I had my first day of orientation at Stetson University yesterday.
I spent the previous two weeks worrying about everything that possibly could have gone wrong, so yesterday morning, I’d gotten all the anxiety out of the way and woke up ready to seize the day. I arrived on campus two hours early and meandered around, which led me to getting lost. I took a few pictures on film, and finally parked myself on a bench near the building where my first orientation meeting was supposed to be.
I had been assigned to a student advisor (We’ll call her Jenny) who had added me to a group chat with other transfer students, so I’d texted with a few of my classmates over the summer. The group chat was blowing up with messages “I’m here!” “I’m almost there!” “I’m by such and such building,” and I texted to let my group know where I was. One person responded with, “I’m out here looking like a lost puppy. I’m near a fountain,” I immediately spotted a guy who did, indeed, look like a confused, lost puppy, and waved at him from my spot on a bench near the fountian.
It’s hard to know what anybody looks like with a mask covering half of their faces, especially when you only know them from a profile picture. We confirmed our identities, and my new classmate (We’ll call him Chris) sat down next to me. “I’m really awkward at hellos,” he said.
“It’s all good, I am too,” I responded. There was, indeed, an awkward pause, and I took in the beautiful campus. Chris and I got to talking, he mentioned something about having a cat, and I asked him about his cat and other pets. I showed him a few pictures of Archie, and then we discovered that we’d both completed our Associate degrees at the same college. We’d missed each other by a few years on campus because when I was graduating with my AA in 2018, he was graduating from high school.
As the conversation took its course, Chris mentioned that he has pretty severe anxiety, and was looking forward to finding a counselor on campus. He explained that he’d had a bad experience with the counselors at our previous college, and really wanted to feel less anxious. He told me about his rocky relationship with his parents and a few other personal details.
In the weeks before arriving on campus, I was quite worried that I would overshare with my new peers. Simultaneously, I worried that I would be too closed off for anyone to get to know me. So, I took this opportunity with Chris to practice personal boundaries. I shared in vague detail that I had also dealt with anxiety, had experience working with therapists, and left it at that. As I get to know Chris better, I may choose to share with him in more detail what I’ve been through, or I may not.
Another thing I was incredibly worried about being harmed by another student on campus. One of my classes was supposed to get out at 9:00 PM, and walking in the dark by myself was a daunting prospect. My mom offered to accompany me, but the class will now be meeting on Zoom, so that’s one less worry. Still, I have a hard time trusting that nothing bad will happen to me on my travels through campus. I feel quite anxious having anyone, (especially men) behind me. Because of the skills I’m learning in DBT, I am able to talk myself through these situations and come out feeling okay.
The actual orientation process is pretty dry and uneventful. Jenny doesn’t have answers to many questions and plays a lot of required videos on topics like academic honesty and COVID-19 procedures. We had to watch a video about the definition of consent, which was super uncomfortable, and halfway through the video, Jenny said we were free to walk out if we weren’t feeling okay watching the video. I couldn’t decide which would be worse, finishing the clip or getting up and leaving, thus drawing attention to myself, so I decided to stay.
A few of the other students in my group are also commuters, so once we’re done with Jenny’s slideshow and videos, we have the option to go home. There are other events on the schedule, but they don’t apply to us because they are either for freshmen or they are done on Zoom, so I have the freedom to roam downtown DeLand or explore campus some more.
I had made plans to meet up with a friend who lives in the area. Patti is actually my childhood best friend, Bharti’s, mom. Bharti and I have known each other since second grade, and as I progressed through childhood into a turbulent adolescence, I became closer with Patti as well. She’s also a therapist, so she knows how to ask good questions.
We met for lunch at an outdoor cafe just minutes from campus. I caught Patti up on everything going on with my family, and she kept saying, “You’re so available!” I think she remembered how poorly I was functioning and feeling the last few times we’d seen each other. I told her all about my orientation and what I hoped to learn at Stetson.
She asked me, “What’s the big thing that’s changed?” I had to think about it, but I realized there is no Big Thing that’s changed with me; it’s a bunch of really small things. I used to wish there would be a sort of “white light” moment, where I’d reach this epiphany and simply be un-diagnosed with everything that I’ve ever been labeled. But the truth is, working on my mental health is an ongoing, possibly lifelong process that I have to put effort into every day.
The small things include simple willingness to try doing things differently. I’m open to trying actual, healthy coping skills–even when I think they’re stupid or overly simplistic. When I experience small disappointments (someone not answering the phone when I want to speak with them, a literary magazine telling me they don’t want to publish my work, not being able to find the thing I came for at the store) I am able to work through these things and not personalize them. I do not have to read into every little thing and analyze it to death. Taking things at face value, not trying to distort reality to mean that I am a bad person, makes navigating life a lot easier. Who could’ve guessed?
Patti also asked me, “What’s the hardest thing right now?” The answer, although obvious, is not easy. Self-harm. I always thought I would simply grow out of being an “emo teenager,” but self-harm works like any other addiction. I have to work hard to not give into those urges when I am in distress. The main things I ask myself are, “What can I do to make myself feel better?” “How can I get through this next minute/hour/day?” and “Is it worth it?”
Self-harm definitely has consequences, and I’m not “only hurting myself.” I used to feel angry at people for having the audacity to care about me because I viewed caring as synonymous with controlling. I used to feel that any amount of the relief self-harm could bring would be worth it. Now I can see it for what it is: five minutes of feeling better, which results in a whole bunch of lies to everyone I care about, and having to wear long pants/sleeves in the middle of summer. I used to tell pretty much any mental health professional I encountered that I had no desire or intention to stop self-harming. But enough is finally enough. I am at least open to the possibility that there are better coping skills out there and that I have been punished and hurt enough. I think it’s finally time to put the bat and the blade down and stop beating myself up. There is nothing wrong with me that self-harm can fix, no emotion so strong that I need to permanently mark my body just to escape it.
As I sit here writing, Archie (the world’s best cat) has come to investigate. He’s putting his paws on my chest as if to say, “Hey, are you okay? Why are you typing so fast and not petting me?” A few of my friends from treatment texted me on my first day at Stetson to see how it was going. Chance surprised me with flowers and a cute coffee cup when I got home yesterday. My mom told me that she’s always proud of me today. This person everyone else sees is not the person I see. I think it’s time to stop looking in the mirror through angry eyes and start looking through the eyes of those around me. The people who treated me like I was worthless are few and far between, as well as not in the picture anymore. Although progress is coming in tiny, tiny increments, it is coming along.
What I’ve discovered is that it’s not Big Things that make life exciting or worthwhile. Yes, it’s always awesome to have something to look forward to (Bikini Kill, I’ll see you in November of 2021!) but unless I’m okay with who I am, things like graduating from Stetson, going to my dream concert, even seeing my name in print, will mean nothing to me. It’s time to start treating myself as I treat others–with kindness, the benefit of the doubt, and most of all with grace.