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Slippery Slope: The Story of a Frazzled Sophomore by Krystal L. '17

How NOT to spend the first month of sophomore year

Friday night I slept for 10 hours and 8 glorious minutes.

If you subtract the 4 minutes I spent staring at the squiggly darkness inside of my eyelids before I drifted off, it was actually only 10 hours and 4 minutes, still a respectable amount of time by most peoples’ standards.

Saturday morning, however, when I woke up at 9:29am for the last conference tennis match of the season, instead of the spry, bright-eyed youth that I should have been, especially considering how much sleep I had gotten, I felt tired.

Tired. Exhausted. Bushed. Ready to curl up into a ball and sleep, even though I had just woken up.

The last three weeks have been hard, and this Saturday has been the first time I’ve really been able to breath. I know that there are probably people out there juggling three times as many things as I am, but stress is relative and if the bone-wearying fatigue that still permeates my body and makes my eyes feel heavy is any indication, then for all intents and purposes, I was stressed out.

It doesn’t start out that way. The year begins innocuously enough, wooing you into a sense of calm and control: psets are shorter than usual, lectures are still covering old material, and there are no exams in sight. Perhaps a summer free of academic worries had stripped me of the urgency that just one particularly nasty hell week can instill in you, something I thought I had trained myself to overcome last year. Instead, I sat in the dining halls for hours, laughing over a frothy cup of chocolate milk and a plate of cheesy waffles. I went out and about, spending time with friends who were much better conversationalists than my textbooks and psets. I made time for things that made me happy. Everything seemed to be going smoothly and the weeks slipped by me, leaving without my permission.

I was, of course, still attending every single lecture and recitation (barring the few I missed for tennis) and I was still finishing my psets on time. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the crack in my façade of control had already begun growing, slowly at first, like the spidery hairline fractures that race across your windshield when it gets struck by a pebble. Each hour I spent on the internet watching inane videos, each time I clicked on the Buzzfeed article about banana slicers or puppies with moustaches, each time I told myself I’d “catch up later”, was just another tiny rock being lobbed at my metaphorical windshield. And as classes started ramping up, I found myself careening towards midterms at a velocity no longer under my control.

Week four was when things started to get hairy. Probably like how macaroni and cheese would be if it were made by an anthropomorphic dog that sheds all the time. My first exam of the year was for 5.13 (Organic Chemistry II) and Wednesday seemed a long ways off. I had time, right?

Perhaps it was the universe trying to teach me a lesson about leaving things until the last minute, or a classic case of Murphy’s Law, but come Sunday night, my throat got that scratchy, tight feeling that is so often the harbinger of snotty, feverish misery. By Monday morning, I was fully immersed in a cloud of good old fashioned cold symptoms and I wanted nothing more than to sleep in a swathe of extra-soft blankets. So I did. Instead of spending my nights catching up on readings and lecture notes, I was catching up on sleep. Tuesday night was the first night of feverishness so by the time the morning exam rolled by, the only thing I wanted to do was roll back into bed. Even Tylenol couldn’t really bring my fever down when it peaked that night as I scrambled to finish my 20.110 (Thermodynamics) pset in one night.

The unplanned sickness had smashed into my windshield with the force of a really hard kidney bean*, kicked up by the wheels of Bad Timing.

Looking ahead, I knew next week that I would have a 6.0001 exam Monday night, an 8-page essay for STS.010 (Neuroscience and Society) due Tuesday and a 20.110 exam on Wednesday night, but before I had time to regroup, I hopped into a van and left campus Thursday night for tennis ITAs, playing tennis and cheering for my teammates from 8am until after dinner. Time was slipping away from me and no matter how hard I wished I hadn’t wasted so much time at the beginning of the year, there wasn’t much I could do now. Things were starting to spiral out of control. On the day of my first exam of the week, feeling as if I had not studied enough the night before, I spent my other lecture hours furiously scribbling microscopic words onto the single 8.5” X 11” cheat sheet we were allowed to have for the exam, falling even farther behind. I felt like I was sinking into quicksand: the harder I flailed, the faster I fell behind. The exam ended at 9pm and I returned to my room, stressed out and in no mood to write a humanities paper on fMRI usage in popular media.

Unfortunately, like a roly-poly reflexively curling up into a ball the second you touch it, my defense mechanisms kicked in, reacting to the stressful feelings that were washing over me in waves. Instead of getting straight to work, I dithered around for a couple of hours, hours I definitely did not have the luxury of wasting. Avoidance was the new game. It was a frustrating cycle of helplessness, stress, distress, and escapism from it all via mental disconnection. Apparently, my mind had been hardwired to fly, fast and far, instead of sticking around to fight.

After an exhaustion-induced nap, I woke up at 2am and started sifting through the internet and the online readings for whatever I needed to finish my paper by Tuesday 2pm. Because caffeine makes me feel nauseated and weak at the knees, I didn’t have any chemical crutches to lean on. No outside ones at least. My own adrenaline was pulsating through my veins with head-pounding speed, a desperate biological attempt to push myself through a hellish night and morning of furious typing. At 1:54pm, I stood bleary eyed in the Maseeh Athena cluster, printing out my essay, too numb to feel relief. That night, instead of cramming for my 20.110 exam the next night, studying that I had put off until the last day, I collapsed into bed and slept for a blissful 11 hours, deciding that sleep was a more valuable commodity than the frantic throes of late night studying. The next day, cramming and cheat sheet making bled into the lecture hours of my other classes and that night, I got steam-rolled by the 20.110 exam.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Then fast forward one week.

