Deep down I think we all have at least a mild case of independence anxiety that compels us to dress, act and speak in certain ways just to fit in. The same kind of anxiety makes us deathly afraid of being alone, even if we’re not aware of it.
When my family first left me behind as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had this image of college as a friend-dominated and party-centric place for years. Standing there in front of my dorm building, only my keycard in hand, slowly tapped a nail into that image. They all said college would be the best four years of my life. No one said it would be lonely.
Leaving for college doesn’t feel like jumping from middle to high school. Instead, everything gets completely erased. My support networks? Gone. My own bed? Gone. My life looked like a blank slate, a tabula rasa. I felt like a baby, but this time I didn’t have someone to hold my hand as I grew up. I had to make all my friends from scratch or risk being alone, a disease freshmen avoided like the plague.
Which begs the question of why, with this disease in mind, would anyone stay in Madison for summer classes? I spent so long crafting a new social tower only to take a sledgehammer to it when I clicked the summer enrollment button. My friend finally mentioned this dilemma on one of the last few days of freshmen year. Some students were done with all their finals. A few had even packed up and left, and the campus already felt emptier.
“So what in the world are you going to do with yourself?” she asked.
Memorial Union, the student hangout where we we sat, looked half as crowded as it had been just a few days earlier. For the first time in months I wondered if my summer plans were all a huge mistake. My friends were all heading home. I’d have to start again with that very same tabula rasa—blank slate—and work my way up from nothing. I hadn’t even given it a second thought.
“That’s a good question,” I told her. “I really don’t know.”
And I still didn’t, not even after I moved into my summer dorm. It was smaller than my freshmen one. Claustrophobic, even. In my hall freshmen year, I immediately looked for friends, but my neighbors didn’t seem as friendly this time. They never said hello. They kept to themselves. After a few weeks they’d leave, and new girls would replace them. I stayed the summer as everything shifted around me.
I was, in a sense, a tabula rasa for much too long, waiting to build a new social life but only actually doing it toward the end of the summer. It was definitely not healthy. I spent copious amounts of time alone in an empty Memorial Union or a silent SERF (the student gym).
And if that doesn’t describe my self-esteem at the time, this might. I felt as though I sat on a baby carousel as everyone around me made friends and lifelong memories. I got occasional updates from my sister, who was having the time of her life in her own university’s summer session. And I wondered what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I enjoy my summer college experience?
She gushed about her time at college the next time I visited her. She talked about the parties, the drama and the epic all-nighters. I listened and nodded. Pretended I was happy. But all things must end eventually, and one night I broke.
“I’m not happy,” I told her, but at the time I couldn’t grasp why.
“I know you’re not,” she replied. “You spend too much time alone. You haven’t even tried to reach out to the people in your hall.”
I wanted to protest, but I also saw the truth in what she said. I’d been in a state of self-pity all summer but hadn’t tried to remedy the situation and make friends with the girls around me. They seemed unfriendly at the time; they probably thought the exact same thing about me.
Independence anxiety shouldn’t rule our lives. Being alone was, in a sense, its own college class for me, and I understand myself more because of it. But that anxiety is certainly there for a reason: We all need to strike a balance between independence and dependence in our college years and understand that like chocolate, both are healthy in doses.
I don’t regret my summer in Madison. I would do it again if I had the choice, but I’d make more of an effort to reach out to my neighbors. That time alone made me stronger, but it also taught me the importance of reaching out to those around me. And now that I know what to expect, I know I need that balance in my life.
Dependence and independence can coexist in our college year. We just have to be brave enough to let them.