Monday, August 5, 2013

The Unencrypted Truth

This is my full story of what happened at Colby College. I’m not going to break it into pieces and discuss each as a general issue. I’m not going to write in cryptic metaphors about lemonade or cupcakes.  I acknowledge that this is a trust fall and that some of you may not believe me or think it was that bad, but I have spent way too much emotional energy worrying about negative reactions. I trust you with my real story: the plain, unencrypted truth.

Colby College
Freshman Year (2006-2007) 

- The first time I cried in front of someone in college, the other person was shocked and said that there were bigger problems in the world and indicated that I should be ashamed of the way I felt. I didn't know this person very well, but this moment stuck with me as what happened when you cried at Colby. Which, in retrospect, was not that far off-base.

- It wasn’t long before I realized that I didn’t want to be so far from home. Four hours was way too far for me, and it was hard to find sympathy when everyone else lived much farther away and considered me to be close to home. People say that college is an adjustment, but getting used to something does not make it okay. My friends who’ve been to summer camp say that most kids get homesick on the first night, but once they settle into their routine, they’re happy. I’ve always been the opposite: when I stayed with far-away relatives, I was always happy when I first arrived; I started wanting to go home towards the end. It was never a matter of adjusting to a new routine; by the time I felt homesick, I was well into my new routine and decided I didn’t want it anymore. I was never happy living at Colby, but I entered with an open mind and tried to give it a chance. By the time I said I wanted to go home, I had made an informed judgment. Everyone encouraged me to stick it out. Everyone treated me like that kid who feels homesick the first night of camp. I wanted to believe them, so I kept telling myself that everything would be alright.

- I was stuck in a triple with very social roommates who liked to leave the door open and have friends over all the time. I’m not like that – I like to spend most of my time alone, in quiet, with the door closed. There’s an old joke where one fish asks the other, “How’s the water?” and the second fish answers, “What’s water?” Before college, I never knew how introverted I was compared to my peers. I didn’t know that I need so much more privacy and alone time than the average person because I always had what I needed. I didn’t know what my comfort zone was until I was out of it. I should have considered that I might not like living with people and picked a school that was commutable just in case. But I internalized all the excitement my friends felt about going off to college, even though I felt no personal desire to leave home.  I pushed aside my hesitation about living with a roommate since it seemed to work out fine for everyone else. I didn’t consider that my friends hung out together every day, when school alone was enough interaction for me. I didn’t know that so many people play music all the time, or even could listen to music while reading. I figured college would be awesome like everyone said, but I never noticed how different I was from everyone who sincerely wanted to go.

My dorm had this thing about leaving doors open. Our resident advisor (RA) held a brick-painting party to make doorstops, under the assumption that we would use them. I painted one even though I never wanted my door open.  We basically had no door; people treated our room like the dorm lounge. They’d walk in uninvited. I’d get back and find other people sitting on my bed while my roommates weren’t even there. They’d expect me to say hi interact with them and felt awkward when I ignored them, even though I wanted my room to be a safe space from social interaction. I kept my textbooks in the dorm lounge so I could grab them without having to enter my room. I brushed my teeth in the academic buildings so I wouldn’t have to socialize in the bathroom. I smiled and nodded when everyone said they wished they lived in a social dorm like mine.

I never thought I had a problem saying no to things. If a friend asked me to go to the beach and I didn’t feel like it, I’d say no. But in that case, my friend can still go without me.  Roommate stuff isn’t like that. Saying no means someone can’t do something at all, like play their music or having friends over. I was kind of stuck allowing it at least sometimes since unfortunately it was their room too. And it’s harder once something becomes the status quo. I found myself leaving the door open when my roommates weren’t even home because it felt like it was supposed to be that way.

My dorm was “chem-free,” meaning that you couldn’t have alcohol or drugs in the dorm. Since Colby had such an intense drinking culture, there was a very strong chem-free subculture in which everyone knew each other. Of the chem-free dorms, mine was Party Central. Everyone I knew hung out there. Most of my non-dorm friends called themselves adopted members of my dorm “family.”  And anyone who didn't think my dorm was the greatest thought it was uncool that I lived in a chem-free dorm to begin with. There was no one I could talk to about how much I hated it.

- I desperately needed a single. I spent a lot of time in the library just to have quiet. I complained a lot about having too much schoolwork to handle. My real problem was that I had no privacy, quiet, personal space, personal time, or any time when I could go home and be safe from social interaction. The difficulty I had managing my schoolwork was partially a result of these other issues, but I mainly talked about schoolwork because it was the most socially acceptable thing to feel stressed out about.

Sometimes I would sleep in a club meeting room in the student center (I was friends with the club president and she let me. Most of the school buildings stayed open at night).  My dorm mates thought that I was up all night studying. They were worried about me burning out, but they ultimately accepted what they thought I was doing. One night I went to my bedroom to grab a blanket or something that revealed that I was actually sleeping in the club room, not just studying all night. Now people had a problem with it. I don’t remember exactly what they said, but the next thing I knew, someone barged into my room, kicked my roommates out, and stood in front of the door and said I couldn’t leave until I told her what was wrong. I didn’t know her as a friend.  I didn’t trust someone who would do that to me. But I was desperate to talk, so I spilled my guts. I said that I didn’t like college, I missed my parents, I wanted to go home, I didn’t want to be social or be “on” all the time, or half the time, or even one quarter of the time, I don’t like to be busy and if I’m forced to increase my activity level x10, then I will only have 1/10 of my energy and I had basically used my semester’s worth of energy in the first two weeks, every waking hour at Colby was a sensory overload with no escape, and ultimately, I’m just not willing to live someplace where I can’t act like I’m at home. I said these things exactly as I’m saying them now. I didn’t use any metaphors. I wasn’t cryptic. But she stared at me as if I was speaking a foreign language. She literally had never heard anything like this before. She repeated things back to me with a question mark, like I needed a further explanation. She told me that there must be something else because I couldn't possibly be this upset over the things I had just named. This was what normally happened when I told people about my real issues, which was why I mostly just complained about schoolwork. Ironically, this student often stayed overnight in a clubroom as well, but she said that was okay because she was just up late studying and it didn't make sense to walk back to the dorm; she wasn't planning to sleep there like I was. 

When she let me out of my room, a bunch of my dorm mates were right in the hall, knowing that she had locked me in, and no one seemed to think it was a problem. I don’t blame people for not intervening, but it would have been nice if someone had just said, “That was really bad for her to lock you in your room.” I could get that reaction out of people who weren’t there, but that was because I twisted the story to make myself sound a lot calmer, like she overreacted out of nowhere. Everyone who lived in my dorm, who saw how not-okay I was in my living situation, agreed that what she did was for my own good.  Funny how I didn’t feel good afterwards.

The next day, people were telling me that I didn’t like my roommates. I had never said that. I told them that I liked my roommates as people but I wanted my own room. They didn’t understand this distinction and insisted that they knew how I really felt. One of these people had recently talked to me about college stress and told me to do what was right for me, which was exactly what I had done by moving into the clubroom. Things were different between all of us after this incident. No one believed me when I said it wasn’t personal, which was exactly the fear that had kept me from trying to change dorms. Every single friend I had was connected to my dorm somehow – if I wanted to have any friends in college, I couldn’t move out.

- I don’t like to be really busy. I did a lot of activities in high school, but high school is much easier than college; I could do several clubs and still have plenty of free time to myself. Theatre was my priority; I didn’t even consider it an extra-curricular activity in high school because it was my central focus – more important to me than school. But everything else I did in high school was extra, contingent upon how much free time I had. I was doing theatre in college no matter what, but since college was more work than high school, my plan was to ONLY be in plays my first semester, and then see if I wanted to fit any other clubs into my schedule.

But I was never allowed to live that way. My RA and his friends just expected everyone in our mostly-freshmen dorm to join all their clubs and go to their events. If I said I didn’t want to, they would pressure me. I could get out of individual events by saying I had too much homework, but with clubs, I never felt like I had a choice.  At the start of every year, there’s an activities fair where you can sign up for clubs. I thought I could go around and sign up for what I wanted to, but every single person stopped me and insisted that I had to join their club, and I had to argue my way out of it. Someone actually blocked my path with a traffic cone and said I couldn’t pass until I signed up for the group. Later on, these same people would complain that they mailing lists of 100+ people and only 10 people who actually participated. They saw this as a problem with the other students. They never reconsidered their tactics for getting those other 90 people to sign up. I had another sophomore friend who expected that I would join all her clubs and go to every event that she supported, just like my RA.  After I gave her my cell phone number for personal use, she informed me that she had added my number to an on-call list for a club I hadn’t even joined, and that I’d be expected to show up if she called. She didn’t even ask.

Even with everyone around me doing a million things, I heard constant complaints that not enough people were involved on campus. Students criticized people for doing lots of stuff in high school and not doing it anymore. I made a vow to keep everything I had done in high school a secret because I didn’t want to be pressured to get more involved at Colby.

- One night I was in the clubroom where I often slept, writing in my journal, when a friend came in. She asked if I was doing homework, and when I said no, she told me that someone else was having an event for a different club (not related to the clubroom I was using) and we had to go because no one else was there.  I told her that I didn’t want to go, but she grabbed me by the hand and told me that I had to come. I sat in the other room while someone read a bunch of stuff out loud and told me how I felt about it. I wasn’t listening. I was focused on not screaming. Finally my friend said that I could leave if I had homework to do, so I did. I grabbed my journal and everything else I had ever left in that clubroom and ran across the campus to the highest floor of an academic building where I didn’t think anyone would find me.

I’ve dealt with people like this before – I had a “friend” in middle school who was constantly pressuring me to cut my hair and wear makeup and shave my legs no matter how many times I said no.  But you know what was great about her?  She didn’t live with me! When the school day ended, I was done with her! Most people have more freedom in college because they’re not living at home with their parents, but I had less freedom in college than I had in elementary school.  At home I couldn’t get dragged out of my room in the middle of the night.  At home I could do pretty much everything I wanted to do.  At college, there was no safe place.

- Most of my home friends went to local colleges where they could go home when they wanted and were never really stuck on campus. Some of them hated this and wished they could have gone to a school like mine, which I understand. When I explained what was going on, they told me that it was good because it forced me to interact and go to things. I kept repeating that I didn’t want to be forced, but some people just couldn’t accept that.  And when I talked about not being able to act like I’m at home, I was told that it was okay to not act like exactly like I would at home, even though I kept repeating that I was not okay with it. We argued about this until the subject sort of died off.  

When I went zip-lining on a 7th grade field trip, I was absolutely terrified, but I knew I wanted to try it, just to have that experience. College wasn’t like that for me – I didn’t want to “experience” being away at school and living in a dorm; I just thought it would be fun like everyone had said. I was not willing to do this if it wasn’t going to be enjoyable. But even at home, people didn’t  accept that my situation was not okay for me.

- When you’re in the introductory phases of a friendship, you learn what the other person likes and what their boundaries are. The people who pressured me the most had sort of skipped that stage and acted like we were already friends, and it was hard to walk away from that. Some people also have a parental instinct and try to take care of their friends.  Normally when someone started pushing me, I’d make it clear that I didn’t want to be pressured. But at Colby, I never stood my ground with the older students. Since I missed my parents so much, I liked that my sophomore friends took care of me. When they acted like my parents, I embraced it rather than telling them that I could make my own decisions. I just didn’t want to lose that feeling of being cared for.  

- I talked to a counselor on campus a couple of times and she told me that everything I felt was normal and that she wasn’t worried about me.  I know she meant this as a good thing, and it was nice to know that I wasn’t alone, but that fact that these feelings were common didn’t make it okay with me. I didn’t go to the counselor for a psychological assessment. I didn’t think anyone should be “worried” about me. But I was miserable and I felt like it was being written off, like this is just part of the college experience. “Normal” is not synonymous with “okay.”  Being told that this was normal made me feel less like I had a chance of feeling okay again.

- We had an orientation camping trip called COOT (Colby Outdoor Orientation Trip) that was absolutely miserable for me.  I knew that camping probably wasn’t my thing, but everyone said it was fun and I figured there was no harm in trying it. If I didn’t like the trip, it was only two and a half days. No big deal, right? Wrong. As soon as we got back, we had all these required meals and events with our COOT groups. People have this idea that if you’re stuck out in the woods with people, you’ll be forced to make friends with them. But I don’t like being stuck with people; I didn’t like my COOT group because they were forced on me when I was already not liking the trip. I was literally counting the hours until I’d have control over my own life and who I hung out with. With all the required COOT meals and events, I didn’t know when I’d regain that control.

It really wasn’t my COOT trip that bothered me – that was only three days long. The problem was that every single person seemed to feel the same way about it. When we got back to campus, the entire school was in a tizzy about how awesome COOT was. When I mentioned what I didn’t like and that it was different from the description on the school website, everyone kept saying, “But you had fun.” Not a question – a statement. This hype about COOT went on for a very long time. I’d never seen such school-wide agreement before. In high school, there was enthusiasm about stuff like pep rallies and prom, but there were also plenty of people who thought these events were dumb. The fact that no one could fathom someone not liking their COOT trip really scared me. And I was right to be scared. This happened a lot because there wasn’t much out-in-the-open diversity in terms of what people liked. I thought it was normal to have different opinions, but in terms of social approval, saying that you hate Colby College (or a number of things at Colby) is like saying that you like to torture kittens.

When anyone asked me how I liked Colby, I said, “I love it” as instinctively as I would say, “I’m good, how are you?”  I began to internalize what everyone else said. I’d say things like:
- I hated everything about COOT, but I still had fun.
- I can’t get quiet or privacy in my dorm, but I still think it’s the greatest dorm on campus.
- I have all these issues with Colby that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t go here, but I know Colby is the best and I still want to stay.

I honestly did not feel any of these things. But I wasn’t consciously lying either. It was like I accepted the majority opinion as correct. If everyone thought my dorm was the greatest, then it must be that way. Living there must be a good thing, even if somewhere inside I knew that it wasn’t a good thing for me. I lied to myself. I convinced myself that my feelings couldn’t possibly be so far from Colby’s standards of good and bad.  Otherwise, why did I apply early decision? How did I get accepted? That’s why I didn’t try to get out of my situation. That’s why I only talked about schoolwork when someone asked what was wrong. I put all my energy into convincing myself that it was fine.

- One day I overslept and missed three of my classes. I came back to my dorm really stressed out and I told a few people what had happened.  My RA said that I should go to lunch with two students who were heading to the dining hall. I said that I didn’t want to – I just wanted to be alone. My RA said that I needed to eat and that I had to go with them, so I did. That evening, one of the students I had eaten lunch with saw me in the common room and asked how I was doing. I told him that I was stressed out because I had missed my classes.  He said, “But didn’t that happen this morning?”
Me: “Yeah?”
Student (in all seriousness): “So aren’t you over it by now?”

This is the most overt example I have, but variations of “Aren’t you over it?” and “What’s the big deal?” were pretty common at Colby. Before college, it was okay to be upset for a long time about something.  At Colby, I never had a chance to even process half the stuff I was feeling. The environment was so fast-paced, I felt like I was always being pushed forward to the next big event or the next topic of conversation – I never had a chance to just think about one thing.  I like to just enjoy one thing at a time, but the Colby culture was to try to do everything that you could. Even when it came to making friends, the general goal was to just meet as many people as possible, rather than trying to build relationships with the people you’ve already met. It was more of an accomplishment to know the names of lots of people than to have one true friend. Colby is known for having a hook-up culture, but one-night stands aren’t just about having sex; most of the deep, meaningful conversations I had freshman year were also one-time things. One day I’d be there for someone when they needed it, and the next day that person would act like we were just acquaintances again, like what happened yesterday was a year ago. Our conversations never went on long before we had to change the subject. People really thought it was weird if I still cared about something that had happened yesterday, or a week ago – a week was like a month because every day was just so jam-packed with stuff. “Aren’t you over it now?” is really representative of the whole experience.

- I was at a mandatory COOT reunion party (Yes, it was actually mandatory. When I said I wasn’t going, my COOT leader said everyone had to be there, no excuses), where I chugged a lot of Mountain Dew as part of a drinking game. Mountain Dew is loaded with caffeine, and I had no built-up tolerance. When I left the party, I felt so “on.” Like the way I used to feel back when I could have all the alone time I wanted and just go out for the night. I had the energy to go to a speed-dating event and then play games at my dorm party afterwards. I felt like me again. I made a conscious choice to consume caffeine regularly from then on.

This plan didn’t work as well as I’d hoped. I couldn’t sleep well. I felt jittery. I sometimes felt like I was going to collapse. I developed a tolerance, so that I needed 3 full bottles of Vault energy drink to stay up all night, when 1/3 of one bottle used to do the trick. People told me I should stop drinking caffeine because of the negative effect it was having on me. They told me it was unhealthy and not a good way to study.  I knew all of this, but I didn’t care because I wasn’t any better off without it. I explained that college sapped out all my energy and I needed the caffeine to feel like my normal self again, but no one acknowledged that that even mattered.  I wasn’t addicted to the caffeine itself – I was addicted to feeling like me.

