Leave it to G to be the universal conduit to tell me what needs dealing with.
And leave it to my dogs to know that mama needs some love while writing this.
I just read my dear (virtual) friend Glennon’s post about her college ‘experience’, and what happened when she had to confront it. I’m not a soft touch, but her story said “Hey Heather – Guess what? YOU’VE GOT SOME WORK TO DO. Lucky for you, you’re not alone”. So here’s another story to add to hers, because I did think I was alone. Maybe mine will reach someone else, and they’ll be brave enough to tell their story, and then we can just all stop feeling badly about missing out on this mythic college ‘experience’.
I spent the summer after high school graduation untethered. I stayed with whomever would have me. At first this was exciting. All the drinking and new drugs and friends and people and YOU DON’T HAVE TO THINK ABOUT ANYTHING because no one else is thinking either. It got old, and by the end of it, I felt old. The summer ended, it turned out that everyone else DID have plans, and well, I didn’t.
This is when the bad place started advancing, like a storm front of unprecedented size.
With the help of good friends, good doctors and better pharmaceuticals, I now know that I struggled with depression and anxiety and general self-esteem of -1,000 for my entire life. It is why I always thought I was dying (and wished, fervently, that it would hurry up and come). It was why I always felt so uncomfortable in my own skin, so uncomfortable that I would cut and scrape it off, patches at a time. It was why I felt such SWEET FUCKING RELIEF from a bottle of vodka, a joint or any man who would pay attention. And it was why I shattered over and over again when none of those options worked.
I moved into my dorm at the end of August, and by December I had summarily flunked EVERYTHING. Eng 101, Psy 101, life. My father and baby brother arrived to pick me up for Christmas break and found me, forty pounds heavier, surrounded by empty vodka bottles, cigarette smoke, and trash.
While my attempt to keep my summer social life going initially worked, eventually everyone had to go to class. I stayed behind. I drank alone, I chain smoked, I slept, I watched endless hours of television. I had a work study job that I loved, but I couldn’t will myself to go for fear that someone would see me. I just couldn’t have people seeing me. I remember friends banging on my door (because to completely self-destruct you must request a single); begging me to come out. I stayed on my extra-long single bed, breathing slowly and quietly, willing for them to go away. I was miserable and exhausted and flummoxed by the series of small heart attacks I thought I was having. I walked all the way across campus to the health center and described the pain to the doctor there. He said I had a cold. We went through the suicide prevention screening, and I answered the questions deftly and correctly while I prayed “please let him see please please please help because I don’t know how to tell you that I am DYING”. By December, I barely saw anyone.
Things got worse far before they began to improve.
There were interludes in the misery. I had friends, both new and old, who tried, but I was TOO FAR GONE for another eighteen-year-old to fix. So when I read G’s story today, I was so relieved to see her ask the question I’ve always wanted to ask:
New England, self-sufficient me. All along I’ve been too afraid to articulate this. Afraid because we’re supposed to take care of ourselves, dammit. It’s supposed to be about choices and bootstraps and self-sufficiency and how dare I blame someone else for my problems? . . . Of course we know that is a lie, however it is a lie many believe is the only truth. Seriously, where the fuck were the healthy people? And why DIDN’T they notice me? Why, for all of our screenings and purported interest, don’t we notice the people who need help? I’m still angry, but I’m getting a little less angry every day.
In the year following that semester, I learned what it was like to not have a home and how cold it actually gets when you sleep in your car in Maine. I learned that sometimes the people who will take you in aren’t actually good people. I learned to hope that something better was possible.
I finally went back to school in the Spring of 2001, just months before Colby was born. I remember dressing so carefully for my re-entrance interview: I had to make my case to the dean of admissions. I wore clean, black maternity yoga pants, my one good t-shirt, and an Orange Nike half-zip that I found at Goodwill. I had a nice, new pair of sneakers that my parents gave me for Christmas. It was the best I had looked in a long, long time. Years later, when I finally had an advisor and had my relative shit together, I saw a note in my file from that re-entrance interview: Heather is obviously pregnant but did not mention the pregnancy. I do not know her plans. He added something to the effect of “keep an eye on this one”. I didn’t know it until years later, but Someone. Finally. Noticed.
That second time around, everything was easier. I had a home, a little apartment just off campus with other University students and employees. Nearly everyone had families, and Colby and I fit into that place like it was made for us. The landmarks that used to make me sick to my stomach (that fraternity house, that dining hall, the gym, that classroom) had less significance as I rallied, and MY PEOPLE RALLIED AROUND ME. Instead of events past, I remember my (2nd time around) ENG 101 instructor giving me breastfeeding advice while she marked up an essay. I remember what those great big football players looked like holding tiny infant Colby during class. I remember the year Colby had so many ear infections he could never go to daycare. My professor brought toys, and while we discussed British war poetry he played with plastic toy soldiers.
I stuck around to finally finish my undergraduate degree. My feelings were always moderately hurt when someone would remark “wow. you’ve got a checkered academic history here”. Because really people, like I don’t understand what it means to see ‘F’s interspersed with ‘A’s. Really. When I finally graduated I had to re-evaluate. The place that was once so dangerous to me had also created my safety net, and I didn’t know what to do without it. So I went back. Then I graduated again, and had to make the same decision.
These days, I’m less reliant on my people there than I am grateful that they have somehow existed and helped. They inspire me to be patient and creative, empathetic with people and firm in my academic expectations.
In spite of myself, I have become an actual functioning member of society. I’m not perfect, but I do good things every day (even when I don’t do the laundry, well, especially then). For years I thought this was an impossible feat. From time to time that thought creeps back in, and the storm edges in, but I have people now. I have the support of my family, distant and immediate; I have friends who know what it means when I don’t call for a week; I have colleagues who are friends; I have a fantastic therapist.
I’m not going to live happily ever after, but I am going to live, friends.