The Unspoken Loneliness of College Life

Hevria writers were challenged to write long pieces of 4000 words. Here is mine. Buckle up. 

College.

I never expected it to be hard.

There was no red flags in the years prior to college that my life would disintegrate. 

Open my yearbook, and there it is, front and center: school spirit award, senior year of high school, next to my bright and shining face. 

I was the girl who wore funky clothes, who painted her face half blue and half white down the middle on school spirit occasions. Tube socks, short shorts, hooting and hollering. I was the girl who got up in front of the whole school to rally up the troops. I was brave and fearless and somebody.

I worked like mad. All the Advanced Placement classes I could handle. I cared about the challenge, the effort. But most of all, what I cared about, was college.

I was supposed to care about college. That was the subliminal message we were daily fed in our driven, ambitious town; college was the goal, the next necessary, all important stepping stone. If we got into a good college, the formula went, a good life followed, guaranteed. College was to be the shining light at the end of the everything tunnel. I dutifully followed all the rules I picked up about how to get there.

I joined so many different clubs, mainly  for the purpose of “putting it on the college resume”.

“Students Against Drunk Driving” club? Sure, why not. Tuesday morning, I showed up fifteen minutes before the meeting ended, added in a couple of opinions, ran for some type of club officer, and walked away feeling like I accomplished important work. The work of getting into a good college, at the very least.  

This was how the universe turned, as far as I knew. Everyone I knew was doing it. The president of the SADD club my senior year was actually arrested for driving under the influence, so there you go. We were all just doing what we were supposed to do. Building up how we looked on the outside, outwardly impressive.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t do things in high school that utterly changed me from the inside out, things that brought great joy into my life.

High school was the first time in my life that I discovered my artistic talent, thanks to my first artistic mentor who believed in me, Mr. Montgomery. It was the first time I used paint and canvas to say something other than “pretty girl”, “ lovely flowers”, or “beautiful sky”.

High school was also the first time that I learned how to run. It grew into a great, passionate obsession, to which I still subscribe.

I joined track my freshman year, and never stopped running until my final day of high school. I ran in August when school started for pre-cross country training, then in September to October for cross country, November for pre-track training, December to February for indoor winter track, and March to May spring track season.  

I ran during the summer months, waking up at 5:40 every morning to get to 6:00 a.m. practice.  I trudged down my red, flower carpeted staircase, while the rest of my home sat motionless, still, dark, and sleeping. I started the key in the ignition, the noise filling the entire space of the car and world, and drove down the block towards practice. The day and I were partners. It was commitment, but more importantly, self imposed commitment, and thus exhilarating. It was freedom. My freedom.

I was very self-motivated. Once, I desired to register for an AP English class my senior year. However, the snooty English department wouldn’t allow people to just “sign up” for the class- you had to be accepted. So I filled out the forms, wrote some paragraphs, but it failed to impress. 

“Sorry,”they shook their snooty, English heads. “We just can’t let you into AP English.”

As if something terrible would happen if the wrong person went into their classes. So I went to the guidance counselor to register for my classes.

“AP English, please,” I said.

“Were you accepted?” she asked. 

Yes,” I quickly lied.

And she signed me up.  I was that hardcore. Lying to get into a harder class, that was me. 

As it turned out, the AP English teacher marked up all of my pages and believed deeply that my sentences lacked all correct grammatical functioning. But the point wasn’t the grades, it was never the grades. It was the effort. And I was willing to always go all in. I could muscle my way through life, that was my greatest secret strength.  

So when I got into the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign with an art scholarship, I didn’t think that academics would be a problem. I didn’t think that my social life would be a problem. Heck, I didn’t foresee any great problems. No one had warned me to. I had rocked at high school. I had made great friends. What could possibly go wrong?

I signed up for the “artsy” dorm- the place where guys with long hair and grungy clothes hung out on benches outside at night, smoking and drawing chalk paintings on the brick walls while saying funny things in deep voices. The place where interesting guests from around the world came to share insights, sing, dance, and perform.

I moved in, greeted my artsy roommate, and tried to dig a life into our prison-like dorm room.

At first, it was fun. Exploring, trying to not be too intimidated by older students. Having fun appeared to be a top priority, and I was doing it. Going to classes at 2 Pm. Sleeping until 1 PM. Dining hall, with the waffle machine. The vanilla frozen soft serve yogurt that could be dripped over the waffles. Breakfast, lunch, or dinner.  Sprinkles on the frozen yogurt. Friendly, fun, good people.

