Who was the first classmate you saw in real life this year? Whose flesh was the first to send a jolt through your spine and make you pause, in that previously unfamiliar but now familiar way, Is that —
“Sam?” I said, uncertain it was actually her, from English class.
“Oh, Marie! Hi! How are you? I almost didn’t recognize you!”
“I know,” I laughed, more off-center than amused. “I thought the same thing!”
“It’s crazy, you know! On Zoom, you don’t even know what anyone’s body looks like. Like how tall are you or anything, you know.”
“Yeah, that’s such a good point …Well, this is me!”
We awkwardly chuckled. It was 3 P.M. on a random Saturday on Cross Campus. I was on a walk with a friend; Sam was studying on the lawn with her suitemate. I’m five foot five inches tall, and she was right — it was a crazy feeling, the whiplash between craving human contact and actually seeing someone you’ve only known in 2D.
The interaction ended, as all do, because there was nothing left to say. It should have been normal — on the surface, it really was normal — but upon resuming our Saturday stroll, I couldn’t answer my friend’s simple follow-up questions like, “What is she like?” How should I know? In-person Sam was more a stranger to me than shoulders-up e-Sam. Suddenly, I craved my room and my rectangle of metal in which many rectangles of e-people congregate in breakout rooms — not real life, I now realized, but a contained and sensical life all the same. I smiled vaguely at the joke my friend was making as my brain kept turning over whats and whys.
Every single year, I struggle to sleep the day before it all — the excitement and stress of classes, the lovely chaos of revelry with friends — begins. It doesn’t matter if I sleep early, have my outfit planned for the next day and have my class schedule down pat. My mind remains an anxious ball of anticipation. Not this year, though. This year, I slept like a baby. What’s the point of worrying? My body seemed to understand. I was a transfer student and we were in the middle of a pandemic. I had everything to gain.
At least that’s what I told my mom when she last-minute expressed nerves about me returning to campus. Would I follow the rules? Would I promise to be safe? Most importantly, would I tell her if things weren’t going okay — if I didn’t feel happy, disregarding feeling safe?
Yes, yes and yes, I answered determinedly, if not honestly.
I did have a slight concern. A maybe concern. A thought that first came to me early one summer morning.
I was carefully sprinkling my granola on my yogurt as my breakfast pastry heated in the microwave, or I was carefully carrying my pastry to the dining table, or I was carefully swirling my granola into my yogurt at the dining room table or — well, you get the point — when a tiny voice whispered: Maybe the lack of control at school might be difficult to handle after all?
Though it doesn’t matter now how precisely I happened to be arranging my meal at that moment, it did matter a whole lot to me then. In the midst of summer quarantine, when my days were stagnant, it was up to my imagination to fill them. The fact that no matter what was happening outside, I knew I would take a bite of yogurt followed by a bite of almond butter-slathered pastry, meant the world.
But no matter. I didn’t have high expectations — I was prepared to wait and see what it would be like — but the thought of the opportunity to just be with people my own age getting wrenched away from me sent a spike of anxiety through my body. So, I smiled confidently at my mother to ease her doubts. Being with people, I knew, would compensate for everything else that just couldn’t be quite “normal.”
Oh my god it’s been so long! In the depths of my hellish last week, while mid-revelation that not only are things isolating, overwhelming and lacking control, I realized not having time to journal and let off your thoughts makes it so much harder to gain perspective and coach your inner voice into kindness. The most ironic part is that of course these moments of distance from your journal — or just time to watch Avatar and chill in your bed — happen when you most need your journal. Both for the perspective and because the busy in-between moments are the small things that future you will feel surprised and amused by most.
Things weren’t bad, but I was spiraling because I couldn’t fathom why I couldn’t say decisively that they were good. Why wasn’t I thriving? What makes meeting classmates in person so weird? Where is everyone right now? Why does my brain literally exit the building as soon as my lectures start? Do I want to go home?? How come I am on two pieces of underwear left but feel no urgency to wash my clothes!??
My breaking point was a brief foray into a more-than-nothing romantic-leaning relationship. The thought of providing someone else with what I knew a healthy relationship demanded terrified me. I anxiously excused my slower and slower text responses because of perceived distance, the disconnect between the iMessages, Zoom and our living, breathing faces — so many points of connection yet so many missed connections. All the while, a former, more direct version of myself couldn’t believe my present evasiveness. And underneath, though shame barred me from fully articulating it to myself, let alone others, I hate … I hate … I hate …
On a call with my best friend from high school, I told her how so much of my self-loathing came from my frustration that all of a sudden, I had become bad at college. I didn’t understand what had happened to me. She reassured me that from the outside, all things considered, I was objectively thriving even if I didn’t feel like it. Moreover, she suggested maybe I should just accept that I won’t feel like it — maybe not forever but definitely right now. I clung to the comfort of her matter-of-fact words.
And more: after hearing me complain for three weeks, my suitemate got me committed to GCal. Control over the simple pleasures, when I could master it, much like my breakfast routine over the summer, came to my rescue. I began to compartmentalize my life: one week to focus on schoolwork, another to meet people, another to exercise more consistently, another to get outside and explore New Haven, another to call distant friends.
At home, I had been concerned that the opportunity to be with people — both platonically and romantically — would get wrenched away from me. I didn’t stop to consider that, in coming back to campus, I was choosing to be wrenched from substantial control to absolute submission with the expectation, also self-imposed, that I would just, poof, make it work.
The difficult part is not that shit’s broken — by now, we all know that none of this is normal. Rather, it is the continual realization, week after week, that I am still in the long haul — that I am on a university campus with thousands of other students yet still feel, if not lonely, alone in the world — that has defined this semester as one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my little life thus far.
To myself, I am sorry for the times I didn’t forgive you for being less than 100 percent. Your new normal is a war zone of you versus you. You are not alone in this new normal world.
To others, you’ve met me constantly wrestling with this version of myself. I can’t afford to be sorry you haven’t been acquainted with my best person. All I can say is, “This is me.” I’d say I’m working on it, but in truth, I’m working on self-kindness first. In the words of Dean Chun, “It’s okay to not be okay,” and as I’ll add here, “It’s okay to not be okay, alone.”