About 14 years ago an ill-formed version myself, an emotional wreck of pure overwhelming potential, came to Mercer University to find out who I wanted to be and how to go about being that person. I was going to think my way clean, think my way into some workable shape.
Four years later, I left without a degree and felt even more formless than before. I was supposed to be smart enough to figure things out, but I didn’t by the deadline. The red light was flashing and the alarms had gone off, but what was truly terrifying was the inevitable silence that followed. At the time, it seemed like a drastic failure, like a terrible start to an unbearable and desperate life. What I didn’t know then is that I had still been given some essential tools in college that I could truly use to create myself when I was ready. I didn’t know that every experience you have has tools to give you, and that it is a waste only if you never pick them up and use them. The deconstruction of self that occurred during my time at college was maybe what I needed to cut away some of what was holding me back.
At college, I learned about love, sex, drinking and friendship. I also started to grasp how bad I was at all of those things, but not enough to really change my behavior or figure out how to get better. Instead, in between jags of withering self-doubt, I let my arrogance shine, I polished my arrogance up like a prize. I sharpened my blades and slung out my barbs with the solipsistic abandon of someone too gnarled into their own pain to realize anything I said or did could really hurt anyone else.
Part of what held me up, what puffed me up, were some indications that possibly I really was a good writer after all. I got a clue that maybe I was a writer who could entertain others, the idea of which both thrilled and shattered me. To a person struggling with intense self-absorption, the notion that you may actually be good at something is its own terror. It’s getting puffed up and then sticking a pin in yourself. It’s like finding out you’re Edward Scissorhands and can make beautiful things, but you can also destroy everything you touch. It seems easier, in that scenario, to not figure how to be safe, but instead to just not touch anything at all. That’s when paralysis sets in, and fear finds the home it’s been looking for.
Some days in college I could write well, really well, both most other days I was in a fog. Words were giant boulders I could barely budge. They came out like sludge on the page and just sat there thick, uninspired, and immovable. My words were the blank stares of bored, despairing store clerks. They were placeholders, only there for word count.
I could barely get out of bed. I would get out of bed long enough to go to some of my classes, as little as was possible, and then come back to bed. I feared that I was broken, that I could not function in any capacity, but then I got too tired to even be afraid anymore. Some days I had a fantasy of running away and being a waitress in some faraway town. It was a sad, delusional dream that would fix absolutely nothing and faded quickly. Besides, I couldn’t run away if I couldn’t get out of bed.
I cancelled plans. At one point, I stood up a nice young man I had met at a party. I couldn’t even text to cancel, I couldn’t be bothered. An acquaintance was shocked when I told her, and rightfully so. I figured I was a bad person to the core, and that was the truth about me. Guilt can be a self-indulgence, a reason to give up. My world grew very, very small, and I had no idea who I was beyond this person who always felt horrible. I left my work-study job because I just couldn’t show up for it. I couldn’t show up for myself. I couldn’t show up for anyone, or anything.
In a rare burst of energy, I dragged myself to the psychologist’s office in tears. Seeing the state I was in, he immediately walked me down to a clinic to get some mood-boosting pills into my bloodstream. For a brief time after that the world sparkled again. I remembered what energy was. I saw the green on the spring trees, and it was like no green I had ever seen before. But I still didn’t like myself.
During college I learned that I mistook attention for love, I mistook depression for truth. I mistook my own selfish impulses for righteousness. I was profoundly scared. I had no idea how I was going to turn my ability to get an A on an essay into a career. Getting good grades in English and philosophy was a kind of success that felt like a cartoon walking on air. It was glorious and smooth, but I knew I was going to fall the second I looked down. Doom and confusion stalked my every step. I didn’t know what else to say because I felt like I had said everything I could. I was closed down, refusing to truly learn much. I was impermeable. I thought there wasn’t a place in the entire world I could fit with such a crazy, unwieldy self. I spent almost an entire semester inside Tarver library reading the journals of Sylvia Plath. I could feel myself disintegrating. I thought I could never read Sylvia Plath again without descending into despair.
Somehow, though, I did. I read The Bell Jar again this year and loved it. The book and Sylvia’s self expression isn’t what was dangerous, it was me that was dangerous, what I brought to it. I can read her again and love her again partly because I’ve turned my messy experience and my tangled self into a workable life. I took my ability to make an A on those college essays and somehow shaped it into a career, the result of which is on this very website. I was lucky enough to be born in a time where this type of self expression is possible, where an introvert with shaky self-esteem can self-publish online.