I connected with some people from my dorm, and we went on adventures. By Thanksgiving break, I had my own new circle of friends, a new boyfriend, and things were falling into place. I felt cooler, deeper, better, than I had been in high school.

While I didn’t really connect with the Jewish community over at Hillel and then later Chabad, they were definitely nice, and going over for Friday and Saturday meals and services worked just fine in my life. My good friends were not Jewish back at my dorm, but they were deep and spiritual, and brought me to a higher level of existence.

Slowly, insidiously, things began to fall apart.

Having fun failed to sustain me as the season turned colder, and we returned back to campus post-Thanksgiving break. I felt myself searching for something and not finding it. Something I couldn’t put my finger on.

Time and life felt frantic, superficial. I was constantly running and consistently frazzled, but never sure of exactly why or how I was spending my time.

The changes of college life, besides for the academics, were dramatic in a way I hadn’t conceived of. I felt like I was floating in a sea of me. Without any one to take care of me, and no one for me to take care of, no older brother or younger sister, no hierarchial structure,  my brain felt confused, unfocused, grasping for straws. 

There were no roles that I was supposed to fill. Sure, I went to classes. But compared to the strenuous academics of high school, it felt more like camp than boot camp. The only task I really had was to have the time of my life, to fill it with joy, pleasure, and deep insight worthy of a college tuition. But that expectation, no matter how I tried, I just couldn’t seem to fill. Rather, I felt like I was going through a quarter-life crisis.

I just didn’t understand why.  

Being that I was a woman of action, and I knew something would change this downhill, sobering turning point in my life. That winter, I signed up for a Birthright trip. The solution had to be out there, somewhere.

I boarded the plan, not knowing anyone. Half the students were from Ohio State, the others were random people from all over, including Colorado and New York.

I landed in Israel, my first visit there since I was 12, with my mouth open wide, spellbound.

I stood at the Kotel, aghast.

God, I understood at that moment, was not just a nice concept. He was there.

And yet, here I was, a shomer shabbos grown woman who couldn’t  properly speak to a Gd so palpably present.  I had nothing to say, because I had never learned how to properly pray.  I had refused to go to private religious school, and it showed. 

I felt shame- the good kind of shame, the kind where a person deeply understands where they went wrong and how they were going to change. The type of shame that allowed me to  tap into a stabilizing, grounding core truth of myself. It stayed within me and transformed as I changed. 

Immediately after returning from this magical Israel trip, I signed up to return to the Holy Land.  To learn how to speak to Gd at Nishmat Seminary.

I went and I felt it all so deeply in my bones. I am not “Marcy”, I realized then, I am “Rivka”.

I found myself baffled by this incredible power of femininity I observed that summer. 

I had been interested in feminism and recovering the female dignity, strength, and voice since high school. My focus my senior of high school in AP Art had been in painting nude women, in unusual positions, with imperfect bodies, speaking. As a backlash against the pressure of trying to look as thin as those represented in film and t.v. As a voice to the multitude of girls who were suffering from eating disorders in my high school alone, I elevated the female body. I showed that women had things to say, besides how pretty they looked. I returned dignity and power to its rightful place.

Except here, at seminary, the woman covered their bodies up. Their bodies didn’t speak. Yet their personalities and warmth melted over everything.  It was my first time in a long time in an only female situation, and the sense of comfort that I felt shocked me.

Here, I thought with wonderment, here in this religious world, there is a type of female dignity and empowerment I have never encountered before. I need more of this.

I finished that summer a changed woman, awkwardly attempting to readjust neatly back into my college life. 

My friends welcomed me back, with their own gender politics and spiritual worldview. I still loved them, but I was tired of being the different one. It no longer felt cute or empowering. I couldn’t stand anymore leaving the dorm room and walking across town to be with my Jewish people. Nothing about my former life was working.

I tried to wait it out. I returned home that next summer, chopping my hair off in a friend’s bathtub, and selling ice cream to former high school classmates. It was a miserable summer, but I was hopeful. I can muscle my way to a greater existence, couldn’t I? I thought.  I can find my place.

Sophomore year began. Foolishly,  I had signed up to be a Resident Advisor in charge of forty eight students. Because I didn’t know myself well enough to realize I was an introvert, and that  having to deal with people all the time would be a nightmare experience, I applied for the position and took it on because that’s what I did. I did hard things, impressive things.

