It was the last week before we all left for college – a manic, dark night, much too hot. I ran into an old friend on my way out of a party.
“When are you leaving?” she asked. In about a week, I told her. I was going to be one of the last ones to leave. I knew it was obvious how nervous I was, so I just came out and admitted it.
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “College is where you were always meant to be. You’re going to do great!”
I thanked her. She went inside, and I went out to my car.
I didn’t believe her for a second. That might have been part of the problem.
Kelly asked me to talk this week about the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’m not entirely sure that going away to college actually counts. But of all the things that came to mind, it’s the only one I actually did. The only one where I actually had to stand up and put one foot in front of the other.
I’ve probably told this story a million times so you can skip this paragraph if you you’d like, but my senior year of high school I had about four months of total mind-blowing confidence. And then come the beginning of 2007 it all went to hell, and I got all tangled up in people, and my head, and bad decisions. And I got rejected or waitlisted at every college I applied to aside from UVA and one other.
The morning I left for college, I had my first (and last, so far) panic attack. And then I cried. All. Day. We should all thank our lucky stars that my roommate, Jenny, decided she wanted to be friends with me anyway because I must have looked like a crazy person.
Why was I so miserable? I’m still not entirely sure. I didn’t want to go to UVA. I wanted to strike out on my own, and instead went to college with 20 people from my graduating class. I thought I was pretty smart and special, and it turned out that those were not my most recognizable features. My bad decisions followed me to Charlottesville. I had a marvelous life with my family, and UVA didn’t feel worth leaving it for. I desperately did not want to go, and I didn’t know that I could do anything else.
And still, I went. I didn’t eat or sleep much my first semester of college, and then in the spring, I went to the dining hall more and I got a job. Jenny and I became friends and she introduced me to her friends. My third year, I studied abroad in Edinburgh. My fourth year, I decided to shoehorn in a minor in English literature. I never felt like I fit in, like I was doing college well, but in the end I fell in love with parts of it.
I’m still a little too tentative about figuring out what I can do in life. I don’t want my plans to become too big because I’m afraid of the fall. I think I turned away from my International Relations degree too quickly, as much as I love books and the past three years. But I also learned to trust myself. I learned that I can be happy anywhere, that I can pick myself up and brush myself off and figure out how to be a person. I learned that the story is not always worth the consequences.
It’s taken me until about yesterday, but I’ve also learned a lot about showing up. It’s safe in your head, in your apartment, in your routine, but nothing ever changes if you don’t leave.