It took a decade, but I did this impossible magic trick, and it turns out it wasn’t a trick at all. It’s just mountains of hard work, and the exhilarating strain of believing in a vision. If you have a vision, some days you maybe won’t believe in it, but most days you do. The vision can be clearer than the negativity obscuring it, but only if you let it, only if you focus.
You also have to want the work, and not the hope of the prize at the end. You have to want the everyday tasks and love them more than the hope of praise and recognition. I want those things too; sometimes I want them more than I’d like to admit. They keep me going, but they are flickers on a screen. They are sparkles, they are fireworks and parties and sweet smiles, but the work itself is the only constant thing. That is what you have to love. That is what you have to live.
There has always been a hungry seed within me with a compulsion to express myself, to communicate. It’s fed by curiosity, loneliness and a deep love for storytelling and beauty. The professors and students I met at Mercer helped germinate that little seed, but it took a while for that to bear fruit. When I thought that seed was gone completely, it was still quietly growing inside me.
This growth involved me learning how to love myself, to love the troubled mess that I was and work on healthier behaviors. It took me understanding that there was no end point for me to arrive at just like there is no future dreamland (or personal hell) to settle in. Every single day will always be some kind of struggle and wonder because that is part of being alive.
Learning how to love myself helped me start to understand how to love other people. I have always felt deep emotions for other people, but love isn’t about just about emotion. Love is action, not what you feel at any given moment. I am still learning that, and I think that this may be the key to how I turned my passions, ambitions and dreams into reality. If I am going to write about people, even if it’s just myself, I have to truly love them. I have to love them in order to shape them, in order to pump blood through them and understand them.
I still easily slip into sarcasm and judgmental cynicism. I still forget how sharp my claws are. I still like to box myself into narrow spaces where everything I say or think can be true. I am still anxious. My words don’t always come out right, I am often still stumbling through life in a cruel oblivion. I am prone to depression. I don’t always think of other people except when I am concerned about whether or not they hate me. I laugh inappropriately all the time. I still don’t understand myself. I still feel like a bit of a stranger. But, I am a step away from the completely lost person I used to be, and that step can mean the difference between leaving the edge of one world, and entering the corner of an entirely different world.
I remember to be grateful more than I used to. Sometimes I step directly into gratitude and let the warmth of it envelop my whole consciousness. I touch at the edges of kindness, hoping that I can someday grasp it more fully. I am trying to give up my fear that my whole world will fall apart in the next instant. I’m trying to accept, in a way, that dizzying fact that worlds are constantly falling apart everywhere, that the present is just a gathered crumbling, and that the threat against my own sense of reality is really not that special. In many ways my sense of reality has crumbled again and again, and I am still here.
It seems that I am only now learning what was shown to me in college: that it is ok to be my strange self, to see the world a little differently than others, to be insatiably curious, to love art. I learned that it’s ok to want to be happy and prosperous, and to want to be when you’re not. I learned what a privilege it had been to go to college at all. I learned what a privilege it is to be alive and healthy. I learned that the world outside myself was much bigger and much more connected than I could ever conceive of. I learned that a lot of people were just as lonely as I was, and many were even more so. I learned it’s ok to question any and everything, but sometimes it’s ok to feel slightly sure about small things. I learned that failing is an essential part of the process of success. I learned that it’s ok to just not know. I learned it’s ok to fight to live how you want to live, but first you have to figure out what that is.
Most of the time we leave college with no clue what that is. When the secure bubble of the university (or the family, or whatever it is that you’ve left) is gone and the training wheels are off, we have to wobble out on our unstable legs into a world that’s indifferent to us and the drama of our lives. Nothing is certain for anyone, but no matter what your training ground is during those meandering young adult years, growing up means finding a way to stand up on those unpredictable legs.
People suddenly ask us to do things we don’t know how to do, things we don’t want to do, things that are both far more and far less important than getting a good grade and pleasing teachers and parents. Becoming an adult, and forming the self, means finding a way to rise up and do those things even if you find you have no legs at all. Eventually, it means reconnecting with the fragile parts of yourself that you tucked away when you were younger because you had no idea how to safely handle them. It means learning that it’s ok to be Edward Scissorhands, that we are all Edward Scissorhands, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever touch anything. We just have to learn how to touch, and then be brave enough to do it.
Even if I didn’t find a way to cultivate my creative impulses into an occupation, I think I would still be ok. I would probably be ok if I was still working at Starbucks, or if I had become an accountant, or did any number of things. Because the most important thing I learned is that the way we choose to live in any given moment, the way we choose to attempt to connect with others, is the greatest art we can create.
I don’t have a degree from Mercer University, but the experience of being there helped me give myself something far better: a life of inspiration and gratitude.
Top photo by Eric O’Dell