I graduated from Middlebury in May of 2014. I don’t even go to Middlebury anymore, and still, my heart is pounding as I write this down.
People often ask me if I miss Middlebury. The answer is a resounding “No.” In fact, I feel bad for those people who think their four years there will be the best four years of their life. I had a teacher once—the first victim of my obsession—who told me that high school would be the best four years of my life. And I laugh about it now.
Middlebury was my dream school, and I wanted everything to be perfect. But the summer before I arrived, I started to feel in every fiber of my being something that had only been a footnote, maybe something I tried to ignore, I don’t remember – anxiety. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I would dread going to my volunteer job as a day care worker because I was too far away from home—even though it was just down the street. I started to have bouts of panic: hours-long stretches of exhaustion and terror. I started seeing a psychologist. I resolved to get good medication and treatment when I got to Middlebury. And that first night at Midd, I convinced my parents to stay one more night and took Klonopin to get through. The next day, I volunteered to be the first to lead discussion in my First-Year Seminar, and as I did so, I wrote messages to myself about “not having to stay here” and “in an hour you can go home.” I begged my parents to put me in the car and take me back. They gave me more Klonopin and took me to Proctor for lunch, and after an hour I was too drugged out to beg again. The car pulled away down the hill, the hill I would stare at so longingly for four years after, and I puttered around Hadley pretending to be confident as hell to everyone I met.
For the first three weeks of freshman year, I was perpetually on Klonopin. I saw a shrink in town and got new drugs: Ativan on an as-needed basis. On September 27, 2010, I took some for the first time and went down to a campfire in the organic garden. I was calm for the first time in three weeks. I now realize that the Jewish community at Middlebury was my way of feeling safe: I thought off the bat that I belonged at Midd, but after a long time, I realized I probably didn’t (at least, not the way it was then. I have hope that things will change for future classes, especially under the leadership of Laurie Patton. This project is a wonderful start to such a change). Hillel was my way of staving off that realization and trying to make things better for myself in the interim. Most of the time, it didn’t work. But there were some moments of real joy and discovery, and for that, I will be forever grateful.
Hillel was also where I met the second victim of my obsession. He was beautiful, and everyone thought he was heaven. He reminded me of my grandfather who died when I was 16, and who was, for lack of a better explanation, the only reason my dad’s abrasive and frustrated demeanor was not a huge issue for me growing up. I felt safe with him. I talked with him for hours one night and it sustained me for years. He was the first thing I thought of when I woke up, and the last thing I thought of when I fell asleep at night. Eventually, I was tortured by his presence in my head, and I told him how I felt, knowing he did not feel the same. It was, up to that point, the hardest thing I have ever done.
So he was the obsession for two years. I took Ativan. And then fall of my sophomore year, the unthinkable happened. The object of my obsession changed into the last person I would ever want it to focus on – my best friend. From that fall to a day before graduation, he was always in my thoughts. And I mean always. Every second, he was like a specter over my shoulder, and even when we were hanging out, there was another version of him in my brain. He was everywhere and nowhere, and what I had envisioned as him didn’t even match up with the reality. Yet, it persisted, and it made me feel terrible about myself. And even though I knew that we weren’t going to be together—I didn’t even want that for a large portion of those two years—I was powerless. Because I didn’t understand what the obsession was until a long time later. It was a mask for something much worse. My brain, in its bizarreness, was trying to protect me by making me focus on someone else.
This friend tried to be there for me. He and my other best friend made me go back to therapy the fall of sophomore year. I continued to have bouts of anxiety so bad I couldn’t walk. One morning, as I left my favorite class, I had to stop in the alcove of a building on Main Street and retch until I was okay enough to keep walking to Mary Hogan for volunteering. By March of that school year, I was on 100 MG of Zoloft – today, I’m on 200 MG. There was a week in which everything felt OK, and then it didn’t.
This friend tried to be there for me. And then in the fall of junior year I told him I was in love with him. I fell apart after that, we tried to talk through it, and then I went abroad. The anxiety was kept at bay in Scotland for some reason. I now believe it was being away from Middlebury: the stress, the constant “I’m fine,” always being on… and also, I didn’t feel as known abroad. Eventually, I missed the feeling of being known, and I was so excited to come back.