- Even in the earliest days of orientation, I could sense that something wasn’t right. I’ve done plenty of ice-breakers where you go around and name your favorite song or ice cream flavor. I’ve always named mine without question, even if I knew people would make fun of my answer.
But at Colby, instead of thinking, “What is my favorite ice cream flavor?” I would think, “Which flavor should I pick? Which one isn’t too boring or too weird, but right in the middle? Which one sounds age-appropriate/sophisticated enough for a college student?” No one said anything, but I picked up on a vibe that this wasn’t the free-for-all environment I assumed college would be.

As the year went on, I pretended to understand what people were talking about when I didn’t.  Prior to college, I would have just asked them to explain. When my home friends said things like, “This person is so stupid – they don’t even know what a microfridge is!” my response was, “What’s a microfridge?” Without hesitation. Not only was I wondering, but my response usually stopped them from putting people down.  I couldn’t do that at Colby. Colby students were really judgmental about people not knowing things. I was once asked to judge a game where people pretended to be a certain vegetable. Another student told me to pick the vegetable, but nothing I suggested was interesting enough, so he picked rhubarb. In high school, I would have just said, “Okay, but then you have to judge because I don’t know what rhubarb looks like.” But it was Colby, so I took a wild guess.

Back home, people sometimes bugged me about why I didn’t know the latest song or watch the most popular TV show or have my driver’s license yet. But at Colby, there was a whole new set of standards.  When my dorm mates were comparing passport photos, I claimed I didn’t have mine “with me,” even though I was in the majority of the US population when I didn’t have one.  I’m not saying it’s more acceptable to pressure someone to get a license than to get a passport – I’m saying that in addition to all the regular societal standards, Colby comes with a second set of standards that I didn’t have to deal with in the real world.  And since I didn’t drink, I was automatically part of the chem-free subculture that has yet another subset of social standards, such as being more academically oriented and having more alternative/sophisticated tastes.  Now I had three groups of standards, and there’s way more pressure to uphold standards that apply to a smaller ingroup, rather than your entire country.  And everyone said there’d be less social pressure in college!

Every group at Colby had its subset of standards – even groups that advertised themselves as all-inclusive. I don’t like to wear makeup, but I would feel just as uncomfortable in a group with a social stigma against wearing makeup as I would in a group with pressure to wear it. If I would no longer be welcome at someone’s table if I voted for a different political candidate than everyone else – or even if I didn’t vote at all – then I don’t feel welcome at their table, even if I am voting the same as everyone. I never fit into a common-interest clique in high school because groups like that have standards. I need to feel free to make my own choices, and not have my social acceptance be contingent upon those choices. My high school “clique” was basically everyone who didn’t fit into any other clique. Colby never had a group like that.

- A lot of the academic pressures at Colby actually came from my classmates. Colby advertises itself as a “work hard, play harder” type of environment, where almost everyone is deeply involved in stuff besides their schoolwork and people place a high priority on having fun. Theoretically, this was exactly what I was looking for.  There were just two problems:

1. My passion was theatre, and it was way more competitive to get into shows at Colby than it was in high school. I only got into one regular play my entire time at Colby. In my college essay, I talked about the deep connection I had with Tracy Turnblad from Hairspray because she is so enthusiastic and passionate, but now I wasn’t sure that I was those things. There is a big difference between being enthusiastic about something, and just being enthusiastic. A lot of Colby students are just enthusiastic people who like to be involved – if they can’t do one thing, they’ll go find something else to be enthusiastic about. I’m not like that.  I have strong interests, but I have never had a general desire to just “get involved.” I am happy having a lot of free time, and there are very few organized activities that I'd rather be doing. If I’m really psyched out of my mind about being in a play, I’m also going to be extremely upset if I don’t get into the play. Those feelings go together, like flip sides of a coin. The only way I’d feel less upset about not being in a show is if I were less passionate about being in the show in the first place. At Colby, anyone who was that passionate about something was good enough to get in, and anyone who wasn’t good enough to get in was perfectly content doing something else instead. I have never once heard another student be seriously upset about not getting into an activity.

2. The focus on fun isn’t what it seems; there’s a lot of pressure among students to be constantly studying and putting school first. I used to think that “study break” meant that you took a 10 minute break to get a snack or something. But at Colby, these “study breaks” involved hanging out with friends, playing games, going to fun events, basically doing anything that wasn’t studying. This may seem semantic, but there was a deeper implication about studying being everyone’s only focus, and that anything else was just to recuperate. People even talked about school vacations as a time to rest and recuperate for school. It's like when everyone thought it was okay for me to stay in that clubroom all night to study, but not just to be alone. I've gone my whole life with adults telling me what my priorities were, but I never imagined that my peers would do the same thing. I don’t take “study breaks” – I do things other than studying. I’m not going out with my friends because I “earned it” by doing x amount of schoolwork – I’m going out with my friends because I want to. School vacations are not a time to rest and relax – they’re a time for doing what actually matters to me. I want to feel good just for the sake of feeling good, not because it makes me function better. I find it offensive when I’ve worked really hard on something, something that means more to me than school ever will, and then it gets advertised as a way of helping other people procrastinate: “Take a study break and come see our dance show!” I started to talk like that because that was just how you said things. I even labeled deeply emotional Facebook notes, including some that were close to suicidal, as “Five Minute Study Break,” because I needed excuse for not studying for those five minutes. To this day, the word “study break” makes me cringe.

- One time a sophomore friend started complaining about how the freshmen don’t want to participate in class and think they’re at summer camp and aren’t willing to step up. I have always hated participating in class, and there was a lot of pressure to do that at Colby. Most people assume that the 10% of your grade for participation is a given, when I assume that my final grade will be 10 points lower. Another friend agreed and said that it’s not that hard to get into Colby and that the school should be more selective because he had met a lot of really stupid people who shouldn’t have gotten in. He said that you “only” needed a certain score on your SATs, which was higher than what I had gotten.  I had applied to Colby as a reach school. I had recently gotten that warning notice about academic probation. Whenever I complimented my classmates for getting As on tests that I got Ds on, they looked at me like I had congratulated them for tying their shoelaces. When I evaluated my professors at the end of the semester, I lied and said that they were perfectly clear and the pace of each class was just right, when I didn’t understand a thing and thought they were going way too fast.  I never asked anyone to clarify anything because Colby students often criticized others for how little they knew or for asking “stupid” questions. This was the same person I had lied to about the rhubarb, and now I knew my instinct was right. I felt stupid. I felt worthless. I felt like no one wanted me there.

I didn’t talk about incidents like this. The people who said things like this were really smart, interesting, and popular, and my word held nothing against theirs.  Like the other Colby standards, I thought, this person really hurt my feelings or did something to me that I’m not okay with, but it must be okay because everyone else loves them so much.

- As much as I wanted to go home, there were times when I felt like I couldn’t. I couldn’t let anyone see what had happened to me.  Everyone assumed that a “top student” like me would thrive in college. This was my online journal entry the day that I got my letter about potential academic probation:

Slowly Dying
I’m gonna die really soon…not that I mean to or want to, but you start to die after losing 72 hours of sleep (not quite there, but I will be). Plus I stopped eating normally. I guess it’s only a matter of time now, unless of course I’m already dead…I hadn’t thought of that but it kinda makes sense.

I’ve cut myself off – from family, friends, HS teachers, my parents, everyone at home. I’ve broken down, but no one back home will ever know – I would never let them know. I’ve completely cut myself off. I don’t want the pressure and the expectations that come with these kinds of connections. They’re suffocating me and I’m drowning in them. I can’t see beyond them anymore – I’m in a ten foot hole and it’s starting to cave in. My friends here have tried to pull me out, but their way often involves worse consequences than being buried. My roommates think I’m killing myself. My RA is worried I’ll have a nervous breakdown. I can’t go back to my dorm because people start asking things that I just can’t answer right now. I have a counselor appointment on Wednesday that I should have made earlier, but I was afraid of the outcome…I was scared I wouldn’t be able to go home.

No Stopping It (next day)
It’s official – the letter’s been sent…they’ll know soon and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I’ve got 31 hours to figure it all out, because I have to say something before it reaches them. I can’t think straight or stop hyperventilating long enough to function. My RA was right…I can feel the panic attack coming on.

Response from my close friend (from home)
Nicole, you know you have a support system here, complete with friends, teachers, and family.  You may feel that you’ve distanced yourself from us, but no matter how much trouble you’re in or how much you think we’ve become distant, we are here for you, I’m here for you! Please give me a call to talk or even cry, Nicole I love you and I would spend an eternity listening to you if that would make you feel even the slightest bit better. So please call me! Even if you just want to talk about why air fresheners never seem to work, I think that just being able to express yourself will help. I’m here for you, always!

It’s hard to express just how safe, how secure, how loved I felt when my friend sent me this response. Even what she said about air fresheners resonated with me – she could tell that I had gone a long time without communicating openly with anyone and just needed to talk. I did call her and we talked for hours, not just this one time, but throughout the year. I told her how I stupid I felt and she assured me that I didn’t sound stupid at all. It was hard to let her see me in such a vulnerable position when I had had it all together in high school, but that didn’t matter anymore. Friends didn’t have standards like that.  We were safe with each other, and always would be.

- (TW: suicidal thoughts) I had a long talk with my mom about the academic probation note and came up with a plan to bring up my grades. Toward the end, my mom said that she wanted to make sure that I was alright and jokingly said that she didn’t want to get a call from the school saying that I had drowned myself in the campus pond. I froze. Suicide had actually crossed my mind a couple of times that year – when I failed my first exams and when I got the probation warning notice. Only for a fleeting moment, but still. I didn’t used to think about killing myself and it scared me how easily the thought entered my mind now. On the phone, I laughed nervously and reminded my mom that you can’t swim in the campus pond and there’s a $1,000 fine for anyone who does.  My mom laughed and said, “If you drown in the pond and they send us a bill, I swear…” I don’t remember the rest of what she said, because we were just joking at that point. It was dark by the time I got off the phone. I stood in the central quad and stared up at brick buildings, thinking about the campus pond, about how the counselor had told me what was feeling was normal.
If you drown and they send us a bill…
No, I told myself, They couldn’t. That’s ridiculous. This is the awesomest place on earth.

- I wanted to transfer to the state college in my hometown, but I only had a 2.3 GPA.  I also felt like somehow I’d be failing. My home college is a perfectly fine school, but we all had a sense that it didn’t really “count” as going to college because it was ten minutes down the street. I was one of the only students in my high school class who got into a really prestigious college, my family was proud of me, and I just didn’t feel like I could leave. I might have felt differently if I’d gotten good grades that first semester, but leaving after almost flunking out just felt like I’d be failing.

I asked my Colby sophomore friends for advice on transferring, since they wouldn’t have any biases against my home college. One of them asked how much homework I had that night because I might be saying it to get out of doing homework.  My other friend said that it would be a cop-out and she was angry and disappointed in me. Not sad because she would miss me – actually disappointed in me. I told her that I came to Colby because I honestly thought I would like it and that I wasn’t trying to prove that I could do it. She asked me what would happen to the future freshmen who needed my guidance, but I wasn’t willing to be a human sacrifice to make the school a better place. I hoped no one like me would ever come to Colby again.

- Lots of things were made worse by invalidation. Finals were hard. No one seemed to hate them as much as I did.  If I said I couldn’t do something this weekend because I had a test next Wednesday, the other person would say they had 3 tests on Monday and were still going.  Other people were stressed out, but they were ultimately okay with it in a way that I never was.  

People often complained about other people complaining. One friend complained to me that her other friend was complaining about everything being awkward now that she was back from studying abroad. My friend was annoyed because, “There are bigger things.” I personally would be very upset if I had trouble fitting back in after studying abroad, and I would hope that I could talk to my friends about it. All the complaining about complaining made me feel like I would never have real friends at Colby.

Then there was room draw, our campus housing lottery. The system was so fucked up that it’s not worth describing, but basically everyone had a lottery number, and if you got a bad number, your only chance to get an acceptable living situation was to find someone with a higher number to be your roommate.  When I saw my number, I felt like I had fallen into a ten-foot hole. I had no way out of my situation. No one was sympathetic. I had to sit through countless conversations about how people didn’t understand why everyone got so riled up about room draw.  They would say things like, “What’s the big deal? You’re just sleeping there!” as if I wanted to spend lots of time out of my room. I wanted to ask them, “Where are all these people who are riled up about room draw? Because I’m always surrounded by people like you!” And people would ask me, “Why don’t you get a single?” as if I could just get whatever room I wanted.  No one understood how powerless you were when you had a bad number.

I did find a friend who would room with me. We sat down and discussed compatibility issues to make sure that we wouldn’t mind being roommates. We just barely got a double room – we were literally one number away from having to room with some third person we didn’t know.

One year I considered being an RA just to get a single, but it was past the deadline when I thought of it.  When people ask ethical questions, like if you’d cheat if you wouldn’t get caught, or do something bad to get a lot of money, I always used to answer no. But that was before room draw. Each year, when I saw my lottery number at the bottom of the list, I would have done almost anything for a single. I had literally never wanted anything more in my life.

-The year drew to a close, and I was so fed up with everything – I couldn’t even remember the last time I felt good.  I talked about wanting to get drunk and hook up with a random stranger, since that’s what seemed to make everyone else happy. At one point I suggested the possibility of using un-prescribed painkillers in order to feel high again, since nothing natural seemed to work anymore. I am a hedonist at heart – a pleasure-seeker, and I couldn’t find pleasure in anything anymore. I got a lot of disapproval for this desire. I know my chem-free dorm friends were just concerned about me – they knew I didn’t really want to do it, that I was just angry and would regret it if I actually did.  But their concern came in the form of disapproval, which just made me want to do it even more. One night, when I was sitting outside in the dark because I was upset, the person who had locked me in my room insisted that I needed to go to the health center. I didn’t feel comfortable with that. Going to the health center after regular hours is normally just for emergencies and my thoughts were so incoherent by this point that I wasn’t sure what I’d even say. I said I wouldn’t go, but she said that I had to come with her or else she would call security and tell them that I was trying to sleep outside.

While it wasn’t okay for her to force me, I have to give her credit for fighting for me. When she told the nurse how I was feeling and that I had tried to sleep outside, the nurse immediately said that was very common and a lot of people were feeling stressed out at that time of year (it was the last month of school, close to finals). My friend said that this was going on before finals. The nurse repeated that stress was normal and nothing to worry about, and my friend kept repeating that I had been feeling this way long before we were anywhere near final exams (even if it was a result of finals, that would not have made my situation okay).

In the first week of school, everyone encouraged us to go to counseling if we needed to, but they never said just how hard you have to fight for someone to accept that what you’re going through is a problem. The nurse eventually agreed to let me sleep overnight in the health center and I got an appointment with a counselor for the following afternoon. There was no reason for me to sleep there if I had no one to talk to, but my friend insisted on it. My dorm mates were going to wonder why I had slept in the health center. My thoughts were so jumbled that I couldn’t even explain what was wrong. I had no idea what I would tell anyone. I cried through most of the night and didn’t fall asleep until the sun had risen.

I had a hard time talking to the counselor. The most immediate thing on my mind was an argument about wanting to get drunk and hook up. When I said that I didn’t go through with it, the counselor asked, “Do you think you just weren’t attracted to that particular guy?” That’s when I realized how cryptic I was being, how deeply I had buried what was really bothering me. How was the counselor supposed to know that I had no real desire to hook up, that this issue was just a result of the problem? I had so much to say but my thoughts weren’t organized. No one could have figured out what was wrong in 50 minutes. I needed to talk nonstop for hours, maybe days before I would have gotten to the root of the problem.

When a couple of people asked me why I had slept at the health center, I told them that I had been really stressed out, and they said were stressed about finals also. At the time, I thought I picked up a vibe of, Yeah, but we don’t have to go to the health center over it, but looking back now, they may have been trying to empathize with me. It’s hard to say. I was too far gone at that point to tell.

Sophomore Year (2007-2008)  

- Summer vacations were never the same in college. Summer used to be everyone’s favorite time of year. We were together in our quest to squeeze a year’s worth of fun into 10 weeks. We knew it was better to get sick during the school year. “Back to school” sales were just depressing. But at Colby, everyone referred to school breaks as a time to rest and recuperate so that they could function better when they returned to Colby. All my friends at home were ready to go back to college before the summer was even halfway through. We used to bond over our love of summer, but now I was alone in my quest to cram all that fun into three months. It never felt the same.

- Sophomore year was less bad than my first year – I roomed with a close friend, and my room was no longer the dorm lounge. My friend and I had met towards the end of freshman year, and something just clicked between us. She didn’t give off that perfectly-well-adjusted vibe that most students did. She was never caught up in that hype about my dorm being so awesome, and I could actually tell her what was going on. We had in-depth conversations freshman year. We talked about what it felt like to be attracted to someone’s soul. She asked if I thought the roots of trees could feel the earth spinning. We understood a lot of the same things. We were kindred spirits, and it felt like we had been waiting to meet.

We both loved hugs. Most people give hugs to say hello and goodbye, or if someone is crying, but she and I hugged all the time. She gave me “hug attacks” at random. If I was happy or upset about something, she would automatically give me a hug, and I could do the same with her because I knew she liked it. I never had that relationship with anyone outside my family, and it felt really good. I never realized how much I was missing physical contact at college, but now we always had each other for that.

