Please read Part I: On the Edge before continuing.
The same thing happens every year at the beginning of August. I see girls walking around in stores with their moms. Picking out sheet sets and mini fridges and wall decor. The girls always have big smiles on their faces. Eyes wide open, as if a particular coffee pot will mean the difference between success and failure in their first year of college.
Every August I feel that familiar pang of jealousy. I watch these girls with green envy in my eyes. Knowing that I did the same thing to prepare myself for the transition to college. Wondering why it all went so terribly wrong. But there is one fundamental difference between their plans and mine. I never should have gone to college that year.
The summer of 1997 was a blur after I lost my best friends. I found a new roommate for college. I did not know her well but we went to high school together. And I did not want to room with a total stranger. It was too late for us to live in the cool dorm at the university. No, if we wanted to live together we had to be placed in the only dorm left with open rooms. It was the furthest dorm from the center of the campus. A catch all for the students who signed up late, didn’t have any friends or had asked for that specific dorm because it was known as the quiet one. Where you can actually study in peace.
Moving day was a day I’ll never forget. I watched as all the freshmen smiled and laughed and rushed around me. I went up and down the staircase of the dorm carrying accessories that would help to brighten up the barren white walls. I looked around after everything I brought was finally at rest in the room. I tried to envision myself living there for a full year. It was a personal prison cell. I wanted out. To go to the only place I had ever truly felt safe. My parents house. My home that sat a mere 45 minutes away. I wanted to hide from the new. From all this confusion.
Halfway through my senior year of high school I remember sparkling with excitement at the prospect of college. I would be a broadcast journalism major. I would be the next Diane Sawyer. I felt like I held the world in the palm of my hand and I had my best friends at my side. It was a certainty that only a high school student with a fresh start in front of them could feel. That feeling was gone by the time I moved in.
I watched my parents pull out of the parking lot. My eyes filled with tears. I wanted to scream please take me home. I should have said, I can’t do this. Don’t leave me here alone. But I was stubborn. I did not want to disappoint them. I did not want to be the daughter who lived at home after high school and went to community college. I did not want to be the failure that I already believed myself to be.
At the same time I moved into my dorm with my high school acquaintance my former best friends were also moving in across campus. Moving into the room that should have been mine. The life that should have been mine. I didn’t want to think about them. But it was all I could do to keep myself away. I decided to walk over to their room. I knocked on their door and entered to unfriendly faces. In the past they had delighted in my presence but now it was clear I was in enemy territory. I stood trying to make light conversation. It was terribly awkward. I waited for them to turn to me and say, “Molly, we made a mistake. We miss you. We need you as a friend. We can’t make it without you.”
Instead they said nothing.
I walked out just in time to let the tears drop from my eyes. They were not tears of sadness. Those tears were hot lava spewing out of an erupting volcano. I was so angry. There they were, happy, living as if nothing had happened. Living as if I had never existed. I was dead to them. But I would show them what they were missing. I would make new friends. I would make the dean’s list. I did not need them.
As we were walking back to our dorm we ran into a group of frat boys who invited us to a party. A party? Yes, please. I had never been invited to parties in high school. But here I was party-appropriate. I had just been through rush. My first choice sorority chose me and I wore my letters often. We were pretty girls. We were popular on campus. I was proud to be able to call myself a sorority girl.
And what did being a sorority girl mean? It meant instant best friends in my pledge class. It meant getting involved. It meant a place to run on campus when I felt I didn’t fit in anywhere else. These were all the things it was supposed to mean.
What did being a sorority girl mean for me? It meant embarrassing my sisters with raucous and inappropriate behavior. It meant mixers with fraternities where I drank until I blacked out. It meant alienating anyone who could have been a good friend. Here was a sorority with more than 100 girls, all willing to befriend me, all ready to support me. In the beginning I could count all of them as friends. By the end, not a single one would stand by my side.
But it was okay. I did not need them. I don’t know about other college and sorority experiences. But alcohol was aplenty on this campus. On the small main street 19-year-old patrons were allowed into the bars. We weren’t supposed to be able to drink but once you were inside it was easy. Just ask any 21-year-old to buy an extra drink and pass it on over. At first it was fun. Deciding what to wear each night and where we would go. Pre-party would begin around 7:00 p.m., then we would head to the bars or a Greek mixer by 10:00 p.m. Continue to drink until last call. And don’t forget the post-party at the frat houses or a sorority sister’s off-campus apartment. It went on like this until the year folded into one big, long party.
It never took long for the drinks to hit my system. Especially since I still took antidepressants and I would rarely eat enough so my stomach was always empty. I would chug down a glass of whatever and my insecurities were swallowed right along with the last sip. I felt beautiful. Worthy. POWERFUL. I had always wanted someone to take away the pain. And here they were. My saving grace. My new best friend. Alcohol.
I will always remember the morning my mother knocked on my dorm room door. It was homecoming. Already afternoon. I was supposed to have walked next to my sorority’s float in the parade. But I drank too much the night before and didn’t wake up for the celebration. I’ll never know what my mom must have thought when my sorority walked by, all the girls waving and smiling. I picture her scanning the crowd. Looking for her daughter amongst all the young happy girls. The disappointment and worry she must have felt when she realized I wasn’t there.
Little did my mother know I had absolutely no idea what day it was. All the days ran together. Days of the week had no meaning for me. Time ceased to exist. My alarm clock might as well have been flashing 12:00 continuously. It would not have mattered.