That summer, my friend and I were both at Middlebury. It was only two days before we were both furious at each other. I watched him lean against my dresser, silent and stone-faced, as I threw my belt against the floor and cried from some deep place that I don’t cry from anymore. I didn’t notice– or pretended not to notice– the hurt and helplessness lining his features. A week later, he took me outside to the Adirondack chairs by the library and told me that we shouldn’t talk to each other. He told me he felt literally sick about it: cutting off communication was the last thing he wanted to do, but I hadn’t made room for him to be a helping presence. I doubled over and retched on the grass. That was the first time I had done it in front of someone else. I still didn’t get what was happening to me. I still didn’t get why I was feeling so awful. All I knew was: He couldn’t be there for me.
The fall of my senior year—pretty much without my friend there except to help with a particularly bad anxiety attack in the beginning of the year—I started to get it. I didn’t do well in class. I tried to go off the Zoloft without supervision and I got brain zaps. I would go outside to take naps in the middle of Shakespeare with Billings, which I loved. I took Xanax to get through Information Sessions at the Admissions Office as a Senior Fellow, a job I wanted since freshman year. (The office offered to work with me to give better presentations, but I wasn’t in the place to sell Middlebury, let alone in a stable place, period. I left the job in November.) I couldn’t go to a close friend’s apartment at 59 Main—too far away from my dorm in Munford for me not to panic. And forget about visiting another close friend on Court Street, even though I really wanted to spend time with her. Way too far not to panic. I started to have “unsafe” places: Bi-Hall, Ross, the FIC (where Hillel is), the Gym, the golf course. Every single meal was a struggle to push down my throat because I felt so afraid all the time. I leaned on my friends a lot, but it wasn’t enough. I convinced myself I felt better and tried to talk to this friend—my rock, my redeemer, my anchor, these were the lies I told myself—towards the end of that semester.
A week into J-Term, he said he couldn’t talk to me. And as I cried hysterically into the phone, afraid of throwing up as I had when speaking to him three separate times now, I finally, finally, got what I was doing.
I was hiding. And I was lying. And I was not at all okay in a way that had nothing to do with any one of the obsessions I had had since I was fourteen-years-old.
I left Middlebury the same day. My father drove five hours to pick me up, and I cried in my brother’s arms when I got home. The condition for taking that J-Term off was to see a therapist twice a week. And that is what I did. We worked on hard truths together. I came back to Middlebury for the spring and was the most miserable I have ever been in my life. I spoke to this therapist once a week, working hard through what I now knew I had been struggling with for four years—depression. I lashed out at my friends and I blamed them all for not being able to support me during that incredibly difficult time. I moved out of a suite I had with three of the people who had tried hardest to help me.
One night, when I felt too ashamed to call someone to come and be with me (all the usual excuses: “Everyone is busy,” “I’d just be a burden,” “Nobody cares about me,” “I’m useless,”) I called my mom and told her I didn’t think I could go on anymore. And then I hung up. A minute later, my father called me, screaming. “If you say anything like that ever again, I will come and get you and you will not graduate. Do you understand me?” Through tears, I told him I did. And I meant it. And somehow, through the hell I was in, I knew that I would graduate. I knew that some way, things would be OK. And I won’t lie: I knew that a lot of my hope had to do with the fact that I was leaving Middlebury—not the people, the place—for good.
I graduated from Middlebury in May of 2014. It was the hardest four years of my life to date. I got better, and the people who were most affected by this shit time in my life are still my friends. Some relationships are stronger than they’ve ever been—I cherish these the most because they are reminders of how far I’ve come.
I felt alone at Middlebury, especially when I was surrounded by people. For people like me who struggle with mental issues, I ask that you be open and honest and even be proud to not feel one hundred percent. Don’t hide at Middlebury—it’s really easy, and it’s really harmful. Fight the urge to say everything’s all right—chances are, the person asking isn’t all right either. Ask for help, even in unlikely places. Own your mistakes—I made countless. Be proud of what’s important to you—even if it’s competitive Pokemon, which I always felt the slightest bit awkward about at deceptively conservative Middlebury. I never complained about schoolwork because the work I did on myself was so much more difficult and so much more important. I didn’t graduate with a GPA as high as I know is my potential, and that is more than fine. Because I feel better now, and that’s the most enriching work I could have done.
I wish I could give you a nice ending, but it doesn’t really end. It just becomes easier to deal with: you get tools for coping and you get smarter about how to deal with yourself. The summer after I left Middlebury, I continued to see the same shrink and I was terrified of going into the city to see her every time. There was this one time I was so close to not getting on the subway–I’d developed a fear of being underground–but I fucking got on the fucking train anyway. You know? You just have to keep doing what scares you and keep on pushing. And once you do what freaks you out enough times, somehow you stop freaking out. It’s about not giving up. You just can’t. And if you can’t give up, you don’t.
-Middlebury College, 2014