- Ken Ilgunas
Damn she’s pretty. We were in the basement of a coffee shop off campus. She sat with her back to me, typing in a laptop surrounded with a scattering of papers, occasionally pausing to take a sip from her paper cup while keeping her eyes trained on the computer. She got up and asked if I’d watch her stuff so she could leave to have a smoke.
She was young, tall, and skinny. Probably too skinny for her own good. And I thought she looked too innocent to be smoking and—because of hay-colored mane of hair, pallid complexion and noble carriage—too regal to be hanging out with a bunch of yuppies. She looked like she should have been leading a gaggle of sycophantic courtiers down the halls of some Scandinavian castle or admired as a marble-dipped statue surrounded by arching fountains and trim hedgerows.
Soon after she got back and sat down, I saw a sudden movement out of the corner of my eye. With her head tilted toward the ceiling, she rose from her seat ever so slightly and gracefully fell to the brick floor where she began writhing helplessly. Her eyes bulged and her teeth clenched.
People looked around their laptops to see the cause of the commotion. A man nearest her got down on his knees and held her head. It was the first time I saw someone having a seizure and, stunned by her contorted face and the horrific jerking of her body, I couldn’t move at first. I forced myself up, stepped over her, and called 911. While waiting for the paramedics, the man caring for her announced that she’d stopped breathing and that there was no pulse.
Before the paramedics came, she started breathing again and slowly—very slowly—regained consciousness. She didn’t know where or even who she was. But she did know that she’d never had a seizure before.
“What does this all mean?” she said, with tears rolling down her face.
She was asked about diet, stress, and medication changes that may have caused it. She only said that she’s been really busy with schoolwork. That’s when I got upset. There could have been a hundred reasons behind her seizure, but I decided it was because of school.
Despite being in one of the most youthful, energetic, and imaginative periods of their lives, many students suffer from poor health and depression. Between work and school, I remember being so busy my junior year that I stopped exercising altogether. Throughout my college career—even as recently as this past semester—I’ve pulled several all nighters and consumed unhealthy dosages of caffeine to get my work done.
There are many types of college students. There are slackers who smoke and drink their parents’ money away. There are dedicated students who care about their education. And there are the hyper-focused students who live in libraries, never sleep, and whose idea of success is largely determined by grades and accolades. Rarely, I’ve found, does this third group work so hard because they’re passionate about the subject they’re studying. Rather, they’re more like robots programmed to pursue their flimsy notion of success, fueled by Adderall and energy drinks. It’s this group that’s most likely to crash and burn.
College—they don’t realize—is a fantasy land. The deadlines and grades and expectations are only real as long as we believe that they’re real. When I begin to stress-out over deadlines, I remind myself that I’m in school of my own volition. I can neglect to turn papers in, I can skip class, hell, I can even drop out. I never do these things but I think it’s important to understand that the world will not end because of a bad grade, a failed class, or a rejected internship application. A volcano spewing lava over someone’s home is real. The world ending because of a B- is not.
Other students—who’ve spent their entire lives in schools—cannot make a distinction between what’s real and what’s not. A “B-” is not just a “B-”; it very well could be the end of their world. That’s because they feel some deeply rooted need—implanted in them by parents, teachers, and even themselves—to keep pace with fellow students, to get grades, and to get a good job. When expectations are set so high, it’s only natural that they burn out trying to attain these things and feel worthless and incompetent when they can’t.
They go to college not to grow into fully-functioning, self-sufficient, critically-minded men and women, but to become nurses, investors, and marine biologists. Today, college is considered less a place to develop and more an arena to compete.
It should come as no surprise that suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds. There are 1000 suicides a year on campuses and a 2000 survey by the American College Health Association reports that 9.5% of its student subjects had contemplated suicide (American Association of Suicidology).
Six students from Cornell killed themselves this past year. It got so bad that the campus has posted guards and built a wire fence on the bridge where several students jumped to end it all. My friend, an RA at Harvard, told me how two underclassmen killed themselves last year, likely because of the pressures of school.
Plus, when you have excessive student loans, it’s almost inconceivable to drop out without a degree to show what you’ve paid for. When you go into school not to attain knowledge but to attain a degree, college becomes less a beacon of truth and more a prison that’s too risky to escape.
But I’m being awfully presumptuous. It could have been a chemical imbalance, or a hundred other reasons. School may have had nothing to do with her seizure.
After that afternoon, I began seeing her everywhere: outside the gym, on the bus, walking across campus. When we’d cross paths I could tell she didn’t recognize me from the café.
