On Dialing Back & Unplugging to Live Here
For most of November, I didn’t sleep.
I went through weeks of waking up around 2 or 3am and falling back to sleep around 5 or 6, like clockwork. I rolled about wide awake for hours, only to grab another hour or two of sleep. Daybreak, I’d zoom out the door, somehow patched together well enough to stretch another day. This insomnia spurred me to write to uncover underlying patterns and disruptions. I want to be open enough to live with a reality that I can sleep with — a space where I feel aligned and at peace with my past, aware and engaged with my present, and slow and less paranoid about the future. There were too many moments where I lost grip of days, nights, and participating in the present. It were as if my life were like the fast-forwarding skips seen in Limitless.
My sleep debt crept up upward over the years alongside my technology.
The world would go to bed with me — iPhone under the pillow and MacBook within reaching distance. Unyieldingly, I have adopted the latest apps, gladly beta tested for several companies and startups, and felt as if I were among the ranks of Generation Y’s army in the technological revolution that would change everything. I always wanted to be in the midst of a revolution. Yet here I am, battling with the energy to match the revolution and maximize it all. I can be surgeon-precise at maximizing my life, yet keep relearning a lesson about the punishment I put myself through to “hustle.”
I wonder if I can’t sleep because I live in the midst of a revolution where I have so many tools at my disposal to destroy the simple things in life.
Satanically paired with my ambitious zeal and a perfectionist’s work ethic, I thrived when I landed at UNC Charlotte. Nobody that could slow me down. I accomplished an uncanny amount during my freshman year. In a Machiavellian way, I was fueled by that. The honors. The leadership. The involvement. This all kept piling up alongside the recognition. I felt like a magnet of positivity and productivity. College was the canvas and I felt like a king with a thirst to prove his power.
Armed with the it’s-on-me-to-make-something-of-myself mindset, I quickly consumed technology, information, knowledge — I wanted my mind and eyes on everything. No scope was too grand. I was a living, breathing life hacker. This delivered a slick satisfaction, too. Some could tell; others hadn’t any idea that I had weapons in my pocket in the form of screens and eyes with a knack for extraction. How had I constantly been in three places at once? I owned my first year, leading up to a sponsorship for a week-long camp dedicated to creating a change-the-world blueprint, LeaderShape.
LeaderShape sent my ambition into comet mode. Such dreams required a massive amount of resources and effort, so I added on to invite more opportunities. I added another major, another honors program, a job that could get me to interact with a diverse array of people and the best residence hall. I added whatever I could that might provide an opportunity to fuel my increasing ideals.
The warning signs started, but I ignored everything my body kept saying. I lost sleep. My emotions violently pitched up and down like a roller coaster. I was late to work at the library and was far too self-critical about my amount of effort in RA.
I fell apart.
I lost my mind and whatever health I had left in the winter of my sophomore year. All along, I pushed my love away and made terrible decisions that shredded quite a few bits of my past. My roommate Wes would see me break down in the common area. Meghan would rub my back as I broke down before a macroeconomics exam. I was drowning, grabbing for anything to stay afloat. I kept myself in these violent waves: when I was up, I was sky high; when I was down, I felt useless. These moments made me question every decision or conversation. What I forgot to realize when I rocketed off into college and life hacker success was that all rockets require fuel. I was burning my most precious resources: time, relationships, mental and physical health. In my effort to do everything for a better life, I lost sight of life itself.
Over the spring of my sophomore year, I slowly stepped back, making tough-but-absolutely-necessary decisions. I quit RA. Sidestepped SigTau. Gently declined meetings to all the clubs I was a part of. Found sanctuary in stable roommates in Caleb and Sam, alumni who were far beyond my woes and able to help my over-thinking. I was in full-on recovery mode, solely focused on mending the pieces of my heart and unsure how I could navigate a mind that featured its capacity in a nuke-like way. I lived in a well-lit sunroom, started biking to school, and poured into learning instead of grades, prioritizing time with friends instead of networking. Slowly, sunlight was in more than my room.
I still think about this, unable to ignore that this is my past. What I had done to myself and others I loved throughout the fall of my sophomore year left scars. I don’t want to be in a place where I fear, hurt, or lose myself — and more importantly and in the process — hurt, scare or lose the ones I love.
A couple friends knew what was going on back then. Those that truly care know how you really are, beyond the status updates and tweets. True to their call-it-like-it-is nature, my friends, with nod to Amy in particular, kept asking how I “really” was throughout the year. It was all guts and glory on the outside, but featured mind-warping maximization on the inside. I even tried to show off that I scathed by heartbreak, but I was on the floor picking up shards of my life. And I still had the mental flood to swim through, as I was capable of engineering this ruin — well aware of my capabilities to fall again.
To focus, I put my effort and ambition into getting the opportunity to study abroad in Italy. I focused on one dream. I poured my heartbreak, abilities to organize and maximize, and ambition into Italy. Along the way, I couch-surfed and got to know my friends so much better. Perhaps you’re not surprised how universal this rawness is — how burnt out we are. We often feel like we’re useless and talentless and unable to love or be loved. Still, we post, update, tweet, hashtag, ‘gram, and like anything that provides anything to the contrary of our harrowing reality.
It’s awful, this disconnect in an age preaches its “connectedness.” How you can be two feet across from someone and feel miles apart.
If it’s to be connected, why are most twenty-somethings I know absolutely miserable about their friendships and relationships? Double this rising effort with the increasing pressures from society to perform in college and tack on debt along the way, it’s no wonder college students are overwhelmed.
Somewhere along the line, we forgot how to breathe, drink water, love for love, and much more of the “basics.” We keep discarding our essentials as our ambition ramps up, and yet they are all that matters—all long—the little things in the foundation of a life.
I’m 22 and wonder if the life ahead needs the ambition I’ve already pumped into it. In Italy, I question it all.
Inspired by FastCompany’s #unplug guide from last year, I’m taking a similar disconnect—to carve out my own adventures across Milan without the double-edged potential of screens. While I’ll need to hit up facebook for some group projects, I’m essentially taking December “off.”
I’m looking to make the most of my last month in Italy. Finish strong in my courses. Spend hours at Christmas markets and marveling at the Duomo. Skip around Italy a bit and Milan even more intimately. Of course I’ll be back around campus for the start of classes, but until then, I’d like to press the reflection and exploration theme in order to set the right tone for the New Year.
It’s nothing personal, I just don’t want to forget what’s in front of me: the fact that I’m in Italy, and need to make the most of my time to reinvent myself to another fantastic year. I’ve had many stellar days, and here’s to December, full of more being-here goodness.
Writing will still be produced, but in other arenas. :) Don’t worry, you’ll know.