The other thing we had in common was all of our personal projects. It was rare to find someone at Colby who was engaged in something unrelated to school, but my friend and I always had lots of personal goals and projects that we were working on. We always had something interesting to talk about. We talked about our favorite books and story ideas. When we auditioned for plays together, we’d prepare ahead of time and give each other advice. If we saw a show together, we’d spend hours talking about it afterwards.  And we’d talk about anything cool that we learned or observed about the world, or any ideas we had. I’d never discussed so many ideas with a friend before; I’d never had a friend like her.

We talked about our lives at home and shared a lot of secrets. No topic was off-limits or too uncomfortable to discuss. When we talked, time stood still. All the busy schedules and rushing around just didn’t matter anymore. But most importantly, we validated each other’s feelings. I took any issue she had seriously, and she did the same for me. We remembered whatever was going on in each other’s lives and asked about it. We were there for each other through everything.

- If I could have eaten meals with my best friend every day, I would have. But our schedules didn’t work out that way, and I figured I should try to make other friends as well. I often ate with my freshman-year dorm mates, but they had broken off and mixed with other people.  I also sat with a new group of friends that I had met through a classmate. My former dorm mates were really nice, but I am NOT a nice person in forced social contact, and I felt like I had blown my chances with them. Since this new group hadn’t seen what I was like freshman year, I figured we had a shot at being friends.

Our conversations were very formal, with the same structure every day: you asked someone how they were doing, they’d say busy, you asked if they had a lot of work to do, and they’d say yes and mention an assignment in that kind-of-annoyed-but-it’s-really-okay tone, then you’d nod and say what you had for homework, then the next person would take a turn. I felt like we were back at freshman orientation, saying our favorite jelly bean flavors to break the ice. They felt awkward when I brought up any subject other than schoolwork or campus events.  

When we got into deeper conversations about school, it wasn’t usually to my benefit.  If I got too specific about schoolwork, they would correct me and say, “Oh, that’s not that much work,” or, “No, that class/test was easy!” even if I had just said that the class was hard or the work was too much. One time I said I was excited that we only had to know some of the class material for the final. Their response was, “But you really should go over everything.”  I told them how many pages of reading it was and I couldn’t physically review all of it again before the test.  They corrected me again and said, “Oh, that’s not that much.” I corrected them again and said it was too much, and they said, “Why?” as if I needed some kind of explanation. I don’t have an explanation. That’s just how long it takes. The same way it takes four hours to get to Colby. All I wanted to do was share how happy I was that I had less studying to do.  I wouldn’t have even brought it up if they didn’t talk so much about school.

-Everyone got uncomfortable when I contradicted anything.  When someone is criticizing people who do Thing A, I will normally say, “I do Thing A,” or “My friend does Thing A.”  Normally, people stop criticizing and either backtrack or change the subject. My responses never worked at Colby. People would ignore me and keep going on about it, even when I keep telling them “I do Thing A all the time and it’s my own business, and there’s nothing wrong with it.” And Thing A wasn’t like punching someone; it was usually something like wearing tight spandex, eating a lot of candy, not talking in class, sharing a lot on Facebook, and other things that are personal choices.

I felt like I had to tiptoe around them. It was hard because I wasn’t happy most of the time –I still hated being away from home, having to share my room, not getting to be in plays, and not belonging at Colby. No one else ever showed signs of being upset about anything unless it was a political issue. It was always awkward when I expressed personal angst around them. And to top it off, they actually discussed how well-adjusted they all were. Most of us were turning 20 this year, and some people jokingly said that we couldn’t blame stuff on teen angst anymore. Then everyone said that they never had teen angst in the first place and didn’t understand it at all. They had these same responses for other things, like being the middle child but not having middle child syndrome. Basically, anytime there was a situation that a lot of people have a hard time with, my Colby classmates hadn’t had a hard time and didn’t understand why other people did. I told them that you don’t have to be a teenager to experience angst, and that if you wanted to, you could attribute stuff to college angst. Everyone gave me a weird stare and told me that college angst wasn’t a real thing.

- My mom suggested that I work out at the gym and go swimming in the pool so that I could get endorphin and burn off steam.  I had never been to a gym before, but I saw my Mom’s point – I did miss the activities I did at home and being able to jump around while I was thinking about cool ideas.  The lack of physical activity was taking a toll on my creative ability. I’d give the gym a try.

When I entered the gym, I felt like I had walked into an advanced calculus class without having taken pre-cal. I like to swim casually, but everyone at Colby swam fast laps as a workout. I felt really weird just gliding along like I was at the beach. In the gym, I felt really self-conscious because I wasn’t serious or athletic like everyone else. I couldn’t daydream in the gym because there was music playing and a lot of noise, and daydreaming was my only reason for wanting to exercise in the first place. In the gym, was hyper-aware of not belonging at Colby, and my mind would ruminate about that as soon as I got on the equipment.

There was no harm in my trying the gym.  The problem was that I continued going back knowing that it made me feel bad. When I talked about these feelings with other people, they told me that going to the gym was a good thing, that I “should” be able to daydream with the music playing, and the endorphin would make me feel better.  Maybe, but the endorphin would not counter-act everything that entered my mind as a result of going to the gym. My friends pushed their own priorities on me, ignoring me when I told them that I had no interest in workout goals, that this was just for fun, that I didn’t want any pressure to go regularly, and that I absolutely, positively did NOT want a gym buddy.  I explained that anyone who “motivated” me to work out when I didn’t want to would not stay my friend very long, and people still tried to be gym buddies for their own motivation.  

I considered practicing running and swimming over the summer, and learning how to run on a treadmill without falling off.  Anyone would think that these were good, healthy goals, but they are some of the worst goals I’ve set. Why? Because I didn’t care about getting better at any of these things. I don’t believe that anything worth doing is worth doing well. I don’t care about succeeding at everything I do. I have a couple things I care deeply about, but everything else is just for fun. All I wanted to do was feel comfortable, and I was so uncomfortable with the gym environment that I felt like I had to work on things I didn’t care about, when I had a million other things I’d rather be doing.

One time a close friend and I were going to the campus pool and she asked me if I could swim. I automatically answered “No.” Then I said, “Well, I mean not by Colby standards…” and I explained that I didn’t put my face in the water and that I swim at a leisurely pace. My friend really just wanted to know if I could swim and whether or not we could go to the deep end of the pool. She was being considerate, but I instinctively answered her based on Colby standards rather than my own. I should write a story about someone who drowns because of a miscommunication about how well they needed to be able to swim.

When we talked about our COOT trips and I explained how different my trip was from the description on the website, the general consensus was that I should have known: I should have known that you really needed some canoeing experience even though the description said no experience was necessary. I should have known that you had to be really strong even though my trip was rated “easy” for fitness. But on the COOT application, when I rated myself as “average” on the fitness scale, I was comparing myself to my friends at home; I didn’t realize that “average” at Colby meant something entirely different. I didn’t understand that Colby’s version of a “beginner” trip would not be for beginners in the real world.

You can be short in a room of tall people or tall in a room of short people, but the actual measurement of your height stays the same. Your height is an absolute value. I liked to think that everyone had an absolute value – something that stays the same no matter where you go, who you’re surrounded by, or how many people have more of that quality than you. But it was hard to feel that way at Colby. I mean, Colby forces you to see your class rank with your grades whether you want to be aware of it or not. In psychology class, we discussed factors that affect how people rate themselves on personality tests, and I know that the environment I’m in plays a major role. I didn’t have positive qualities at Colby.  That would be like walking into a room of professional figure skaters and saying that you’re special because you taught yourself how to spin. Sometimes when I got on the elliptical machine at the gym, I would imagine pushing myself until I collapsed, then getting up and doing it again and collapsing again until I couldn’t get back up at all. And when I had to go to hospital and someone asked me why I did it, I would say that I was just trying to be a Colby student.  

 - One night I glanced around the dining hall at just how homogenous the student body was compared to my high school. “Do you ever miss emo kids?” I asked.  Of course everyone said no and gave me their usual “You’re weird!” stares, but I didn’t care. I was past the point of just being myself with people – I was turning emo.  I wasn’t into emo music, but I loved that outward expression of angst. It was hard to find in college. From then on, I started dressing more like a rebel. I wore black nail polish and safety-pin earrings, and I would purposely not brush my hair. I present myself the way I feel. I don’t want to look all perky and friendly unless I honestly feel that way inside.  I found a new role model in Dwaine from Little Miss Sunshine, who takes a vow of silence until he reaches his goal of being a pilot. I just loved the way he withdrew himself from everything and focused solely on what he cared about. He says, “Do what you love and fuck the rest,” which is my life motto, but I had always been afraid to advertise it on a “Yay everything!” campus.

In high school, I had a large group of acquaintance-friends and stayed in touch with a few very close friends, just like college. All my close friends are awesome, but in terms of the big groups of acquaintances, high school was a lot more accepting. To be fair, I never needed a lot of support from my peers in high school, so it’s hard to judge.  But when I was pissed off about something, it was okay to be pissed off.  Even if no one had much to say about it, they would let me be upset and didn’t think it was weird. When I was fed up with high school, I pretended to melt people into oatmeal. If you close one eye and hold two fingers up to your other eye, you can hold something in the distance and then crush it. When I mentioned this to my friends, two of them thought it was fun and used to do it with me. Whenever we saw each other, they’d do the motion and say “oatmeal!” like it was our inside joke. Sometimes when I was bored in class, I would stare at my teacher and try to send them some kind of curse to make them stop talking. My two oatmeal friends thought this was hilarious. Another time, I suggested that “cutting class” doesn’t have to mean skipping class – it could mean literally cutting the classroom in half so that everyone falls into the center of the earth and there is no more class. My friends loved this idea as well. While I loved my high school on the whole, there were plenty of times I got fed up with it, and when I did, I could express those feelings the way I wanted to and people actually liked it. I couldn’t freak people out if I wanted to because they had much “freakier” things to say than I did.  In high school, I just wasn’t weird.

- There was one friend who had always been part of my college social circle but whom I hadn’t spent time with one-on-one.  She always seemed nice. One night at dinner, I said to the group that I didn’t understand how people made friends online; I was looking for an internet support group for homesickness since there was no support on campus but couldn’t seem to find one. Everyone mumbled that they weren’t sure, but this friend looked really concerned and asked, “You’re homesick?” She wasn’t buying my framework about the internet forums. She lived a lot farther away than I did and had been away from home for a long time, but she didn’t judge based on comparative value. She really cared about how I felt.

Later that year, my roommate suggested that I choreograph my own dance for the dance club. I had never choreographed a dance before, but we talked about it and it seemed like something I could do, and I’d be immersed in something I loved again. When I presented my dance at the club meeting, no one signed up. I was in a mess trying to look for dancers on my own, but three of my friends volunteered to do it, including the friend who cared that I was homesick. That meant a lot to me. We started hanging out more after that. We would call or knock on each other’s doors to go to brunch together. I don’t remember exactly how we clicked, but we just both wanted to be friends, so we were.

- There was one person in my acquaintance group who complained a lot about so many people publishing memoirs. She would say, “You’re not that special,” and “Who gives a crap about your life?” and everyone would nod and agree. I always argued that everyone has the right to tell their story and that some of us want to feel special, but no one ever took my side.  When she got on this rant, everyone else agreed that they had nothing interesting to say and they couldn’t imagine writing a memoir. They would brag about how short their memoirs would be – one page, one paragraph, three sentences. I said that I could write 100 pages easily, and they looked at me like this was a bad thing. Like the fact that they couldn’t write a memoir made them better than me when I was the one who had the skill.

It wasn’t just about memoir-writing. Students used to brag all the time about not complaining as much as I did, saying things like, “Well, I’ve had issues here too but I don’t talk about them all the time,” as if not talking about issues is some sort of talent. Talking about your life is a personal choice, not something that’s morally right or wrong. I could have batted it right back to them and said, “Well, I have fewer issues than you and I’ve managed to write a 40,000 word essay about them. What’s your excuse?”

The memoir-hater had often expressed confusion when I mentioned how much I wrote in my journals and how much time I spent on the phone with my mom every day.  She would ask me in a tone that was like, “What is there to say that much about?” She mostly talked about issues that weren’t related to herself.  

I was in my first play at age 12, which was an amazing experience. After the play ended, I sat down to write a book about it. I only got to 30 pages, but still. Writing a memoir after a major life-changing event was practically instinctive for me. That’s how much these things matter to me. That’s who I am.  The anti-memoir thing really hurt me because I felt like I wasn’t allowed to feel special or to care about my personal life as much as I did, which is how I was already feeling at Colby.  

Room draw was just as miserable as the prior year, and I had to listen to even more discussions of how people didn’t see what the big deal was and how roommates usually worked out fine. They would cite instances in which random or unplanned roommates worked out, no matter how many times I told them that you can’t count on that because my freshman situation was not fine. When I said that I wasn’t willing to have a roommate anymore, everyone told me that I had done it before. Seriously! If you broke your arm once, would you willingly break it again because you had done it before? Fed up with both room draw and the memoir thing, I announced that I was going to drop out of school and sell my memoir about Colby. This plan would accomplish two goals at once: getting my true story published would make me feel special, and the money I’d earn would allow me to quit school and not have to live with a roommate. I told the memoir-hater that she had inspired me.  I carried my notebook around and wrote at the dinner table right in front of everyone.  Everyone was all concerned about my quitting school and asking me if I could figure something out regarding room draw, but I didn’t buy it. I had said all along how serious I was about living in a single, but no one believes you until you show them. Show, don’t tell: the writing advice that works just as well in real life.  

Junior Year (2008-2009)   

- When I was home for the summer, I always regretted “acting out” during the year and wished I had done more to make people like me. Now that it was the halfway point of college, I really wanted to fit in somewhere. I entered the year with a goal to try to stay on my best behavior and not say things that made people uncomfortable. I tried – really, really hard.  I tried to be polite and go along with things and not say anything that would make them uncomfortable. I could hold it together for a short while, but my real self always slipped out.

One time, someone mentioned another college where students have to wear black business suits to take their final exams. Everyone agreed that that would be very annoying since most of them stopped worrying about their appearance during finals. I had to wear a uniform to my pre-K-8 school for 10 years; I’m an expert on rebelling against things like dress codes without technically breaking the rules. I said that you could fight against the dress code by not showering, not brushing your hair, and just being a complete mess when you show up to finals, even with the business suit on. You would give the message that no one can force you to present yourself in a way that you don’t want to.  Everyone immediately argued that they would feel honored to participate in that school’s tradition and if you don’t like it you just shouldn’t go to that school. I didn’t get it! Just a minute ago, they were all saying how annoying dressing up would be. This happened all the time – people would complain and bond over something, but as soon as I expressed a stronger reaction, everyone would look at me like I was weird and say that it’s actually not that bad.  If this came up in high school, half the people at my lunch table would have said, “I just wouldn’t wear the business suit. What are they gonna do?” I would have been a goody two shoes for suggesting that people wear the business suit at all. I was so tired of having to suppress myself at Colby.

It became obvious that no one wanted me there.  When everyone was talking about hotel arrangements for a long weekend, I asked, “Where are you guys going?” I wasn’t hinting that I wanted to go with them – I always went home for school breaks. But no one answered me. I figured they didn’t hear me, but I asked again the next day and the table feel silent again. This went on for weeks, every time they discussed the trip. They must have been afraid I’d ask to join them. When they got back, I was tempted to ask, “So how was the mystery trip?” but I chickened out. Another time when I was in one of their dorms, someone went around offering pretzels to everyone and skipped over me in an obvious way. I should have given up on them at that point, but I was still so desperate to fit in.

Funny story: one time, someone left their keys on the dining hall table after they went back to their dorm.  Everyone said, “Well, I’m not returning her keys!” “I’m not walking all the way to her dorm!” They were so annoyed with her for forgetting her keys and making someone else have to do this small favor. I volunteered to bring back her keys; I didn’t see what the big deal was. So they were all real friends and I wasn’t welcome, but I was the only one willing to return their friend’s keys.

(TW: Self-harm) The harder I tried to fit in, the harder I came crashing down. I could be smiling politely one day and burning my skin with ice and salt right at the table the next day in order to test a self-harm method for a fictional story.  We disagreed on some major things: I was the only person who thought that our school needed to be handicapped accessible. Their general consensus was that it didn’t matter because no one who was handicapped was going to Colby anyway, even though no one can choose Colby in the first place if it’s not accessible. Another time I did a sit-in in response to some racist incidents on campus, and everyone was so annoyed about the sit-in and didn’t see what the big deal was.  They kept going on about how none of the racist incidents were actually offensive. I told them that if one person says that something is hurting them, then that is a problem. It’s not something that’s up for debate by people who aren’t even affected. But they kept going on about how this was no big deal and people take stuff too seriously even though everyone at the table was white and had probably never been the targets of racist jokes.

- (TW: Self-harm) This is a Facebook note I posted around my breaking point with the group:

Five Minute Break to Say What’s on my Mind
When you wash your hands you're scrubbing off the dead skin cells, but washing your hands is considered a good thing. So why is my choice to stop using hand lotion and let my hands get raw and white and scratch all the powder off by hand considered bad? It's a way of de-contaminating just like washing them with soap.

Anyway, I'm choosing not to take care of myself because I’m a lifeless zombie and I don’t want to be a hypocrite and pretend that I care or am in way okay with the fact that I am here. I like it when my hands crack open and bleed. I let the coldness dry them naturally until I can't feel anymore. I don’t want to feel anything anymore.

