When I realized I needed a break from college
My house is small and loud. It’s nine o’clock on a Sunday morning, and my dad is practicing his trumpet, going up and down scales in the living room. My brothers are downstairs, quiet for a moment and then loud again, screaming over a TV remote or a video game or some passing comment. My mom runs her circuit in the middle of it all, cleaning from room to room, a rhythmic quietude beating beneath the noise all around. I like to sit in the middle of the morning noise. There’s a place for me in it, a certain refuge to be found in the chaos of home that’s being completely lived in. It’s life-affirming.
A few months ago I gave all that up because I thought I should want to. I had graduated high school and enrolled in a college I wasn’t particularly excited about, but one that I was convinced would put me on a path to bigger and better things. My friends counted down the days of summer vacation, bemoaning the time they were being forced to spend around family, the dinners they had to be home for, the younger-sibling-sporting-events they were expected to attend. They wanted to go away. My friends were waiting to move onto the next step, eagerly reaching for the four-year college experience and all it would bring. I went through the motions of waiting, but my heart wasn’t in it.
In the first quarter of my freshman year of college I came home every two weeks. Home was a big city, raucous family dinners, and constant rain. School was a big university in a small town, an all-star football team, and early morning Latin class. It was only a two hour drive from home, but the window in my dorm room looked out on another world and I grew to realize that I was unhappier there than I had ever been before, and for no reason I could put my finger on.
There’s no one big explanation I can give for my unhappiness, and I haven’t found an eloquent way to describe it when people ask me what went wrong. I don’t know if there needs to be. The bottom line was that being at that particular school at that particular time caused anxiety and depression. I fought against what my body and mind were telling me, convinced I was weak for wanting anything other than the societally-mandated progression of education. I had wanted that all my life and now suddenly I had wandered off the path.
Two weeks into second quarter, I called my parents to bring me home. I was miserable at school, and miserable for not wanting to be at school. There was no joy left in the day-to-day, no grand plan in relation to my studies. I was drifting for no reason in a place I didn’t want to be, and still I felt I should be there, continuing to drift, simply because anything else would be a deviation from the norm. I had been taught to fear that deviation, to reject any impulse to follow it, and so I waited far too long in the end to honor a feeling I knew to be true at the very beginning of my freshman year.
So I dropped out of school and came home. And as I passed by miles of farmland dotted by small towns in the passenger seat of my mom’s red station wagon, the weight of guilt fell away. I had forced myself into a corner in the months I spent at college. Too afraid to do what I thought people might look down on me for, I had started my adult life in the most unhealthy way possible. I had chosen to tamp down my feelings and intuitions, attempted to blot them out in order to fit into society’s idea of success.
I had denied myself loud Sundays mornings because they seemed trivial compared to the next great adventure. The simplicity of things that had brought me joy all my life seemed inadequate compared to the frantic excitement of a college campus, so I betrayed myself to seek happiness where others had found it, jumping into an experience simply because I thought I should.
I felt like a failure at first. I didn’t tell anyone I had left college and hesitated to go out in fear that I might see someone I knew and have to explain myself. But then I got braver and I let myself feel the happiness in little things and I realized that little things-things like baking cookies, like walking into town, like family dinner, like loud Sunday mornings—were things I lived for and things I had lived without for too long.
I learned to value my happiness no matter how it was achieved. Four years of college immediately after high school is right for some people. It’s the path they’re sure of and it’s what fills their days with purpose and direction. For other people, working at a coffee shop is a dream come true. Some people won’t go to college at all, some people won’t go to college until they’re 24, some people will go to college at 16. There are people with a genius for repairing cars, people who brighten up the grocery store check out line, people who travel for years before ever knowing what they want to do.
You may feel bad for the time it takes you to fall into place. But waiting is OK, and spending a year walking your dog in the morning and cooking dinner in the evening and volunteering on the weekends is what it might take for you to realize a purpose and a way to be happy. Different is OK. In fact, it’s the best thing in the world.
Mia Burcham is now back in school and a freshman in college studying English and Anthropology. She lives in rainy Oregon with her family and Walter the dog. When she isn’t writing or reading, she’s either baking, dancing, or imagining herself at Hogwarts.