To say that I did not enjoy my undergraduate college experience is a huge understatement. When I was working with my therapist, Dr. T, I referred to September 1996 – August 2000 as “the lost years.” Ones full of missed opportunity, regret and dangerous behavior.
There are many reasons for the crushing depression that overtook me as a young adult attending classes (sometimes) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For the sake of brevity, I’ll mention two. I’d spent most of my childhood in a constant state of distress and/or high alert. I had precious little time to process the abusive, neglectful upbringing I’d experienced and frankly, I’m not sure I could have survived long enough to actually leave home if I’d stopped to let it wash over me. But when I found myself dropped in the middle of corn fields and farms, a quiet place where there were few immediately threatening distractions, I came silently unglued.
At the same time, I severely underestimated the climate shift from pulsing, vibrant, stimuli everywhere you turn Chicago, to the slower, muted lifestyle of Central Illinois. I didn’t know enough to predict the tremendously negative impact this would have on my energy and intellectual curiosity, though in retrospect of course it couldn’t have been any other way. I recently watched an episode of Sex and the City. The protagonist Carrie Bradshaw finished a conversation with a handsome sailor, and then observed in voiceover: “If Louis was right, and you only get one great love…New York may just be mine.” I feel the same way about the Windy City. It fascinates, frustrates, challenges and beckons me. I am Chicago and Chicago is me.
So there I was in Urbana/Champaign gaining weight, phoning in my English Literature degree with Psychology minor (with a complete and ironic lack of self-awareness), drinking, taking drugs, hanging out with townies. I can admit now to a disgustingly passive death wish, but what bugs me the most about it is not the risky conduct itself. Risk I can do – always have in some form.
It’s the indifference, the lack of agency with which I dithered. It’s not who I am. I utterly, completely lost myself on the flat plains of the Midwest. I didn’t care about much. I’ve learned to forgive myself for most of it because I clearly had issues to work through and didn’t know any other way to cope. But still – sometimes it gnaws. The “best” years of my life flushed away with little to show for it except a degree I know I didn’t really earn.
I’ve spent 15 years pulling myself together and today, I’m rather proud of the life I’ve built. I have a talent (words) and I make a diverse, fulfilling career of it. I am healthier – mentally and physically – after many, many hours spent in individual and group therapy. The volatile, unstable parents are out of the way for good and amazingly, my sister and I came away from the experience holding hands in unshakeable solidarity. I live in a good home full of adorable animals and the perfect partner. I have a large network of talented, supportive friends.
In my dreams, sometimes I still go back to Champaign.
It’s a few days before graduation and I haven’t completed a class. I won’t receive my diploma. And then they’ll come for the Master’s degree I earned (the right way) from Northeastern. I can’t have the latter without the former.
My father is badgering me for money and he’s in pursuit as I run through a monstrous, Gotham-like version of Campustown.
Bob doesn’t love me anymore. He’s leaving, and he’s driven us down to Urbana to break the news, leaving me behind in an empty dormitory.
I still grapple with nightmares. And they often occur within the context of four years a part of me will always want back up and redo.
In late April, Bob I went to Urbana-Champaign for the weekend. He ran a marathon and I wanted to support him, despite my trepidation. The experience was positive and cleansing in a number of ways, but most importantly for me, I no longer recognized the place that has been demonized by my subconscious. Like so many of my beloved Chicago neighborhoods, the towns have experienced the frenzied build of gentrification. Where once stood empty cow pastures near Memorial Stadium, there’s now a Houlihan’s restaurant attached to a large hotel. I also spent the time engaged in healthy activities utterly foreign to the emotionally stunted self of the late 1990s – writing, running a 5k, and notably, in the company of a man who has earned my complete trust and confidence.
The frequency of the dreams lessened afterward.
Tomorrow morning, Bob and I will pack the car, drop the dogs off at Grandma and Grandpa’s house (Bob’s parents) and make our way to Central Illinois once more. His friend’s wedding will take place at beautiful Allerton Park outside Champaign. Bob bought a new suit, I’m bringing my favorite gown and I already know we’ll have a splendid time. We always do. With every healthy return visit to a patch of earth so pregnant with personal trauma, the demons incrementally recede.
I expect to sleep soundly.