“I just need to process,” I told my friend as we made our way across Texas A&M’s campus toward the basketball arena. “I think I’m going to skip the game and go back to my dorm room.”
She laughed, shaking her head. “You always need to process. Even a fight with your roommate about hair.”
I stared at the concrete as shadow turned to light, a line on the pavement marking the end of our group’s walk through the underground tunnel. As we crossed into the harsh sunlight, I kept my shoulders slumped.
I stared at the ground. "I . . . yeah, I guess I do."
My mind screeched with self-accusatory statements.
What a pathetic way to respond, Abby.
You’re never going to fully fit in here, or probably anywhere. You’re too different. Just accept it.
They don’t understand you, and it’s not their fault. You’re not understandable.
I stayed in step with my friend and the rest of our group, willing myself not to break rank. If I could just make it to the arena, just sit in my seat and pretend to watch the game while reliving the past few hours, I reasoned, I could fully identify as a member of the crew that surrounded me. But I knew even as the plan formed in my mind that I couldn’t do it.
I managed ten more steps. “I just have to go.”
I turned back toward the building where four walls would surround me, where my bed would welcome me, where the lamp from my childhood bedroom would anchor me. I wondered if I could breathe the same air as other people in whatever place I called home. Or if I would always have to hoard the empty space to myself to let my heart rate return to normal.
The blazing Texas rays beat down on me as I trekked across the campus, a place I both loved and felt I could never fully settle into—like many places I’d known before my move to college. The university had told me via email on a bright spring day in my senior year of high school that I officially belonged with them. I acquired a student ID and class schedule during a June new student conference, affirmations of my official membership. But those gestures felt empty, almost cruel, when I repeatedly found myself lost on campus yet again because I’d been absorbed in thought, or when I couldn’t make sense of the way that so many others seemed to walk from class to class unafraid of unexpected run-ins. Did they just always know what to say?
My dorm room greeted me with messy familiarity. French toile comforters covered the two twin beds—a visible mark of roommates who knew each other prior to college and made their decor choices together as they traded graduation caps for game day apparel. My roommate and I had argued earlier in the day—a petty disagreement about the way she curled my hair, that left me feeling misunderstood and mean all at once. I think.
The dissonance, the inability to name my feelings about the spat, drove me mad. So mad, in fact, that I needed to “process.” And I had tried to ignore it, which led to me forging across campus toward a basketball game that I didn’t care about. Because that’s what coeds do. And that landed me in the moment of darkness turning to light, shadows turning to sun, exposing me in my differences, my frustration, my inability to embrace a communal identity when my individual identify felt so unmoored.
I crawled into my bed, nauseated by my own weaknesses and how desperately I longed for a mind and heart that didn’t need utter silence and solitude in order to make sense of the world. I resented how impossible it felt to get through a day without time to reflect—to, well, process all I’d observed, all I’d absorbed.
Roommate squabble over ringlets or not, the long days of college life pelted me like rain. Sometimes I loved them—dancing beneath every drop that fell on me during long nights of conversation with just one friend across the table, or when my creativity found purpose in a group project. But so often, the sensation of my hair and clothes soaking up every drop overwhelmed me—what if I became so weighed down I couldn’t move toward others, a task that felt so hard already? What if I drowned in the deluge of social interactions?
I regularly felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of hours spent with other people as a norm of college life. Yet I would push myself to be extremely social, enslaved by longing to connect with others and to avoid the feeling of failure because I always needed to “process.” When I just couldn’t forge ahead any more, I’d steal away and scribble in journals like I was wringing out drenched strands of hair. Then I’d stare at my words, trying to make sense of how all of those now-written thoughts could have been inside me, like the full glass of water wrung out of a girl’s ponytail. The pages mirrored my mind and heart back to me like puddles of self-knowledge, never a concrete picture, but enough of a reflection that I could gain some understanding and, invariably, at least walk back into the storm.