But the sense of importance from doing  hard, impressive things wasn’t enough to sustain me as I gritted my teeth while being stopped by students in the hallway as I went to brush my teeth. “Hi,” I would spit out, trying to be friendly, praying that they wouldn’t want to talk more. “How’s it going? Gotta run, speak soon!” It felt like the world was closing in on me. Every moment was heavy.

I was supposed to be having fun, the time of my life. I was supposed to be exploring. I was disintegrating. I could barely make it through the days. 

My mom paid for a few night stay at the campus hotel, to help me relax more. My Resident Director gave the okay. “Do what you need to do,” he nodded supportively. Everyone on staff could tell something was up.

The uplifting sensation of safety and security filled me as I closed the hotel door behind me, without the weight of students or expectations. I listened, enchanted, to the campus bells chime as I stood in its hotel, all alone. I felt able to regroup a bit, but my sense of identity still abandoned me.

I continued to experience intense anxiety attacks, not knowing what they were. I stared at myself in the mirror, filled with terror: I didn’t recognize my own face. Who was I? I wondered. What was I supposed to do?  I would see a friend and instantly, the world would get all fuzzy.

Finally, a red light flashed in my head, telling me I needed to take more action. I need things to change.

I craved the safe structure that I felt in the Chabad House on campus whenever I would visit. The feeling of being surrounded by the circle of life- the older mentors offering kind words, the younger children running around.

Walking around campus, however, stretched with tens of thousands of young, thin, bright-eyed students my own age, filled me with such an existential angst and experience of loss. 

The circle of life disappeared and it was just us, in a flat, plane of existence. 

But there, in the Chabad House, or there, in seminary, beneath the words, laws, and ideas, I could carve out a place for myself. There I knew how to bow in reverence, when to take a step back, and where to lead.

So if I could find a sense of equilibrium within the Jewish buildings, I assumed that the Jewish buildings were the answer. I needed to transfer schools to one with a strong, active religious community, I decided.

“Where should I go?” I asked my religious friend from Chicago who was at the time attending Rutgers University.

Come here!” she replied, enthusiastic. “Every Shabbos, there are so many religious Jews, singing together, enjoying each other’s company. You have to come here.”

That was it, I prayed. My answer. My home. 

I was a woman of action, but not necessarily a woman of thorough research. My friend suggested Rutgers and I stopped looking elsewhere. I applied to their arts school. The only catch was that the deadline for their art school was fast approaching, and they needed the artwork in person. I barely had any time.

The Hillel Alternative Spring Break trip to Uruguay, which I had helped start, was approaching. My parents, knowing that I was going through a very hard time, didn’t want me to go. I had bought the ticket already. Without telling them, in a state of anxious/depressed confusion and desperation, I hitched a ride with the group to the airport, and managed to convince the airline to exchange my Uruguayan ticket for a New Jersey one. I called my Chicago friend and told her I was coming, if I could crash in her place. She picked me up from the airport’s train, at the edge of her college town.

“Your mom is really worried about you,” she said when I got in. “What’s going on?”

I didn’t know how to reply. I didn’t know what was going on. I fell asleep that night, in a strange bed, in a strange town, as if in a unsettling dream.

The next day, I walked into Mason Gross School of the Arts and handed in my artwork.

I returned home to Chicago and just tried to hold on to life. Tried to keep it together. 

A few weeks later, I received the acceptance letter.

This, I knew, this was the answer.

The following semester, I bundled up my belongings, smoothed back my now chin length hair, and went.

It felt good.

A different place, a different energy. More people like me, kipahs and long skirts. Jewish faces. The campus was more urban, less isolated than rural Illinois. 

And yet. I couldn’t find my footing. I found some things and people that spoke to me, but they were few and far between. My roommates welcomed me into their crowd of energetic, expressive Jews, yet the mass amount of time I walked around with a sense of open isolation. Too much time and too little direction encompassed me. Loneliness was paramount. I felt great guilt for my great unhappiness.

Finally, it was over; barely, I graduated.

I returned home, feeling like a shrunken version of who I once was.

I didn’t want to run into old high school acquaintances. I had a painting degree and little else. Least of all confidence and direction. I had no idea where I was going.

By divine providence, I landed a job working for a Jewish organization. I moved in with a friend a few years younger than me, in a good-sized two bedroom in Chicago. 

There was where I finally started to feel safe again. The structure returned- the older people who lived there, the young singles, the kids running around. We had responsibilities, we had order, we had expectations. In the midst of the swirling world of difference, we also had each other.

