“Just when I think I have learned the way to live, life changes.” — Hugh Prather
Five years ago this weekend, I was moving into my dorm room at college and having a complete emotional breakdown. I had just come from the absolute worst year and a half of my life, after struggling to maintain some semblance of cohesion and sanity between a hellish personal life and ever-increasing pressure at school, and graduating with not a single person I called a friend. For those two semesters on campus, I was barely able to function outside of being alone in my dorm room. I panicked about speaking to professors and in front of my classmates. I made more than one enemy and very few friends, none of whom I am in contact with now except for trading the occasional “like” on Facebook. I spent nine months of my life feeling very alone and very frustrated: I decided only six weeks after starting classes that I was no longer interested in my intended major and, in fact, no longer interested in continuing my education at all. I outright lied to one professor, bawled hysterically in front of another (as she fed me tissues and continued her lecture), and stared one in the face as I proved to her that I myself had written the paper she claimed to be “graduate school-level material” and thus obviously plagiarized. I formed several complicated and perhaps even toxic relationships, though I also ended the most toxic relationship I’ve ever been part of, with the person I considered until then to be my best friend. I sought the help of a counselor on campus, whom I saw probably half a dozen times before I cancelled the next appointment by email and reverted to self-isolation, which continued from then (around the beginning of November) until I left the school. I blatantly ignored text messages and knocks on my door from friends wanting to go to dinner or watch a movie or hang out. I ate little – usually lunch on my midday break between classes, and a spoonful of peanut butter instead of the dinner I skipped out on – and slept to avoid social interaction, a choice which meant I was awake in the middle of the night and slept through a lecture more than once. Some weeks I could barely keep my head above water as I struggled to complete coursework and even convince myself to get up and go to class.
When I knew for sure I would not be returning to school the next fall, my friends were disappointed and my mother was furious. I learned later that my father actually had to convince her to allow me to come back home, because she wanted to kick me out. She made it very clear that she was displeased with my decision, but still, away from school and back at home, I was doing better. I still didn’t have any friends, but I found a job which absolutely exhausted me, which meant coming home and going straight to bed and avoiding the discussions with my parents about my intentions for the future. I picked up as many extra shifts as possible, both to get into my manager’s good graces and to avoid being at home for any length of time. I worked turnarounds and doubles. Then I was offered the overnight shift, which meant fewer customers but more manual labor, as well as a differential, and I jumped on it. It was still the same workplace, the same job, and it was still hard and the office politics were still ridiculous, but I felt more fulfilled. I had better conversations. I met the person who has been my only true friend in this town since high school. I came home and slept through the day, which meant I had an actual excuse to avoid discussions that I thought I had been more than clear made me uncomfortable and upset. I started seeing a therapist again. I still got backlash: “You’re home all day, why can’t you help do X, Y, and Z?” “You make all this money, where does it go?” I couldn’t seem to explain well enough that I needed to sleep and that I was furiously paying off both school loans and medical bills, neither of which anyone else saw, as well as buying all of my own necessities. I saved up enough to afford nine days away in Paris with a friend who was spending the spring semester of his junior year abroad. After asking no one for help – aside from the coworker who gave me a ride to and picked me up from the airport – it became clear that my family thought I should not spend any time, money, or effort to take care of myself, and instead that I should be a handmaiden to my ailing mother. I didn’t think that my life would ever change. I didn’t think I’d be able to escape the dregs of whatever depth this depression had dragged me into, but I’d gotten to a place where I could more or less maintain. Life was not good, but I was still alive. Over time, between the stresses of home and work, the relationship between my therapist and me became strained enough that she actually told me once to leave her office and not come back until I was ready to speak with her. I stopped seeing her. Then I lost my job.
I tried to hide it at first, continuing to leave the house daily, until the charade became impossible to maintain. Once again, I found myself on the receiving end of a maelstrom, but having no other option, I stayed home. My mother’s health took a turn for the worse, and I was unable to cope, as I had been from the beginning, but the derision from my family only became worse. To them, I ceased to have feelings. I ceased to have autonomy. I ceased to be a person. Any leeway I had had before was gone completely. No one for the last three months of my mother’s life – or for the four and a half years before – once asked me how I felt or what I was going through. If not for the fact that I was a continual embarrassment and an easy outlet for the anger over my mother’s condition, I would have ceased to exist entirely. And when my mother died, I did cease.
And it was the moment that I realized that I had ceased to exist to all of these people that had made the last five years of my life a living hell that I could finally, finally breathe. There was no more anger. No more blame. No more guilt tripping. I was free again – or, perhaps, really, for the first time – to be my own person, to make decisions by myself and for myself without anyone else feeling the need to insert their opinion about my choice. So I became what I had always wanted to be and had never been allowed: an adult.
I took my half of my mother’s life insurance immediately to the bank, took out enough to pay off what was left of my student loans, and put the rest into high-interest CDs. I became legally attached to the man who had been my father my entire life, got a reissued birth certificate, got another job working the overnight shift I had grown to love, turned 22, finally started writing my book, and became completely debt-free in the course of a year. I still pay my own way, and have never once asked anyone for so much as a cent. This year, I took out a low-interest loan and am in the process of continuing to build my credit score. I’m also looking into opening a retirement account, and if all goes well, I’ll own a home in the next 10-15 years. And this spring, I earned my first-ever week of paid vacation.
I never got a college degree. I never got any special certifications or won any awards or commendations. I never even made my high school honor roll. I never did anything that could be considered an achievement or accomplishment, and I still don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I grew up, I grew into myself. There might be people who make more money than I do, or drive a better car than I do, or have a better résumé than I do, but I got up today, put on an expensive red lipstick and business attire, and I went to work at a job that I truly enjoy, so for a 23-year-old dropout, I think I’m doing pretty damn well for myself.