College 101 Dedicated Feature Life

This is why you should study abroad – I went to Madrid

I’ve always been a little hesitant and unsure of myself. When I started telling people that I planned on studying abroad for the Fall 2019 semester in Madrid, I could tell that they were worried. I mean, how was I going to survive alone? I wasn’t fluent in Spanish, I didn’t know anyone else that was in my program, and I don’t exactly have a plethora of common sense – I’m more book-smart. I think that part of it was that they didn’t want me to get my hopes up. Studying abroad could be a really great experience or a really terrible one, and there wasn’t room for anything in between. 

But, I was determined to prove them wrong. I always have been. Ever since I was little I’ve always felt that people saw my capabilities as one-sided. I could do this but never that. To me, it seemed like an expectation thing. No one expected me to be so independent and sturdy, especially when I appeared in front of them as fragile or sensitive.

The truth is that I had never been given the chance to prove myself in this capacity. The second that I took too long or wasn’t doing something precisely the way that someone else would, they took over. And, as a result, I became apprehensive, kind of shy, and extremely nervous. 

However, it turns out that I was right. I had been largely independent all along, and studying abroad was a great idea. I slowly realized that I could do anything I set my mind to, even this, all the while holding on tightly to my emotional tendencies. I learned a lot about myself while basking in the Mediterranean sun. 

During my time in Madrid, I met people and made connections in ways that are indescribable. I don’t know if it is because I finally found myself in a situation in which I was free from implicit restraints and boundaries or if I became a product of my surroundings. But, I am sure of at least one thing, that being that I was entering a moment in which I was young enough to still have the ignorant belief that nothing mattered, but also wise enough to know that everything mattered much more than it had ever before. There were so many things, and so many people, clawing at me and insisting for my attention, and I finally let go.

For the first time I acknowledged the positivism of this sweet, even blissful, point in my life—one that I may never get again. So, I gave in to the extremities. In doing so, the whole world opened up. I found security in empathy, I learned about ambition, self-awareness, and I felt genuine longing for the first time. I spent days dancing in streets that were once touched by Goya, Ernest Hemingway, and Velasquez. I read poems by Pablo Neruda on the metro and I ate TONS of churros con chocolate.

What I found to be the most pivotal about my experience in Madrid, though, would be living in a home-stay. This is where I spent the most time, had the most laughs, and learned the most about myself. The day after landing in Madrid I met my host family and moved into their home. While they didn’t speak any English at all, and whatever Spanish I did know I forgot the second I opened my mouth, we managed to work through it. 

I knew I wanted to build a relationship with them, but before I could do that, I had to conquer my own confidence battle. I had to remind myself that yes, they were strangers with whom I would be living with for months, but I was also a stranger to them. Frankly, we were all in the same boat. Eventually, I got used to their habits, learned their family traditions, and studied their culture until I felt like I belonged there. They made me feel like I was as much a Madrileño as they are.

At dinner, my host parents would always ask about my day, my classes, and if I was up to anything fun. On the weekends, they would recommend countless restaurants or art museums to my friends and I, and then ask me if I liked it the next day. They even comforted me when I felt overwhelmed or insecure. What I appreciated the most, however, is that they actually listened to my stories, which I am sure that I told in broken Spanish, and always seemed interested.

We really grew to love and care for one another. In those four short months I am sure that they watched me grow exponentially. I truly became myself and started to feel comfortable in my own skin. Plus, I came out being able to speak and communicate in Spanish light-years beyond my ability from when I first arrived in Madrid. 

My memories from this time in my life are whole, and they always will be whole. I’m finally able to show off my independence and I’m never turning back. This just goes to show that a little bit of introspection and determination could go a long way. Of course, I was scared to be alone and so far away but I knew that it was what I needed.  Once I convinced myself to just rip off the band-aid my possibilities for personal growth became endless.

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Love Life Stories

I moved back home – but I’ve lost sight of the woman I truly became

It’s the trite scenario: girl graduates colleges and moves home.

