Featured Illustration: Seung Won Chun
I’m sure most American students are familiar with “burning out”. Our society is no stranger to the work hard, play hard mentality of which people of all ages are taught. I mean, there of course is some truth to this teaching, but Americans equate this ideology with never taking a pause for self-care. I definitely suffered through my last years of high school as I took all AP classes, led school organizations, and participated in intense music rehearsals. Once the college application process came around, I barely had the mental strength to make it through. Luckily, that part of my life is over, but I find myself dealing with the consequences of my nonstop hard work daily.
In middle school, I had dreams of becoming a professional musician and teaching music classes to children. I adored all things music, and I excelled in school as I attended district and state-wide music festivals for band and choir; I even earned the “Academic Honors in Music” award upon my eighth-grade graduation. However, joining my high school’s music programs gave me a huge wakeup call.
Suddenly, choir became competitive; I joined the vocal jazz program and became the only freshman girl in the group I got into. Already scared in a new environment, I was startled by how poorly my peers treated each other. I was in what was known as the “middle level” group. It was filled with upperclassmen who dreamt of being a part of our “best” group. So, every solo audition and general rehearsal became a war zone between the kids who wanted to show off in order to hopefully be added to the best group by the next year. As a freshman, I had a few upperclassmen girls serve as my support system and friends. They encouraged me and acknowledged my hard work. Unfortunately, many of the other upperclassman girls in my group regarded me as some sort of threat, it seemed. After noticing this toxic and competitive spirit manifest within upperclassmen social groups and even between my own friends, I found myself starting to dread rehearsals. I didn’t feel supported, and I became sad and detached. The next year, I was able to join the “best” group, so competition relaxed as there were no more opportunities for upward mobility. Still, however, I abandoned my dreams of being a music teacher and looked forward to pursuing a different career path. Even now, as an incoming college sophomore, I find myself wary about joining music groups, as they remind me of competition and stress.
After I departed from an impassioned career in music, I turned to my writing skills as a catalyst for my next goals. I had always excelled in English classes and did well on essay examinations. Of course, however, my school environment associated writing and academic success with intense inter-student competition, adding to immense personal stress that built up throughout my high school experience. I used to like to write for fun, as I crafted stories, plays, and casual essays. But, by the end of high school, I had mostly only written things for school.
After spending my high school career feeling detached from myself, my first year of college consisted of my yearning to rekindle my love for music and writing. But I must admit, I got caught up in the rush of freshman year, devoting my time to getting the hang of courses and making friends. Once we got the news that we were to be sent home for the rest of the second semester, it was as if my entire world came crashing down. All of a sudden, I felt anxious about being stuck inside all day and all night (except for the occasional walk around the neighborhood), and I expected a wave of depression to overcome my quarantine experience. However, I found that that actually was not the case at all.
After my online classes finished, I was forced to spend some serious time with myself. My mom worked during the day, so it was just me at home for most of the hours I spent awake. One day, I decided to pick up the guitar I got when I was 13. I pulled out a lesson book from a pile of some of my old things and flipped to one of the first pages. After tuning my instrument, I started strumming through the exercises and compositions in an attempt to refresh my beginner guitar skills. Soon, the light from the windows got dimmer and dimmer, and I found that I had been practicing for the entire day. Instead of feeling exhausted, I was invigorated. I felt excitement flutter in my stomach, and even though my fingers were raw from pushing up against my guitar’s steel strings, I felt so happy.
Soon, practicing guitar became a daily occurrence, and I found myself at the end of the lesson book within a few weeks. Fortunately, my excitement wasn’t exclusive to playing the guitar. I started listening to more music and exploring the depths of Spotify profiles; I crafted some of my own songs and strumming patterns that mirrored those of the new music I was enveloping myself in. I felt like my 13-year-old self again, full of passion and joy.
Being at home turned from a punishment to a blessing in disguise, and I have never been more thankful.
Aside from brushing up my technical skills, my reconnection with music has empowered my emotions and validated my feelings. When I was a kid, I had a lot of emotional trouble. Coming from a chaotic household, I often acted out in school. I was incredibly misunderstood, and for some reason, it was very hard to make the adults around me understand what exactly I felt. But, I’ve always had writing and music as an outlet for self-expression. As I mentioned before, I’ve always excelled in English classes and on writing assignments, but during 2020’s quarantine, I was able to connect with my written words in a way that I haven’t in a very long time.
The past few months have amplified civic strife and societal inequities, and many people have felt helpless and voiceless. The pandemic has created an invisible wall between us all, as we’ve settled into a mask-wearing, socially-distant way of life. Although the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor (amongst many, many more) have sparked recent protests in defense of Black lives in the United States, which has definitely empowered many voices and unified many people, the pandemic and poor government control has made in-person activism more challenging than it has needed to be.
After taking the time to educate myself, I was driven to begin documenting my own thoughts. Similar to my childhood, I felt silenced by the lack of accountability and transparency provided by my local and federal government, and I wanted to do more to empower other marginalized communities whose stories are underrepresented. And thanks to the revival of my passion for learning and playing music, I felt motivated to channel my own perspectives onto paper.
Since coming home from school, I’ve written three essays (research, personal, and interview-based) that I am incredibly proud of and have had published online. I haven’t written anything that I’ve thought of as “worth publishing online” in ages, so completing those pieces brought me pride and joy. Moreover, writing these essays has allowed me to be vulnerable with myself. Putting my vulnerability on paper has only validated my emotions and helped me work out issues that would normally have had my head spinning in circles. For that, I’m incredibly thankful to have been able to make use of available resources in order to aid my personal growth. However, I definitely would not have felt empowered to document my thought processes without unlocking that old flame of passion that had been present in my younger, middle school self.
Now, five months after my quarantine started, I find myself turning to music and writing whenever I encounter difficult emotions or complicated situations. Although I spend most of my days in isolation, I am able to find comfort in the consistency of language found in both music and words. I know for a fact that if I was dealing with all of this at school, I would not have turned to my childhood passions the way I did at home.
Colleges often promote the work hard, play hard mentality that is detrimental to students’ mental health. Constantly working to achieve one’s goals while simultaneously having fun is obviously a great thing and should be recognized as such. But, there is a lot of harm in being active until burning out. Sadly, my high school environment caused my flame to run thin, and in conjunction with my first year of college, fizzled my fire out completely.
It wasn’t until the pandemic that I was forced to slow things down. I had never known an environment that didn’t praise the hustle and bustle of the fast-paced lifestyle, so pausing for this long period of time has brought about unforeseen personal benefits. Though I was taught to associate rest with laziness, I wish I had known the benefits of self-care. Especially in this time of global turmoil, it is so, so, so important to take care of oneself.
I may not have been able to connect with others in person, but I sure have been able to spend some quality time getting to know the person I’ve become the past few years. After losing sight of who I am at the core of my identity through years of social conditioning from a competitive school atmosphere, I’ve reconnected with myself and my old loves. As I spend the rest of my quarantine doing my part to flatten the curve, writing and music are at the top of my priority list, with self-care reigning supreme.
So, next time you’re feeling overwhelmed by life’s chaos, pump the brakes. Take a deep breath, and turn to the things that you have relied on for happiness since childhood. Get to know who you used to be, who you’ve become, and who you want to be. And please, don’t be afraid to be alone.