I Am Who I Was: College Senior, College Freshman
Personal posts are a rarity for me. My tendency to talk at length about the importance of transparency doesn’t — for the record — make it any more comfortable. But what can I say? Tomorrow I have 9 years in recovery(what, what!), and Monday, I begin my last semester of undergrad. “Reflective” does not scratch the surface of this current introspection. Hence: an exception.
Four days before my last semester starts, I am already seeing her everywhere. The freshmen stream into orientation, each one tethered to his parents by some invisible cord, and I see her — hair blue and cheeks red, struggling not to stumble over her own name. I see her sitting outside the still-unfamiliar alumni building, after a lunch where only-salad marks her (early) as a vegetarian. A lunch where — although she fights her racing heartbeat and sweaty palms to try and speak with people — only her peers’ parents take enough pity to respond. I see her sitting alone, among throngs of classmates she doesn’t yet know, turning away to leave a message on her best friend’s voicemail, desperate to remind herself that someone does know her, cares for her even, although that person is currently three state lines north. I hear her voice rise a little when she leans into her cell phone and substitutes “I love you” for goodbye. I remember the desire she feels, the need to announce, to anyone who might overhear, that — although her best friend isn’t here — she has someone to love. So you see, I am worth something, although you’re too busy, apparently, to know.
I see her moving into the dorms mid-year, jumping every time a door opens, having to garner courage to enter her bathroom or the dining hall, vowing never to be the upperclassmen who lets a freshman sit alone, (as she is sitting). I see her writing lengthy journal entries about first encounters with people she’ll later refer to by nicknames, people she’ll mock (lovingly) to their faces and struggle to imagine life without. I see her working to steady her breathing around the friends she can’t believe are accepting her, in that time before she knows these people are long-haulers — and that more than one of them is managing anxiety markedly similar to her own.
Most often, I see the way she circles the annual Activities Fair, pretending to talk on her phone, trying with all her might not to look like the weirdo she fears she is, unable — in the end — to even peruse the organizations she desperately wants to join. I see her, so terrified to be out of place, flashing over the image that came later: of her working tables for multiple organizations, joining groups — then heading them, winning Student Leader of the Year. As I watch, the girl alone at the lunch table becomes the girl pulling chairs over so still more friends can sit with the crew. She morphs, ever so gradually, into the girl reflecting back on her existence, the girl wondering how She became I — because of course this is all some poetic bullshit, and really it’s my own life I’m pretending belonged once to someone else.
It’s easy for me to stand aside and let the girl I “was” four years ago remain unclaimed. It’s easy to separate myself from her, to suggest I’ve stepped into a body and life she vacated — that I am not the girl she was. For ease, for rhetorical laziness, I do this fairly often. I mention that I don’t recognize myself, that I don’t remember those days, that it seems so long ago… because how else does a person emphasize the impossible changes that have taken place? What better way is there to say that my life now would have been unthinkable to me then? That the everyday reality I have now — flawed and complicated as it can be — is the kind of thing I cried over and dreamed about my first year here?
Go back further; it grows harder still.
How can I be the same girl who quit speaking in public, who rarely left her home for two full years, who disappeared from a school she’d spent 10 years at — to be hospitalized out of state? How can I be the girl who stayed up until the morning’s earliest hours because she didn’t trust her heart to keep beating if she slept? Who woke up after a minimal amount of rest because sleep was a waste of time, when a girl could be (should be) exercising?
It is easiest to say I don’t recognize that girl.
It’s easiest, but it’s untrue.
I have lived most of the past four years with an intense fear of returning to the life “that other person” lived. It’s common — in anxiety and trauma — to fear you’ll be returned to the very parts of your past you’re trying (desperately) to avoid. (“Common,” of course, is the consolation prize you’re offered when “bearable” and “enjoyable” aren’t options.) I’ve tried to separate myself from That Person I’d rather not recall, by being someone else, by distancing myself from anything that triggers memories of My Life Then, by walking out on discussions that rip my emotional levees away and leave old terrors and traumas flooding to the surface.
But claiming I’ve turned my life around and become someone else leaves me in constant fear that I might unintentionally reverse the shift. That I will undo the magic trick that’s turned me, temporarily, into someone else. On top of which… it’s simply, undeniably not true.
What’s amazing about my life now — perhaps what’s most amazing — is that I’m the same person I was four years ago, six years ago, ten. When I sit in a class where the teacher flippantly uses anorexia as a metaphor, I still feel terror swell through my body. My breath still catches in my throat, as everything I’ve spent so much effort not to remember returns to the surface, to the place where it can’t be controlled. When I pass someone in the hallway and they don’t smile at my greeting, I still think they hate me before I think anything else. After seven consecutive semesters on the Dean’s List, I still enter each new class, wondering if I have it in me to do well. …Or will this be the semester when I break, when I prove right the voc rehab counselor who told me I was not — and would never be — college material? Will this be the semester that erases how well I’ve managed to fit in, how much I’ve managed to learn, how truly I’ve excelled academically, how much I’ve developed as an activist– or how I’ve made and sustained friendships I didn’t — at 21 years old — believe were possible?
…No. It won’t.
But not because I’m a different person now. Not because these outcomes are unthinkable or because that version of the future belongs to someone I no longer am. Rather: because I’m more than I was as a freshman. I’ve grown in ways that still astound me, ways I still find too new and exciting to take for granted. I’ve learned how to manage the anxiety that still courses through my body on a daily (if not hourly) basis. I’ve learned to doubt the assumptions that position me, constantly, as an outsider staring through the window glass into Someone Else’s beautiful world. I’ve learned how to speak my most unpopular opinions, and how to manage the backlash; I’ve learned how to navigate being viewed as a shit-starter, when a large part of you would really like to be the darling/ poster-child. I’ve learned how to perform a chi-squared test and how to edit out my constantly-split infinitives, and I’ve started to reach a point where I can do research — and offer opinions, at conferences even — on topics that triggered instant panic attacks my freshman year. I’ve grown into this person, without growing out of that old one. This growth is not linear; it can’t remove me from the person I once was. It layers.
Peel me back, and you’ll find those same fears still present. Cut into my tree-trunk and you’ll find these past four years are only the most recent in a process that’s been going on far longer. These years, here, have expanded my identity and my life. They haven’t erased what came before.
And more and more, I find that worth mentioning. The life I have now is made possible by the 19-year-old who struggled to walk around her block, by the 16-year-old crying over sandwiches and trying to doubt certainties that wanted her dead. It’s made possible by the freshman who came to a conservative college, sporting blue hair and yet!-still! wanting to fit in. The ease with which I now navigate the same halls, arcades, and classrooms that left me paralyzed and in tears four years back says very little about fears I’m no longer battling or insecurities I’ve banished permanently. It says a lot more about the ways I’ve found to handle those struggles, about the art I’ve learned to make from the messes and the good I’ve learned to pull from the grief.
To my surprise, as much as anyone’s, it’s better knowing this. It’s better knowing I’ve grown from — not replaced — the girl I was. …Because now, when I see that ghost of myself wandering around, I know she sees me, too. And — when I realize that who-I-was has become who-I-am — she (for the first time) gets to believe her hard work truly matters, has truly changed more than she could — until now — know.
She, too, gets to be worth something. To know she always was.