At freshman orientation, I distinctly remember my orientation leader saying, “College, not only where people turn up on Tuesdays, but also the place where you find yourself.” Now, at the start of my senior year, I’ve spent time reflecting on my personal journey thus far and wonder if he was right after all.
Freshman year, I weighed 97 pounds. When I visited home, my friends thought I looked great and asked for my secret to losing “the freshman 15.” My college friends, however, knew the heartbreaking truth. I ate less because I preferred to be antisocial and lay in bed crying than get involved or exercise as a way to work through my depression.
When my boyfriend of over two years and I broke up, I became hysterical when I came across a picture of him and another girl. I couldn’t understand how someone who claimed he was in love with me was able to replace me so quickly, so easily. I felt as if losing weight was the answer to making guys want me. My friend and my roommate walked into my dorm when I found out that he was officially dating the girl in the photo as I experienced one of my first panic attacks; I shook uncontrollably in my friend’s arms.
For two months, I watched my roommate get ready to go out as she sat for an hour in front of her mirror, working on getting her eyebrows to be on fleek. Each time, she asked if I would join her even though she already knew the answer. When she returned somewhat drunk after having a blast at the bar with my friends, telling me about how so and so hooked up, I would still be in bed pretending to watch How I Met Your Mother. In reality, I usually just flipped through my photos from high school with my ex, reminiscing on the life I wish I still had.
It took me a year and a half to let go of my ex. But in that year and a half, I became someone I wasn’t, and the worst part was that my friends and family never knew how low I sank. Not even my roommate knew about my self-harm attempts and suicidal thoughts until I admitted it to her months later. She kept my secret, but encouraged that I seek help from the counseling center at Florida State University.
I’d gone to the counseling center before, but I didn’t think it helped much. My anxiety made me think that there wasn’t enough time in the day to complete everything on my checklist. My best friends came to visit for a weekend, and I refused to see them because I needed to get an “A” on my rhetoric exam. I studied 72 hours straight for that test. During this time, I became someone who didn’t smile, thought that if someone didn’t love me, I couldn’t be happy and believed that if I wasn’t under 100 pounds, I wasn’t beautiful.
My creative writing class finally started to drag me out of my funk. I wrote a personal non-fiction piece about my depression and body image issues and really opened up about my problem. Then, I began to realize who I was all along. I was someone who was raw and honest; if I could be honest with my classmates, then it was time to be honest with myself.
The funny part is that my classmates’ critiques reminded me of the comment my orientation leader said a couple years earlier about how college is the place where you find yourself. I didn’t find myself with my classmates’ feedback, but I was reminded of who I was and how much I loved writing relatable pieces.
The following summer, I spent two months in Israel interning for an organization and blogging about Jerusalem’s culture. I interviewed locals and learned about their love for Jerusalem. Their free spirit and lack of fear about sharing their stories with a stranger helped me to change my outlook on life.
One day, I went to a park in Jerusalem where I watched couples sit on benches and fall in love, religious kids play soccer, middle-aged women dance Zumba and runners gather in groups. I attended a yoga class in Hebrew and had no idea what the instructor was saying except move right and left. I found myself engaging in a partner exercise with a stranger, but I wasn’t shy and didn’t pretend to be someone I wasn’t. Instead, we both laughed at the fact that neither of us were good at yoga in the first place.
I finally found myself genuinely smiling after two years. It was the first time I did something by myself, without giving anyone an explanation, without thinking that if I attend this class it will cure my depression or depending on a friend to come to the class with me. It was the first time I felt independent, and I walked the long way back to my apartment listening to “This Girl is On Fire” by Alicia Keys. For once, I understood why the girl in the song felt so powerful. She did things for herself that made her feel good.
College isn’t the place where I found myself; instead it’s the place where after getting off course, I was eventually reminded of who I am. What I re-learned during my struggle is that I’m a girl who’s always been on fire with both of my feet on the ground, with my head in the clouds and I don’t plan on coming down—ever again.