In my mind, I’m on a boat in the middle of the ocean. I’m taking on water, and all I have with me is a few small paper cups, the kind you’d drink out of at a youth sporting event.
College, for me, was a tale of two halves. It started out pretty normal. I came in freshman year full of hope, and ready for a different experience than I had in the Reading public school system. I had come into my own, had become comfortable with myself. I still was at odds with my body, but a newfound love of running helped to keep me level, or as level as I could hope to be, given the shifting landscape around me. I struggled to make friends at first, but it got easier and easier, and any thoughts I entertained about transferring faded away. I got my first taste of mental illness, but once I started hanging with a regular group, those challenging thoughts faded away, although they’d return with a vengeance shortly thereafter.
Sophomore year, I fell in love. I experienced what it was like to be focused on just one person, to be happy, and maybe even infatuated. That first semester was absolute bliss that spilled into the next semester. Things were great, and then they took a turn. I wasn’t ready for the honeymoon to end, and when it did, I didn’t stick around long. I didn’t know that the end of this period of bliss was coming, and given that most of my friends were single and enjoying the party scene, it was very, very difficult to want to hang in there and make things work. It also didn’t help that we were both so stubborn. The breakup happened, but we lived so close that we still saw each other all the time. I definitely advocate for the clean break. In so many ways, it’s so much easier.
I’ve written at length about my father, and so a lot of you know that after that summer, that’s when he began to exhibit symptoms of his illness. I think I denied the situation as long as I could. I whistled past the graveyard. Deep down, I must have known what was coming, but I stayed wonderfully ignorant as long as the ignorance would last. After a breakdown at an off-campus party, I could not avoid the truth any longer, and the truth was that something was very, very wrong. It was time for me to face the fact that he didn’t have decades to live, but rather, years or months.
Thus began the second half. Nothing was ever the same again. I remember walking past the north quad and seeing people playing football, laughing, cracking jokes, and having a good time. It was beautiful out, and yet, I was angry. I was angry because that had been me just the year before. Suddenly, I was being asked to grow up again, when all I really wanted was just to be a kid for four years of college. I felt like I was owed that. I’d lost a good portion of my childhood due to loss. Before I graduated and had to do real things like get a job, I wanted to do stupid and simple things like make friends, go to football games, and date. On the outside, I continued to do most of those things. However, on the inside, I knew that something had changed forever. I knew that after I saw this journey to its inevitable and terrible conclusion, that I would never be the same.
In a recent conversation with my therapist, she told me that I should think about the latter half of my college experience. Naturally, I turned her guiding words into a writing exercise. Writing is how I process my feelings and emotions. It’s been more effective than anything, save for talk therapy. As soon as she suggested it, I knew what I was going to do, and even worked through the opening lines in my head. This was going to flow. I set about my task, and chuckled a bit. My therapist and I were supposed to talk about relationships. We’ve been trying to talk about relationships for weeks, maybe even months, but given how much in my life is fluid, it’s hard not to focus on what’s right in front of me. I frequently come in with a plan, and then veer off into something entirely different.
There was an anger that emerged for me during my junior year. I couldn’t believe what was happening, that my college experience as I knew it was coming to a close, and a very different one was taking its place. I still did the things I used to do, but I knew what was waiting for me when I went home. I wondered about my father’s declining condition, about what would happen next, and I did everything in my power to either push things down, or not to think about it at all. I did my best to cope, even though I know that many of the things that I did were not constructive. I was that person on the boat trying to bail out the water with woefully inadequate tools. I was sinking, and knew that there was no way to avoid it. I saw a therapist, but one hour per week was not enough time to process and make sense of everything that was happening.
The anger was first, then came the guilt. I felt guilt regarding my anger, and in order to defuse the anger, I employed a certain strategy. Any time I got angry or snapped, I would immediately apologize, and then I would compare. I would think about my father’s condition, and would come to the conclusion that whatever I was going through, that what he was battling was exponentially more frightening, and painful. This is one of the ways I chose to cope. My current therapist correctly pointed out that I was invalidating my own pain. She’s absolutely right. This strategy worked until it didn’t, but at the very least I didn’t have to deal with the effects until after everything was over. When all of the structure and support systems in my life disappeared, save for my family and friends, that’s when I could no longer delay the inevitable.
“Self compassion should be your north star.”
My therapist and I have been exploring the past. Several times a month, we go time traveling, and we witness the trauma that I’ve been holding onto, that needs to be dealt with, even though I’ve talked through so much of this stuff so many times. She recommended that I have compassion for myself. I’m not proud of everything younger Adam did to cope, but I also knew that he had limited tools. Younger Adam did things like see a therapist, workout out, listen to music, but he internalized a lot, and frankly, the onslaught was real. There’s just no way he could keep up with everything that was happening without taking on damage.
It’s important to go back in our lives, not to cling to the past, but to acknowledge that our past selves were doing the best that they could. Let that be enough. Know that while we know better now, we didn’t always, and there’s no accounting for the things that work and then decide to stop working. You can’t always tell what will help and what won’t, and you can’t tell someone else how to handle these situations. People need to be free to figure out what works for them.
Losing my father was insanely painful, and one of the things that hurt the most was how alone it made me feel. My stepmother and sister were there, I had plenty of friends, and yet, a part of me knew that with this new development, that I was leaving the traditional life path, possibly forever. I’m comfortable enough now to realize and to own my individual and unique path, but for a long time, although others offered to listen, I didn’t feel like anyone else could relate to my situation. I’m trying to have compassion now for a person who was searching, and still continues to search, for the answers that elude him. I’m not there yet, but I know I’m getting closer. Self compassion leads the way. Thanks for reading.