I debated for a while whether I was going to post this, since I don’t want to come off as that whiny first-world-problems person, and also because some of the stuff I’m going to talk about is rather personal. However, I then thought that it might help some of you to see that you’re not the only ones struggling – and that I might owe you an explanation as to why I suddenly went completely off grid. I’m fine, I promise. I just had a ton of other stuff to deal with.
Also, just as a quick update – I will be making my monthly wrap-ups for the past year public in the coming days. I did read a little bit and have at least the notes to all the wrap-ups finished, but I don’t have all of them in a coherent, nicely formatted structure yet. So I’m planning to use my next few days of corona-isolation to polish and upload those. There won’t be any other posts from last year, but at least you’ll see a bit of what I was up to. And hopefully, there will be more content from me this year to make up for it 😉
However, let’s get back to the topic at hand – What happened in 2019? You may have noticed that I didn’t post at all from February onwards, but I also read significantly less than in the years before. In total, I finished 60 books in 2019 – and that may seem like a lot, but when you consider that I usually read at least a hundred books a year, it is was a significant drop, and I really noticed the absence of reading in my daily routine. There were some months in which I didn’t read anything at all – or at least nothing that wasn’t required reading – and I can honestly say that I don’t think that has ever happened to me before. Furthermore, all those stats only include new-to-me books. In addition to everything else, I usually re-read a ton. I just don’t keep track of my re-reads, because I don’t want to pressure myself to read the whole book (sometimes I only re-read favorite passages) and also because I use goodreads to keep track of what I read, and I want goodreads to accurately remember the first time I read a book for me, not some re-read I never categorized in my pre-goodreads-time. I know. I’m weird. Still, that being said, last year I re-read almost nothing. I did re-read all the Harry Potter books, but apart from those and maybe a couple of select passages, I re-read nothing. And the worst part was, I actually wanted to! I just didn’t – and here’s how I got to that point.
2019 already started badly reading-wise. I was under a huge amount of pressure because I was taking my psychology Staatsexamen that February, had tons of textbooks to cover and over 600 pages of summaries to memorize. For my non-Bavarian audience: the Staatsexamen the huge final exam you have to take in order to become a teacher. It covers everything you’ve ever studied in one subject relating to teaching itself (I chose psychology) and your two subjects, in my case math and English (I’m taking that part of the exam this summer). Anyways, with all the reading I had to do for that, I didn’t get to anything else in January or at the beginning of February. However, I told myself it would be fine, it was only for now, and then I would get to read everything I had wanted to.
Only, I didn’t. February 2019 turned out to be a pretty terrible month for me, in which a bunch of crappy personal things hit me in rapid succession. I don’t want to go into details here – suffice it to say that my family is fine and that the things only involved me, friends and extended family. So I guess it could have been a lot worse, but at the time it really, really sucked. Whenever I tried to read something, I was distracted and worried by everything else going on in my life, so I had a hard time really concentrating on what I was reading and enjoying it. I wanted to escape to books, like I often do when I want something familiar and comforting, but it wasn’t working.
So I escaped into the only other thing I felt I was good at: university. At the time, I felt like my personal life was falling apart, that I was a failure, and that the only thing I really excelled at was academics. Don’t get me wrong – I have a lot of great friends and the most supportive family I could imagine. But while many people I know often come to me when they need someone to confide in and advice, I absolutely suck at returning the favor. I hate talking to people about my feelings. I rarely even open up to my closest friends. I just keep everything in and pretend everything is fine, but back then, it really wasn’t. And I felt like my inability to talk about how everything going on in my life was affecting me was proof of my social ineptitude – another worry that piled on top of everything else that was going on. I needed to do something that showed me I could do something, and school was something I had never had any trouble with. Being smart was something I could do. And there were so many interesting courses on the syllabus!
So I had a brilliant idea that, in hindsight, turned out to not be very brilliant at all: I decided to take every course that interested me in the coming semester; I wouldn’t pick favorites and instead do them all. I had always taken extra classes anyway, how bad could a couple more be? Plus, it would all be stuff that interested me. It would be great, keep my mind occupied so I wouldn’t have so much time to focus on all the crap going on in my personal life and how numb and empty I was feeling, and at the same time, I would learn things that genuinely interested me. It seemed like the perfect plan. I didn’t listen to my friends who told me it would be too much. I signed up for almost double the usual course load.
And at first, it was fine. Sure, I didn’t really have any spare time, but the subjects I had were really interesting, and, stupidly enough, I felt insanely proud that I was able to manage my workload and still do well. When people asked how I was managing, I shrugged it off as if it was nothing. However, more and more assignments started to trickle in. I was unable to do all of them in the time I usually allotted to homework, and that didn’t sit well with my perfectionism. I had to do everything that was assigned to me! I had to be prepared!
