Content warning: this op-ed contains mentions of suicide.
As an angsty 15-year-old with a “pale” Tumblr blog and a burgeoning Skins addiction, I was inevitably obsessed with Sylvia Plath. One summer, I devoured The Bell Jar in its entirety in a mere week. Then, I moved onto bigger, more morbid things, like her Unabridged Journals. I spent entire days crouched in the sweaty tent of my sheets, reading and rereading until my limbs turned stiff, my eyes glazed over, and the sun set. Clearly, my obsession was the product of my depressive tendencies. I did, and still do, admire Plath’s penchant for crafting beautifully strange sentences (she describes the mouth of a New York subway station as “fusty, peanut-smelling”). Nonetheless, part of my fascination with her writing was undoubtedly due to the dark details of her inner life.
Upon my acceptance to Barnard as a senior in high school, I received a sleeping mask along with a note that said, “In the city that never sleeps, you might need this.” Indeed, New York is as much a site for blooming intellectual ability as it is for the chaotic, electric energy it runs on. At Barnard’s pre-college summer program, I walked until my blisters popped; stayed up until the wee, woozy hours of the morning to attend poetry readings; and spent endless hours in my Sulzberger twin-XL speed-reading Rilke for my creative writing class. As an elite college in New York City, Barnard inhabits the niche of both romance and self-destruction to the point where it often becomes difficult to discern one from the other.
This school is a repository for students who often go to extreme measures when striving for success and recognition, academically or otherwise. It is an environment in which exhaustion is embraced as a signifier of work ethic, and the workings of this institution uphold the notion that unhealthy behavior is an inevitable side effect of success. While Columbia has seen several suicides over the past few years, Barnard has not had a suicide in recently recorded history, but it still has its own unique relationship with manifestations of mental illness.
As a gendered space distinct from the larger umbrella of Columbia, I think that Barnard puts pressure on many students to occupy the role of a 4.0-GPA-having, Ratrock-featured, beautifully tormented artist. There’s a kind of yearning within the image of agony that lends itself to romanticization—one that Skins’ Effy Stonem, with her luminous azure eyes and carved-out collarbones, has perfected to a T. Perhaps it stems from the patriarchal notion of the mad woman in the attic that many theorists have applied to writers like Jane Eyre and Virginia Woolf—the notion that female expressions of emotions are signifiers of certifiable insanity.
It’s hard to shake the belief that artistic achievement and mental unwellness are two sides of the same coin. In the midst of striving to produce writing I’m proud of, forward activist causes, achieve high grades, and somehow find some vanity time to take the train to Brooklyn and dye my hair pink, I’ve felt beyond overwhelmed. But there’s something wrong with the fact that so many of us want to be the next Sylvia Plath, and this perverted desire manifests in strange and disconcerting ways.
I often overhear my fellow bold, beautiful Barnard peers instigating in almost braggadocious one-ups with one another about just how many panic attacks they’ve had in the short span of a week or how much they “literally” want to kill themselves. Such blasé expressions are highly irresponsible and dilute the very real weight of mental illness that many students here experience. Yet I also think that such performative sentiments of general unwellness are the product of Barnard’s obsession with the idea of tortured artistry.
Romanticizing “doing badly” as rife with the capacity for success is harmful, even beyond its dangerous implications regarding mental illness. By gleefully casting intellectual achievement as a product of instability, we engage in a cyclical, self-manifesting prophecy of sleepless nights, endless hours in the library, and general sadness. I have to constantly remind myself that there is not, in fact, an inverse relationship between the quality of my work and how well I’m doing.
Even so, producing work you’re proud of does not have to necessitate sacrificing your well-being. While the environment we’re ensconced in contributes to unhealthy patterns, we as students still have the agency to deploy a new narrative. At the risk of sounding like a neurotypical, salad-loving yogi, encouraging everyone to take a nap, catch some rays on Low, or work out in Dodge this midterms season could help to establish a new norm. By doing so, perhaps we can counter the glorification of mental illness and pride ourselves as artists and intellectuals—sans the “tortured” aspect.
Hana Rivers is a junior at Barnard desperately trying to conclude a plethora of midterm essays while still getting eight hours of sleep per night. Hit her up to grab an Oasis smoothie at firstname.lastname@example.org. On the In-Between runs alternate Thursdays.
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