Self-Care is Warfare

Who would win? A campus full of the country’s best and brightest students, or one freshman plague?

Just two weeks of classes into the new semester, and surrounded by the coughing and congested first-years in my gen chem lecture, I had a sinking feeling that despite no longer living on East, I wouldn’t be spared from the semesterly campus wide illness. What started as a minor sore throat might have been resolved after a few days with enough tea and some more sleep; alas, even religiously carrying around a thermos filled with hot water, even mixing apple cider vinegar into my Chinese herbal medicine, could not save me from two weeks of coughing and sneezing my way across campus.

In my first-year dorm, there were these signs hung up in the bathrooms, right next to the hand sanitizers and soap dispensers: “If you’re so smart, why are you so sick?” Though meant to encourage healthy hand hygiene, I always felt like these signs mocked me. Our intelligence and our ambition got us into Duke, but they are also what drags us out of bed to go to morning lecture while feverish, what keeps us studying late for that midterm, what pushes us to commit to and take responsibilities for five different extracurriculars. When our physical well-being falters, the rigor of Duke academics is not only a cause, but also an exacerbating factor. With just enough energy to finish everything that’s due the next day, we consign ourselves to living with this new low standard of health. Eventually, midterms pass, we allow ourselves to sleep in on Saturday, we stop coughing, but the cycle begins again.

Perhaps avoiding this fatal chain of events every semester is possible with some expert time management. Maybe if I just budgeted out all my naps I could get more than 6 hours a night and also get everything done! Or maybe, if I just sleep in Perkins I can minimize the time I spend walking back to my dorm! But beyond the rigor of Duke academics, is the intensity of Duke’s work-hard play-hard culture. After a week of working late to finish homework and studying for midterms, the weekend presents another choice between staying in to keep working or gaining some catharsis from getting off campus (which often means Shooter’s). But self-care? In this economy? It’s hard to feel good about taking a Netflix study break when your friends are telling you about the all-nighter they just pulled last night, or when you’re starting to notice that everyone around you is already applying for internships.

The other day I was working in my friend’s room and she took a nap after just finishing a quiz, at which point I, of course, took a picture of her sleeping figure to send to our other friends as a joke. Seeing it later, she said “wow, I look so lazy.” If we can’t even afford to look tired, then being sick is not even an option. In an environment where we are expected to balance an active academic, social, and extracurricular schedule– where we pride ourselves for our colorful Google calendars– there is simply no time to recover.

I question how much choice we have in balancing self-care and building our credentials when really it seems all we have is coping mechanisms: the wellness center, massage chairs in Wannamaker, doing shots of Mucinex in the library. Sadly, I just don’t think a meditation garden is going to cut it.