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On loss, grief, and not being okay: The toxic ‘constant productivity’ mindset at Princeton

<h6><strong>Photo Credit: Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</strong></h6>
Photo Credit: Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

Content Warning: The following narrative contains mentions of mental ill-health and grief caused by sudden loss.

During the summer of 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I experienced the tragic and unexpected loss of a close lifelong friend. His death was absolutely devastating —  undoubtedly the worst physical and emotional pain I have ever experienced. In the months that followed, I struggled to function like a normal person should. Food lost its appeal, leaving me with next to no appetite. I couldn’t fall asleep at night, and when I did, I had horrible nightmares that left me crying when I woke up. I withdrew socially, isolating myself from my loved ones out of fear of losing them too. I lost touch with my faith, finding it difficult to trust in a God that would take someone so young so soon. I fell into a deeply depressed state which was fundamentally incompatible with the constant productivity demanded by the pressure cooker that is Princeton.

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In the weeks following the death of my friend, my peers, colleagues, and loved ones expressed their condolences, reminding me, “It’s okay to not be okay.” I’ve always hated that phrase. I think those words are meant to bring comfort or reassurance that the uncontrollable tears and my dissociative tendencies were perfectly acceptable. But what sympathetic peers and loved ones do not explain is that there are always qualifiers to that statement, especially within the pressures of Princeton’s toxic culture centered on work and productivity.

At Princeton, when you’re told it’s okay to not be okay, the implication is that it’s okay to not be okay, so long as your ‘not-okayness’ does not interfere with your work and productivity. When I requested a couple of days off after my friend’s death, the supervisor of my summer program reluctantly agreed, informing me I would need to ‘make up’ the two days of research I missed or else forfeit my stipend, despite the fact that the project was entirely independent and self-guided.

Missing a couple days of work would only hurt me and my progress on my senior thesis. Yet I was expected to choose between my own already-fraught mental well-being and the grant I had worked so hard to obtain. The message was quite clear: So long as you keep up with academics and extracurriculars and internship applications and job search and independent work and social life, it’s okay to not be okay.

When people say it’s okay to not be okay, they mean that it’s okay to not be okay, as long as your ‘not-okayness’ is only short-term. Sure, people are understanding about grief in the immediate aftermath of loss — attending memorials, going to funerals, and adjusting to a world without your loved one in it. But grief doesn’t work that way. A year and a half after the passing of my friend, I continue to struggle with the lasting ramifications of loss every single day. While I have grown accustomed to them, I still have nightmares about his death almost nightly. Although I no longer cry several times a day, I still tear up as I drive through our hometown and am reminded of our memories there. Even though I have made progress, I am still not ‘okay,’ and at Princeton, that isn’t acceptable. Getting a poor night’s sleep due to nightmares about a loss that happened over a year ago isn’t a valid excuse for poor performance on a quiz or inattentiveness in precept. After all, we’re Princeton students — it’s our job to work through the hardship and move on to the next assignment as soon as we’re done, right?

Of course, there are indeed options available to deal with ‘not okayness’ at Princeton. You can see a therapist at Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS). But, with a record-breaking number of visits and chronic understaffing, it is often difficult to get reliable access to therapy through the University. Even when counselors are available, however, good help is not a guarantee. When I went to CPS to talk through my nightmares about my friend’s death, I was told my best bet was to try believing in an afterlife and move on. The alternative to CPS is to take a leave of absence to deal with mental health struggles outside of Princeton, perhaps in a more intensive care setting. But what both these options have in common is that they send the message that it’s really not okay to not be okay while attending this University. You either have to get over your struggles or get off campus.

I am not sure there is a good solution for coping with loss on this campus — or other mental health struggles, for that matter. Princeton’s approach to mental health and well-being is often perfunctory — an extension here, a drop-in therapy session there, perhaps a midterms care package. If a mental health problem cannot be resolved immediately, it is often dismissed. But when it comes to loss, the feeling of ‘okayness’ may never return. Grief is a cyclical and unpredictable phenomenon, and it’s so horribly permanent — no end of pain in sight.

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When we tell others that “it’s okay to not be okay,” we must understand that grief has no deadlines, no time limits, and no regard for productivity. We must challenge the toxic Princeton culture of ‘powering through’ pain and instead learn to give ourselves a chance to heal from the pain which left us not okay in the first place. 

So maybe it’s not that I hate the phrase that much after all, because I do believe that it’s okay not to be okay. But in the high-pressure environment that Princeton creates, the responsibility falls upon us to fully internalize that phrase and, for once, to prioritize sanity over productivity.

Hannah Reynolds is a senior in the Anthropology Department from the Finger Lakes in Upstate N.Y. She can be reached at hannahr@princeton.edu.

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