Yes, I'm morbid. Yes, I attend Colby College. And yes, those words can be combined in the same sentence. It feels good to finally be able to say stuff like this again. I used to suppress it because I was scared of being disowned, but I’ve realized that I don’t care anymore. I was disowned all along anyway. It's not worth my time and energy to pretend to be alive.

My hands have always gotten dry and even cracked open and bled during the winter. It happened more intensely at Colby because I spent a lot more time walking outside, especially late at night. I could wear gloves and hand lotion every day, but if I ran to class without my gloves just once, my hands would dry out. This would normally be a minor inconvenience, but with everything else going on, I started to like that burning sensation on my hands. I liked that the pain I was feeling inside showed on the outside. I liked that all I had to do to burn my skin was expose myself to the Colby atmosphere.

- Fiction writing class helped me see things more clearly. I wrote a story based on my freshman year at Colby. My classmates pointed out that my lead character hangs out with a group of friends, but she later mentions that these people aren’t her real friends and it’s not clear why.  For my revision, I started writing a conversation between the lead character and these “friends” to make it clearer why she didn’t fit in with them.  Then I stopped typing.  The story wasn’t just about what happened two years ago. It was now.  I was writing the conversation that I’d had the day before, the conversation that I would have again that night. The reality finally hit me.  I told my real friends about this realization, and they gave me lots of hugs and assured me that we were true friends. One of my real friends responded to the Facebook note about my hands with, “You know I love you no matter what.” I gradually slipped away from the people who treated me badly and stuck with my true friends.

- My close friends and I spent a lot more time together this year. In past years, I had so much forced social interaction that I didn’t want to get together outside of meals.  Now that I had an almost-single in a non-social dorm, I made much more of an effort to see my friends.  We would call each other to go to dinner. I would stop by their dorm just to hang out and talk. My new friend (the one who cared that I was homesick) and I got to know each other a lot this year. I helped her move in and we went to meals together and talked about everything. We could have regular conversations, not like the weird formal conversations in that other group. When we asked how the other was doing, we meant it sincerely and talked in depth about everything that was going on in our lives. We’d remember and ask about things. We both had strong emotional attachments, we both notice and cared about a lot of the same types of things, and we both made an active effort to see each other.

One night when the two of us were sitting with the group, a bunch of them started criticizing what another student was wearing. My friend and I both said that she could wear what she wanted.  While I used to feel lonely at moments like this, just having one friend who was on my side made me feel so much better. My friend got up to leave and I followed her. She told me she couldn’t believe the conversation, and I told her that that was normal. I told her about my realization in fiction writing class, and she assured me that we were friends.  

When I was upset because I thought no one had signed up for my dance, and my friend (sophomore roommate) volunteered to be in it. That night, we went out to the store to get supplies and stayed up late making button earrings and talking. I wore the earrings she made for me for the rest of that year, and I still wear them now.  Of the dances I’ve choreographed, this one was probably the most fun; my friend knew exactly what the dance meant, what every movement implied. Not that my other dancers didn’t know, but my friend and I would get really excited and would talk about it for a long time. Between the dance and fiction writing class, I had enough fun projects to actually feel happy some of the time. I was lucky. I may never have a million people wanting to join my dance, but I had friends who joined my dances so I’d get to do them, when they weren’t even in the dance club. I had friends who stayed up all night making button earrings just to make me feel better.

One time I drove a friend to the train station an hour away and had to drive back to campus by myself. I didn’t have much driving experience and had practically no highway experience; this was my first-ever highway drive without my parents. I didn’t have a GPS and was really nervous about getting lost even though my friend mapped it out for me. As I was heading back, a thought crossed my mind. What if I didn’t go back? What if I just drove past the Colby exit or got onto some other intersecting highway, where I’d never know where I was? I often wandered the woods near campus with the intention of getting lost. Who would even know that I was gone?

But I couldn’t play that game this time, because it wasn’t true. I had friends who would notice I was gone, friends I actually checked in with on regular basis. My friend and I had planned to meet for dinner that night, and I had told her that I was worried about the drive. She would know right away that something was wrong if I didn’t meet her when I said I would. She cared about me. That was reason enough to come back.

 - One night I was sitting by myself at dinner, when someone I vaguely knew was racing around the dining hall trying to find a place to sit. I caught her eye so she could sit with me, and she came over and immediately started telling me about a problem she was having with a boy and bunch of other people. It seemed like everyone was treating her badly and giving her a lot of mixed signals. She talked until the dining hall closed, but I told her that I wanted to check in with her again and know what was going on. I didn’t know her very well, but I felt a real connection with her, with the fact that she was so unhappy at college and that she felt fine telling me all her problems when we barely knew each other. I liked that.  She lived in the same dorm complex as my other friends, so I stopped by to see her regularly and let her vent to me. It was hard to get a word in edgewise, but I felt like I was doing the right thing. She needed me, and I needed someone like her.

At some point, my other friends said that this friend was annoying the boy and his friends. They actually knew the other people involved and said that the boy had made it perfectly clear that he was done with her and she refused to accept it. That made sense based on everything she had told me, but it wouldn’t change how I treated her. Reality is subjective, and if she thought that everyone was against her and sending mixed signals, then everyone was against her and sending mixed signals. I didn’t want to disbelieve what she said just because she was in the minority or because everyone else had more social capital than her. I promised myself that I would always take her seriously, no matter what she said. There were times when she told me that someone was studying in the dorm room lounge just to annoy her (with no history of conflict), and somewhere in the back of my mind I’d think that the person is probably not out to get her. But I pushed those thoughts aside and tried to take what she said at face value, no matter what logic told me.  She didn’t have anyone else to believe her.

-At the start of second semester, one of my close friends told me that she was thinking about leaving for the semester. I was really going to miss her, but I told her that it was her choice. I helped her pack and held onto some of her things for her. I stayed in her room on her final night until she wanted me to leave. I told her about how I felt on that drive home, how much it meant that she cared about me. She told me not to do anything stupid while she was gone, and I promised I wouldn’t. The next day I wandered into her empty bedroom, which she had left unlocked, and just sat there. I was tempted to sleep there, to just live in that room until someone came and locked the door.

She was one of my nicest friends, and the group dynamics changed a lot when she wasn’t there.  There were four of us who used to hang out together, but when she was gone, the other two became closer to each other and had lots of inside jokes that I didn’t understand.

There was one friend who clearly thought of me as a friend; she automatically sat with me, wanted to hang out, and even invited me to live in her quad. But the confusing part was that I always felt bad after talking with her. Here are some sample conversations with this friend:

Friend: [Rant about people who like the Twilight series]
Me: “I don’t like the Twilight series either, but there’s nothing wrong with liking it. Some of my best friends at home are huge Twilight fans.”
Friend: “Are they in middle school?”

[Talking about an advanced class we both want to get into, after we’ve bonded over how much we loved the intro class.]
Me: “I’ll be pretty devastated if I don’t get in.”
Friend: (Laughs at me) “Don’t be devastated – it’s just a class!”

Friend: [After landing her very competitive dream job, and after I’d already congratulated her a lot] “Everyone else is giving up their childhood dreams for investment banking.”
Me: “I’m following my childhood dream. I was making up my first play in second grade, and now I’ve written 130 pages of my first novel.”
Friend: “But you wanted to write plays.” (indicating that I’m not actually following my childhood dream.)
Me: “I did something really cool! I figured out how to control my dreams so I don’t have nightmares!”
Friend: “You shouldn’t do that – nightmares are good for you.”
Me: “I know that, but I don’t want to have nightmares – I want to have sweet dreams, and I’m really proud of myself for figuring out how to do it.”
Friend: [Explains in more detail why threat dreams are helpful]
Me: “I know that, I got my technique from reading about threat dreams, but don’t want to have threat dreams anymore.”
Friend: [Continues to explain that what I’m doing is bad]
Me: “I feel like I can’t get pleasure out of anything here! Like, if I get an A on something here, I’m practically ready to throw a party, but everyone else talks about getting As like that’s just what you’re supposed to do, like getting dressed every morning.”
Friend: “Well at my private prep school, classes were actually challenging and getting an A really was a big deal.”

She usually talked to me like I was stupid, like I was already supposed to know things. When she taught me how to play games I’d never played before, she criticized me for not remembering everything, and for not understanding things that we never discussed.  She made fun of my friend for not knowing how to work a telescope at a star-watch event that was supposedly open to everyone. Even when I asked her personal questions about her life, her tone was always superior, either that her high school/weekend plan/class schedule was better than mine, or that I should have already known about it. I felt bad about myself almost every time I talked to her, but coming from a group that was glad to get rid of me, I couldn’t walk away from someone who actually wanted me as a friend.

There was another friend I always felt some tension with – anytime I asked her about what she was doing, out of interest in her life, she would pressure me to do everything she was doing even after I had said I didn’t want to.  In high school, it was okay to just take an interest in someone’s life, but at Colby it was hard to have a conversation with anyone who was passionate about anything without being pressured to join them.  But still, she took me out for my birthday. We called each other to go to dinner together. Even with the bits of tension, she seemed like a good friend.

(TW: Self-harm) But above all, they didn’t stop hanging out with me when I was angry.  During room draw, I said that I was going to tattoo my lottery numbers to the inside of my arm and rip the skin off at graduation and get blood everywhere.  They didn’t disown me. They didn’t give any signs of not wanting to be friends anymore. We kept hanging out. I was safe with all of them.

- With my adequate alone time and reduction in pressure, I decided to check out some events that I’d been turned off to when I felt pressured to go. We had a special weekend where you could sign up for different discussion groups. The weekend theme was “freedom,” and I signed up for a discussion called “Freedom of Identity.” This topic was really important to me. With Colby’s intense drinking culture, being “chem-free” became a major part of my identity. And I don’t care about image – I’m talking about expectations. Colby College presents themselves as a fun school, with the motto “Work hard; play harder.” But the “play hard” half is mainly about drinking. Back in high school, my friends and I partied all the time without drinking. But if you were chem-free at Colby, there was no partying. There was a big push to care more about academics and want to go to talks about important issues and have academic-related conversations outside of class. I never wanted to do any of those things, and I chose Colby because people placed a high value on non-academic fun. But being chem-free, people thought it was weird that I just wanted to go to parties and dances and just-for-fun events and not educational talks.

When you drink, people assume that weekends are reserved for partying and fun, but when you don’t drink, everyone expects you to value that fun time less. My chem-free project partners expected that I was willing to work on weekend nights, while project partners who drank assumed that weekends were reserved for fun. I was at weekend retreat where several students signed up but didn’t attend (there were still 40+ people there), and everyone started saying how sad it was that people’s weekends were so important to them. My weekends are that important to me! I thought long and hard about attending this retreat because I really didn’t want to give up my whole weekend. When I was rehearsing a play for a class with other chem-free students, everyone assumed that we could rehearse on Friday and Saturday nights unless we had specific plans. (In other shows, it was assumed that weekend nights were off-limits, even when we had a crunch). One time we actually had a rehearsal scheduled for the Friday night before spring break. I had already said that I was leaving on Thursday for break, but everyone else stayed and I felt guilty for leaving. I never imagined that this would be an issue, that anyone would ever schedule a rehearsal that would interfere with leaving for a school vacation. But chem-free Colby is a completely different world.

When our school tried to address the issue of dangerously heavy drinking, there was a push to have more classes on Fridays, more schoolwork during our January term (which Colby advertised as being lots of fun and not much work), and having more academic events on the weekends. In other words, the way to reduce drinking was to be more academic and reduce the opportunities for non-academic fun. Because of course you can’t have fun without drinking.

From what I've seen of Colby's mainstream culture, there is a lot of pressure to get drunk and hook up on weekends, and to be athletic and go to the gym regularly. I don't know if I would have felt less pressure in the mainstream culture, but in my experience, most of the pressures I felt came from my classmates identifying me as a chem-free student, even though I don’t consider not drinking to be a big part of me. I couldn’t wait to talk about this issue at the “Freedom of Identity” discussion.

After I had already signed up for the discussion, someone changed the title to “Freedom of Racial Identity.” It wasn’t fair to change the topic after people had signed up already, but I attended anyway since it was an important issue.

As luck would have it, the talk was not about freedom of racial identity, or freedom of any kind for that matter. We talked about racial identity for the first ten minutes or so, but then it turned into a conversation about how not enough people attend discussions like this one. They said that people run past the tables in the student center, that “no one” has anything to say in class, that people make excuses for not doing stuff because they have too much work to do even though we all have work to do and we’re here, that everyone just wants to do their own thing, and that the only people who come to events like this are the people who want to be there. According to everyone at the discussion, these were all problems.

First of all, when I sat at my club tables on high school orientation night and when I sold tickets in the cafeteria, students felt perfectly comfortable checking out the table and walking away. We didn’t put pressure on people. If people are literally running past your table in the student center, maybe you need to reassess the tactics you’re using to generate interest pressure people to do what you want them to do. One time I tried to buy a ticket to a show at Colby: I approached the table where three students were selling tickets, not currently dealing with anyone else. I had my hands on the table and was staring right at them for a long time, but not one of them looked me in the eye or said anything. They were all looking past me, yelling at people who were nowhere near their table to come to the show. It was more important for them to pressure people who showed no interest than to sell a ticket to someone who was actually trying to buy one.

I’ve already said that I never wanted to participate in class. I don’t know where all these people were who didn’t like to talk in class because I was usually the only one. And as for the “excuse” issue, hasn’t anyone heard of priorities? Being at a discussion is not everyone’s priority – some of us would rather get our homework done during that time so we can go at night, which sort of related to that chem-free-identity issue that I had hoped to discuss at this talk. And the fact that everyone used the homework excuse showed that the Colby community was not accepting of people just saying no. The problem was with our high-pressure culture, not people who use the only socially acceptable way out.

I was never interested in going to a lot of discussions. They put so much emphasis on everyone being welcome, but then they overtly attacked people who didn’t go to talks like this one regularly – people like me. All my life, I was told that you got more freedom in college. That you don’t have the requirements that you have in K-12 school. That everyone does their own thing. That’s one of the main things I looked forward to about college. But it was honestly harder to do my own thing at Colby than it was in high school, middle school, or any other stage of life. I went to the Freedom of Identity discussion to talk about how hard it was to do my own thing at Colby. It’s bad enough to get shut down in a casual conversation, but to not be able to express your lack of freedom of identity at an official discussion on freedom of identity? That hurt. A lot. That kind of invalidation doesn’t go away.

- At this point, I learned to have my guard up. Rather opening myself up to being hurt more, I would only talk about not being taken seriously. I would say: “When someone indicates to me that something is of a certain importance, I try to accept that importance at face value even if the same thing wouldn’t matter as much to me. I don’t get that same respect in return.” I’d wait for the person to say that they would most certainly accept the importance of what I said, but no one ever promised this, except for my close friend whom I already trusted.

Every problem came with two problems: the original problem, and the fact that no one would take me seriously. It was safer to just talk about the second. It was a way to attack people for cutting me down before they had the chance to. I would post on Facebook that I wanted to stab myself with an icicle, but I wouldn’t explain why. I was screaming without words. The longer I talked only about how I felt, the harder it became to say what any actual problems were. I was afraid people would think my emotions didn’t “match” the situation. I became attached to the |absolute value| lines, because they symbolized not comparing what was inside of them to anything else in the world. I honestly wanted to start and end everything I wrote with them. I wanted to stay between those lines, where anything I said was valid.

When someone saw me crying and asked what was wrong, I wanted so badly to reach out to her, but I had witnessed her telling other people to suck it up and stop whining, and I just couldn’t trust someone who said that. It was getting harder to trust people. One time I was telling my close friend that I wanted to transfer schools because I didn’t think I could get a single dorm room the next year, and a new acquaintance jumped in and said what was the big deal, I’d had roommates before, it was a bad reason to transfer and blah blah blah. I told her that I felt unaccepted and got up and left the table. I stopped pursuing a friendship with her and we never spoke about room draw again.

Invalidators aren’t just at Colby. In high school, I actually had a “run list” of people I would run from if I were upset about something, because they would invalidate my feelings and make it worse. But at Colby, it was less work to keep a “safe list” and not talk to anyone else.

- I learned a lot in psychology statistics class. Not just about how to run a psych study, but about what was going on at Colby.  For example: correlation is not causation. Just because two things happen together does not mean that one caused the other.  In class, we’d read examples where someone had assumed a causal relationship, and we’d have to explain why their assumption might be wrong. Ex: If a study showed that college students who sit the front row do better in school, someone might assume that sitting in the front causes students to perform better, but another explanation could be that students who already care more about school choose to sit in there.

I thought if my priority was to go to the college where I’d have the most fun, be the happiest, and feel a sense of belonging, then I should pick the school where students have the most fun, are the happiest, and feel the strongest sense of belonging. I never understood why that didn’t work out. But now I realized that statistics don’t show you everything that’s going on, that Colby’s high happiness ratings may have a lot more to do with the students that Colby accepts, their interaction with the college, and the pressure to present a happy persona than with the college itself.