Back to the upper-middle class suburban bubble, her worn-in blanket that sometimes felt more strangling than supportive. Here, Mom and Dad will coddle her until she figures her life out.

There’s no one more supportive.

My anxiety spikes. I run into people I used to know, now strangers. Yet the expectation is to pause and say “hello,” to run through the routine questions that prompt loop-like answers, the ones that don’t really have any substance to them. You know the ones.

I sleep, not in my childhood bedroom, but in my mother’s office in the basement. My room is jettisoned with half-unpacked suitcases stuffed with unfolded clothes lying dormant. This is the same room I used to sneak boys in past midnight. They’d traipse down the grassy knoll to the right of my parents’ bedroom, curve around the looming oak tree and honeysuckle bushes. There I’d wait at the sliding door.

[bctt tweet=”I had my heart splintered when he found someone else. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

There used to be another oak tree. They cut it down, said it might fall on my sister’s and my bedrooms. In its place lies a patch of browned grass. Nothing grows there anymore. You can’t bring back what was once real. The tree is now on my body, tattooed on the right side of my chest. I got it the first week I left, so I’d never forget Oak Forest Lane.

I wasn’t sure I’d be back.

I had an easy adolescence, a stable family unit and a solid group of friends. In high school, I maintained a 4.0 GPA and received the superlative “Senior Hottie.” I co-captained the Poms squad, dancing at Friday night football games. Still, I didn’t always feel like I fit in. I worked as a hostess three nights a week at a nearby upscale restaurant. Some of my co-workers had multiple jobs or were running through student debt.

Most didn’t even make it to college.

They asked me about boys, college acceptance letters and the books I read behind the hostess stand on nights when it wasn’t busy. “Gringa, don’t get too skinny,” one of my favorite food runners told me when I returned to hostess during the winter break of sophomore year, in the throes of an eating disorder.

[bctt tweet=”Everything changed senior year of high school. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

Everything changed the senior year of high school. I thought I might follow my boyfriend of three years, who was a couple of years older, to university in Canada. He’d been like part of the family. Sometimes I thought my family liked him more than they liked me. I’d already been accepted to the school he attended. Instead, I had my heart splintered when he found someone else. I felt searing loneliness for the first time.

I hear they’re still together.

Then came the diagnosis and the domino of deaths. My dad got sick. I underwent surgery at Georgetown University hospital to remove a “tumor” from my foot that turned out to be benign. I had no idea my dad was undergoing a procedure a few floors below me. There was a strange lump that had appeared a few weeks earlier on his testicles.

Neither of my parents wanted to worry me in midst of the whirlwind of events.

It had been a tumultuous few months for my family. We had said goodbye to my grandfather, uncle, and great-uncle in a matter of four months. Our small family shrunk. We reigned in the New Year lonely, a family left thin and frayed by a gray year. When I came home from the hospital that night, my parents sat me down and told me that my dad had testicular cancer. In a single moment, I went from feeling like things were turning around to having my world turned upside down like never before.

My bubble burst.

[bctt tweet=”I’d always been anxious but at this time my anxiety morphed into a kind of paralysis. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

On that day, I lost an amount faith in the goodness of the world that has yet to be returned to me. I learned in a freshman year Psychology course that there is an actual term for this feeling: shattered expectations.

A quote from Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking runs through my mind: “Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.”

Those months before I left for university, I saw my father at his most vulnerable. The days he was too weak to go to work and the toll of the regular procedures on his body, along with my mother’s frustration. The prognosis could’ve been much worse, yet I lived in fear.

I’d always been anxious but at this time in my life, my anxiety morphed into a kind of paralysis. Only a couple of my friends even knew what was going on with me. I wore my mask well, but most of the time, I was just going through the motions.

[bctt tweet=” The prognosis could’ve been much worse, yet I lived in fear.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I left for college in a debilitated state. I’d chosen to attend USC only a couple of weeks before finding out about my dad’s cancer. I felt like a traitor to my family for splitting across the country when I could’ve been as close as Georgetown University. I didn’t have friends in California or any sort of support system to make the transition easier.

