In Part 1, I shared how I was far away from home and felt really alone during my first semester at college. There were thousands of young people around me yet I felt isolated and ignored. I was very confused and my whole world was turned upside down.
After many many days of feeling really really bad, I decided that I just could not go on that way. Something had to change.
So I took all the courage I could muster and went to see a student health counselor.
Now perhaps you, like me, grew up in a community in which people did not see therapists. And if they did, they certainly didn’t talk about it. Seeing a counselor or therapist was essentially an admission that you were crazy or even worse weak.
That’s why I didn’t make the decision to go see a counselor lightly.
But unfortunately the experience did not make me feel any better. In fact it made me feel worse. The therapist that was assigned to me was not very empathetic and I never really felt like she cared. Perhaps it was unfair to compare her to the adults who nurtured me and made me feel like things would be OK. I never warmed up to her. There was always something missing and we were never able to build a working rapport. We just couldn’t relate to each other and I felt even more alone.
I went to two sessions and never went back.
Introspection and Self Work
Since therapy didn’t work for me at the time, I knew I had to figure it out myself. The first thing I did was buy a journal. And I wrote in it every single day. Because I didn’t have much of a social life, I had a lot of time to reflect. My first task was to think of things that made me laugh or put me in a good mood. I wrote a master list for myself so that when I was having a really bad day I would flip to that page and try several things until I was in a better mood. This was the beginning of my coping tool kit. I learned how to self-soothe as an adult. Next, I wrote out all my frustrations, hurts, and hopes for the future. Since I didn’t have anyone to talk to, I expressed myself to my journal and that helped a great deal. It was very therapeutic. And I began to look forward to it.
Once I realized that I needed to find a new center of focus, I sought out people to connect to. I knew I couldn’t get through the next four years without any friends. I thought to myself that in a place of thousands of people, surely I could find one person to be my friend. And I did. I found more than a handful of like-minded folks. People who had similar interests. Some were a little older than me who were able to show me around and invite me to events, and others were right in my dorm. I began volunteering at a few youth centers off campus. It was nice to have people look forward to see me coming. And I joined a student organization and met even more people. It still wasn’t like home but it was so much better than feeling like crap in my dorm room.
Sooner or later it hit me that I was out on my own in the world. After I grieved for the loss of my old reality, I began to see all the amazing opportunities in front of me. And I gave myself the permission to take advantage of it by doing things I . I cut off all of my permed hair and went natural, something I had been wanting to do for a long time but wasn’t allowed to do when I lived at home. And this was like 15 years ago before it was as common as it is today. In fact, I remember one of my new found friends crying as I did it because she thought I was crazy. I majored in African-American Studies, even though my dad wanted me to be an accountant. I formed relationships with some very wonderful professors in the department who helped me so much more than the student counseling office. They invited me into their offices and homes. And because of their influence I studied abroad in Zimbabwe.
I lived in Africa for a year and it was really life changing. And not in a gross “Oh look at the poor black people, I’m so fortunate” kind of way. But it was life changing because of 4 main reasons
- It really drove the point home to me that people live differently. And the things that matter to me don’t necessarily mean anything to anybody else. And that’s OK. They have their own issues to worry about. And that means that everything ain’t about me. Nobody cares (in a good way). Though I saw that when I first went away to college, I had taken it personally and experienced it as rejection. When I got to live in another country with a completely different culture, I realized that the world was a big place. Bigger than I had ever imagined and it was silly of me to expect to be treated the same way in all environments.
- But people are essentially the same all over. For example, people argue in Shona language about the same things that people argue about in English.
- Being flexible is so important. Electric power rationing was a way of life. Whole areas would be without power, sometimes advance notice would be given and other times not. People just dealt with it. I remember one night I was sitting in a popular cafe where there was a live band playing. All of a sudden all the power went out. Everybody started laughing and clapping. The band went on playing and the waitresses came around and placed lit candles on each table. It was a very sweet moment. And I think about it often as a reminder to be flexible and not to get stuck on Plan A if it doesn’t work out. Sometimes Plan B is kinda fun even when it wasn’t really expected.
- I saw that I could survive far away from home on the other side of the planet. It was confirmation that I could do anything that I wanted to do.
Now, stay tuned for the third and final installment of journey to be a therapist.