We also learned about outliers, which are data points that don’t fall into the pattern with the rest. Our professor’s graph of student test scores showed that most students’ grades were higher on the second exam than the first. The 3 students whose grades went down on the second exam were outliers and were eliminated from the statistical analysis, so as not to skew the entire graph. My professor said we should assume that something unusual happened to those students, like they were sick the day of the second exam.  But what if there was nothing out of the ordinary? What if those three students just don’t follow the same pattern as the others? I personally don’t follow that pattern – I normally do better on my earlier tests because I’m less busy earlier in the year. But I would have been written off as someone who just had a problem the day of the second test. That’s what was happening to me at Colby. That’s why I had such a hard time getting people to believe me. Since it wasn’t normal to hate Colby, since Colby is rated one of the top schools for student happiness, I must have entered college already having a problem. It’s the simplest explanation. When I went home, I felt like I had to post lots of fun pictures on Facebook to prove that I really was happy outside of Colby. No one believed me when I said that Colby was the problem. 

Senior Year (2009-2010)  

(Trigger Warning: Self-harm and suicidal thoughts – the whole senior section)

- I didn’t think about freshman year when I was a sophomore, or sophomore year when I was junior. But senior year, everything came together. My entire Colby experience came flooding back and hit me really hard. 

Part of it came from my classmates bonding over their amazing Colby experiences and how sad they were to leave. People constantly pointed out all the things they would miss. I would only miss my friends. Any little things I liked at Colby were immaterial compared to all the bad stuff I’d leave behind. There was also a student committee that pushed everyone to make a “senior pledge,” a donation that symbolized your love for Colby. You didn’t have to donate a lot – it was more about everyone participating. Anytime I told a classmate, “I wish the senior pledge people would leave me alone,” their response was, “I already made my senior pledge.”

The other part came from freshmen. I could always spot freshmen a mile away – not because they looked younger, but because they just looked so un-homogenized, so unique, so much like themselves. It’s hard to watch when you know that in a couple of months they’re going to look, speak, and act just like everyone else. Our campus housing director wouldn’t allow freshmen-only dorms because the new students had to be immersed in Colby culture right away and not form their own culture. I understand not isolating new students, but the reason behind it sounds like forcing them into a blender. Heaven forbid anyone stay what they are.

I could also spot freshmen by the stars in their eyes, that certainty that their Colby experience would be amazing. I was the same way back then. I thought I’d be hosting prospective students, not trying to avoid them. I thought I’d be so sad when it was time to leave. I thought Colby would always have a special place in my heart. It hurt to be around freshmen because I saw a reflection of myself in their eyes, of all the love and happiness that I never found at Colby.

I was surrounded by freshmen in a play we did the in first two weeks of school. They all asked me how I liked Colby and were really shocked by my honest answer. When I talked about roommates and peer pressure and forced interaction, they were surprised and said that none of those things would bother them. They expected me to tell them what I loved about Colby, not if I liked Colby or not. We talked about COOT and getting accepted to Colby and other stuff I never wanted to think about again. Every bad memory I had tried to block out became fresh in my mind.

My classmates advised all the freshmen to talk to lots of people, join a million clubs, and other advice that we shouldn’t give to people we don’t even know. One freshman who lived only an hour away said that she really wanted to go home on the weekends, and my classmates told her that she shouldn’t. I told her that if she wanted to go home, she should and there was nothing wrong with that. It made me sick to hear someone telling her not to go home when they didn’t even know her. I wanted to go home all the time, I am living proof that staying on campus does not make you like it any better, and I would have given anything to live closer.

I never realized how much the older students push freshmen to join everything. There was a singing group that I had been trying to get into since freshman year; 15-20 people usually auditioned for only 3-4 open spots.  The number of spots open depended on how many seniors in the group had left, and this year there were 10 spots open. I figured this would be my chance. But the singing group leaders were directing the play, and they promoted the group non-stop and pushed students to sign up.  A lot of students looked like they didn’t want to join but felt like they had to sign while the list was going around. If anyone expressed hesitation, the leaders reiterated how awesome it was, with a tone of, “Hello? How stupid can you be to not sign up?” When students asked about the time commitment, the group leader’s response was, “I do this and like ten other clubs.” That to me is a micro-pressure. It sets a standard that students should be okay with being busy. You may love being in eleven clubs, but the singing group alone could be more than someone else wants to do.  You should say, “Rehearsals are x hours a week,” and let them decide whether that’s okay.

By the end of the play, there were 60 students signed up to compete for those 10 spots, rather than the usually 15-20. Needless to say, I didn’t make it. It’s bad enough to push people into something that they might not want to do, but if you don’t even have room for everyone, why would you make people who really want to be in the group compete against people who don’t? If they had been less aggressive, they could have accepted a much higher percentage of the people who actually wanted to join.

Surrounded by freshman who thought college would be wonderful and seniors who were sad to leave, I was forced to relive and re-examine my Colby experience. It’s like when you’re playing a card game and you have a really bad hand, but you still hold out hope that you can win because the next card you pick up might make all the difference.  I felt like I had seen all the cards in the deck, and nothing was going to change.  College had sucked and I could never get those years back.

At age 6, when I learned what college was and that I was expected to go, I said that I would go to a “drop-off” college, meaning that my parents would drop me off and pick up each day. I never wanted to live at college: I would miss my parents, I’d miss being home and doing what I liked to do at home, I wouldn’t want to live with other kids, and I didn’t like school so I wouldn’t want to live at one. Everyone said I would change my mind. Adults would laugh and smile at each other over my head like they knew some secret I didn’t.  When it came time to apply, I internalized the notion that going off to college would be fun. But nothing in me had actually changed. All of the things I knew about myself at age 6 remained true through the end of college. I guess I wasn’t too young to understand after all.

Then internalized the idea that I should try to get into the most prestigious college I could, since I was a “top student.” It was almost like a game I was trying to win, despite all the evidence (my experience with private vs. public school and who I hung out with) that I wouldn’t be happy at a very exclusive school. When I applied to college, I presented myself as everything the schools wanted me to be. I said that yes, I might like to study abroad when I knew I probably wouldn’t.  A seemingly harmless lie, but the fact that I don’t want to be out of my comfort zone that long is one of the biggest reasons that I didn’t fit in at Colby.

The summer before senior year, I thought I was looking forward to returning to Colby. I started packing a little earlier. I spent the last week of summer thinking about seeing my friends and how I would decorate my single dorm room.  But as soon as I set foot on campus, I realized I had never wanted to go back to Colby – I just wanted to see my friends.  Normally I make a distinction between those things, but this time, I had used missing my friends to convince myself that I also missed Colby.  Ever since preschool, I had always been sad when summer ended.  I never wanted to back to school. But those college summers when it was the hardest, I spent the last week or so thinking about the fun I hoped I’d have at Colby.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when two pieces of information in your brain contradict each other – such as the fact that you hate college and the fact that you continue to go back – and you reconcile this contradiction by rationalizing your decision, convincing yourself that you must like college after all. If you perceive something as a requirement, like taking a class that you need to graduate, you can maintain that you don’t like it.  But the more you perceive something to be your own choice, the more cognitive dissonance you experience. In grades K-12, I had to go to school. College was a choice. Even though I never felt like I had the option not to go, I knew that Colby was my choice. I tried to soothe myself with positive thoughts at the end of each summer because if I acknowledged the pain I felt at the prospect of returning,
I could never have rationalized why I was going back.

I couldn’t look at the fictional story I had written about freshman year. The depressing parts didn’t bother me – it was the conclusion where the characters say that freshman year is a hard adjustment but they do like college and will be okay. This hurt to read because I honestly believed those words when I wrote them.  Throughout the story, the main character is unable to sleep because of the noise and light in her dorm room, but after deciding that college is okay, the lights and noise magically fade off. That doesn’t happen in real life. The characters also discuss how great it is that college is less gossipy than high school, that the main character’s reputation will not be forever damaged because of what she went through as a freshman. That was true: in high school, people would have gossiped about that time I slept in the health center, and in college it was yesterday’s news. While not gossiping about people’s problems is a good thing, it was a result of our fast-paced culture that makes people forget a problem the moment you stop talking about it. A culture that says, “Yes, you threatened to kill yourself, but that was a whole hour ago! Aren’t you over it now?”
I always say that I deleted my online journal because it made me feel bad. But it’s not because I wrote things that upset me – it’s because I clung to every positive moment to convince myself that I loved Colby somewhere deep inside. Or else I’d channel all my feelings into a long post about something trivial, like which profile picture to use on Facebook. I have very few journal entries that accurately reflect how I felt. I wrote hundreds of angry and depressing Facebook statuses during college, but if you look through my journals – private or online – it’s hard to tell that anything was wrong.  It was impossible for my friends to see how not-okay I was from my online journal alone. I can tell, of course. I see the shakiness in my words. I see how every sentence was a strip of white-out painted over what really mattered.  A momentary Facebook status gave me instant gratification, but I could delete it in an instant as well. Writing all the pain down in my journals would have made it real.

- It was lonely having one of my best friends away for the semester. I couldn’t see my other best friend as often I would have liked.  I saw my other two friends sometimes, but they liked each other better than me, and it was hard to talk to one of them without feeling pressured.

Of course, having a single was a major improvement over the past three years. Knowing that I had a place safe from social interaction made everything better.  For the first time, I could actually function and think straight. There was a social-awareness discussion coming up called “The Average Colby Student.”  It got me thinking about what made me different, and with the time and private space to reflect on it, I narrowed it down to three basic issues:

1. Being introverted; wanting to spend the majority of my time alone, in privacy and silence, and not being social.
2. Not wanting to be busy, go to a lot of events, or be involved in a lot of things.
3. Wanting to be part of the fun-focused party culture without having to get drunk; not wanting to talk about school stuff outside of class or mix academics with fun.  (And yes, this is compatible with the first two issues – I love to go out and fun, I just don’t like to spend the majority of my time with other people, like I had to in college).

I don’t normally like to talk in big groups, but every time I thought about my list, I rehearsed how I’d explain each issue. I was nervous, but psyched to share my experience with other people who didn’t fit the profile of the Average Colby Student.

I don’t remember exactly how the talk began, but within about 15 minutes, everyone started saying that it was a problem that more people didn’t go to events like this (there were 30-40 people at the talk). They went on about this issue for a long time, pointing out how many people were walking by outside and not at the talk. It was a direct attack on people like me who didn’t regularly go to events like this one.

In high school, we never had this moral issue of trying to get people involved. One of my clubs organized a benefit concert that almost no one attended. After the concert, we talked about two issues: how we could advertise better, and how we could make the event itself more fun and appealing. The following year, we advertised the concert in our local newspaper and made it a block party with activities for younger kids. Lo and behold, a lot more people showed up! When another club was having a dry spell, someone suggested “Teacher Karaoke Night” as a fundraiser. Our auditorium was packed and we raised over $1,000 for charity. Of course we wanted people to come to our events, but our goal was to generate interest and do things that people wanted to do, not bully people into feeling bad if they don’t attend.

One of the hardest things about Colby was that I couldn’t even bond with other people who hated the campus culture, because most of them had a problem with the lack of student involvement and put a lot of pressure on students to join more clubs and attend more educational and community events. It’s like bonding with people who hate the lemonade because it’s too sweet, when I hate it because it’s not sweet enough. A friend once told me that we shouldn’t be fighting amongst ourselves about which issue is the most important because we all want the same thing – to be accepted for who we are and treated like everyone else. My friend was right that we all should be on the same side, but when everyone is talking about how to pressure people to get involved, I don’t exactly feel welcome to mention that my biggest problem with Colby is that pressure.

The trouble with peer pressure is that we only learn about it in a negative context.  In elementary school, we talked about kids pressuring us to do things that are wrong, like stealing. In middle/high school, peer pressure was all about drugs, alcohol, and sex. While these pressures are a problem, adults didn’t want us to do this stuff anyway. The message was never: “Don’t feel like you have to have sex if you don’t want to.” The real message was: “Don’t have sex until you’re married/older.” We never talked about pressure itself, or the pressure to do “positive” things like joining a gym, because everyone assumes that kind of pressure is okay. It’s not okay. Negative pressure is the pressure to do things that you don’t want to do, and I make no distinction between the pressure to get drunk, get a haircut, or get more involved on campus if the person has said no. Trying to make someone feel bad about themself because they’re not doing what you want them to do is bullying, and it doesn’t stop being bullying when the thing you want them to do is positive. But most Colby students think pressure is perfectly fine.

The group then went on about how horrible it was that all the drinking people were so fun-focused and don’t want to do educational events on the weekends (like me!), but I’ve already talked about that issue.  They complained that no one likes to participate in class (Seriously, where are these other non-participators?) and that we don’t have more intellectual conversations outside of class; they thought it was a problem that  people who say really insightful things in class turn it off when class ends. I don’t want to talk about class stuff outside of class. Students have been complaining about this since freshman year, and I NEVER imagined that my peers would be telling me what to talk to my friends about on my own free time. It’s so invasive to think we should have any say in what other people talk about. This pressure to have “intelligent conversations” was constant; I have sat through plenty that I wasn’t interested in, plenty that I pretended to understand, and when I tried to talk about personal stuff, I was always getting cut off – people used my issues as a springboard to get into a broader topic. It was really hard to talk about purely personal or fun stuff. I always wondered where these people were who weren’t into educational conversations, because I’d never met them.  (Okay, maybe that clique that disowned me, but I couldn’t talk about anything with them.)  For the longest time, I had a message on my Facebook page that said: “Because I go to Colby, I feel pressured to say something political, intellectual, or random and perky in this space. I count the days till I’ll feel free from this pressure.” That was honestly how I had felt the whole time.

Junior year, I filled out a Facebook list of 25 random facts. When I wrote that I like to dip M&Ms in peanut butter, I understood something that had been bothering me since freshman year. I wasn’t worried about being judged for that fact itself; I was worried I’d be judged for the fact that I chose to talk about how I eat candy instead of saying something more “important.” When I got teased for playing with toys in middle school, I would still go home and play with my toys and feel perfectly fine about it. I maintained that I had every right to do what I liked and the people who teased me were wrong. That was because I went home to an accepting environment. But there’s also a difference between another kid telling you that it’s not “cool” to play with toys in middle school and your parents telling you that you need to grow up and do more productive things with your time. Colby students always felt more like parents, and I actually felt wrong for violating their expectations. That’s the vibe I felt at freshman orientation and couldn’t put a name to – the reason I was hesitant to share my favorite ice cream flavor or to say that I’ve never seen rhubarb. I wouldn’t read my personal angst poems at poetry readings because all the other angst poems were about bigger issues. I felt like it was “wrong” to take up space in the world to talk about what was actually affecting me. I felt a culturally-imposed limit on how long I could spend on purely personal things and how much I could care about them compared to Colby things. I had this nagging feeling – like when you have homework you need to finish – that was supposed to be doing something better. And it was constant, because at any given moment, there was some talk or event that I could be attending. I think this is why I bonded so much with my friend who had the boy problem – because she always felt comfortable talking about her personal problems no matter what else was going on. I wished I could be that way again.

I had never been one of those people who had “guilty pleasures,” but at Colby I felt guilty for doing what I liked to do on my own time. I stopped expressing joy and excitement over things that mattered to me because everyone would know that I was less excited about things that they thought were more important. I decided to be unenthusiastic and not care about anything; if it wasn’t okay to express enthusiasm only for what I really felt excited about, then I wasn’t going to care at all.

The issue of intelligent conversations shifted to conversation in general, and why we aren’t more social. Again, I have no idea where these people are who don’t want to be social; more than half of the conversations I had as a freshman were imposed on me when I had zero interest in talking. Everyone agreed that this apparent lack of socializing was a big problem and we should be more social in our dorms. They thought it was a problem that not enough people sign up for “dialogue housing” in which you have to sign off saying that you’ll talk to people about some topic in your dorm. It is NOT a problem that some of us just want to be safe in our own personal living space! The ideal they described was essentially my freshman-year dorm, but with instructions that you had to discuss specific issues. I can’t think of anything more invasive.

They talked about people being busy with homework and asked why we don’t integrate academics more with socializing, or do more studying together. I hate studying with other people because it makes everything take longer – I just want to get the work done as fast as I can and then have pure, non-school fun with my friends. But most Colby students I’ve met DO like to study together and count that as fun.  I’ve gone to my friends’ dorm rooms on Friday nights and just stared at a textbook all night without actually reading. I didn’t want to study on a Friday night, but that was the only way to spend time with my friends, so I would sit there doing nothing for hours just to be in their presence. This was not fun and not how I thought I’d be socializing in college.

Then someone mentioned people using homework as an excuse, and everyone agreed that this was a big problem. Once again, the problem here is that it’s never socially acceptable to just say, “No, I don’t want to do that.” I HAD to use homework as an excuse because it was the only way to make other people back off.

In response to not enough people going to events, they talked about needing to get freshmen involved early on so that they’d stay involved. They talked about making COOT last longer and having more required events with COOT groups after three days of forced contact. Here’s a hint: if you’re talking about people you don’t even know, you can’t possibly care about how they feel. When I was a freshman, I thought Colby just attracted people with controlling personalities. But now I realized that all the pressure I went through was actually planned for me. Those older students had had conversations just like this one; they targeted me before I was even there.  When I remember how desperate I was to fit in as a freshman, I know that it’s wrong to target someone who’s in such a vulnerable state of mind. But that’s exactly what everyone was doing. Like those singing group leaders, they were hoping to grab the freshmen before they had a chance to stop and think about what they wanted. This sickened me more now than it did when I was a freshman being targeted.

