There have been days (more than I’m maybe willing to admit to myself/the internet) where I feel like my life is falling apart. My chronic, unshakeable insomnia kept me up until 4 in the morning, my response paper that’s due in an hour is as of yet nonexistent, and I just realized I have a progress meeting for a term project this afternoon, not next week like it says in my calendar, and that there is, as of right now, no progress to meet about. I’m supposed to go to the gym today but my throat is killing me and I feel a fever coming on because my immune system is weaker than my ability to come up with good metaphors, but I’m feeling sluggish from last night’s trip to Border so I should probably try and go anyway. I have about fifteen emails in my inbox marked “URGENT — RESPOND IMMEDIATELY” that have been sitting there for over a week, and every time I sit down to write a to-do list I have to swallow a wave of anxiety. But then, someone in one of my classes or an acquaintance I see in the dining hall or even one of my roommates says something to me along the lines of “how are you so together right now?! It’s midterm season!” And I’m baffled. I’m not keeping it together!, I want to shout, through tears of sheer frustration and exhaustion. When I respond, asking what on earth would prompt them to say something like that, they usually respond with some variation on “well… just look at you!” After this happened more than a few times, I started to think about outward perception of “togetherness” being perceived as internal calm versus… well… this:
(mostly kidding about this, just tryna be more like Leo, always)
The fact is, it takes a lot to keep me from doing my morning routine. When I say, “a lot,” I mean a level of stress and exhaustion that I have yet to reach more than a handful of times in three+ years at Harvard. No matter how little I’ve slept, or how much is on my to-do list, I get up in the morning, put on clothes that look like clothes (I will maintain that leggings are pants as well as loungewear, but I don’t get closer to wearing pajamas outside than that), and do my makeup (which, almost without fail, includes brows that my friend Hannah calls my caterpillars and bold lipstick). The idea of “dress well, test well” is one I fully support, but for me, those principles can and should extend beyond exam week. It takes me maybe an extra twenty minutes every day to get ready (ten if I’m having a really bad day and need to streamline the process or have it not happen at all) and trust me when I say it’s worth it.
In order to subscribe to my personal method of keeping it together, you don’t need to wear makeup, or dress in a style that isn’t your own. I happen to keep it together with brow powder and A-line dresses, but the tools you use should be the ones that make you happy. Sometimes, when I’m sleepy and stressed and on the verge of a monster cold I have no time to recover from, let alone be sidelined by, it seems ridiculous to be braiding my hair or doing a quick face-mask before class or brewing loose-leaf tea instead of grabbing Starbucks when I could be napping or preparing for class for an extra twenty minutes. But doing those things has nothing to do with vanity (or, at least, I hope not a lot…). Once, while I was studying abroad, I didn’t sleep, didn’t finish my work, and went to class in running shorts, the shirt I slept in, and with unwashed hair and no makeup on. Twenty minutes after I got to class and began to fully wake up, I was frustrated with myself. Sure, it had been hard to get up and leave my apartment, harder still to fathom taking the time to look presentable, but now I was out and ready for my day, and I felt awful. Still wearing my pajamas meant I couldn’t shake how tired I was, and when I caught sight of myself in a mirror, my stress and worry was reflected back at me in the image of someone who was falling apart externally as well as internally. It felt disrespectful to my professor, but also to all the shopkeepers and friends I interacted with all day, to be so obviously disheveled and out of it.
In my article last week, I wrote all about my favorite kinds of post-its and how to make the most of your list-writing. This, I think, conveys a certain level of “togetherness.” But, while I have color-coordinated to-do lists and an insane planner system, that doesn’t mean things don’t slip through the cracks. I’m happy if that post helped you organize an aspect of your life, and I do love keeping lists and feeling on top of things, but to ignore the other side of things feels a little disingenous on my part and honestly unhelpful. There are some days when my to-do list just says “figure stuff out tomorrow” because that is the only way to lift the giant mass of pressure off of my heart. But there are also days when detailing every single thing I need to do, no matter how many things there end up being, helps alleviate that pressure. The fact that working from the outside in when you don’t know where else to start has helped me is why I’m writing this article as a sort of follow up.
Taking care of yourself is the first step to keeping it together, but it’s one that many people choose to skip. The next time you’re really overwhelmed, just try it: get up a little earlier, make time for a calm cup of coffee, brush your hair, meditate, change out of your pajamas and really start your day. “Fake it until you make it” is a real thing, and the more you build that principle into your routine, you’ll find yourself having to “fake it” way less often, and still making it through.