The Phoenix and the Crucible

The Arch, Northwestern University

The Arch, Northwestern University

#depression #suicide #sexualassault #eatingdisorder

About once a year or two I find myself here again. It’s been a little over two years now. I don’t live in New York anymore. I have a graduate degree now; the diploma hangs in my office along with the one I got here. I joke that it’s the most expensive piece of paper I’ll ever have, but I don’t just mean the tuition. The cost that diploma carried with it weighed even heavier than my six-figure student loans.

Considering how everything happened, I should hate it. It was supposed to be my refuge, the place where I’d finally be able to be myself. Instead I got almost the full catalogue of college hazards: depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidality, disordered eating, sexual assault, sexist shaming and harassment, bullying, homophobia. Almost every adverse event a person of my demographic could experience in college, I did, some of them multiple times.

So now when I think of Northwestern I inevitably picture a kaleidoscope of papercuts that, taken together, tore apart my confidence, self-worth, and desire to live. Getting sexually assaulted and worrying that I’d cheated on my boyfriend. My assailant leering at me across the table at the student group meeting, the student group that wouldn’t deny him a leadership role because, after all, I never reported it. My editor asking me if I’ve seen today’s op-ed in the Daily, the writer of which felt empowered to insult my intelligence because he felt that my blog post was too angry. Losing my best friend when I asked her to stop making homophobic comments to me. My supervisor sheepishly telling me that in their RA evaluations, my residents complained that I dressed inappropriately, presumably to try to get back at me for writing them up when the stink of their pot was so strong in the hallway that I couldn’t ignore it and still keep the job I desperately needed. (“There’s nothing wrong with the way you dress,” she reassured me. The whole thing would’ve been less offensive if there actually had been.) The way the men I slept with treated me afterwards, every single one. (The idea of casual sex is still mildly triggering, and the thought of someone wanting me just for sex is still triggering enough to keep me awake for hours.) The things I put my body through to try to make it look right. Getting groped at parties freshman year; it would be years before I felt comfortable drinking and partying again. Sobbing alone in the snow after a failed exam. Hoping I fucking got pneumonia from it and died. Cataloging all the places on campus where I could kill myself. Winding up in bed with a knife with no memory of how I got there. How humiliating it was to reach out to the one person I had at the time, who could barely conceal their irritation as they tried to make sure I didn’t end that night in the hospital or in a coffin.

I had to stop myself from continuing to write that paragraph, because there are so many of those stories and eventually it would just seem gratuitous. But that was my life for four years. It *was* gratuitous.

What ended up destroying me even more than all that was how casually cruel my classmates were. These people will be your network for life, we were all told. I met plenty of great people, but of course what I remember most is the cruelty. Being emotionally vulnerable and open at Northwestern is all but an invitation for people to gleefully rub salt in your wounds. I don’t know how I managed to not only stop myself from becoming hard and calloused, but to celebrate my vulnerability even louder. This sort of writing I’m doing right now came from that. I do it in defiance of my classmates’ vicarious embarrassment, their averted glances, their ridicule, their patronizing advice that I should become someone else. Fuck you. Instead I became even more of myself.

Yet I can’t hate it. I came out of that crucible like a fucking phoenix. By senior year–the only year I even remotely enjoyed–I had become more or less who I am now, the version you know and love, or at least tolerate. For whatever it’s worth, college is where I finally became someone people could actually like.

(Even now, I question that. Did I become someone people could finally like, or did I become someone *I* could finally like?)

(I feel like almost everything about me now comes from what happened then. I’m so adamant about boundaries because of how mine were crossed. I’m a feminist because of the unrelenting sexism. I’m an anti-racist because no matter how bad I had it, I saw how much worse the students of color had it. I’m a therapist because none of the ones I went to back then could ever help me. I hate casual sex because of how I was treated during and after it. I hate pot because after I was essentially forced to write those residents up for it or else lose my job, they and their fucking frat brothers decided to harass and bully me for it for my remaining THREE YEARS of college. Over a fucking recreational drug. I always think about that when people say that pot is a harmless drug. Harmless to whom? It harmed me before I ever even tried it.)

And you know, maybe I could’ve had a college experience that wasn’t almost entirely horrible and still become someone I respect. Maybe I would’ve still become a therapist, a sex educator, a progressive writer and activist, an unstoppable defender of human dignity and autonomy. Maybe I would’ve. Maybe I wouldn’t have. Maybe I’d be a journalist covering the tech startup scene. Maybe I’d be a professor and researcher. Maybe I’d still be someone great, just in a different way. Maybe there are many paths that lead to the same place, or maybe I would’ve gotten lost in the shortcuts and detours.

That’s why I regret it and I don’t, and I miss it, and every time I walk through Ohio State’s campus back home I remember the full ride that was waiting for me there–the path I didn’t take–and I imagine who I’d be if I’d spent the past seven years in the city that has made me so happy and healthy at last.

I can’t hate it. I miss it like I miss everything and everyone that ever hurt me when I really thought they wouldn’t. I miss what it represented before the dream became reality, and then nightmare. And I miss the parts of it that were truly good. Because for all that my darkest times happened there, it was also there that the worst of the fog lifted for good.

So I walk through the arch with a shudder, but not for the last time: I know I will pass through this place again, and again, and again.