to fill you in on what’s been happening before I jump in:

June & July: Worked at a summer school in Connecticut. Good people. Good food. Sun. Sand. Chalk dust. Star dust. Was reminded daily of what I value (education, authenticity, the environment). And what I could do without (shoes, bedtime, business majors)

August: Reduced the amount of stuff I own by an unknown, but large, percentage in an effort to live more simply and intentionally. Went on vacation in California. Drank wine.

And now, September. I’m adjusting, but am resolute to keep my head straight and be well. When people ask me what I did in the last year, I tell them: I worked as a nanny. I just lived. And when they ask me if I’m happy to be back, I’m honest. I say: I’m happy to be in classes. And when they ask me what I’m involved with on campus, I say: Nothing. And I don’t feel insecure. I used to be on boards and attend meetings and do the hyper-extended thing we are all so prone to do, but after a year hiatus from these things, it became clear that they were interfering with my quality of life. When my class day is done, I spend my evenings studying and cooking and watching Lip Sync Battle on my housemate’s bed. These activities are ritualistic and calming. I’m not going to sprint to winter break; I’d rather take care of myself along the way. After back to back seminars on Thursdays, I don’t want to attend a club meeting with a group of peers who are similarly drained. I want to eat a bowl of granola and to watch Jimmy Fallon & Ellen Degeneres lip sync like bad asses.

In the past three years, I’ve made big and small changes to the way I live my life, all with one central goal: to be well. Stress plays a limited role in my day to day life–except when I’m trying to unlock my bike because the key is slightly bent and so it’s way harder than it needs to be. But today I stumbled on an article in the Yale Daily News that stressed me out. It was called “The Limits of Wellness.” To paraphrase, briefly, what Jun Yan Chua says, here’s the low-down on campus wellness: 1) College is inherently stressful, and this stress affects different sub-populations of students disproportionately. 2) The University culture for pressure and achievement feeds into stress; students overextend themselves because they are “influenced by the incentives and norms of our environment.” 3) Feeling “unwell” is OK because bad things happen in the world 4) Bliss is undesirable 5) Stress fuels success 6) College isn’t about happiness, “that’s the job of Disneyland.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. So much so that I’ve put off two reading responses to deal with it. I’m serious about reading responses, but not at the expense of wellness…or defending it. Wellness, or lack thereof, is a campus issue, but also a national one. We live in a nation that loves diagnosing and medicating all kinds of real and perceived conditions. But so much can be done in terms of prevention (prevention doesn’t equal profits, though. Maybe a connection there?). Yale’s new mental health policies are trying to address these issues and make our campus more aware of the importance of wellness. As someone who has gone through the withdrawal/reinstatement process, I can attest that changes needed to happen, and I’m glad to see that they are. By extending the withdrawal deadline, by hiring more counselors at Yale Mental Health, and by piloting a new system to streamline scheduling at YMH, Yale is taking the steps it can to make sure that students are supported. But we cannot expect Yale to wave it’s ivy-draped wand and fix campus climate–that’s the job of the students.

As Chua points out: “Unless we seek to condemn ourselves to a perpetual state existential doubt, or intend to stage a revolution, we must equip ourselves with the skills and resources to cope with the world as it currently exists. Policy alone cannot resolve mental health problems in higher education. Even as we learn to regulate our feelings, we will need to do a fair bit of thinking.” HOLD THE PHONE: What’s happening here?! If the choice is between the bumbling, existential Eeyore character and the sexy mental health radical, I know which side I stand on. But this situation, like most, is not binary; it’s not Camp Cortisol versus Camp Kumbaya. Being well, mentally and physically, should not require some major overhaul of personal values (although Chua suggests that for many Yale students radical change in behavior and mindset may be necessary to achieve even basic wellness. From my observations from working as a barista at Bass Cafe, I would tend to agree.). One should not see “success” (standardly defined as whatever the 2015 concept of the American Dream is…Are we still obsessed with white fences and 2 car garages?) and wellness as being at odds with one another. Most of us would be much happier, and more productive, if we slowed down just a bit and stopped stressing out.

What’s most troubling to me, though, is that Chua proposes that we need to prepare ourselves so that we can “cope with the world as it currently is.” In a discussion about wellness, this is sad, because wellness practice should not be synonymous with some kind of opiate, alleviating external stressors and pains. Wellness should be a basic standard that we all achieve: good hygiene, exercise, balanced meals, social time…these things should not be seen as second-rate activities to be pushed off to a later date. They should be a part of our daily routine. Secondly, we’re university students. All we do is try to change systems. That’s what nearly every Op-Ed in the YDN discusses: “To amend or not amend,” this is the basic tenet of all campus conversations. Just several sentences prior, Chua himself writes “College should be a time for challenging ideas and beliefs, lest we unknowingly slip into self-absorbed complacency.” Chua’s own ideas that stress and unwellness can be “valuable” are proof that he has slipped into self-absorbed complacency: A complacency with the status quo, a status quo which values padding resumes at the risk of crushing creativity. And confidence.

All our lives ought to be a time for challenging ideas and beliefs. And never should self-care be seen as self-absorbed.

I took last year off because I faced vast external stressors that I did not ask to take on and over which I had no control. I took last year off because I could not sit through a 50-minute lecture without zoning out or leaving the room in tears. On this day, 365 days ago, I moved out of my dorm room in Timothy Dwight and into an apartment near campus. I sat on the floor, staring at my white walls. I couldn’t focus, and I didn’t like that feeling. I wanted to be well. Binge-watching Hulu helped. Working as a nanny helped. My friends helped. Sweet potato fries with mustard, therapy, exercise, writing this blog under a pseudonym, honesty, all of these helped. As the metaphorical calendar pages flew by, I got better and better. And as I got better, I gained a deeper understanding of who I am. Not only that, I gained a sense of respect for my self and for my peers.

Each and every one of us faces something that we aren’t talking about, something that we will struggle with for an hour, a month, or maybe the rest of our lives. My home at Yale is in TD, where Dean Loge’s one rule was simple: Do no harm. When we make wellness an agenda item and not a core principle of our lives, we do harm to ourselves and to those around us. We contribute to a culture that prides itself on all-nighters fueled by espresso shots and vain ambition. BUT: When we treat ourselves and our peers with kindness and compassion, when we love and care, when we cherish each other’s company, when we value character and camaraderie over competition, that is where we will find wellness. That is where there is peace. That’s where I’m headed. See you there.

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