So I cut down on sleep. Most nights, I probably got between four to six hours. I was insanely tired in my classes, but by some miracle managed to stay awake. I stopped listening to audiobooks in the car – my method of cutting down on classics on the required reading list for the Staatsexamen – because I fell asleep almost ten minutes into them when I wasn’t the one driving (I usually drive to and from university with my dad; it’s about a 25 minute commute). I stopped reading for fun – I was happy if I got to practicing my instruments; any spare minute I had had to be used for that. I did nothing that wasn’t university related, and instead of feeling better, I started feeling worse and worse. But I couldn’t drop my classes! I had already invested so much effort now, and I couldn’t quit! Besides, I really loved the classes that I would have been able to drop; the others were requirements. So my new mantra became: Just make it until the end of the semester.
Thankfully, there was still my best friend from university. I’m don’t think she knew the full extent of what I was doing, but she did tell me more than once that I needed to take fewer classes and get more sleep. I must have looked like a zombie, but I refused to listen. So she told me we were taking the weekend off and going hiking. At first, I said I didn’t have the time. However, I must have had some small inkling of sanity and noticed that I couldn’t ignore my social contacts completely, so I went.
And it was wonderful! It felt so good to be away from all the university stuff, to be outside, and to clear my head. And when we got back, of course I didn’t finish all my homework. There wasn’t enough time. So I left out what I deemed less important, and lo and behold – when I went to class slightly less prepared than usual nothing terrible happened! I started not to feel as bad about selectively doing homework or doing things I already knew more sloppily. I started saying ‘yes’ when friends invited me to do something, even if I thought I didn’t have the time. I focused on the more important stuff – though that still gave me huge anxiety – and started getting closer to six hours of sleep.
Looking back on that semester, it was an absolute horror. Somehow, I managed to get through it without dropping any classes or being admitted into a mental institution, but it was probably a close call. Then, summer break started, and it was eye-opening like nothing had been before. The first few days, I slept so much that I must have gotten 15 hours of sleep per day. And after three days, I noticed how badly the situation had slipped out of my control. My desire to feel in control was what had started this in the first place, but it had actually ended up in me having little control at all, though I hadn’t realized it up until this point. It felt so different to not be bone-tired all day. For the first time in months, I could think clearly, and my head didn’t hurt. I actually hadn’t noticed the constant headache I’d had earlier – it snuck on me so gradually I must have gotten used to it – but now that it was gone, I had no idea how I’d survived this long without collapsing. I realized I would have to make changes – but before that, there were still the exams for my countless classes that I had to study for (at least in math, exams in Germany take place during break, so you have adequate time to prepare). So I started studying, but now that I got at least eight hours of sleep again, it didn’t seem as bad in comparison. Still, I read almost nothing. I missed my reading time, but I was still a perfectionism-driven-study-machine.
I did do one thing, though. I started writing again. Obviously, I hadn’t done that during the absolute craziness of that semester either, but I did now. And I finally started pouring all the emotions I had bottled up for so long into my writing. I won’t be posting any of it here – for one thing, all those stories make me sound like a depressed suicidal lunatic and are so dark that even I don’t like them, and for another, I might have taken a bit too much inspiration from the people around me when fleshing out some of the characters… No one is ever seeing those. But I can’t deny that writing them was extremely therapeutic.
And then came another turning point – one of the best decisions I made in all of 2019, to be honest. I went to Russia. I have a scholarship that, among other things, offers fully-paid language courses in other countries during university breaks, and since for the first time in ages, I didn’t have a required school internship or exams in one of the time slots, I signed up. I’ve always loved to travel and been interested in foreign cultures and languages, so this time, I decided I wanted to learn a completely new one. And I wanted to learn a language that was completely different from the ones I had already studied – and since Russian had a wholly new-to-me writing system, that made it all the more intriguing. Plus, Russia was very far away from my hometown, and at the time, when I signed up around March, a change of scenery sounded like an excellent idea. Before I left, the trip only added to all the stress I was feeling (try getting a visa to Russia when you have no idea what you need, whom to ask, and can’t speak the language), especially since I was also trying to at least teach myself the basics before I left, and I needed even more time for that. However, in the long run, everything was totally worth it. I had an amazing time in St. Petersburg, fell in love with the city, the Russian language, and its culture. I made friends. I went on a spontaneous weekend trip to Moscow by night-train with one of them. I didn’t once think about university. I started reading for fun again in my spare time.
For the first time in months, I felt genuinely happy and carefree. Not that I wasn’t ever happy in those months before – I was, sometimes. I did enjoy seeing my friends at school, I watched a movie every once in a while (even though I sacrificed more sleep to do it), I played music and sang. That’s part of the reason why I refused to see that there was a problem. I knew I was tired and overworked; I knew that whenever I tried to relax, there was always the thought at the back of my mind that I shouldn’t be taking time off because I had so much work. But I told myself that that was normal. I wasn’t depressed, I didn’t have burnout. I was still functioning, more or less, so I didn’t need to change my habits. It was only in hindsight that I realized my logic might have been a little flawed.