Let’s see: not being social, not wanting to be super-involved, not wanting to integrate academics into fun. Yup. They covered all of it. They invalidated every single issue I had with Colby, including issues that I hadn’t even planned to talk about. This meeting place was supposedly a safe zone, this talk was open to everyone, but I felt more alienated than I had ever felt at Colby before. This was my last chance to find support. I felt defeated. I didn’t know where else to turn.

When they were talking about pushing people to go to events and talk about important things, someone said that college is pretty much the easiest time of everyone’s life, where we don’t have all the stress of the real world, and that if we don’t do all of these things now, we’re never going to because we’ll never again have the opportunities and freedom we have now. They said it in a confrontational tone, like they didn’t believe anyone who thought college was too hard. Teachers have always said stuff like, “If you think this is bad, it’s only going to get worse later on,” but I never realized just how detrimental that is to someone who isn’t okay with their situation, whose only hope in the world is that things might get easier and better once it’s over. That “best four years of your life” standard was bad enough, but hearing it from another student just made it so real. It was over for me. I was broken. I would never be that happy, confident, top-of-the-world high school girl again. And it only got worse later on…this living hell was the best thing I’d ever have. Some logical part of me knew that wasn’t true, but it felt true. I didn’t see a way out. I went to bed that night hoping that I wouldn’t wake up the next day.

- The next few weeks were really hard.  I told a few friends what happened at the discussion, but we didn’t talk about it for very long. I told my friend who worked on the school newspaper that I wanted to write an op-ed about how much better life would be if we all left each other the fuck alone. (Okay, I probably should have said “respect personal boundaries,” but I was very upset). Her response was “I wouldn’t feel comfortable printing that,” after she had been pressuring me to write an op-ed for almost a year, and I had repeatedly told her no because I correctly predicted that she wouldn’t agree with anything I had to say.

Because of the H1N1 outbreak, Colby temporarily shut down student programs that involved interacting with children. A lot of students in my child development seminar were involved in these programs. When I got to class that day, everyone was acting all superficially upset, saying, “Oh my god, that’s soooo sad!” in the tone you’d normally use to say, “Aw, look at the cute puppy!” One student had organized an entire Halloween party for local kids who were no longer allowed on campus, and even she was talking in this tone. “Superficial” isn’t the right word because I know they all cared a lot, but I was just so sick of that Colby tone, that hot-chocolate-and-fuzzy-sweaters-and-cuddly-kittens tone, that everything-is-the-awesomest-thing-in-the-world tone, all those lols and smiley-faces to make everything sound more light and friendly.  All those times people spoke to me in that tone when I was clearly more upset than sad-face emoticons could express, more upset than they could conceive. If I loved volunteering with kids and was told I couldn’t see them, if I had spent a month planning a Halloween party and it just got canceled, I would be so fucking pissed off. I’d want to break windows. I’d want to break the people who stood in my way. And it was so frustrating when no else ever expressed emotions on that level.

At the end of the week, I was walking back to my dorm after dinner on a Friday night, when a student I had met recently caught up with me and wanted to talk. She asked if I had any weekend plans, and I told her I was pissed off because I had a paper due at midnight that night.
She said something like, “Well, that’s good because you’ll be getting something done. I probably won’t get any work done tonight.”
I told her, “No, it’s not good. I wanted to have fun tonight and now I can’t.”
Then she just repeated that it was good that I’d get something done, and I repeated that I didn’t care about getting work done and all I wanted to do was have fun that night, and she repeated AGAIN that it was good that I would get something done.
I stopped walking. “Look, it’s not okay! I don’t WANT to write this fucking paper tonight, I don’t care about being productive, I wanted to go out and have fun and IT IS NOT OKAY that I’m stuck writing this paper!”
I don’t remember what she said next, but I think I told her that I hated Colby and wanted to be done.
She said, “Everything happens for a reason.”
I told her that I was absolutely not okay with my college experience and I didn’t care about the future.
She said, “In five years, you’re not going to remember any of this.”
I told her, “I DON’T CARE about five years from now, I care about right now, and I will remember this in five years, and that’s all anyone’s ever said to me and they’re all liars because IT MATTERS NOW.”
I could have punched her. I wanted to hurt her so badly. I don’t know how she responded because I just started running. I ran to the farthest-away building on campus, across the street without looking, and locked myself in the classroom where I used to hide out as a freshman.

I wanted to hurt them. I wanted to hurt everyone like they had hurt me. I opened my Facebook page and wrote a new status. It started with something about nobody listening to me, and ended with, “And if this doesn’t stop, I’m going to crawl under all of your doors and strangle you in your sleep! Go ahead and report me! I don’t care. I don’t care about anything anymore. Fuck all of you. Being here makes me SICK!”  It was around 6:00 p.m. when I posted the message. I kept checking Facebook, but no one had responded. Around 9:00 p.m., I got a phone call from the dean’s office saying that people were worried about my message and she wanted to check in with me. She was extremely calm, like she had called to verify my address or something. I told her I was upset and I hated college, but I wasn’t actually going to strangle anyone and I would take the message down. She asked me if I felt like hurting myself. I told her I had been scratching my skin with a row of staples lately, but I wasn’t going to do more than that. She asked me if that was something I had done in high school, and I told her no, I didn’t do anything like that until college. She said, “Oh, okay,” and moved on, indicating that this made it less serious. She wanted me to go to the health center and talk to a counselor, but I told her I had the paper due at midnight, even though I did want to talk. She said the on-call counselor could call me on the phone, and the on-call dean could come and meet me where I was.

My heart sank when I saw who the dean on call was – the same person who insisted on switching the special interest housing dorms every year so that one dorm never stays the same, making it impossible for people who care a lot about their living situation (like me) to pick the dorm they’ll be the most comfortable in. She’s actually against students feeling comfortable and wants to push us to have new experiences, and she believes strongly in getting the freshmen immersed and homogenized in Colby culture as soon as possible. I had spoken to her before about housing and she was completely unsympathetic. I didn’t trust her, but I needed to talk.

My thoughts were organized for the “Average Colby Student” talk, but after the invalidation, my well-structured words feel to pieces. Imagine that you have a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle but you can only grab 10 pieces to show to someone. That’s what it felt like when I had to give a brief answer to the question, “What’s wrong?” People don’t understand that the jigsaw puzzle is a picture of a tree if you only show them pieces of the grass around it.  It takes perspective to step back and see which issues are at the core of the problem, and which pieces contribute but wouldn’t be as problematic on their own. I didn’t have that perspective. The clearest things in my mind were simply the most recent. So I told the dean that I hated freshmen because they were so fucking perky and like “Yay Colby!” and always want to ask me how I liked everything, and how my classmates reacted like, “Oh my god, that’s soooooo sad!” and no one wanted to smash windows, and how I wrote about wanting icicles to hit me in the head all time but this was just the first time I had threatened someone else. She looked at me like I was crazy. I was talking too fast for her to follow. She tried to establish common ground with us both being psych majors, but I told her I hated reading all the psych articles. I liked psychology, but I didn’t want to switch the subject to anything positive about the school. She asked me if I had a history of any issues in high school, and I said that no, all of this started at Colby.

Eventually she said, “Okay, well it doesn’t seem like you’re going to do anything tonight. I’ll let you get back to writing your paper and you can see the counselor on Monday.” I didn’t understand. At the beginning, she had sounded so concerned, like she cared how I felt, but it was all an assessment. As long as she knew I wasn’t actually going to hurt anyone, everything was fine, even though I clearly wasn’t fine at all. Did she even listen to me? Or was she just paying attention to my speech pattern and body language? I’ve heard that when the cops pull you over for speeding and ask where you’re going, it’s not because they care – it’s because they’re trying to assess if you’re drunk or high or something.  Once I started talking, she hadn’t said anything to imply that she cared about the problem. All she did was reiterate the fact that no one really cared what I was going through, and that the only way they would care would be if I was actually planning to hurt someone. I went back to my dorm room and dug a row of staples really deep into my arm, until I made a mark that everyone would see. I went to bed with a stronger desire to hurt someone than I had when I wrote the message.

The next morning I ran to my best friend’s room, but she wasn’t home. I went back to my dorm and took a shower and rubbed my exfoliate against my skin as hard as I could. I wanted to bleed. I wanted to scrub my dead skin cells off so that the part of me that had touched Colby would be gone. At one point I let my bar of soap slip out of the shower and across the bathroom, and I had a sudden desire to rub the soap on the bathroom floor so people would slip, which I didn’t do.  I drew a symbol on the bathroom mirror with dry-erase marker (which comes right off).  It was an optical illusion: a hexagon with lines that turned into a transparent cube when you looked at it the right way.  You wouldn’t see the cube without being told to look for one. Why? Because we assume that simplest explanation is true. Like the way outliers have problems. The way Colby College can’t be inherently bad for anyone. I drew the symbol on my door and on the inside of my wrist, like a cult symbol. I wanted to start a cult – a We Hate Colby cult, or just a We Hate College cult, or a cult for anyone who wanted to express negative emotions and felt repressed, or a cult like my high school friends group for people who just didn’t belong anywhere else. Maybe I’d have an initiation party. Or better yet, maybe I’d invite all the people who had hurt me and the cult members and I could do something bad to them.

Every semester when I didn’t get into any shows I auditioned for, I announced that I was having a chocolate party, where we would buy out all of the chocolate in the city and eat it until we were sick just to celebrate the fact that we could eat chocolate freely (because chocolate coats your throat, so you shouldn’t eat it right before a stage performance). I never really planned to have this party, but I talked about it in the hopes that I would meet other people who wanted to come – other people who were just as upset about not getting into stuff and wanted to do something major about it. This cult party was the same thing – I wasn’t actually planning to hurt people. The main point was to form a cult of people who felt as strongly as I did and had a desire to hurt people, and maybe we could write chalk messages or something.

I needed to talk to someone. My best friend wasn’t in her room and my other best friend was still away for the semester. I could have called a friend from home, but I was desperate to talk to someone on campus.  Then I remembered – my friend who had that boy issue. She didn’t have a general issue with Colby like I did, but she had a lot of problems with individual people. She understood wanting revenge.

When she answered her door, she looked frightened to see me. She didn’t have Facebook, so it never crossed my mind that she would know about the message – I thought I just caught her at a bad time. (Looking back, I have a feeling she heard about it from our other friend). I told her that I was really angry at a lot of people, and I wanted to have a party to get revenge on all the people who had hurt us. I told her about wanting to rub soap on the bathroom floor. I said that I knew she had a lot of people she was angry at and I was thinking we could be in on it together, since she understood the feeling. She looked really freaked out and said that she was basically okay with Colby and that she didn’t want to hurt anyone.

She turned rational on me. She reacted as if she hadn’t been angry at all those people and didn’t know what I was talking about. Last year she talked about manipulating people, about trying to make them feel bad.  One time she tricked me into spying on someone when I thought we were just getting a snack. Everyone else said she was immature and looked down on her, but I stayed by her side.  I was there for her on so many nights when she was crying. I listened when she claimed that her neighbors were walking past her room just to annoy her, even if that was the only way outside. I believed her about everything, no matter how irrational it seemed, but as soon as I came to her with my own problem, she couldn’t fathom how bad I felt. I said, “Okay, never mind” and left.

I caught up with my best friend and told her everything that had happened. She understood why my other friend was freaked out, but she wasn’t freaked out herself. When I told her about the cult party, she cared how I felt and didn’t disapprove at all. Her main concern was that I would get in trouble and end up in a worse situation where I wouldn’t have control over my life. I knew she was right; I would have to tone it down so I didn’t end up in the hospital or something. I don’t normally listen to reason when I’m upset, but the way my friend said it was different because she valued what I was feeling.  We spent the rest of the day together; I told her all of my darkest thoughts in graphic detail because she didn’t mind.

When I got back to my room that night, a security officer knocked on my door and told me that they got a report about me and “asked” if I would go to the security office to talk to a counselor.  The counselor told me that two of my friends had reported me to the dean – the friend I talked to, and my other friend whom she told. The counselor couldn’t give me names, but I knew who she was talking about. She read over the reports. One of my friends wrote that I refused to go to therapy, after I had confided in her that I felt like the counselor didn’t listen to me freshman year. The same person also wrote, “This has been going on for a year and a half.” A year and a half was how long we had known each other. That was how long I had been there for my friend when she was upset, how long we had called each other to go to hang out. They didn’t always respond when I talked about graphic stuff, like tattooing those room draw numbers and ripping the skin off, but they didn’t treat me differently afterwards. They kept calling me and inviting me. I never got the vibe that they didn’t want to be friends, and I know that vibe very well. That sentence made it feel like they were reporting me for all those nights I thought I was safe talking to them, the entire year and half that we were friends.

I told the counselor how I felt about Colby and repeated the same things that I told the on-call dean the previous night. I added in that the dean just ran an assessment on me and that the only reason anyone cared about me was that I might make Colby look bad. She didn’t deny it. She asked if I thought it would benefit me to take time off from Colby, and I said no, that would just prolong the process and I might not get a single room the following year. She wanted me to call my parents because she thought that would help with the problem, but I was stuck calling them no matter what.  We went in circles for half an hour until she finally said that I didn’t have a choice.

I told my mom what happened and we talked and I was starting to feel better, but the counselor kept signaling for me to hand her the phone. She got on the phone with my mom and said that it didn’t seem to her like I was actually going to hurt anyone, and she wanted to confirm that my parents weren’t worried.  She established that it was okay for me to stay on campus that night as long as I stayed in my dorm, my parents would come up to see me on Sunday, and I would meet with her during normal hours on Monday. Then the on-call dean got on the phone and told my mom that I needed to get off campus that night. We live 4 hours away from Colby. It was about 8:00 p.m. when the security officer knocked on my door, 9:00 p.m. when I got on the phone with my mom, and now she was telling my parents at 10:00 p.m. that they had to drive up and check into a hotel with me at 2:00 a.m. I don’t understand how this would have worked if I didn’t have parents, or parents who would drive up in the middle of the night, or if I lived much farther away.  But they came up at 2:00 a.m. while I waited in the security office. A security officer had to come back to my room with me while I got my stuff. I posted an apology note on Facebook and left phone messages apologizing to both of my friends for scaring them.

It was Halloween weekend. My friend from home had invited me to go to Salem with her friends, but I thought it would be too inconvenient to travel 4 hours home for such a short visit. I felt like I had my whole life to go to Salem, but only one more year to celebrate Halloween at Colby…

My parents and I stayed in the hotel and spent Sunday together.  I felt better, but it was hard to talk about everything. On Monday my parents and I met with the counselor and then with the dean of students (not the on-call dean I had talked to). The counselor said that she didn’t think I needed to leave campus, but that the dean might have made up his mind already. When we met with the dean, I explained to him that I wasn’t planning to carry out the threat, and he believed me and said I would just get a warning notice and he recommended going to counseling, but if anything like this happened again then I would be forced to leave school. At some point my mom started talking about what had been going on at Colby, and he said something like, “Well, it’s almost over.” I didn’t pick up on it at the time, but my mom later told me that he was silencing her; he was basically saying that he was in a position to kick me out but he would let this slide if my mom shut up. She had a lot to say to him but didn’t say it so that I could stay in school.

I kept trying to call the two friends who had reported me but I couldn’t reach them. When I knocked on one of their doors, she said that she wasn’t comfortable letting me in. I left her a phone message apologizing again for scaring her and offering to meet her in a public place. She texted me saying that what I did was wrong and that they would decide when they wanted to talk to me. I texted back, “Okay, let me know when you’re ready.” That was the last communication we ever had.

-In the dance I choreographed that semester, there’s a part where we all hold hands and spin around together, to represent having some kind of a relationship. After that, one dancer is trying really hard to balance in a position, while the other dancers touch her with one finger and make her fall.  I knew it had to be a one-finger touch, not a forceful push. For a while I couldn’t figure out what our facial expressions should be, why we wanted to knock the person down in the first place. But when I taught the dance, I had us look surprised, like we had no idea that one touch would make her fall. It felt right, because maybe that’s how it happens in real life.

- About a week after the threat note, my dance club wanted to do a surprise preview of our upcoming show, where everyone would break into dance in the middle of the student center. Not knowing about my incident, the club president asked me to put in a vague announcement on our school-wide email list: “Wednesday. Noon. Student Union. Be there.” so that it would be a surprise. The day my announcement went out, I got a phone call informing me that I had a meeting with the dean. When I told him that it was for the dance club, his response was, “I didn’t know you were in the dance club! Why would they ask you to make the announcement?” I had to answer a lot of questions and give him the names of the club officers so that he could confirm that there was a surprise dance show. At the end, he tried to be all friendly and promised not to spoil the surprise, like I was actually concerned about that. When I talked to my counselor later that day, she told me that the deans had put a red flag on my name - anything I said would be scrutinized.

