By Shermaine Lim (22S03N)
It starts small, with a few unfinished lectures and forgotten tutorials, before it snowballs into misunderstood concepts and a looming test date. With the added pressure of an outstanding batch of peers and the never ending deluge of work and responsibilities, catching up soon becomes an impossible mission, until it reaches a peak where you just stop.
After all, as A-level candidates, most students of the RI community are no strangers to burnout.
My experience with burnout came before the start the March holidays, so here’s how it went down:
Day 1: The day I realised that I was burnt out
While everyone around me crammed for the upcoming General Paper (GP) test, I spent the day wandering. Not in a physical sense; my mind found itself dissociating from the reality of my situation.
While I futilely tried to embark on my revision, it was as if a constant fog was clouding my mind, forcing it into a dormant state. I tried to rationalise that if I couldn’t be productive for GP, I could try to be productive for another subject. I ended up mindlessly watching an economics lecture, going through the motions of highlighting and indexing my notes.
In the back of my head, I knew that this was a waste of time, but it felt as if an unseen force had taken over, and I found comfort in surrendering to it, escaping the bounds of the tightly planned revision schedule I had for the day.
Day 2: Realising that an exam wasn’t worth it
‘The ends always justify the means.’
Of the 10 questions on the exam script, this was the one that stayed in my mind long after the end of the exam. While I did want to do well for the Timed Practices (TPs) as a form of self reassurance, it made no sense to do so at the cost of my own mental well-being.
For the past term, while I strived to keep afloat academically, it felt like a never ending tidal wave that didn’t let up. When would it end? After the Timed Practices? After the Prelims? After the A-levels?
For most of us, A-levels are the be-all-end-all, the culmination of our years of formal education, the key that opens doors into our futures. It’s so crucial that our lives become subsumed in the quest for a successful A-level journey and it becomes the very purpose of our junior college education.
But if I were to imagine myself at the end of the journey, looking back, would it be worth it? Would it be worth it to accumulate so much sleep debt to the point where coffee becomes a form of sustenance? Would it be worth it to kill my genuine love of a subject in pursuit of an ‘A’? What about working myself to the point of stress that I’m irritable and intolerant to those around me?
A pyrrhic victory: where the cost of succeeding supersedes the benefits of victory.
How do we go on into our next adventure when so much of ourselves has been bankrupted to bring us to this stage?
So back to the question: Do the ends always justify the means?
No. They don’t.
Day 8: Realising that to prioritise school, I had to temporarily un-prioritise school
I woke up three times in the morning.
The first time was at 8am, my natural body clock rhythm. Feeling exhausted and groggy, I went back to sleep. (A win for self care?)
The second time was at 10am, by my father, who unfortunately heeded my old directive to ensure that I was awake by ten.
The last time I woke up this morning was at 10.50am, and this time I really did manage to pull myself out of bed in spite of the guilt of procrastination that weighed in my heart.
While eating breakfast, I frivolously scrolled through social media websites, in a strange haze, as the internal conflict between gathering the motivation to start work and taking some time to relax waged on.
Feeling the uneasiness in my heart, I resolved to achieve a balance of both by reading, rationalising that it’s a good way to learn new vocabulary while indulging in a favourite pastime of mine. (And of course, ignoring the fact that any vocabulary cramming should have been done before, not after, my GP paper.)
What was meant to be a quick thirty minute read dissolved into a three hour journey, as I unexpectedly found myself engrossed in the captivating storyline and ended up finishing the whole book.
Growing up, the concept of ‘work hard, play hard’ has always been espoused by adults and peers alike, with the emphasis on how ‘work hard’ preceded ‘play hard’. It is an understanding that discipline involves prioritising your responsibilities and the work that needs to be done above indulging in any form of temptation or distraction.
However, today made me realise that learning to indulge yourself without the expectation to earn your break is sometimes necessary. While we can’t expect to be in constant ‘play’ mode, we can be in ‘pause’ mode once in a while. Instead of only working for rest, resting to work can reap beneficial results too.
Day 12: Sunday (the day before the first day of TPs)
Over the past week, I’ve accomplished much of what I couldn’t during the school term: watching movies, organising my files, experimenting with new recipes, and organising my Google Drive.
Tomorrow marks the start of our Timed Practice exams and while unprepared, I feel more rejuvenated and alert than I’ve been the whole term. That being said, admittedly the dread of entering an exam room with the knowledge of my imminent failure still lingers at the back of my head.
Nonetheless, it’s been twelve days of recovering from burnout. It’s safe to say that these twelve days, while ‘unproductive’, have been incredibly crucial to my journey of self growth.
When surrounded with the spark of many, the pressure to burn the brightest may eventually cause our light to diminish. Of course, shining the brightest and standing out is an achievement. However, sustaining the fire and keeping it alive through even the darkest nights—that is the hallmark of true success.
While it was painful experiencing burnout, the fabled roadblock to academic success, it is something I’m grateful to have gone through. It gave me a new perspective that I was finally able to internalise, as well as the much needed respite.
Where I once feared that burning out would completely douse my spirit and motivation, I’ve now learnt something new:
Our light never dies, if we learn to tend to it with self care, compassion and understanding.