Sunday, January 26, 2014

I'm proud, I'm lucky

I am so fucking proud of myself for graduating from college.

This week my spouse is going to be at a conference. He is about to meet an acquaintance I barely knew in undergrad. The acquaintance was a super nice person and I never had any unpleasant interactions with him. But just because he knew some of the same people that I did back then, he is a witness to a difficult time in my life. A humiliating time. I went straight from remembering how nice he is, to being afraid that he remembers some of the lowest points in my life, to feeling those low points like they are still happening.

Thankfully therapy has somewhat prepared me for these times when a trigger brings back a flood of dark feelings. Those feelings are real, but they aren’t the whole story.

I overcame unusual obstacles in college and was able to achieve academic success and grow as a person in spite of them. I am so proud of that.

Here’s a little overview of what I was up against when I showed up as a freshman: When I arrived in class my first day, I didn’t know that I should bring paper and writing utensils.

I didn’t know how to cross a quiet town street safely on my way to class, and would wait until there were no cars in sight before trying to cross, partly because I didn’t have the spatial intelligence to estimate how quickly they were moving. My mom insisted that I bring a rolling backpack to school. I quickly attracted open mocking to my face, and I have to assume, lots of gossip behind my back, for dressing unattractively and having the social skills of a middle school kid. I stayed in my room every night and studied. I didn’t know that everyone wasn’t doing that. I started having nightmares about navigating the hallways of the school and especially of entering the cafeteria. I developed intense anxiety and a sleep disorder that made me stay silent and/or fall asleep in class, so my professors assumed I was bored or irresponsible. I didn’t know how to write a paper without moralizing everything. At least writing bad papers was something I had in common with the other freshmen.

And class was the part of college that went the best. I found small, predictable classes where I could make up for my gaping gaps in my knowledge by preparing thoroughly for every class, and got mostly As. The major I ended up in was not a strategic long-term choice, but it was the safest place for me at the time. Even when one of the professors in the small department took an active dislike to me. I’m sure I did something annoying that set that off, but who knows what it was…

My personal life was the real shit-show. Where to begin? I understood almost no social cues. It was probably a little like being autistic, except that as I began to learn social skills, I then reevaluated previous social interactions in the light of my new knowledge and usually discovered something shitty like, oh, that person had been mocking me and I didn’t see it at the time. So I was regularly taking emotional hits for things that happened in the past.

I did understand when people told me directly, “Go away.” Which happened. I alienated even patient, kind potential friends by just really not getting it at all ever. Like when I told a person who was anorexic that her problem didn’t make sense to me because I was skinnier than her. There were a lot of various forms of rejection.

And then, heaven help me, I fell in love regularly. But of course no one was interested in me and I didn’t know how to play it cool so it was this several year extended public agony. This happened to some of my homeschooled friends at college with me too. It was a small consolation to not have suffered through that alone, I guess... but we hurt for each other too.

Our school had no resources for someone like me. I wasn't referred to counseling when I would break down crying in office hours. I don’t think the school even had any professional counselors.

I remember two explicit pieces of advice from my parents to ‘prepare’ me for school:

My dad: “What you might think of as being frugal could be perceived as being stingy – it’s hard to make friends if you’re stingy.” Thanks dad, after living with no allowance ever and not being allowed to have a job and make my own money, explicitly because I am female, and also without receiving any clear indication from you about how much money I would be getting to buy stuff at school or when I would get more, I’m sure that I’ll be perfectly prepared to handle money responsibly and also be generous with friends. Oh good, in the middle of my first semester I am surprised to receive a guilt-soaked letter from my mother rebuking me for not being grateful about the money you gave me and needing more to pay for basic expenses like books and shampoo. I’m sure I won’t find it confusing when during my junior year you both berate me for not getting a part-time job already, after being told for years that it wasn’t ok for me to have a job.

Did you not realize that as a freshman I didn’t even know how to fill out a check?  Seriously, you decided that I shouldn’t be raised in such a way that I could possibly find this advice applicable.

My mom’s advice (written in a card that was decorated with Noah’s ark artwork): “God made everyone, all shapes and sizes.” And some note about being willing to be friendly to everyone. I found this advice from her ironic at the time, even before I ever learned how fundamentally great real diversity of experience is. She was the person who taught us that we should pray for our own Christian relatives because they were in the wrong denominations to be real Christians. My whole upbringing taught me to be afraid of everyone who was different from me in any way, including gender. Even if she had started to reject that crippling idea, the damage could not be repaired with a greeting card.

Also, if that message was a reference to how you, my mom perceived my personality as defective, shy or unfriendly? I was an outgoing, happy, irrepressibly chatty kid before I spent ten years in the solitary confinement of homeschooling. Shame on you for trying to blame my social and emotional difficulties on me like they are a character flaw or personal failing, instead of the natural result of painful isolation and harmful ideologies that you inflicted on me.

I was so unprepared - academically, socially and emotionally - for college, and for life. Yes, I’m lucky to be a white girl whose parents paid for her to go to college. Lucky that in the case of college, their desire to conform to the middle class code of conduct over-ruled their isolationist religious zeal and patriarchal gender norms. I see how others are struggling to move forward years later because their parents didn’t give them that support, and I don’t want to take that gift of college tuition for granted.

But I’m still really proud of myself for sticking it out and working insanely hard to persevere through the repeated failure and rejection. I am proud of myself for growing into a person who can give and receive love in spite of painful relationships and interactions. I am proud of myself for accepting gawky, needy, hurting young me as well as grown-up, put-together me. I am proud of me for continuing to do the hard work that it takes to be well and keep learning. 

To get through college I had to overcome a lot of obstacles, and there is nothing embarrassing about that.

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