I was depressed when I left for college and it persisted throughout my freshman year. I learned for the first time what it felt like to be an outsider, to not fit in. I joined a sorority then dropped out. My heart wasn’t really in anything.

But in lieu of loneliness, I learned the luxury of anonymity.

My college roommate saved me. I honestly don’t know where I would be today without her. From the day we met, we spent practically every moment together. We’d shared a lot of the same struggles and clicked instantly.

Over time, our duo became a trio.

My marijuana intake skyrocketed. The three of us shared stories in the safety smoke provides. We didn’t go out much, preferring to sequester ourselves in our small dorm room. My roommate encouraged me to go to therapy, something I would’ve been too afraid to do before because of stigma. I got better, but I don’t know if I ever really got better.

[bctt tweet=”In lieu of loneliness, I learned the luxury of anonymity.” username=”wearethetempest”]

The depression subsided but the anxiety never did. I serial dated then closed myself off to love. I got caught up with bad boys. I learned that love is complicated, and so’s attraction. I explored and questioned my sexuality like never before. I refused monogamy, ran from commitment.

I lost myself in dance at dark clubs.

But it wasn’t until college that I found my people. It took being thrust out of my comfort zone to find my niche. The weird in me had always existed, but with them, it thrived.

[bctt tweet=”I refused monogamy, ran from commitment. I lost myself in dance at dark clubs.” username=”wearethetempest”]

My best friends were Bernie diehards, pot-smokers, lovers of Nietzsche and Bob Dylan. Some people joked that we were lesbians because of how much time we spent together. In truth, we weren’t so much in love with each other, but in love with the lifestyle we had forged for ourselves. We practiced the art of Not Giving a Fuck.

Simultaneously hedonistic and altruistic, we strived to make the world better but questioned how to get there. Stepped in shards of cracked glass along the way and persevered with bruised egos. Contemplated communes and dreamt of vagabond life. Imagined following bands around on tour, storming sleepy towns then leaving without a trace. In this world, I felt my truest self emerge.

I’d always been more of an observer than a participant. Traveling tested me. I remember climbing through overgrown shrubs down to wine glass bay in Tasmania then sprinting to the top, chakras burning inside of me. I visited nightclubs in Shanghai where foreign models were paid to come and dance for teenage boys who dropped dollars on tables where bottles upon bottles sat untouched.

[bctt tweet=”We practiced the art of Not Giving a Fuck. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

I took a terrorism class at The University of Melbourne. I was the token American in my eight person discussion section. Half of my classmates believed the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, were a hoax. America, in their eyes, was more bully than a protector. I learned about Lacanian concepts of the Real and the Imaginary. I contemplated my own existence, and what any of this really meant anyway.

[bctt tweet=”I may be back but nothing will ever be the same.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I smelt sulfur rise above white crested waves as I stared the Mediterranean Sea in the face, and drank red wine while watching the sunrise, and I felt myself heal.

Now, I’m back.

Separated by miles each way from the four people who taught me to like myself again.

I’m a waitress at a local sports bar. The nights I don’t work, I eat at the dinner table with my parents then we go downstairs to the TV room and watch a show. I think about how lucky I am to be welcomed back home with open arms and full plates of home-cooked food.

The truth is, I can’t really complain. Nothing is bad at home. It’s the opposite, actually. I have good friends and family nearby. I’ve settled into the static.  But I also dream of this other life – the one that feels more real to me.

I still struggle to reconcile these different parts of my identity. Then I think – is this just what growing up is, settling for normalcy and quieting your memories? So they feel more like whispers than screams?

We put the dog down today.

He wore diapers and feces stained his tail, matted white curls brown. His little body curved unnaturally to the left, the muscles in his body having atrophied in succession. We got him when I was five. I picked him out and my sister named him Jax. Watching him age in the past couple of months since I’ve returned home reminds me that I, too, am growing old.

I may be back but nothing will ever be the same.