After I have worked with a client for awhile, I usually get asked one question sooner or later: Have you always had such a positive disposition?
The answer to that question is a resounding NO!
I developed coping skills to deal with life’s challenges as I became an adult. Coping mechanisms that I still use to this day.
In this series of posts, I will share the life experiences that forced me to develop these skills and how I went about building them for myself.
Here’s the first part of my story:
Around the way girl in Harlem
I went to pre-school with a group of kids from my neighborhood. Most of whom later went to the same Catholic school which was 5 blocks away from my house. Or the public school which was only 2 blocks away. I went to the Catholic school from 1st through 8th grade. My friends usually had an older sibling or two who was friends with my older brother. Similarly, their younger siblings were friends with my younger sister. I also went to an all-girls Catholic high school in the Bronx with some of the same girls.
So if you’re paying attention there are some people with whom I was schoolmates from the time I was 2 years old through 18 years old. And our families knew each other. We all went to church together. Teachers knew me before I even got to their classrooms because they had worked with my brother and he was terribly smart, so they assumed I was smart too. And thankfully, I lived up to those expectations. On top of that, I joined the choir and was really fortunate to belong to community organizations in which I got even more friends and excelled. Even though I had ups and downs just like everyone does, my over all childhood and adolescence experience was overwhelmingly positive.
I’m telling you all of this because I want you to get a picture of all the support in my childhood and adolescence. I was a well adjusted kid who was smarter than average in my community. I succeeded without even trying. I had friends. I had boyfriends. Adults put me in charge of things. My peers respected me. It was kind of plush. And I had no reason to suspect that my life would not just keep getting better. By this time, my brother had already gone off to college and he was having the time of his life. To this day, we tease him about how great his time in school was.
So when it was my turn, I was super excited because I knew there was no where to go but up.
So I went off to school…
But college was really really hard.
Hard emotionally. Hard academically. And hard socially. And I floundered in all those areas. Some more than others.
Like many young people who grew up in somewhat sheltered communities, I was largely unprepared for the world when I went out on my own. I know that sounds funny given the fact that I grew up in the South Bronx and Harlem in the 1980s. In some ways I had a lot of worldly experience. I learned important street smarts like how to assess danger in people and situations really quickly and how to get myself out of a sticky situation.
But in some other important ways I was in entirely new territory. I was very similar to almost everyone whom I had ever known.
I went to a huge school (Go Orange!) And now instead of the close knit community that I came from, there were literally thousands upon thousands of other smart and talented young people. Young people who had their own belief systems and who came from all over the country. It was a very isolating experience for me with many low points.
- like that time my roommate just stopped talking to me out of nowhere and never spoke to me again
- or that time a football jock, who later went on to play in the NFL, called me ugly when he didn’t think I overheard him while I was minding my business in class.
- or when I got two D’s my very first semester even though I had never gotten anything but A’s in high school
And these were just some of the many occurrences during my very first semester. It shook my confidence. At that point I had formed an identity solely based on being successful and liked by others. But when the environment changed and I didn’t get the feedback that I had always gotten all my life, I felt like shit. Who was I if I wasn’t excelling and well-liked? What could I possibly have to offer?
And in hindsight, each of these experiences was clearly not the end of the world. By any means.
They simply bruised my ego. And I didn’t have the coping skills to deal with them. These experiences made me doubt who I was. I had no frame of reference. I felt like a loser and I was deeply ashamed. I honestly felt like I had nothing to offer the world.
And even worse, I felt like I didn’t have anyone who I could talk to about it. The people back home were rooting for me. They were excited that I had a chance that many would never have and they were deeply vested in my success. Not only could I not let them down, I couldn’t even let them know I was struggling. Or at least that’s what I told myself.
My mom was very supportive in her own way. But she didn’t really have a frame of reference either. And we didn’t have a language to communicate with each other about it. I didn’t know how to be vulnerable enough to share just how emotionally hard the experience was for me. And my mom was real old school. She came from the “just suck it up” school. In other words, “You got problems? Well so what. So do I and everybody else. You got food, a place to live, and family. So whatever you’re going through can’t be that bad. Get over it.”
To be fair, my mom was trying to teach me resilience. A very valuable skill. A tool I also use to this day.
But in that moment I needed a little bit more. I could get it together enough to go through the motions, but I couldn’t stop feeling like shit. I felt so bad about myself every single day. And it was painful.
So since I couldn’t talk to anyone, as a very last resort, I decided to go to the student counseling center and the experience was absolutely awful.
Stay tuned for part 2 where I talk about why I didn’t go back to counseling for 15 years later and how I finally got through this tough time.