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“We work hard, and we play hard” is how a seasoned student framed Columbia during my Days on Campus visit. “Get high; get high grades,” another student reiterated. “They must be living their best lives, seizing every opportunity that comes their way,” I thought.

When I arrived in the fall, I saw how it really goes. For many, Monday’s strenuous schoolwork jumps the gun with a zero to 60 pickup, blinders on, beating the horse in that liminal area between its acceleration and death—with no end until Thursday’s sun sets over Riverside’s trees. Then the fun begins, as students attempt to forget the whole week by guzzling alcohol and playing genital bumper cars (it’s dangerous to drink and drive). We call it hookup culture, but hooks embed viscerally and endure. We call it social drinking, but to vomit from “food poisoning” requires eating before drinking.

Wash, rinse, and repeat. The oscillation continues. At Days on Campus, I admired how some students balance essays with ethanol, p-sets with pot. But now I wonder: “Is that all we do? Is that a “balance” we should try to maintain?”

“It seems like you need a better work-fun balance in your life,” my therapist told me during my first year, “and you probably have a biochemical imbalance too.” Genetically propelled toward depression or bipolar disorder, I could now color the former into my square on my family’s pedigree. But her statement about work and fun threw me off—I had always saved the seventh day to “rest” (i.e., perfunctory inebriety). Reckoning that I had been medicating crudely, I started antidepressants, drank somewhat less, and focused on relationships with my friends and family. I flipped the switch to “working on myself” for a few months.

Then, I began to feel better: I had blinders on but was working on myself. I finished my last pill bottle alongside my therapist’s suggestions. I stopped treatment and began the slow descent into my old lifestyle. The idea that “I was depressed, but I am all better now” made it easier.

If only fire could actually fight fire, conceiving of my cure in the form of its disease might have helped. I mechanically partitioned time for my mental health as I did for my schoolwork. But my case merely exemplifies the predication of the work-play division, that larger demarcation of time—life’s Google Calendar. Every activity fits into a box with no time left over, no time to waste, and no time spent without a utilitarian aim. It truly seems like a culture of completion. Then I fit into my schedule’s grid more than it fit me.

A few times, I’ve looked at the grid of five-by-five cement squares outside my window, wondering how I can create a life that fits together. The diagonal of each square in the pattern below is five times the square root of two, but this infinitely repeating number would barely accommodate my finite body, requiring the perfect schedule to fit, maybe sometime between my 4:10 p.m. and 6:10 p.m. classes.

I often remember the tomatoes in my mother’s garden and wonder: “Why can’t I be like the tomato plant, growing around the metal scaffold’s grid, jumping at every opportunity to become its best self?” As much as that culture of completion seems to confine me, my rigid breathing proves that I am not completed.

I haven’t looked out of my window down at that cement grid in a while. But I haven’t worked through all of my issues, nor do I know that I’ll look down again. Sometimes I think: “Why am I not seizing every opportunity that Columbia presents? Why does my calendar have empty boxes?” But I realize that seizing every opportunity is simply impulsive. Empty spaces create meaning. When I hesitate, inhale and my internal grid opens a little, I fill that void with gratitude for who I am, not how I fit.

Theodore Michaels is a junior in Columbia College studying biology and anthropology. If you need a hug, please reach him at Minded Minute runs alternate Thursdays.

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