In Defense of Running Away
I always start by explaining that I was only 19.
I could say that I was young and foolish, that I trusted my heart more than my head. I could tell you what I did was impulsive, a little crazy, and completely out of character. But instead, I just say that I was 19, and trust that you understand.
Right after my freshman year of college, I moved 500 miles away from home for a boy. It wasn’t because I loved him; I know that now, though at the time I would have argued vociferously that it was. In my girl-woman mind, moving for a boy was an act of true romance. And I suppose sometimes, it is. That wasn’t the case for me, though. Love had little to do with it.
That first year of college had not been a good one, and I was disillusioned and confused. These were supposed to be the greatest years of my life; everyone said so. Looking back, I can see that my first mistake was rooming with girls I was friends with from high school. College is a great opportunity for reinvention, but that’s hard to pull off when you’re surrounded by people who know the person you’ve always been. I had always been on the periphery in high school. Not one of the cool girls, but friendly enough with them. Not dating the cutest boys, but chatting with them in class. College was supposed to be a chance to find my place; instead, I felt trapped from the first week.
My days were spent in auditorium-size classrooms; I went from being one of 69 students in my high school graduating class to one of 415 students in my Psychology 101 class. I never spoke to many of my professors directly, never heard the tenor of their voice away from a microphone. My nights were spent picking up my roommates from the front porches of increasingly decrepit houses. They had settled comfortably into college party mode, but something held me back from joining them. Now I would call it common sense—a fraternity house hardly seems like the right place for an 18-year-old girl to get shitface drunk for the first time. But at the time, I wouldn’t have called it smart. Scared, maybe. Isolating, for sure.
At a school with 20,000 people, I felt invisible. I’ve always felt that way about big cities; New York is the easiest place to find anonymity, even though you’re always surrounded by a swell of bodies. It’s the most overwhelming kind of loneliness when you’re surrounded by people who look right through you.
Oh, I probably could’ve been more resourceful in finding my people. At a school that size, I’m sure there was a group or a club or a something where I would’ve found a collection of like-minded souls. But I chose differently. When I went to college in the early 2000s, our cell phones still ran on plans with a monthly minute limit and the Ethernet connections in every dorm room was the first experience with high-speed Internet for most of us. I’m sure it was supposed to help us study, but naturally, we used it for downloading entire albums of music off Limewire in less than 10 minutes. Facebook wouldn’t exist for three more years, so AOL Instant Messenger was still the trendiest way to communicate online.
My computer screen was where I felt seen in those days. I could talk to friends at far-off schools and feel less alone. When a friend of a friend messaged me one Thursday night, we chatted casually and hit it off. Our conversations continued over the next few weeks, and we seemed to really connect. He was coming down to visit our mutual friend in a couple weeks; could we hang out?
That weekend turned into a long-distance relationship, and I couldn’t have been more pleased with myself. Finally, I had someone who made me a priority. I had someone to talk to between classes. I could hear the smile in his voice every time he said hello. Casually in conversation one day, he threw out the idea of me transferring to a school up there, and I lept at the idea. This wasn’t normally my speed, throwing away a full academic scholarship on a boy I’d known for seven months. But when you’ve spent your whole life feeling you don’t fit and someone says “come sit by me,” you take it, distance be damned. He was my way out.
As soon as spring classes ended, I packed my bags and drove up I-75 to Michigan, to the first person who ever picked me over everyone else. Nevermind that I didn’t stop to consider if I’d choose him back. He wanted me, and no one had ever wanted me before. After nine months—or, more accurately, 19 years—of being invisible, the feeling was intoxicating. I was seen. I mattered.
I should note here that exactly no one else in my life thought this was a good idea. My friends, my parents, my older brother, my older brother’s friends … literally, everyone tried to convince me not to go. But I wouldn’t listen. Making a place for myself at home was too hard. I’d go to where one was waiting for me.
At first, it wasn’t so bad. My boyfriend eagerly introduced me to all of his friends, who were charmed by my Southern drawl and slightly mystified by my overdone-by-Midwestern-standards makeup and hair. His people became my people. I learned how to play Euchre and drink wine coolers. There was a place carved out for me next to his side, and for awhile, I was happy to fit myself into it.
As summer slid into fall, though, the shiny newness wore off. I began to resent the expectation that I would attend every dive bar show his band played. All my friends were really his friends, and it seemed he wasn’t super keen on me making my own. I began to realize the drawbacks to letting someone else define your place. I chafed at a role that seemed too small. I wanted more.
By the time the first snow fell, I’d decided this wasn’t working. He was a good guy. But the fact that he chose me wasn’t enough to build a life on. Just because he’d made a space for me, didn’t mean it was the only space I could claim. I broke up with him and moved back home, just in time for Christmas. I found my own apartment, with no partying roommates, and switched my major to journalism, because I knew I loved writing stories. I stopped worrying about fitting in and started focusing on the life I wanted to live.
But still I say: I’m glad I ran away. I learned that fighting for my space is hard. But it isn't as hard as trying to fit into a space made for me by others. While I was gone, I found a stronger, braver version of myself. Then I brought her home, where she belonged.