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Being Sick at the Institute by Selam G. '18

the firth law of therbodydabics *sniff*

Hello friends,

As you can guess from the title of this post I am sick. What a joy it has been to experience illness during the first two full weeks of class at MIT (rather than three weeks earlier before we started class???? Like what??) (It’s apparent that disease does not know the registrar’s academic calendar) (life has its own messy timeline, which is…fun)

Unfortunately, not only am/was I sick. I was really, really sick. I’m still not exactly sure what I had, but I was basically either in bed or at MIT Medical for four days straight (and therefore, not in class, lab, or recitation). I’ve only really caught up in 6.042 (Math for Computer Science), I have no idea what’s going on in 6.006 (Algorithms), and “The First Law of Thermodynamics” (which is the subtitle of this post when said by someone with a stuffy nose) is a real mystery to me, because I haven’t really gotten my life together in 2.05 (Thermodynamics) either. Oh, and of course, there’s a midterm next week in that class.

I’m incredibly thankful, though, that I wasn’t so seriously ill that I was hospitalized, which has happened to people at MIT. At some point during the worst of my fever, I was definitely thinking about how to graduate on time if this was as seriously awful as I felt in the moment. But it wasn’t. And that’s a lot to be grateful for, even if I forgot it occasionally while in the frenzy of trying to catch up.

I’ve never been this sick while at MIT, but during my sophomore fall, I was definitely not healthy. I was taking 6.005, 2.001, and 2.086 which (though I didn’t know it at the time) is possibly one of the WORST combinations of classes I could have chosen to take all at the same time, in addition to my UROP at the Media Lab, the Muti Water Project, Chinese Students Club, joining Delta Phi Epsilon, and a community service work study…

I of course did the thing all incredibly intelligent, talented, knowledgeable MIT students might do, which was not sleep. You’d be surprised how many incredibly intelligent, talented, knowledgeable MIT students don’t really believe in the basic idea that Sleep Is Important(!) until they stop doing it. This was me.

I wasn’t sleeping properly for about a month, maybe two. I had 6, 5, 4 hours of sleep a night, sometimes less. What was bad was actually not the one or two nights with only 3 or 4 hours. What was bad was that this habit of not sleeping eventually became a trend instead of just an occasional thing. It got to the point that I simply could not sleep well, even if I wanted to, such as on weekends. I could only get a maximum of 6 hours; I’d be waking up in the middle of the night, or couldn’t fall asleep when I tried. This led to even more sleep deprivation, which came with a lot of other fun side effects like paranoia and terrible judgement. For example, I’d get so worried about my work that I’d set an alarm for 6AM on a Saturday when really, it would have been smarter to sleep and get some efficiency back. I also got so inefficient with my work, and so sleep deprived, that the obvious solution to me was to sleep even less because it took me longer to do my work, so I’d wake up earlier and earlier or go to bed later and later in order to finish it.

Eventually, as you might guess, this whole work model collapsed on itself, in a very, very bad way. There was one day that was just kind of the last straw. I’d slept for only 4 hours. I was so sleep deprived and exhausted that I couldn’t read–I would stare at the 6.005 problem statement in front of me and forget the word I’d just read as soon as I looked at the next one. I tried to take a nap, but I was too nervous and uncomfortable. I was distraught with thinking about all the work I had to do, which I felt like I just couldn’t finish. At night that day, I found myself (most unfortunately) crying in a bathroom in New House. I called one of my closest friends, Kayla T. ‘18. I went to Simmons where she lived, and where I’d lived my freshmen year, to talk to the amazing RLAD, Joshua Gonzalez, who I’d also known while I lived at Simmons. I was hysterical, sitting in his office, explaining what had happened and how not sleeping had led to the situation I was in that night. I remember thinking, I’m not sick, but I’m definitely not healthy…..

Josh gently told me he would schedule an appointment at S^3, and told me to go home, sleep, and not worry about anything. We would figure it out, together, he said.

I think I felt the most relieved that I’d ever felt in my whole life.

Fast forward to this year. Surprise surprise, being sick, unhealthy, or having other life-related struggles on top of school still sucks. On Monday of last week, I started having a fever in the afternoon. I checked my temperature and it was 102F. Having learned from my previous mistakes, I did all the right things: napped, drank lots of fluids, didn’t do anything that wasn’t absolutely due the next day and went to bed early. On Tuesday, having taken some Advil, I thought I was at least mostly over it. But in the afternoon, I started feeling awful again, left class early, and went to MIT Medical.

What followed was four lovely days spent almost entirely in bed with a high fever, getting over what I learned was probably some kind of bacterial infection. But, when before, I might have just panicked (ok, I did panic a little bit) since I’d had the experiences of sophomore year, I addressed my situation as quickly as possible, which happens to be much more productive than just panicking. I’m not gonna lie–simply managing my illness, aka writing all the emails and going to all the relevant offices to make sure that my professors/course staff knew I was sick and could grant some extensions, was still quite a task, particularly while I was feeling pretty awful. But I’m glad that I at least knew how to go about it, and felt comfortable doing so.

Currently, I’m still pretty stressed out about having been/being sick. I have a ton of makeup work, career fair is tomorrow, life is sad, and I sort of want to give up. This year was starting out so great(!) and then, right at the beginning to knock out all this enthusiasm early, I got so sick.

But, a significant improvement is that I am not crying in a bathroom, and I’m handling it. I got a question earlier this week via email that said, “What’s it like being in the hardest engineering program in the whole world?” I don’t remember what I responded with, but now I think I’d say that, like many hard things, most of the time it’s not that dramatic. Even failure is not often that dramatic–it’s not always some big thing that stops you in your tracks that you couldn’t overcome, it’s just tiny things that pile up. Success can be viewed similarly–sometimes, it’s just getting through every week, every day, minute by minute. It’s all those little, painful minutes that I got through that brought me to where I am now. And, I’ve almost never had to do things completely by myself either (in the worst case, there’s always calling my mom who’ll listen to me vent) and it’s not expected to be all by yourself, which is why it’s important to ask for help when you need it.

Today is not the best day in the history of ever, no. But I’m getting through it as best I can, and I know that it’s not going to last forever. I’ll get to the other side of this chaos eventually, however many minutes it will take.