I started to feel like I was stalking her. When I’d see her, I’d change my direction and follow her with the intent of stopping her and telling her that I was there. What would I say? That I watched her die and come back to life? That I saw her vibrating on the brick floor with spit all over her face? Thinking about her skinny frame, the caffeine, the cigarettes, and all the homework, I really just wanted to tell her to take it easy; that she could be killing herself with schoolwork; that it’s going to be okay if she gets a C and that it’s okay if she takes a semester off from college. I’d tell her that if college doesn’t rouse her passions, leave and find something that does. I’d tell her to go look at the stars and mountains to remind her of how small and insignificant we are, and that the troubles we bear are even smaller. Then come back when you’re ready.
Alas, I said nothing. Instead, I just trailed her from behind. It was as if I held some secret about her that I shouldn’t have had, like I’d seen her naked without her knowing it.
Months went by until I saw her again, this time in a different coffee shop. She walked past me to get her coffee and on her way back I smiled and kicked out a chair. I was probably blushing and my heart was racing. I asked her if she recognized me. She said no.
“Well, this might be somewhat uncomfortable for you, but I know you from the coffee shop.”
It still didn’t click, but I gave her a look, and it hit her. Her face reddened and her fingers fidgeted, but she was palpably curious. She said she had no recollection of the day and because she didn’t know anyone at the coffee shop, no one had been able to help her recount the episode. I told the story as best I could. With eyes welling with tears, she smiled and thanked me.
We’d see each other occasionally on campus, but every time she’d look away as if she didn’t know me, probably because she was embarrassed or because she didn’t want to be reminded of the episode.
I looked for her this past semester, but it appeared she’d left. I figured she took some time off from school to relax and reassess. Good for her, I thought. Then, towards the middle of the semester, I saw her again at another coffeehouse. Like our first encounter, she had her back turned to me. A lap top, a scattering of papers, and a smoking cup of coffee in front of her.
I was focused on my work, until the room went silent and someone yelped, “Does anyone know what to do!?”
I looked over and saw her that her arms had flopped to her sides and her head hung over the back of her chair. Her body was jerking madly. I didn’t “know what to do” but I got up slowly, walked over, and put one arm around her back and another beneath her long, dangling legs. I lifted her from her chair and looked at her face. Her teeth were clenched again and her eyes were zombielike: full of fervor but absent of life. I gently set her on the floor where I cupped her head with my palm so it wouldn’t hammer against the ground.
I’ve had Wilderness First Responder training, but because our class had spent exactly 30 seconds on backcountry seizures, all I knew was to keep her head secure, not to put anything in her mouth, and check her breathing and pulse regularly.
After the convulsions ceased, she started gulping for air and then stopped abruptly. I thought I’d have to begin CPR, but my hands trembled so much I couldn’t take her pulse. I turned her on her side and a syrupy mixture of saliva and blood oozed from her mouth.
By the time the paramedics arrived, she was breathing okay and a similar scene unfolded. More questions and more tears. Her friend came over and told them that she’s been working really hard.
“I really don’t like it here,” she said, her face pink and wincing. She also told them that this has happened only once before.
She saw me sitting in my chair, looking on sadly. She smiled again with a face full of tears.
I saw her a few more times on campus and felt just as reluctant to approach her as I did the first time. We bumped into each other outside the library, but kept walking as if we’d never met. Halfway to the van, I turned around and went to speak with her, hoping I’d tell her everything I wanted to say.
Except, I just asked how she was. She said the seizures had stopped once she started taking medication, and that she was doing a lot better. I wasn’t so sure.
I looked at the smoke billowing from her cigarette, and in the background was a statue of Benjamin Duke, presumably one of the founders of the college. I thought of the statues, the legacies, the great men and women, and how they will all be ashes and dust one day. Future generations will forget the names and the sacrifices of these men, just as we’ve forgotten the names of kings and emperors that once ruled great civilizations. The books in the library will crumble into worm food and the work of the many ambitious students around me will one day be swallowed by an apathetic earth and forgotten by an indifferent universe. So why spend our lives chasing elusory, foundationless goals, killing ourselves (sometimes literally) in the process?
I think it’s alright to pull the all-nighters, abuse the coffee, and neglect the gym if you’re passionate about your work; a daily dose of invigoration will compensate for other unmet needs. But to spend your time seeking something you don’t truly want or studying a subject that doesn’t interest you makes suicide—for those who can’t see the world beyond classroom walls—look like a reasonable alternative.
Ever since that conversation by the library, we’ve been saying hello to one another on campus. While I’d like to see her again to catch up, I’d be happier if I never saw her at Duke again.