In the fall, U of T will welcome hoards of eager frosh waiting for the university experience to turn their lives upside down. This summer series of personal essays delves into the minds of seasoned upper-year students, and everything they never expected to learn.When I entered university, I was determined to do it all: soccer, archery, dancing — it did not matter that I was barely flexible enough to touch my toes. I ran a café. I blogged and I copy edited. I volunteered left, right, and centre. I even took up crocheting again.By late November, I was having nightly breakdowns.The drive to do everything was largely motivated by observing the lives of the people around me. Everyone, it seemed, was doing amazing things. News articles would broadcast their achievements: world-famous activists, successful entrepreneurs, ‘Top 20 Under 20′ students — all my age or younger. Even my friends were somehow making it to the gym five times a week. I was racing to keep up. After all, university meant a fresh start, a chance to finally be the perfect student ready to take on the world.Besides, U of T was bursting with opportunities — free fitness classes, a thousand clubs, and dozens of engaging courses. Newly freed from the confines of a grade school schedule, I was eager to take advantage of it all. Nothing was more satisfying than coming home at the end of a full productive day — days when my Google calendar was devoid of white space. No time wasted.However, as the cold rolled in, I suddenly found myself incapable of dealing with the smallest stressors. A 68 per cent on my first university essay sent me into days of tears. Not getting a position I’d applied for unleashed a floodgate of self-doubt. What was it about me that was insufficient? Did my personality rub people the wrong way? Would I ever succeed at anything in life?Once those seeds of doubt were planted, fear and anxiety quickly rose to the surface. Almost overnight, the loneliness of being a first-year commuter at U of T hit me so hard that every bit of energy evaporated. I felt tired all the time. I was crying every night, alone in my bed while Facebook photos of laughing friends constantly reminded me of my shortcomings.Yet, despite the severe deterioration of my mental health, I continued to prioritize other activities over self-care for the following two years. It felt impossible to justify giving up amazing opportunities for some extra sleep, a hot bath, or a night of YouTube videos. How exactly would extra sleep advance my personal and professional skills? I was busy. I had a café to manage.
I had been relentlessly driven past my limits. Going into my final year, it felt like the last chance to get it right.
And then, in third year, I became a don. It was rewarding, exciting, and fulfilling in every way, but even as I preached the benefits of self-care, I was still seeing a counsellor. I was seeing the learning strategist. I was spending hours alone in my office crying. By February, one low mark would knock me out for a week.My self-esteem had become entirely dependent on my accomplishments and external praise, to the point where I couldn’t sustain myself without them. There was no time to watch a movie, to read for pleasure, or even to see my boyfriend without falling asleep or suffering overwhelming guilt. My schedule had been so tightly packed for years that I was constantly racing at breakneck speeds to meet deadlines.I applied when re-applications for donship opened in January, but I found myself wavering weeks later, unsure of my decision. Throughout the past few years, when faced with the choice between taking it easy and taking on another great learning experience, I had never hesitated to sign up for a new commitment.However, I had been relentlessly driven past my limits. Going into my final year, it felt like the last chance to get it right. Finally, after the most academically-challenging month of my degree, I withdrew my re-application.It had taken me years to admit, but I wanted my nights of frivolous YouTube videos. I wanted to go home before the sky turned pitch black. I wanted my heart to stop racing, and I wanted to stop feeling like I was constantly on the verge of drowning. For the first time, it didn’t matter what other people were doing around me. I was exhausted, and I was putting myself first.Writing, managing a café, being a don — these were the most valuable experiences of my time at U of T and I would certainly not retract them for anything. But I had spent too long refusing to acknowledge my needs, as many students do. I had put school over sleep. I had put work over play. Without a healthy mind and balanced schedule, each minor stress — a bad mark, a failed driving test, an argument at home — was enough to send me over the edge. At last, I was learning to listen to my limits. At last, I was reclaiming my health.