I have a tiny whiteboard on the sidewall by my desk that I use to jot down blog post ideas. When I first bought it, I thought it would be the holder of to-do lists and reminders. Instead, my bathroom mirror serves that purpose, and my poor whiteboard became a blank, shiny waste of command strips. A year later, when I started my blog, I ended up using it to document post ideas when they randomly planted themselves in my head, along with the notes app on my phone, my anatomy and physiology notes, printed versions of class syllabi, and, once, a Valentine’s day card from (you guessed it) my grandmother. Last month, I kept thinking about what advice I would actually give to incoming college freshman, and scribbled my favorites down on the board in case I actually ended up writing the damn thing. For the last month or so, those words have waited there, just within my peripheral vision, engraved in non-toxic, easily erasable muted blue ink, working their way past my homework and back into my head. I’ve thought of them lazily, when they’ve caught my eye and there’s nothing else to think about, for the past month or so. I decided not to write about them, because my insights, I realized, were not as original as I originally thought. What would I call that post, anyways? “Cliché Advice: Reworded”, “Overgeneralized and Unoriginal: The same old lessons everybody talks about learning in college”.
In mid-September, a while after my absent-minded whiteboard scribbling, I had two long weeks that consisted of four exams and a national conference. I’ve never actually been to hell, but I imagine it feels a little like those 14 days felt. I was essentially cortisol stew. You see, I’m a psychology major, and an aspiring clinical psychology researcher. About a year ago, I started working in a lab that studies schizophrenia spectrum disorders, and my mentor, the professor that runs the lab, has helped me get a few grants to do some undergraduate research. And now, I was presenting it at a poster session at a conference. So not only did I have to study for abnormal psychology, chemistry, neuroscience, and theories of personality, I had to design a poster and get it printed in time for said conference. And that alone would be no easy task and no picnic, seeing as I would have to present it alongside a bunch of grad school students. It was my first conference, and I was under experienced and a little bit terrified. And somewhere, in the tornado that engulfed those two weeks, I plopped down at my desk – exhausted, stressed, and wondering how I was going to get through – and I happened to glance a little to my left. And there were my own words of advice, in their poor penmanship and splendor and glory. And as I read them, I breathed a sigh of relief. And I felt better. And suddenly, those words got their merit back. Suddenly, I was glad for the advice. Suddenly, it felt worth keeping and sharing.
- Make a little birdhouse in your soul.
I stole this line from a song called “Birdhouse” by They Might be Giants, a band I grew up listening to. I’ve had the lyrics to this song memorized since I was nine years old, but they didn’t sink in until recently, when I heard it performed live for the first time. It’s a song written from the point of view of a birdhouse-shaped nightlight, or, as the song puts it, the blue canary in the outlet by the light switch who watches over you. The idea of the song is simple: have something in your life that you enjoy doing, and hold on tight. When it’s stressful or dark, that something will be your lighthouse; that something will be your friend. For me, this is my writing. And this song is a good reminder, I think, to prioritize your hobbies. Or, as the song puts it: “Not to put too fine a point on it/Say I’m the only bee in your bonnet/Make a little birdhouse in your soul.”
- Actually sleep.
I’m serious about this one. Sleeping is more or less the antidote to the sea of first-world crises everyone complains about all of the time. Low on energy? Sleep more. Want better grades? Sleep more. Constantly craving sugary, processed carbs? Sleep more. Feeling stressed? Sleep more. Always catching colds? Sleep more. Cranky all the time? Sleep more.
College culture is rife with sleeplessness. There seems to exist a constant show of one-upmanship when it comes to sleep deprivation. If you announce that you slept a mere five hours the night before, then there is always someone to let you know that your game is weak, because they get five hours of sleep on a good night, and, not that it matters, but they got three last night. (But of course, that’s being generous, if we’re realistic, it was more like two and a half, depending on when, exactly they fell asleep, and they kind of did forget to look at the clock after four-thirty AM.) When I started college, I thought sleep deprivation was a sign of a good student, who studies hard and stays up all night perfecting projects. It took me a good year and a half or so to realize that sleep deprivation is just a sign of not having your shit together. (And a year and a half, of course, is really kind of generous, it might have been more like a year and three-quarters, but once it hit April, I stopped looking at my calendar.)
Sleeping well is easier said than done, though. It’s one of the first things, it seems, to go out the second-story window when exams and conferences and everything else pop up out of the blue and sucker punch you in the throat. Sometimes, it’s a matter of putting your pencil down and laying down, and other times, it falls into the category of managing your time well so you don’t have to stay up late, caffeinated and jittery, hastily putting together a project due the next day. And managing your time is hard thing to do, and a lesson that, as a junior in college, I’m still learning.
Still, it’s nice to be reminded.
- Don’t expect things to be smooth.
When I moved into college my freshman year, I did it two weeks before classes started for a special, pre-college program. My roommate did not. Every day for two weeks, I came home to dead silence. My high school friends were texting me pictures of each other hanging out together for the last precious weeks of summer. I was homesick and lonely, and I started wishing I’d never signed up for the program. One night, I spontaneously burst into tears and ugly-cried for a blissful twenty minutes. About three minutes after I calmed the fuck down, my RA was knocking on my door because she needed to check on something in the room before my roommate moved in, and I had to answer because she probably would have been able to let herself in if she thought I wasn’t home.
Friends, my complexion does not recover quickly after crying. My eyes were essentially puffer fish, and I looked like I’d swapped noses with Rudolph. I’d never been so embarrassed in my life (or so I thought at the time). As the semester went on, college proved to be even tougher than I expected, and I was a little angry about it. For four years, I sat in high school and listened to the teachers and advisors yammer on and on about college readiness and preparedness.
So why was it so hard?
Since then, I’ve learned that nothing in life is seamless; nothing in life is smooth. Everything in life is abrupt, jagged, awkward, and terrifying, and that’s okay. You’ll adapt. If you’re feeling stressed when you’re in a new situation, whether it’s a new class or internship or club, and you have no idea what you’re doing, chances are you’re in the right place. Being a little anxious means you care, and that you’re doing something new. Appreciate the rough transitions, and keep going. I can’t tell you how to quit being stressed about them, because that, I think, is impossible, but I can tell you not to have anxiety about your anxiety, and to white-knuckle through. (That being said, if things are too much to bear, please seek help.)
And that’s it. Those are my three little pieces of advice. And they’ll stay on blog (and my whiteboard) for a good long while, as a reminder to myself (and maybe you too, if you like them.)
Cheers or whatever.