Last Thursday night, I was at the end of a long road, my windshield smashed to bits by a thousand avoidable pebbles and my mind and body aching to shed the weight of psychological debris created, most notably, by sleep deprivation and a self-induced tenseness. The only thing standing between me and a three day weekend free from pressing due dates and the looming shadow of exams were two psets and preparation for a discussion led by me in my HASS class (are you even surprised at this point that I had left everything until the last minute?).

Kidney bean number two (if you will recall kidney bean number one: my unanticipated sickness) came in the form of an overnight shift for the MIT ambulance from 11pm to 8am, the same night that I had these three things to finish.

On shift, I get to hang out in the MIT-EMS bunk room in the basement of Stata until someone calls the MIT police and we get dispatched. Pset #1 (20.110) was only four questions long and took, thankfully, only thirty minutes to finish in the company of my two friends who had come with me to the bunkroom. Pset #2 (5.13) would take much longer and the preparation for my HASS would consist of 30+ pages of reading on the neuroscience of empathy. Of course, being the black cloud that I am (a term used to indicate someone who gets multiple emergency calls while on shift), we were called three times that night, once at 11:30pm, once at 3:30am, and again around 5:30am.

In accordance with the numerous interruptions, interruptions I was more than happy to take though, since being an EMT is something I greatly enjoy, pset #2 was finished around 7am and HASS reading commenced immediately after. I had until 2pm to finish reading and to make a hand-out for my recitation group summarizing the readings and main ideas captured in lecture. I’ve been parroting back the same old metaphor of a slippery slope and damaged windshields in an effort to describe my situation, so I’m sure you already know what’s coming next: Lectures for other classes were spent writing up my worksheet, I fell farther behind, etcetera, etcetera. Friday was just another unwelcome instance – the worst kind of déjà vu. I barely made it through the presentation, my words stumbling over one another in a jittery excitement fueled by about 1 hour of sleep.

I’ve been working on this post since Saturday morning, trying to paint an accurate picture of my own personal hell, trying to tell all you strangers out there how sometimes, things can just start spiraling out of control, trying, not to complain, but to explain, to understand why I let things get so far out of hand.

So is there a moral to this story? Yes. If I threw in a couple more anthropomorphic characters we could call this a fable and sell it as a children’s book. As it stands, one dog making macaroni isn’t quite enough to catapult it into that genre, but hopefully we can agree that, if anything, this is a cautionary tale. If not for any of you, then at least for future-Krystal.

I do want to make something absolutely, and unequivocally clear: I don’t regret any of the time I spent building friendships, old and new, or doing the things that made me laugh and smile at the beginning of the year. I never want to regret the things that make me happy. People can start defining their lives and their values by numbers and quantifiable achievements, and while our society inherently places value in the physical and tangible (and by the transitive property, so must I to some extent. I’m looking at you, medical school admissions), we can’t let the intangible slip away because we’re too busy chasing that 5.0 or that title or that position.

Find your balance; I’m still searching for mine.

What I do regret is not prioritizing my studies over inane, time-wasting trivialities. Did I really need to watch that video clip about grilled cheese sandwiches when I should have been studying? No.

No.

No. Nonono.

Let me repeat that in case I wasn’t clear: No. The answer being “no” for virtually any frivolous activity you could possibly want to insert into that sentence.

I regret not staying on top of the lecture material and leaving unanswered questions until the last day. I regret not starting psets earlier. I regret not writing out my cheat sheets ahead of time. I regret not sleeping enough to the point where playing tennis made my stomach hurt and just staring at words made my head ache. I regret being so tired that I forgot to drink enough water. I regret not taking better care of myself.

I can’t control the unexpected things in life, the things that ambush you when you least expect it, like angry kidney beans (this is perhaps not one of my finest extended metaphors but please, bear with me). What I can control is how I handle myself in every moment leading up to then. You have to prepare for the unexpected. If your life remains surprise-kidney-bean-free, then you’ll be even better off, but on the off chance that something does go wrong (as it so often does in life), you’ll be ready for it. Studying takes discipline and effort (if for you it doesn’t, then I envy you), and as I move forward in the year, hopefully leaving the slippery slope far, far behind in my rearview mirror, I’ll think back to these last three weeks and remember how little I ever want to feel this way again.

I have no exams or essays this week, just three psets due on Friday, consequently, the day I leave for another weekend long tennis tournament. I’ll be spending the next few days catching up on some much needed sleep and enjoying the bounties of Monday’s apple picking adventure. It’s easy to look back on past events and point out all of your flaws and mistakes, to make promises to yourself. It’s much harder to follow through, to actually change.

About three weeks ago in 6.0001, we were learning about faulty algorithms. The professor used the back of a shampoo bottle as a prime example: Lather. Rinse. Repeat. At no point is the user allowed to terminate the loop. After lathering and rinsing, they are doomed to repeat the wash cycle over and over again in an infinite loop of soapy, bubbly scrubbiness. Sometimes, people get caught up in bad habits that are in and of themselves infinite loops, habits that facilitate their own recurrence, slippery slopes that we just can’t seem to escape. The best we can do is take a moment, evaluate our situation, and most importantly, recognize that something is wrong. Maybe if we try hard enough, or if we get the right support, we can access our own source codes and reprogram the loop. Or perhaps, if it’s the right thing to do, we can terminate it altogether.