- I had a psychology seminar class where we talked about things like bullying, school shootings, and suicide. The class was great, but after the incident, I was holding back a lot. The class had a general consensus of, “I can’t see myself ever doing that.”  I haven’t been severely bullied and I never had to deal with the cyber-bullying that so many kids are going through now, but when I see instances of bullying in the news, I can totally see myself doing something extreme if it were happening to me. We once read about someone who carved something into her arm because of pressure to do well in school, and everyone in class was like, “Well, I was always expected to get all A’s and I turned out fine.” I wasn’t expected to get all A’s, but I have always felt pressured to put school first and I was never fine with it, and right then I wanted to carve something into my arm but was too squeamish. My group was doing a project about suicidal thoughts on campus. I suggested holding a discussion, but when I asked our professor about the issue of privacy, if we could really ensure that no one would get reported for saying that they felt suicidal, the other two members of my group said they didn’t want to have a discussion anymore because they would be way too uncomfortable if anyone actually said that they felt suicidal, even though that’s what our project was about. But the hardest was when we had a special discussion on school shootings and everyone was talking about running psychological assessments as preventative measures and so forth. And I had been there. I had been assessed and dropped, and I knew how much worse I felt afterwards. I wanted to share my first-hand experience; it would have added a lot more perspective to the conversation since most students said they couldn’t relate at all, but I was so scared of getting in trouble. I couldn’t show any signs of relating to what we discussed. I think to some extent we've all been trained not to identify with anyone who has a problem; it makes us feel better about ourselves to say, "I would never do that!" but given the right circumstances, I could see myself doing almost anything, and I think most of us could. 

- The only outlet I had left was creative writing, and one of the friends who reported me was in my poetry class. I tried to ask my professor how much of a safe zone we had in class, but I don’t think she understood what I was asking and I didn’t want to say names. I had another writing professor who always seemed understanding. I wrote her a long email explaining what happened and that I was worried about expressing myself in creative writing classes. She wrote me back a very nice response initially, so I went to talk to her, but my thoughts disorganized, I spoke too fast, and she recommended that I got medicine to make me calm down. When I wrote her a follow-up email to clarify some of the things I meant, she wrote, “You need to be going to therapy to figure out what’s behind all this rage. Colby may not be heaven, but I promise you, there are worse places.” She also told me that I couldn’t go on channeling my real-life pain into my writing and that she couldn’t have me as a student if I did.

- My mom advised me to just act like the incident was no big deal if anyone asked, but it was a big deal, and now I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I couldn’t speak in graphic terms about how I felt. I couldn’t write what I was thinking on Facebook. I couldn’t even leave my creepy Halloween pictures on my dorm room door just to express how I was feeling.  The only comfort I finally had was being “out” about the aggression I felt towards Colby, and now I didn’t even have that.

Suicide had crossed my mind in college. Mostly it was just a fleeting thought, like when it crosses your mind to say, “Screw this paper!” but you ultimately know that you’ll finish. I brought up the subject a lot. When we listened to a song that said, “All we can do is keep breathing,” I said, “Or you could stop breathing and die,” which people assumed was a joke. I posted Facebook statuses about wanting to stab myself or drown in the campus pond.  I said, “I would just shoot myself right now,” when people suggested that campus housing should be based on GPA, which was not a total exaggeration on my part. I thought about how easily I could jump out a classroom window, since everyone would assume I was just admiring the campus scenery.

But the few times that I seriously considered suicide, I was extremely sleep-deprived, jittery from caffeine, and a little separated from reality. This happened freshman year when I got my first test results back, when got the academic probation notice, and junior year when I almost didn’t finish a final paper and hadn’t studied for a test. When I was in this mindset, I zoomed in on the idea of killing myself and blocked out the rest of reality. I didn’t think I could do it when I was more alert. I couldn’t do it to my parents in any case.

At some point I had made a playlist of songs that made me feel really depressed. Some were actually depressing, and others just had powerful associations based on when I first listened to them. I titled the playlist “Before 2 a.m.” to mean that I should only listen to the playlist before 2:00 a.m., while I was still in my right state of mind. But I had no intention of listening to those songs in the daylight. I figured that if I ever did want to kill myself, I would need to be in that kind of numb, dissociated state. I thought if I combined sleep-deprivation, caffeine, and that 2:00 a.m. playlist, I’d create a sedative that would block my better judgment.

Graduating wouldn’t accomplish anything. My diploma was nothing but a one-way ticket out. And I wasn’t waiting for that ticket. I was done. Done with everything and everyone at Colby. There’s a huge difference between worrying and caring. Worrying is about the future – you’re concerned that something is going to lead to something worse. But if you care about someone, you care about what they’re going through right now, even if you know that they aren’t going to do anything extreme. This whole incident just reiterated how right I was about everything. No one cared about me – they cared about Colby’s reputation. As long as I wasn’t going to jump off a building or push someone else off a building, everything was fine. It wasn’t their problem. And why should anyone care about me? I was a senior; nothing could erase what had already happened, nothing could make me donate money or say good things about the school. With what I planned to tell the world, Colby would have been better off with me dead. They just wouldn’t say it out loud.

The counselor was required to report it to the dean if a student said they felt suicidal, and I was one step away from being kicked out. When my counselor asked me if I felt suicidal, I lied and said no. When I told the counselor that everyone's concern was about Colby's reputation and not about me, she said, "It's both," which didn't make me feel any better. I wouldn’t do it with pills, though. I would jump off the library tower in broad daylight while a tour group of prospective students was walking by. I wanted to disgrace my school – tarnish their reputation for years to come.  I didn’t actually plan to jump, but it was a wild fantasy that had entered my mind in the aftermath of the threat note.  When I told the counselor about this fantasy but said that I wouldn’t do it, she said, “I’m on the line here, telling everyone that you’re fine.” In other words, if I did kill myself, it would be bad because she could get in trouble for doing an incorrect assessment of me. That made me want to jump even more.

- Some people tried to bond with me once I became more openly hostile, but once they realized that I didn’t have any deep insight on society at large, that it really was all about Colby, they lost interest in being friends.  As for everyone else who didn’t hurt me directly, I would have gotten along with a lot more people if we just could have met on neutral ground, in a place that wasn’t heaven for one of us and hell for the other. I just couldn’t deal with the We Heart Colby Club. But I understood where they were coming from. I understood how being a Colby student could be so integral to your identity that it felt like a personal attack when someone said something bad about the school. I got it, because I used to feel the same way.

I came from a strict, conservative, homogenous K-8 school that was the total opposite of who I was.  Public high school was my dream come true. All the small freedoms that most students took for granted were just amazing to me, like not wearing uniforms and being allowed to bring your own lunch without a doctor’s note.  My K-8 school was really small, with only one class in each grade. High school had so many different activities to choose from and so many different people to meet. I could never be the only kid in my class who didn’t play basketball like I was in middle school because we didn’t have 300 students on the basketball team. But more importantly, if I didn’t get along with one person, I could go make friends with someone else. I had never had so many different people to choose from.  I found a friend group I was comfortable in right away, and I was happy.

I was a jerk to a lot of people. There was nothing wrong with my loving high school, but I never accepted how bad it was for anyone else. Being a new student made me immune to a lot of the bullying that my classmates had dealt with for years. I found out years later that my friends were being bullied, when I had never paid attention at the time. I treated my high school experience like a universal truth; I didn’t say, “I personally love high school.” I said, “High school is amazing, don’t listen to any rumors or media or anything that tells you high school sucks because it’s awesome!” I imposed my feelings on everyone around me. If someone said that high school sucked, I told them that they were wrong and that high school was awesome. Literally told them. I corrected them the way Colby students have always corrected me.  

Just because I had found happiness in my new situation, I assumed happiness was easily within everyone’s reach. I can’t even use the excuse that I didn’t know what people were going through. I was only a first-semester freshman when the new friends I ate lunch with talked to me about cutting themselves and attempting suicide. They explained how you can burn yourself with salt and ice, showed me their cut marks, and passed me their suicide poems while the teacher wasn’t looking. I was stupid. I didn’t know what to say to anyone. All I knew was that I was supposed to tell an adult, which I didn’t because I didn’t want to get anyone forcibly hospitalized. I don’t even remember what I said to everyone. I think I asked them if they had told anyone else, and suggested talking to an adult about it. But we never had long conversations – I listened, but I barely responded and didn’t actively invite them to tell me more. I had thought maybe it was no big deal to discuss these issues in high school, but looking back now, my school was never that open or accepting as a whole. People must have sensed that I was safe. They trusted me, and I let them down. I never did anything.  

Even knowing what other people were going through, I kept pushing my own reality on them. I wrote a poem about how I was so happy with my everyday life and couldn’t understand why other people thought everything sucked; I posted it in my locker and actually submitted it to Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul. I thought I was right; I thought the awesome world I lived in was a universal reality and other people just didn’t get it. The only thing I thought would make it better would be if I could be surrounded by other people who saw that everything was awesome, just like I did…

It’s a classic “Be careful what you wish for” story. I understood now. I don’t know all the details of what my high school classmates were dealing with, but I understood. I didn’t see a way out of Colby. I didn’t see myself ever being happy like I used to be. But I knew one thing for sure – I would never again tell someone that life was awesome and they should just be happy. I would never assume that someone’s reality was the same as mine.  If I ever make it out, I promised myself, I won’t forget this feeling. I get it. I’ll always get it. No matter what happens, I won’t forget.

-The rest of the year was hard to deal with. Everything felt bad. Even things I used to enjoy felt bad because I couldn’t reach them the way I could before. I was getting hurt every time I left my room. Some days I slept in till 4:00 p.m. because I didn’t see any point in getting out of bed.  I was really sick for an entire month, when I have a good immune system and can normally ride over illnesses in a few days. I watched a lot of movies about eating disorders – they felt validating because of all the societal pressures of what to be. My mind used to be a portal to another world, but now it wasn’t a safe place to retreat; Colby was a parasite in my brain and I couldn’t think past it. My counselor asked me a couple times if I thought I might be depressed, and I told her the same thing every time: I did have a lot of depression symptoms, but they disappeared when I went home for school vacations, and I assumed that actual depression wouldn’t just go away. She never responded to that.

- My close friend was amazing through all of this. I never had to regulate myself around her. I told her what I was trying to get across in the novel I was writing, and we talked about it for hours. She gave me a lot of advice that helped me develop the characters and the story; it was better than the advice I got in my writing classes. I had stopped working on my novel, but our conversation helped me get back on track. Just being able to describe all the details to someone who wasn’t freaked out made me feel so good.  My writing professor was weirded out when I told her the plot, but my friend understood and valued what I was trying to say and helped me figure out the best way to do it.

I decided I would stick close to my friend and avoid people altogether when she wasn’t around.  But there was a new friend I had met through her who just seemed to click with me. Ze never seemed fazed by what I said.  When I spoke graphically about stuff like wanting to drown the campus in blood, ze wasn’t freaked out at all. Ze responded as if what I said was totally normal. I told zem about the threat note and ze was totally on my side.  Ze understood how messed up it was that I couldn’t tell the counselor how I really felt because I’d get kicked out.  The night that I got in trouble for the dance note, I ate dinner with my close friend and my new friend, and they were both on my side and couldn’t believe I was being watched like that.  I must have mentioned suicide at some point, because my new friend asked me, “How do you feel about suicide?” I told zem that I thought we placed too much emphasis on blind prevention without following through and helping people. I was treading carefully since I didn’t know zem very well, but the fact that ze had asked told me that I needed to talk to zem more.

I spilled my guts to my new friend a lot. Ze accepted everything I said about my own experience at face value; ze was never the least bit surprised when something that was okay for most people was a problem for me. Ze NEVER corrected me and said that something I felt wasn't actually that bad. In one of our earliest conversations, ze said that it bothered zem when other people felt bad because ze didn't have much homework/got it done fast, but ze didn't mean to be bragging about it. I told zem, "You don't sound like you're bragging. I know how people sound when they're bragging, and you always sound like you're just stating a fact." I could have said that it took me 12 hours to write a one-paragraph essay, and ze wouldn't have had anything bad to say about it.

Ze doesn’t even experience social pressures, but ze understood that the pressures I felt were bad. It even bothered zem that ze never knew whether people really wanted to sit with zem or not, because most people will say "Yes, you can sit here," just to be polite. When I told zem I was worried about my ex-friend being in my poetry class, ze suggested that she leave the room when we discussed my poem. I didn’t want to draw extra attention to the issue, but that suggestion meant a lot to me. Most people would say to regulate what I wrote about or just not worry about it, but my friend actually treated my feelings as the priority in the situation, more important that trying to hide the problem or follow a social code of behavior. I told zem I felt like I had no one now that those friends had ditched me and my other close friend was abroad, and ze said that ze would be my friend. We actually decided that we would be friends.

- One night my new friend told me that ze had been feeling like ze couldn’t trust anyone, including people that ze knew ze could trust. “But for some reason,” ze explained, “when I was feeling that way, I didn’t feel that way about you.”  
“Is it just a vibe?” I asked.
“No, there’s a reason for it.” Ze thought for a minute. “When you talk about abstract ideas, you relate them back to your own experience. I can see who you are that way. When someone just talks about abstract ideas, I don’t know anything about them other than that they’re interested in that topic. It’s like they’re a blank face in my mind.” My friend explained that since most people care a lot about their physical lives, it seems more honest to talk about things you really care about rather than things you’re mildly interested in.
I kept replaying those words in my mind as I lay in bed that night. I couldn’t believe it. All those times I'd been put down for caring so much about my physical life, when no one wanted to hear about it, when I was rejected for not being what other people wanted me to be…Now I had a friend who could see that I was being real and liked it, valued it, and trusted me because of it. I was done wasting my time with people who didn’t treat me well.

- My close friend who was away came back second semester and coincidentally ended up living right next door to me. We spent so much time together. We’d run out to get hot chocolate at midnight. We’d knock on each other’s doors late at night. We talked about friendships and relationships and whatever was on our minds. We took each other out on our birthdays.  I was always sad on my birthday because I never got to have a party or really celebrate it at Colby, but the night that my friend took me out, she told me how the birthday parties were huge at her high school. She went to a special boarding school with students from all over the world, and she said that they all threw huge parties for each other because no one could go home to celebrate. Everyone had a strong sense of taking care of each other like family. I had always sensed that quality in her, the way she always cared about people. Living next door and talking about everything in our lives every day was a lot like what I would do at home with my parents. We really were like family.

-My new friend and I also hung out a lot. Ze seemed to understand everything I was going through. Ze told me that if someone pushed zem into the lake because they knew ze would learn how to swim that way, ze would never trust that person again. The fact that ze did learn how to swim from the experience would never make it okay. That’s exactly how I’ve felt my entire life and I had never heard anyone put it so clearly.

Ze also said that if you ask someone to do something 50 times and they say no every time, but the next time you ask them to do it, they say yes, that is NOT consent. Compliance is not consent. Compliance just means that doing the thing is less bad than whatever bad thing you have to deal with by not doing it. Again, this is exactly what had been dealing with at Colby, and my agreement always came after being asked 50 times. This was the first time anyone else acknowledged that we had a general issue of non-consent in our culture. Ze just stated what I needed to say so clearly and concisely. I had found another kindred spirit.

-When I wrote a suicide poem for poetry class, my professor didn’t give me a normal writing critique – she just wrote me a note to go and talk to her after class. When I talked to her, I said that every single reason the speaker mentions for why she’s jumping is real for me, but I was not actually planning to kill myself.  She said, “Oh, okay," like none of those issues mattered as long as I wasn't jumping. Our poems are due a week before the class discussion; if she was really worried, she would have contacted me earlier. It's not a professor's job to care about their students' problems, but if you're going to make someone talk to you, you do have some responsibility to listen. Of all the times people forced me to tell them what was wrong, none of them took me seriously. Ironically, my suicide poem address the issue of fake-caring, comparing it to the red streamer of a candy cane that dissolves with a few licks.

My professor always got on random tangents during class, and after this poem, she would randomly say, “Don’t kill yourself! Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” usually when I had written something potentially suicidal. When I have a problem, I want a permanent solution. Every solution I had at Colby was temporary. I don’t know what my professor was trying to do, but she was making me feel much worse and I wished she’d just stick to poetry. The day we discussed the suicide poem, I was really upset. But my next-door friend gave me lots of hugs and we talked about it for a long time.

- You might think I’d be excited about the end of the year, but the closer I came to the end, the deeper regret I felt. I didn’t have the typical “What am I going to do after college?” worries. I was more concerned about if I’d ever feel good again. I wanted a symbolic exorcism – I wanted to just reach inside and remove the part of me that was Colby. I had mentioned this to a lot of people; some people were freaked out, some people were just confused, but my close friends were very understanding. When I told one of my friends that a lot of people didn’t understand, ze told me that not everyone is into symbolic rituals. Ze said, “You like symbolic rituals. You said you were so happy to delete the campus housing email without reading it. That’s a symbolic ritual because the act of deleting the email doesn’t actually do anything.” I had never thought of it that way before, but it made perfect sense. Maybe that was why no one else was as excited about deleting that email as I was. When I thought about it, a lot of things made sense.

I went back to my dorm that night and told my other close friend about being symbolic. She said, “I’ve always thought you were symbolic. That’s why nothing you say scares me – because I just take it symbolically.”  Wow. I couldn’t believe that two of my friends knew this about me before I did.  My friend was away during the threat note incident, but I had been itching to tell her. I always felt like it was a happy accident that she wasn’t there when I posted it, that I hadn’t lost her as a friend as well. But she told me that my former friends had already told her what happened and that she shouldn’t be friends with me anymore, but she wasn’t listening to them. We had always been very close, but now I felt even safer with her. She was my friend no matter what.

