I first injured my ankle in 6th grade. 100 lbs of prepubescence at the cross country championships, I pumped myself up into finishing second. A short, balding man in a white polo looped a medal around my neck, the ribbon soaking up the sweat of a 13:58 2 mile run. My PR before that race had hovered in the high 14-minute range, but by some miracle of the cross country gods, I was now the second-fastest girl of all homeschoolers and private school students in the greater Austin area.
That race stayed with me, and not because of my standing. As a product of pushing the limits of my scrawny body, I unknowingly strained my Achilles tendon, causing a zip of pain to bolt through my ankle whenever I walked. The pain wasn’t sharp like the slice of a knife or bombastic like the shattering of a bone, but the kind that pulled apart seams. The kind of pain that persisted.
My first tactic in addressing this problem was to ignore it; even at that age I was too stubborn for my own good. “Don’t be a hero”, said my cross country coach when she asked about the state of my ankle, “You are allowed to hurt”. But admitting the extent of my pain meant I would have to swallow my pride and stop running, so I continued to push through it, until one day, I found my neglect had caught up to me. My mother brought me to a physical therapist. There, too, I went too hard, overdoing the stretches in order to quicken the healing process. But healing would come on its own schedule, and in the meantime, I had to learn to be patient.
It would be 9 months until my ankle finally healed. It’s funny how the threshold of healing means experiencing the absence of feeling, and when I went to bed I was struck at times with a sense of wrongness, only to realize that I had become so adjusted to the pain in my ankle that I missed it when it was gone.
I injured the same ankle for the second time this semester. After missing a couple of stairs on the way to meet my friends one night, my body wrenched one way and my ankle decided to not follow, planted firmly to the detriment of its integrity. I landed back-first in the grass, my ankle throbbing. I woke up the next morning unable to walk. My ankle looked like a giant cyst, alien, fleshy, and swollen.
At UHS, a kind nurse gave me an ACE bandage and one order I haven’t been able to fulfill: rest. “Don’t walk, if you can avoid it”, she said. I asked if I could go to aerial arts practice in a couple of days because well, climbing up silks and hoops isn’t technically walking. “No” was the firm response. But by the time practice rolled around, I was able to walk without too much pain, so I went anyway. Balancing the checklist of my day with my throbbing ankle, the former seemed to me much more weighty. The alternative of pausing life would lead me to fall behind, I thought, in friendships, classes, extracurriculars, and memories.
Ever since the day I fell, I’ve woken up hoping that my ankle healed magically during the night. I swing my leg over the side of my bed and grimace as the weight of my body strains the joint. The persistent pain and my lumpy ankle are nobody’s fault but my own. I could choose to pause for a couple of days, not go to that club meeting or lunch across campus. But I’ve been a runner my whole life in more ways than just the physical, a Type A workaholic, overextended and overworked, and as always, I haven’t been able to figure out how to tap out of the race.
The choice between taking care of one’s body or continuing to work is a difficult one for many Princeton students. Take as an example the campus cold that has been making its way through the student body. Just as I know that the quickest path to healing my ankle is rest, those who are unlucky enough to have that persistent cough and scratchy throat would recover faster if they also rested. But I’ve rarely met a Princeton student—who’ve all had to run the race of college admissions to get here—that prioritizes their own well-being over their work and social life. There is a sense of false scarcity, of time and opportunity, that tells people to push through the pain, whether it’s the physical kind like the campus cold, or the mental kind, the fallout of which fills up the CPS waiting list and Tyga San’s Tiger Confessions inbox. There are two sicknesses on campus, the one of the culture perpetuating the one of the body.
Putting together 5,000 overachievers generates a culture that uplifts toxic values, primarily, elevating the sacrifice of one’s mental and physical health as good and noble. This culture, rather than seeing students as inherently and indelibly whole, defines them through what they do and how they perform. The result? A campus cold that won’t stop spreading until we’ve reached herd immunity, persistent burnout, and the harrowing feeling that giving one’s all is never enough.
But what if campus culture prioritized the body and mind over action and achievement? If the norm was to stay home the minute your throat feels scratchy, or to value being rested and happy over getting an A on that paper? Such a culture shift requires reckoning with the way we define ourselves and the sources of our value, introspection into 6th-grade memories and recent injuries. It also requires two things that I’m still learning: the practice of patience, and rest.