It was there that I began to grow, slowly, feeling my feet start to plant, my legs begin to straighten, my back unbend, and my head look up. I stayed in the Jewish organization for years, and with each year, I felt bolder, braver, happier. I assisted in the NCSY youth group, and was inspired by its energy and belief.

It was then, when I could stand fully back on my feet, that my now-husband reentered my life.

We dated and I knew- this was it.

I had found my voice and my partner in life, and despite some rocky readjustments, we got married. I had a home.

A home that we would leave and move to Israel from a few months later.

About two years later, a healthy, beautiful baby girl came out of my body.

And everything crashed again.

I hadn’t held a baby since I was about 12 and babysitting (by babysitting I mean mostly just trying to keep kids alive while trying not to be too obvious about eating all the snacks in the house). I had never held a newborn.

Mine terrified me.

My husband was the first to change her, her scrawny legs stretching everywhere in that hospital room. He was the one to teach me how to hold her.

And he was the one who would leave, every day, to take a 3.5 hour bus ride to his new job, while I stayed at home and tried to deal with having constant visions of something terrible happening to my new baby.

“I feel,” I remember telling my therapist at the time, “like I’m waking around in this great cloud.”

“That’s depression,” he responded simply.

“Really?” I had a name at least.

Through it all, I shook. I was aware of the rocky, unstable ground below me. I wanted to stand- really, I did- but I was not that empowered, unafraid, jump around the gym and shout at the top of your lungs girl I once was.

No one knew me in Israel, and I didn’t know who I was either for that matter. All I knew was I was scared, and needed to hang on.

I hung on as we moved back to America, to the cold world of New York.

I hung on as we searched for a place for our creative dreams and our religious beliefs.

I hung on for dear life when I got pregnant again, and after I gave birth.

I hung on and tried to do all the things I needed to do as a mother to two little babies.

I hung on when we got kicked out of our apartment and spent two months in a transitional apartment, until being blessed with finding the perfect one.

I hung on when we felt finally ready again, for a third child, and through all the sleep deprivation, I gripped on tightly.

I hung on and tried, constantly, daily, to carve out my own place.

And now, seventeen years after I left high school, certain that my life would continue in its upward trajectory, never expecting to be broken down and tossed around, I am now finally really returning.

Some of the return to self must be the result of crucial consistency, to living in the same, good place for going on three years. 

Some must be credited to finally finding our synagogue and our people. 

More must be due to that garden within me, that has blossomed from 17 years of toil.

And time itself, the greatest healer, contributed to my growing sense of my own mortality, that I, too, may not live forever, and so I bow to those who came before me and those who came after, and work my daily work to get my daily bread.

Without a doubt, some of the reclaiming of self is due to seven years of marriage, of growing with a person to become greater than I ever could be alone.

I reflect upon that person I once was and I know in truth that I am much more powerful than she ever was.

Yes, I was loud in high school. True, I was not afraid to dress crazy and voice controversial opinions.

But I was not rooted.

I had much less inner knowledge of who I was, what I believed, what I needed, and what I could offer.

College was the grand disappointment. It was the kidnapping of my inner self, an abrupt shaking of everything I held dear, a promise of salvation that was horribly forgotten.

College was my losing place. But through the thick forest of confusion, I’m so glad that I found my way out.

The answers were not at college. I could only find the answers when things became quieter. When I was involved with the full cycle of life. When babies and elderly surrounded me, in addition to the young and able and boastful.

There, in the midst of that cycle, I found my core. There, I heard my own voice speaking and directing me.

Of course I have not figured everything- or most things-out. But I find myself reaching a sense of inner peace on a more consistent basis, and am formulating detailed, simple daily plans for how to get there.

From this roundabout journey, I discovered that I am here to serve. I am an investigative reporter, uncovering how to serve myself in order that I can serve others.

I understand now that my actions won’t always save me, but my ability to let go can. 

I have learned that everything is an offering: My smile of joy in the mornings to my children as they run out of their bedrooms at 6 a.m., squinting at me and groggily climbing beside me onto the couch.  Or the way I push myself to offer a supportive word to my spouse when all I want to do is complain about my busy day. 

I haven’t traveled in over two years outside of the TriState area. I’m most often found in my home.

That’s where I discovered the truth that it’s not where you go. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel out there, no promise of a great life .

Here is where the light is. Here is where success can be found. 

In my own little world, on my little, city block, surrounded by people of all colors and ages, trying desperately to figure out how to balance life. 

Here is where I found myself.

Here, I am.