Towards the end of the year, I sent one of my depressing poems to my other close friend (my sophomore roommate) after my class didn’t understand it. She wrote  back to me with a lot of feedback.  When everyone in class thought my suicide poem was too chaotic, I felt like they weren’t acknowledging what the poem was about – a person’s stream of consciousness while they’re falling from a building would probably be way more chaotic than what I had written. But my friend completely respected and supported what I was trying to say, and she advised me on how I could get my point across even more. Her writing-advice letter felt so validating; I still reread it now and then just to feel good, to remember how much she understands.  My friend has a good sense of what’s clear and what’s not clear to the reader – she can tell when something is only clear to her because she knows me. She always told me that people weren’t weirded out because they were confused – they were freaked out because they did understand, because they knew I was talking to them. She told me, “As your imagery gets more powerful and you improve your writing skills, it gets harder for your class to pretend that they don't know what you're writing about.”

One night I was telling my other close friend what I imagined would happen if I jumped off the library tower.  When someone dies, everything about them suddenly becomes special. We want to cling to every trace of the person, to things that never mattered when they were alive. I told my friend that when students have died in the past, people always talk about how they were so friendly and outgoing and always smiling and spreading happiness wherever they go. “But they won’t be able to say that about me.”
“They probably would say those things,” my friend replied.
I couldn’t believe that we were actually having this conversation, that ze was treating this like any other goal and giving me advice. And ze was right. People value what they value. If they wanted to say good things about me, they would pull out moments when I was perky and friendly and act like that was me.

I always thought I didn’t listen to reason, that I only responded to emotional gestures of support. I actually said that to someone who was pushing me to get off caffeine freshman year. But it was never a matter of logic vs. emotions – it was about my motives being valued. I never listened to people who told me caffeine was bad for me because they didn’t value the reason that I was drinking it. I never imagined that I’d ever have an open conversation with someone about jumping off a building, that they wouldn’t go on about how that was such a horrible thing to do. Ze valued my desire and told me that I wouldn’t achieve my intended outcome by doing it.

It had never crossed my mind to think about something like this logically, in terms of the goal itself. When I thought about it that way, there were several flaws in my plan:
1. Jumping wouldn’t change what I was at Colby – an outlier. It would just show that I had a problem, not that Colby was the cause of anything.
2. I couldn’t be sure how the college culture would change afterwards. It’s possible that something good would happen, but it’s also possible that the next time someone got in trouble like I did, they’d be kicked out without a warning. That people who wrote stories and poems like mine might be scrutinized. It’s possible that I would make the campus a harder place for future students like me.
3. What I had to say was too important to leave in someone else’s hands.

I knew in the back of my mind that I couldn’t do it to my family, but reasoning it out made me feel much better, much more like it was my choice. My friend told me years later that ze wouldn’t try to talk someone out of suicide, but ze had basically already done it. In some way or another, all of my friends had.

Post-Colby (2010-Present)   

Thy memoried halls reclaim our hearts till all our thoughts are thine.
That’s a line from our school song. Literal translation: Colby will latch onto your heart like a parasite till you can’t think about anything else.

If you’ve ever bought a round-trip ticket, you got ripped off.  When you leave a place, you don’t know if you’ll ever really come back. You might change while you’re gone, and no matter how hard you try, you just can’t be what you were before.  The locks are the same, but the new key you’re holding doesn’t fit.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is bullshit.  I’m way more sensitive now to all the things I “stuck out” at Colby. I cry more easily. I spot subtle traces of pressure and invalidation a mile away. When someone tells me I should do something without evidence of my interest, I make a note to be wary of them. I feel personally threatened anytime someone says that someone else’s problem isn’t the crisis that they’re making it out to be or that there are bigger problems in the world, even if they’re just talking about some character on a stupid reality TV show. I am more cautious of who I trust than I have ever been before.

For a while, anything related to Colby triggered negative memories, even things that weren’t inherently bad. If someone just said, “Maine is a nice place to visit,” I’d get upset and start ruminating about Colby. There’s a sign on the way to Colby that says, “Welcome to Maine, The Way Life Should Be," which some students put on t-shirts as, "Welcome to Colby, The Way Life Should Be." I don’t ever want to pass that sign again.

There are words I automatically read as euphemisms – rigorous, intense, challenging, character-building, personal growth, encouragement, transition, adjustment, education, learning experience, dialogue – even when they are in a positive context. Anything about success, motivation, no excuses, making sacrifices, and not being a quitter upsets me. I used to like motivational quotes, but now they make me feel bad. For a while after Colby, I wanted to accomplish nothing in my life, because I only wanted friends who didn’t care what I accomplished, and accomplishing nothing was the only way to know for sure. And I can’t stand anything about surviving or handling stuff, or "sink or swim." If someone talks about being able to “handle” something, it’s not something I want to do. If there’s a book called “How to Survive____” then that thing does not appeal to me. If something needs to be “survived,” then I honestly don’t want to do it at all. Surviving doesn’t make it okay.  

I’m wary of songs and stories with the message that people just need to stop holding back, that everyone will love you and accept you and see how awesome you are if you just put your real self out there. Some of us hold back because we know that people won’t accept us, and saying “Just go out there and be your awesome self!” says that the lack of acceptance is all in our minds.  Or stories where someone tries to hold it all together and when they finally break down, everyone is like, “You didn’t have to pretend. You should have come to me!” They make it sound like you’ll automatically get lots of support if you’re just open about how you feel. That's why I'm so attached to the song "Make Your Own Kind of Music," because it acknowledges that no one else may sing along.

I feel threatened when people talk about really getting to know someone by taking them out of their comfort zone to see what they're made of.  I know most of my good qualities are contingent upon the fact that I can retreat to my comfort zone at the end of the day, and that most people won’t like me outside my comfort zone. I’m wary anytime someone says, “This will be good for [other person],” because it’s usually something the other person may not like that other people think they should do for personal growth or something.  

When someone says that a person ruined a trip by complaining the whole time, I always take the side of the complainer. It is very hard to know whether or not you’ll like something or even find it acceptable if you’ve never done it, and I find it hard to believe that everyone would have just said, “Oh, okay,” if the person had said they didn’t want to go. Even stories about people who punched someone for giving them the wrong coffee order – I know that’s a bad thing to do, but we don’t know the person’s story. Nothing seems weird the way used to.

Facebook made everything harder.  I’m glad I can keep in touch with my far-away friends on the internet, but the people I wanted to stay in touch were only about 5% of my Facebook friends.  Being 200 miles away meant nothing when I had constant updates on everything going on at Colby and all the awesome things my well-adjusted Colby classmates were doing.

Halloween was especially hard since the threat note was on Halloween weekend. I have a very strong episodic memory: I can tell you what I did on every birthday, Christmas, summer vacation, any recurring event that matters to me. The threat note incident is now latched on to my life-long stream of Halloween memories. When I think about past Halloweens, it’s there. When my mom and I recall every Halloween costume I’ve had since I was 8 months old, there’s always that year. 

I was in a quarter-life crisis; I missed out on that wild and crazy college experience, and now it seemed like everyone was over that and just wanted to be productive. I had all these symbolic goals, like eating only foods that had artificial coloring. There’s so much pressure to choose food based on health or ethical reasons that I thought by choosing foods that were pretty colors, I’d make an anti-Colby statement that I was fun-focused and wouldn’t change. No one could argue that it would be unhealthy because I don’t think drinking alcohol to the point of the throwing up is healthy either. I’d be living that “Beer for breakfast, ice cream for dinner” college lifestyle that I never had.

What I really felt after graduation was unsettled. If you’re writing a story about a kid who’s being bullied, the conclusion can’t be that the bully moves away and everything’s fine. That may happen in real life, but in the story, the kid needs to stand up to the bully for that happy-ending conclusion. I never felt concluded after Colby. I woke up every morning replaying moments where I wish I had said what I was thinking or told someone off. This went on daily for a full year after graduation, and sporadically for another year after that. If anything was wrong, I’d somehow relate the problem back to Colby and have flashbacks of much worse memories.  

The biggest issue of all was invalidation. Every problem at Colby came with two problems: the issue itself, and the fact that most people wouldn’t accept how important it was to me. That went on so long that I had trained myself to assume that invalidation came with every problem. I wouldn’t even think about the problem itself – I would just ruminate about how no one would take the problem seriously, how no one ever takes me seriously. At Colby that was true, but in real life, I never gave people a chance to validate my feelings. When I sprained my ankle at the start of my grad school winter break, the worst possible timing, I felt like no one would take my feelings seriously when I hadn’t even told them that I sprained my ankle. It was the same way with grad school; I thought if I told someone that I had too much homework, they’d have no sympathy at all. They’d say to get over it – that they had twice as much work as I did and weren’t complaining. There was no logical reason to assume this from non-Colby people, but I expected it, the same way someone else might expect a friend to sympathize. I downplayed everything. If I did tell a friend that I sprained my ankle or had too much homework, I would word it like it was less of a big deal so they couldn’t cut me down.  I once wrote on Facebook, “If I drop out of grad school, I would only stay in touch with people who would support my decision to quit, which would be like, no one.” I knew very well that this wasn’t true – I’ve chosen friends who are wouldn’t look down on me for that. I just felt way too vulnerable talking about a problem without defending myself.

I used to just care about my writing being good: entertaining, interesting, thought-provoking. It had never crossed my mind that someone might say, “This isn’t a real problem! Get over yourself!” but now that’s my number one writing concern. The main criticism I’ve gotten on my first novel is that my lead character Melissa goes along with everything and never stands up for herself. Even when she almost drowns in the lake because of a bonding ritual that she got coerced into, she still doesn’t quit the program. I had gotten so much criticism about my characters being too overdramatic when they reacted the way I would that I toned down all of Melissa’s reactions. I think I wanted my readers to question what she was still doing at the program, to tell me that she should have quit.

Colby itself was still an issue. I never told most people that I hate Colby College because I expected them to react as if I had killed someone. If you get an electrical shock every time you turn on a light switch, you won’t want to touch that switch anymore. No matter how much you want that light on, no matter how much you trust the person who tells you it’s okay this time, after a while you just don’t want to get hurt again. But I was never okay with just avoiding the topic. Talking about what’s on my mind is very important to me, and after all the negative reactions I got for not liking college when I was there, I needed to share this with other people to know if I could trust them.

My boyfriend really helped me to heal after Colby.  November after graduation, he responded to some depressing things I’d been posting on Facebook and asked me if I wanted to go for a walk with him the next day. We had our first date, and were together by January. I was treading cautiously. He was so happy-go-lucky that I couldn’t understand why he liked me. I had a long list of things to share with him before we moved forward because I didn’t want to be betrayed again. I talked about the 100 Facebook notes I had written against Colby on our first date so he knew how big of a deal it was to me.  I told him about the threat note on our seventh date, and his response was, “Okay.” I told him I was really scared because I was nowhere near as chill as he was, and he told me it was okay and that he liked me the way I am. At some point I showed him my personality test scores, but nothing was ever a problem. I was safe with him. He listened to me go on and on about invalidation when no one was actually invalidating me. He helped me take care of myself, like deleting most of my Colby Facebook friends and eventually starting over with a new account.

We spent the next two years having lots of fun adventures together and with our friends. I was laughing again. I could be silly again. I forgot what it was like to have people think I was cute and silly instead of stupid. I started using emoticons again. I changed my blog layout to be more welcoming. We discovered Skyzone Trampoline Park and I felt like I was in my element. I got closer to the new friends I had met at home; the fact that we hadn’t gone to the same college didn’t matter anymore. And when I didn’t get along with someone, I didn’t have to get close to them. I had control over my interactions with other people. I never felt trapped like I did in college. I had established a life after college. I was something more than an ex-Colby student. I couldn’t go back to the exact moment where I left off in high school, but I could treat college as a detour and get myself back on track.

I’m enthusiastic again, but I try not to push it on other people. In high school I would have said, “OMG this is so awesome – you have to try it!!!” and now I say, “I love Thing A because I love/am good at Thing B.” I try to give people objective information to make their own decisions rather than pushing my opinion on them.  When someone has a problem, I try to ignore social standards of right and wrong and ask questions to figure out what will make them happy. If they ask, “What would you do?” I usually say, “I would choose Option A, but that’s because Option A is more important to me. It depends what’s more important to you.”

I finished grad school this past December. 2013 felt like a new beginning, the first year that would start in January and end in December. The first year that wasn’t a school year. I was feeling really good. As I was applying for jobs, there was one that I came very close to getting, but went to someone else in the end. I was disappointed, but not extremely devastated. When I mentioned this job to my friends, everyone was very sympathetic. They were treating it like a bigger deal than it actually was to me. I had to ask myself, why did I ever think that I couldn’t trust anyone? Why did I ever question whether they would take me seriously? I knew why, but they seemed to be proving me wrong.

I got together with some of my new friends individually for the first time, where we could talk more than we would at a big group event. I learned that some of my friends loved high school and hated college just like I did, and one friend even said, “I would have committed homicide if I had lived in a dorm.”  Seriously! They were there all this time – I had just never asked. There was one friend whom I found a really special connection with. We went to a coffee shop together and she told me about an issue she had with invalidation, something similar to a lot of instances at Colby. She said that when I posted a link about invalidation on Facebook, it was perfect – it described exactly what she was talking about. I felt the same way when I first found it. She told me that she had been reading my blog and that a lot of things resonated with her. I told her about Colby. It was the first time both of us had felt comfortable sharing these things. After that night, I really felt like I could trust people again.

Sometime later, I had to cancel plans with my new friend because I was sick. As I was pacing around my house, annoyed that I couldn’t do anything, I suddenly stopped dead in my tracks and listened to my thoughts. I was annoyed because I was sick. I was thinking about that one single fact. There was absolutely no trace of invalidation in my mind, no Colby-related flashbacks, no predictive reactions of, “It’s not a big deal, get over it!” My mind raced back to all the other things I had most recently been upset about, and there had been no trace of invalidation for a while. I realized that my recent blog posts attacked Colby much more directly, and writing about those things didn’t hurt me like it used to. I ran over to the calendar to see what day it was, how long it had taken for me to get to this point. April 2013. My heart lifted. I felt like I was flying. A long time ago, I had written: “I look forward to May 2013. At that point, everyone I know will have graduated from Colby and my connection to the school will really be over.” It was happening now. My final friend was graduating in a month. The last class that I knew would be gone. I had no remaining ties to the school.

For years I had been emailing my friend about how I still felt broken and still couldn’t trust anyone and how Colby was still affecting my every move. I had to write and let zem know that it was finally ending.  My friend and I talked almost every day in zir last few weeks of school. We shared secrets that we had never shared back when life was dominated by college-induced depression. One time my friend told me that ze wished we could have a conversation that wasn’t all about bashing Colby, and my response was something like, “I need to talk about this and you’re one of the only people who will listen.” But now we'd been doing it for years. We could bond over other things besides hating Colby. It felt amazing.

Talking to my friend in zir final days of college made me realize just how much time had passed. It’s been 3 years since I graduated. That means 7 years since Colby has been affecting my life. Enough was enough. This couldn’t go on forever. I needed to be done with Colby and with my invalidation mindset for good. But something in me still felt unsettled. I started this blog for the purpose of writing about my college experience. I thought if I kept writing everything that came to my mind, I would eventually say all I had to say about Colby. But I still felt like I hadn’t done that. My friend invented “The Ritual of Hatred,” where each person stands in the center and talks about something that they hate or are angry about. Each person ends with, “I have said all I have to say,” and the other people say “We have heard your hatred and we value it.” That’s what I wanted to do – tell what happened and know that other people value it. But in all my blogging, I never addressed Colby specifically. I discussed each Colby issue as a general problem with society. I wrote metaphors without saying what I was actually referring to. I needed to tell my college story without dodging the point, without being cryptic, and without needing to defend myself. Just be open and honest, and above all, trust the person I’m speaking to. 

What happened at Colby was not okay. It will never become okay because time has passed or because things are better now. I am not proud of myself for sticking it out; staying at Colby was a bad decision, I should have quit, and I will never change my mind about that. But I am okay now. I’m not craving a symbolic exorcism. I don’t want to burn my diploma or smash my graduation picture or otherwise remove Colby from myself. Colby was not okay, but I accept that it happened.  In truth, I don't want to forget it. I was an invalidator before I went to Colby: I told other people how they should feel, I pushed my own reality on people like it was a universal truth, and I may have gone on that way forever if I hadn't experienced things from the other side. Every issue I've written about on this blog, I learned but wasn't taught at Colby College. That's what I've gained from my college experience. Whatever happens from here, I hope that I will always remember my Colby experience so I never forget what that was like.

Never underestimate the power of valuing a person’s experience. It’s because of all my friends who have validated me, who’ve told me that it’s okay to hate what happened, that I’m starting to feel okay. To my Colby friends, Karen, Eli, and Patricia: I love you all so much, more than you could ever imagine. When you’re in the middle of crisis and your world is falling to pieces, that’s when you know who your true friends are. You’ve all stayed with me no matter what was going on. You’ve helped me put the pieces back together. You’ve seen me at my absolute lowest and you still want to be my friends, not in spite of who I really am, but because of it. I know we don’t live down the hall anymore and we can’t always talk as often as we’d like, but I think about you all the time. You are the best friends in the world, you are the reason that I’m still here, and I will never, ever forget it. 

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