And just like my mom searched for me that day so long ago, I search my memory for that year. It is rare that I can clearly remember anything. Everyone loses things. Their keys, their socks, a memory here and there. But what if you lost an entire year? What if you searched your memories for a night or a face and couldn’t find one? This is how it is for me. I refer to it as the lost year.
The lost year included many random parties. Rooms packed so tight you couldn’t move. The push and shove of a drunk crowd. Strangers bumping into me like fist on flesh. I could never remember how I got there. And I never remembered how I got back to my room, if I even did. Some mornings I would wake up in an unfamiliar place. I would wake up to strange smells and people walking around in the next room. And I had no idea who any of them were and it terrified me. I would fall out of the bed, eyes squinting from the blinding sunlight and head pounding as if last night’s party music were still playing. Scramble aimlessly on the floor trying to find my clothes. Don’t ask me why I wasn’t wearing them in the first place. There was no time to ask questions. My brain was begging for a doorway to get out of the situation in which I had mysteriously found myself.
I would get back to my dorm room, close the blinds and pull the covers over my head to try to escape the chaos from the previous night. Then I would sleep. Sleep with no knowledge of what time it was. The room was dark and that was all that mattered. While the rest of the student population moved all around me I slept. To me, it was always night. It was always dark. It was always black. This was the only way I could hold on for another pathetic day.
My schedule rarely included classes. It became a vicious cycle. Drink, sleep. Drink, sleep. Drink, sleep. I did not want to feel anything and these two things took care of that for me. I never saw the danger in drinking so much. I only saw respite. It made me feel like I could do anything. Boys I might never have approached became fair game. I smoked cigarettes. A lot. I drove drunk. A lot.
During this time I also had a boyfriend. He was older and lived out of town. He was verbally abusive. He did heavy drugs. I only watched. Alcohol was enough to take me to the place I wanted to go. Our relationship ended when he broke up with me after finding out I had not been faithful to him. I went to see him to try to talk this addicted, abusive boyfriend into loving me. He put both hands around my neck and choked me until I almost passed out. You might think I was sad that he choked me. That I was glad to be out from under this abusive, good-for-nothing man. But I had such low self-worth that I was only sad he wouldn’t take me back.
After another failed relationship, I fell even further into the abyss of depression. I allowed myself to become so incapacitated that it was easy to take advantage of me. And take advantage, they did. But I never felt it was fair to call it what it was. Because ultimately, it was my fault I ended up in the wrong hands. I would drink so much that I was literally unable to say no. I taught myself how to think of it as a bad nightmare. None of it really happened. That’s the only way I can survive these memories. I pretend they don’t exist.
I barely remember going to a rugby party in a field off-campus where there must have been 500 party-goers. There was a bonfire. And a heavy metal band playing. I only remember waking up the next morning. My body covered in black soot. The smell of something burning but I couldn’t put my finger on it. My entire body aching, I slowly raised out of bed and walked into the bathroom. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. The bottom of one side of my hair had been burned off. I was later told that I had thrown myself into the mosh pit and passed out inches from the bonfire. A few sorority sisters pulled me away from the flames just in time. That day I went to the salon and had them give me a short haircut so my family wouldn’t know what had happened. Out of sight. Out of mind.
They didn’t know. My family did not know the truth of what was going on. Had my parents known they would have dragged me home kicking and screaming. Sure, I wanted out of this life but I didn’t want to go home. I was too ashamed of what I had become. Plus, my parents had never allowed drinking or smoking. And I liked doing both. It was the only thing that took the pain away. I was self-medicating. I just didn’t know it as that at the time.
My pain was only amplified when I saw my former best friends on campus. On the rare occasions I went to class I would usually see them in the halls or walk past them on the sidewalks. And as I did, they would put their heads down and pretend not to know me. Out of all the hellish experiences of that year this might have been the worst of them. Seeing them reminded me that I was once happy. I couldn’t understand how I had gone from meaning everything to them. To meaning nothing. Every time I saw them. Every time they ignored me, it erased a little piece of who I was.
And so I would drink to speed up the process. I would drink because I thought I could find a better me in the cup I was holding. I would drink because when I took that shot I became invincible. I was in a world where those friends couldn’t hurt me. Ex-boyfriends couldn’t hurt me. What happened in Hawaii couldn’t hurt me.
A week before second semester finals, and after a night of heavy drinking, I woke up in the hospital. I won’t discuss the details of the night before. When I try to remember that night it runs much like an old VHS tape on fast forward. When I woke up my mom and sister were standing over me. I had to ask a nurse what had happened the night before because I couldn’t recall anything. She told me I had driven myself to the emergency room and told the staff that I would kill myself if they didn’t admit me to a hospital. I was so enraged I had to be given a sedative. I slept until my mom and sister arrived early that morning.
I don’t think I ever really talked to my sister and mom about that morning. Like so many other memories from that time it was put in a vault and locked away. I have no idea what it must have done to my mother and sister to receive that call from the hospital. Or to see me lying helpless and hopeless in that hospital bed. I think they knew I was in bad shape. But they obviously didn’t know how depressed I was. No one did.
I don’t remember a lot of talking. I was too ashamed to talk. My mom drove me home and I fell asleep on the way. After we arrived home some calls were made and I was back in the car again. I gazed out the window. Tears falling softly from my cheeks. I knew where we were going. It was where I had asked to go. But I was terrified. Now there was no where to hide. The party was finally over.
A full year had passed since I sat at that table where my friends pleaded with me to go to a hospital to get help. A full year of my life. Completely wasted. Completely lost.
The glass doors opened and I walked through to the waiting room. There I sat with my parents waiting for someone to come and take me upstairs. Waiting for someone to save my life.
Continued on Part III: A Second Chance
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