One sleepless night during the fall semester of my sophomore year at Columbia University, I told my then-girlfriend that all my friends were better than me. I was just a boring guy, and they were all cool. My response: shave my beard (which I grew to update my identity post-high school) down to a mustache using her leg razor. I cried while doing it.

If I couldn’t be good at anything, I was at least going to be the guy with a damn mustache. When she and I broke up about a month later, the mustache stayed.

I can laugh at myself three years later, but that night was the breaking point I needed. Even though I felt weak, giving in to myself was the strongest thing I could have done. That semester I took a course called The History of the State of Israel with about 400 pages of reading a week; this was one of five classes, the university’s unofficial norm. That load was a big reason why I couldn’t keep up as I had in my first year, and my anxiety built steadily. What would happen to me? Surely I’d have to drop out. Everyone would know. This was the end. That anxiety metastasized into depression. I was always hungry, but I wouldn’t eat. My joints ached constantly, which made getting in and out of bed a task. My girlfriend and I both were careening into existential crises, helpless to help the other. Feeling awful about school made me feel awful about everything else. The Ivy League, so often scorned as a refuge for legacy brats and coddled alpha-nerds, turned out to be a fucking crucible.

But I survived it. The week before my graduation this past May, Vice ran a piece titled, “Going to an Ivy League School Sucks,” by a Columbia student named Zach Schwartz. I didn’t exactly disagree. Columbia kicked me in the ass. Still, that incendiary, reductive headline bothered me. Columbia didn’t suck for the reasons the author glibly ripped: “The people” and “fakeness,” as if Holden Caulfield had dashed off a screed between subway stops. The author did, however, nail the “intense pressure” that Columbia, a thoroughly unforgiving institution, generates. The school never pauses, even when you need a break. Being there taught me diligence and determination. I had to work, literally, through the worst of times, to the point of near-masochism: If a task didn’t hurt, it wasn’t worth it.

Simply saying the university “sucks” discounts the reality. The particular version of hell that Columbia inflicts on you is this: It will make you complicit in your own misery. Columbia, indifferent to my breakdown, made me work against my own health, my own sanity. I either had to adapt to my environment or get out. Even then, I couldn’t be everything Columbia asked of me. I learned that giving what I could was enough, but I had to let myself be broken to know that.

Nicholas Murray Butler Library
Nicholas Murray Butler Library

The shift in my college experience shocked me. My first year at Columbia decidedly didn’t suck — it was better than I could have imagined. The campus, sandwiched between Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Harlem in a neighborhood called Morningside Heights, gives Columbia students all of New York at their disposal, with a cozy quad to return to. I could go to the park during the day, go to a bar at night, or just hang out in a friend’s dorm room. I met people. I made friends. The workload was manageable; I could stay ahead on bigger assignments. I had a girlfriend — an art student in Brooklyn, no less — for the first time in my life. My first year was not a mirage, but neither was it a sign of what was to come.

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At Columbia, you declare your major before the second semester of your sophomore year. I had entered school as a prospective Spanish major, and gradually realized I couldn’t keep up with the more fluent speakers. By my second year I knew I had to pivot. I chose history and quickly found I was behind, leaving me with bulkier classes than I’d gotten used to in my first year. That included the 400-page, beard-destroying Israel course, which I dropped before I wrote a single paper, but not before I felt my course load grind me into a miserable paste. I wasn’t alone in my second-year surprise. A friend of mine couldn’t believe the change either, stating defeatedly, “I thought college was supposed to be fun.” The purported Best Four Years of Our Lives felt like they would drive us mad instead.

I never thought I’d be the person who had to drop a course because it got too difficult. In reality, there was no penalty for giving up. I felt better, but the damage had been so great that I could hardly see the positives in making my life easier. I felt ashamed, almost cowardly, a loser who couldn’t handle a real college course. Looking back, though, nobody told me that when the going gets so ridiculously hard, you don’t need to do all the work. The 400 pages are merely a guideline that the professor likely doesn’t expect anyone to consistently finish — not that anyone would admit to such fallibility. So everybody lies, implicitly or explicitly. It’s only through experience that you can get in on the lie yourself. I learned my first true Columbia Lesson during that semester: Fail fast.

The next two years were more of the same: Get assigned work, do some, agonize, and everything’s fine in the end. Amid that fretting, despite what the past had taught me, I felt I hadn’t done enough. Instead of doing my work, I would stress about doing my work. No finished product was complete without self-torture. Every new assignment, up until the bitter end, felt like it was going to be the one to sink me. I couldn’t remember how I’d completed the last one. Each time, I’d stare down a blank Word document for a couple hours before taking a nap or going to bed, figuring the work would eventually get done. How much simpler it all would’ve been if I’d admitted there was no possible way to do it all to perfection.

Columbia University Main Gate at 116th Street and Broadway
Columbia University Main Gate at 116th Street and Broadway

Being overwhelmed is a hallmark of the American college student’s life. But Columbia is more than inundation. For me, the overload led to debilitating habits. I took it personally when someone couldn’t make a meal, instead choosing to not eat because I didn’t deserve food. If I finished a final early, it was only because I knew nothing; I didn’t entertain the possibility I’d studied enough to breeze through it. Even my cooler, non-mustachioed friends probably weren’t overly concerned with my beard choices.

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My therapist frequently asks me, “If you had a twin brother, would you treat him the way you treat yourself?” Obviously I wouldn’t. Putting someone through what I did to myself would be cruel. I had begun to embody what Columbia did to me. This, too, you have to learn there: The only one who might give you a break is yourself.

Photos via InSapphoWeTrust/Flickr, Arun Venkatesan/Flickr, Mario Tama/Getty Images