Five days before I was supposed to move in to the University of Texas at Austin, I dropped out.
As I lay sobbing on the floor of my bedroom in the fetal position, I couldn’t help but wonder how I had gotten here. Where friends of mine were posting ecstatic photos on Instagram of their dorms and the new friends they were meeting, here I was crying on the floor and repeating the mantra that I was terrified and did not want to go.
I was set to leave my home – comprised of a single father I love more than anything for his continuous sacrifice, and a severely-depressed younger sister I’ve always felt the need to protect from herself – for the school of my dreams. From the time I was 9 and moved from Texas to New Jersey, I had told everyone who would listen that I would return, triumphant like some sort of prodigal daughter of the bluebonnets and sunshine, and I would do so a Longhorn.
But the first year alone would carry a price tag of over $50,000 that I had blissfully overlooked simply because it was my dream, and in dreams, there’s no such thing as crippling debt or financial ruin. My tears were making me remember.
On top of that, I was undeclared, headed to such an expensive university without even the slightest idea of what I planned to study and, on top of that, limited in what I could choose because my stats were not high enough to warrant entry into several of UT’s prestigious schools.
My sister, even through her façade of the self-proclaimed emotionless badass, was dropping periodic hints of not knowing how she would cope with her depression without my being at home. On more than one occasion I caught tears slipping from my boyfriend’s eyes, regardless of how happy he was for me achieving my goals. I had not slept soundly in several days, nightmares constantly plaguing me. In those days leading up to the one I would leave, I hugged my dog and kissed his head, promising I’d bring him treats for the holidays from some bourgeois Austin pet store. The world felt like it was crumbling around me, like I was leaving home to face some impending doom rather than something I had strived my whole life for.
I could have gotten through all that. Hard as it would be, I could have coped.
Less than a month before my move-in date, my 33-year-old cousin tragically fell into a coma and unexpectedly passed away, shaking me to my core and sending me spiraling out of control. She had lived with my family during my sophomore year, becoming like another sister to us. In a tiny hospital in Florida, I began listening to the beeping of machines and playing Coldplay for her in her bed on a Tuesday, holding her hand.
It was Wednesday when they told me she could not hear that music. On Saturday, I kissed her forehead and looked upon her for the last time. And I walked out broken.
As I cried on the floor of my home and begged not to have to go to Texas, I thought about the football games she and I had planned to attend there together, the snide comments she made about me being a know-it-all with pride always in her eyes. Most of all, I thought about how she had mentioned coming to Austin with me to start over. How I had brushed the idea off. How she might have been around if I hadn’t. How that guilt, regardless of if it was misplaced or not, would follow me like a monster with gnashing teeth if I set foot in that city so soon after I lost her.
As simply as that, I withdrew from the school of my dreams the next morning. One very simple truth was clear in my head when all else was falling apart: my dream didn’t feel like one anymore. It felt like a nightmare.
I was not emotionally stable enough to leave my family, nor did I want to abandon them to grieve and heal without me. My coping methods were verging on unhealthy as it was and, I had no doubt, it would only worsen if I went straight to a large party school right after such a tragedy. The bottom line was that I knew myself. If I went away for college now I would lock myself in my dorm to cry, forget my classes and spend the semester chasing away my grief. And I didn’t need to spend $50,000 to do that.
Perhaps most mind-boggling to me was the sheer relief I felt when I decided to stay. I had spent my entire adolescence chasing this dream and I had attained it! I had proven to myself that I was capable of such a feat, but was it worth the debt and emotional stress?
The answer to that question, for me, was no.
So I enrolled in classes at my local community college, something that I must admit I had often sneered at. Very quickly, however, I learned that I had been wrong. It started in my first class on my very first day, a world literature course taught by a Ghanaian professor who, while explaining the role of initiation in the hero’s journey, shared anecdotes from his experience in a traditional West African tribe. I sat in my seat in awe of this man, so knowledgeable, and looked around the room at the faces of people just like me.
They say you have to move away and live on your own in college to grow up but I swear, I grew up a little bit in that classroom when I realized that you are not above any opportunity, and even the ones that may have seemed too small yesterday could be your best option tomorrow. While I may mourn the events in my life that made this my best decision, I do not for a moment regret the decision itself. At the end of the day, college is only a few years, but your mental health is something you have to grapple with for the rest of your life. And that should always come first, before accolades or grades or pride.
The night after I withdrew from the University of Texas, for the first time since my cousin’s death, I slept peacefully. Not a nightmare to speak of.
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