I finally figured it out today- the reason behind my panic this summer, and my crying spells, and my inability to do anything since I’ve been home except watch Glee: I’m grieving.
Dr. Elvis and others have insisted that I took my clients’ problems home with me, but I never felt like that was it. I think about my clients often, and I miss working with them, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t actually internalized their problems.
The other thing I blamed was culture shock. And this isn’t totally irrelevant: I was witnessing extreme poverty and bathing with insects and washing my clothes in mud and forcing down food I hated just to keep myself alive. But I actually found many of these things strangely charming, so they didn’t seem like enough to account for my moods.
So I’ve been thinking back to the beginning of summer. I broke down several times while cleaning out my apartment after my grad school graduation and would just sit in piles of my trash and feel overwhelmed.
Doug was helping me move out, and afterwards we were each going to drive our respective cars to his house in Indiana. “You can go on ahead, I’ll be on the road soon,” I told him, as I slowly checked empty closets and shelves that I had already checked a thousand times.
“I don’t think so,” Doug said. “If I leave you here alone, you’ll never actually leave.”
He was right. Eventually I had to admit that the only thing I had left to do was return my key. I paused on my way out the door and took one last look at our living room. It was still filled with all the decorations from our various parties—Lulu had asked me to leave them up, so that the empty apartment wouldn’t look so sad when she came home.
In one of many conversations I had with John that week about sadness and goodbyes, I remember telling him that I never wanted to stop feeling sad about leaving, because the sadness was what would keep me connected. So I was surprised and even felt a bit guilty about how quickly my sadness seemed to fade into a general numbness as I drove away from DeKalb that last time.
I spent the next few days at Doug’s house, feeling strange and like I didn’t really know how to be with him after having experienced so much without him. Which was unusual, because I’d always felt like he was so involved with my life in DeKalb. Though he couldn’t be there very much, we talked every day and I would describe everyone and everything to him in great detail. (He has a memory like a steel trap, so he would often reference or make very accurate jokes about people from my life that he had met only a couple times, or never).
But for as much as he knew, I realized then that there were huge pieces of it that he would never be able to really know, not with all the stories and descriptions in the world. And although that made me feel a bit disconnected, I also knew that I probably preferred it that way. There were things about the experience that I needed and wanted to keep sacred, just for me and the people who were there with me.
Sometime in those last couple weeks, Kevin and I drove to John’s apartment unannounced because we wanted to hang out. He wasn’t there so we drove to the gym, found his car, and made the quick decision to leave a rhyming note on his windshield directing him to the donut case at Schnucks. We then drove to Schnucks and discreetly placed another rhyming note in the donut case directing him to Starbucks. We then drove to Starbucks and left the next clue with the staff, which directed him to Brad’s apartment. Then we went to Brad’s apartment and left the final clue for him to find—but not before cutting it into puzzle pieces and burying it in popcorn.
Then we waited excitedly. But got increasingly depressed when we didn’t hear anything from John. Especially when we noticed that he had just updated something on Facebook. Pretty sure we fit the DSM criteria for clinical depression at that point.
But a few minutes later he sent each of us a rhyming text message, directing us to the Family Center, where he said I should go inside to solve a puzzle while Kevin waited outside. We bolted to my car. When we arrived I went inside alone to solve the puzzle and caught John in the middle of his act. So then John and I started scheming a new scavenger hunt for Kevin, which ended up getting ruined in a matter of minutes because we failed to properly plan our timing.
But it was a perfect night, and it somehow ended with all of us dancing on stage to music videos that we loaded onto the projector in Danielson auditorium. After that we went to Arby’s, and I remember looking at my friends and thinking maybe I shouldn’t see them again—maybe I should just let this night be our last DeKalb memory. (I stole this idea from Michael’s last episode of The Office, when he plans a last memory with each person and then leaves a day earlier than he said he would so that he can avoid the painful goodbyes).
But I did see them again. The three of us were sitting in John’s apartment on my last night in DeKalb. We’d been talking, and laughing, and then there was a long silence, and then we started doing what a core group of us would often start doing when we hung out—making sounds and beats with the objects around us to create a harmony. So that went on for a while, but then it stopped, because I had started crying because I couldn’t pretend any longer that this wasn’t ending. And then things got a little serious.
“There’s this side of me that comes out when I’m with you guys,” Kevin said. “And I don’t know what will happen to it when you leave. I think it will just go away.”
I started shaking my head. I wanted to say that maybe it’s not something that has to go away, that maybe it’s just something that was reawakened and that now you get to keep and take with you. But I wasn’t thinking clearly enough to put that into words, so instead I just shook my head and whispered “no.”
Though inside I think I was wondering the same thing. I wondered if a door in my life was closing. The door to the room where I get to do things like build forts and human pyramids and have dance parties and piñata parties and guard-the-egg parties and pillow fights and pranks and scavenger hunts and improv parties that require us to move the coffee table and other things that might break.
I don’t worry so much about myself changing. If someone suggests building a fort when I’m 50 years old, I’m pretty sure I will drop everything and start turning over furniture without question. But I wonder about other people. Will I find a friend in the future who will crawl under the table, lift it onto his back, and pretend to be a turtle? Will I find another friend who fakes bleeding from her stomach and then starts communicating with aliens in outer space? Does this end at a certain age? Can you do this with people you meet outside of school? I just don’t know yet.
John suggested that instead of saying goodbye that night, we should stage a fake fight so that he could throw us out of his apartment and we could leave angry instead of sad. So we made up a half-hearted fight, something about a gang rape, and he threw us out.
On my drive home that night, I started thinking about the thought I had had so many times over the course of the past year. The thought was this: I like grad school, but there’s no way I can continue at this pace much longer! But that night, driving home, I found myself asking myself, actually asking myself now that it was all over, if I really would be able to continue at that pace for a while longer, if it meant continuing to work at the Family Center with everyone and living near all my friends- assuming that the joy it brought me could stay the same.
And I realized that yes, I thought I actually could and willingly would, keep the pace of that crazy life if it meant getting to keep all the good stuff too.
I have a lot in my life to look forward to. I actually, strangely, have everything I always wanted. (When I was 15 I wrote in my diary that I wanted to be a therapist, a writer, and to date a poet. Ten years later, all three have come true). I have a career that I’ve waited my whole life to begin, a manuscript that I’ve been writing ferociously and will soon be ready to send to agents, and a boyfriend who has supported me unwaveringly as I’ve followed my dreams- even though those dreams have taken me far away from him for the past two years.
But although the future is exciting, let’s face it, it’s also kind of terrifying. (Especially when you have a few weeks to kill between life stages, and you’re just sitting amidst your packed boxes at your parents’ house with nothing to do but watch Glee and reflect on how much you liked the past).
But I think I need this time to grieve, now that I’ve finally figured out that that’s what I’ve been doing. I always knew that leaving graduate school would be difficult for me, and honestly, I think that’s one of the reasons I chose to go to India when I did. (Silly me- a therapist who thought she could run away from her emotions!)
Anyway, I do feel lucky- lucky that I was happy enough to feel the loss this deeply. That’s another thing John and I talked about- how grateful we are to be the kind of people who get to feel all the highs and lows of life, rather than the kind of people who can walk through a whole experience like this and not really notice.
And anyway, what have I really lost? Maybe I just need to grapple with the uncertainty of how, in the future, I will be able to incorporate all the many things I’ve gained.