When I got home, I swore I wouldn’t ever let it get as bad again. I only allowed myself to take one extra class, not five. I promised myself if the workload got more than I could handle, I’d drop the homework, not sleep. I vowed that if I didn’t talk to other people about what was weighing on me, I would at least journal about it. I knew that the semester would probably be stressful, since I was planning to take the Staatsexamen this spring, but I wouldn’t let it get as bad as the previous one.
I guess that plan kind of worked. At least, I slept regularly. When I realized I wasn’t getting as much work done as I wanted, I decided to push the Staatsexamen one more semester (and thank God I did, because now, with Corona, the current one got postponed to who knows when, and everyone taking it has to be ready to do so at five days’ notice). However, what I hadn’t reckoned with was my job. For years now, I’ve worked as a teaching assistant at university, correcting homework papers and sometimes giving tutorials. I didn’t think this year would be any different, but somehow, twice the number of anticipated students ended up taking Ordinary Differential Equations, the subject I was correcting that term, and I ended up with 80 students’ work to grade per week. And since I usually had two problems to go over, that made 160 different submissions. Submissions that, in many cases, lacked basic mathematical clarity and structure and needed a lot of corrections. We started discussing what to do. The department didn’t have the resources to employ a fourth corrector, so at first, we decided to wait and see how many students would be left in a few weeks. Often, many of them only stayed the first couple of lectures. A few weeks overtime wouldn’t be that bad. Only, hardly anyone did end up dropping the class. We experimented. The problems got harder – but then the students just handed in even more nonsensical answers. We came down hard on copied answers. It didn’t work. The professor offered to randomly select three of the five problems every week that would be graded if our workload was too much. The other two assistants, one of whom only had half a position and therefore less work, and the other who was relatively new to the job and didn’t want to complain, said it wasn’t that bad. I had already complained twice and didn’t want to be that person again, so I said nothing. I sucked it up and worked overtime. And, to be honest, I was fine with it – I felt like my work was helping the students get better and that I was finally doing something meaningful again, so I felt good doing it. It was taking up lots of my free time, but I still had things under control, I felt good. I had learned from the previous semester, so I cut down on my own work, decided to take things more slowly. That’s also part of the reason why I decided to push the Staatsexamen back. I decided to focus more on what I needed. Still, I felt bad reading a ton when I had so much I should have been doing for university. So while I was no longer in the black hole of the previous semester, I didn’t read much this past semester, either, except for classics that I had to read in preparation for my exam.
And that’s basically the sum of it. If you’re still here and actually read through all that, thanks, I guess. Maybe it helps to know that even if someone seems to be doing great and always gets really good grades, it doesn’t mean that it’s always easy for them. Trust me, last year, I struggled hard, and even though I still got great grades, it’s not something I ever want to repeat. It might have seemed like I was doing great – outwardly, I was friendly, happy, and had everything under control. Most of my friends didn’t even realize how much was truly wrong. They teased me about how busy I always was – I couldn’t even have lunch with them because of my crazy schedule that first semester – but they didn’t know how much that business was weighing on me, and why I’d let it get to that point. Even my family didn’t know. They knew I was super busy, but then again, I often am, and I love my alone time, so how were they to tell that I was only doing homework and nothing else? They didn’t know, because I didn’t tell them. I acted normal, said things were fine, and glared at anyone who dared to suggest I couldn’t handle things. I even convinced myself I was fine. Mostly.
So, rather than this being an excuse for me not reading, I hope it gave you some advice on how to avoid dumb decisions. Take care of yourself, take the time to relax, and know that you have friends to talk to if you need them! What I did was stupid and probably more dangerous than I realized at the time. And trust me, I’ve learnt my lesson. I will probably always struggle with perfectionism. I will always be in danger of taking on more than I should, especially if a topic really interests me. That’s just who I am. But I doubt I’ll ever let it get to the point it did this past summer semester. It was probably one of the worst times in my life, and looking back on it, I really should have intervened sooner. I’m really thankful to all the friends who were there to look out for me, even if they didn’t know what I was doing and how much I needed the little free time I got. I’m thankful for my family, especially my brother, who didn’t bat an eye when I said I needed company watching stupid girly movies on Netflix so I could relax my tired braincells. (I have a lot of really bad recommendations now, should you ever need any.)
So, overall, my big hope is to do better this year. I want to take the time to relax and do what I care about. I want to take the time to read, write, play music, and write on this blog. I love math and English, but I need to take time off from my subjects sometimes, so that I can focus on other things, too. I finally feel at peace again, now – being locked up in your house definitely has its advantages for an INFJ looking for some introvert time. I need time for myself, and this year, I want to be better at taking it, even when I’m not under corona house arrest.
And that’s it for this philosophical tirade 🙂
I hope you’re all staying healthy and safe!