I moved away from home, but I couldn’t move away from myself
On my first day of college, my RA had my fellow floor mates and I write out our top five high school accomplishments on sheets of notebook paper. Then he told us to rip up the pages. None of that mattered anymore.
Twenty barely-college students sat in stunned silence for a few seconds. Some people folded up the papers and put their former selves in their pockets, unable to part with their pasts. Others ripped their papers into tiny pieces, letting who they were become smaller and smaller until those people hardly existed at all.
I ripped my sheet in half and let the pieces sit in front of me. I had been waiting to shred my old self for years. As a teenager, I never felt comfortable with who I was.
Even as a kid, I dreamt of being someone else. And in these dreams, I was always somewhere else. I stared longingly out a window of a faraway castle as a princess. I took giraffe rides in Africa on the weekends and, during the week, cured diseases in my job as a doctor. I danced on Broadway at night, then went home to my cramped New York City apartment where I would eat Oreos for dinner while sitting on a ragged couch.
I saw going away to college as my chance to reinvent myself. I decided I would spend “the best four years of my life” 700 miles away from home.
I imagined that the out-of-place feelings that lived inside of me during adolescence would fade when the scenery around me changed. But insecurities aren’t something you can pack in a box that you bury in your closet with old diaries and Beanie Babies. I brought them with me to college. Even the chance to be someone new, someone different from the person I tore in half and dumped in the trash, couldn’t get rid of my self-doubt.
Insecurities aren’t something you can pack in a box that you bury in your closet with old diaries and Beanie Babies.
I spent most of college worrying about who I was, not only whether I was a good friend or fun enough to be around, but also whether I was doing enough in class to be “successful” when I graduated. Every time I called home to check in, my parents told me not to worry too much. Instead, they suggested, I should take life “a day at a time.”
In the space between these days, I walked around campus alone and watched the Midwestern sky set above me. Pink, purple, blue and red would swirl and blot together in clumps. Some nights, I thought the sky looked like a bruise. I wandered under the big, wounded sky, which I thought looked like my heart, trying to find myself.
What I didn’t know then was that you can move anywhere in the world, but you can’t move out of your body. I couldn’t leave me behind.
I am one in a long line of women who take handfuls of mints from restaurants, who laugh at their own jokes, and, who, at some point or another, have wished they could jump out of their own skin.
I grew up believing that moving would make me become the person I’d always wanted to be. As I kid, I listened to my mom tell stories of how she dreamed of becoming an astronaut when she was little. She spent her summers yelling “splashdown” as she cannon-balled into a metal, above-ground pool in her backyard, acting out her heroic return to earth after she flew to the moon.
She didn’t become an astronaut, but she did plan on flying away. When my mom was 22, she and the man who would become her husband (and my dad) talked about moving to Chicago to start their life together. They wanted to move somewhere different from Ohio, where they’d both gone to college. Before they ever got the chance, my mom’s dad was diagnosed with leukemia. He was dead less than a year later.
After my grandpa died, my mom, an only child, felt she needed to stay close to home. My grandma never learned how to drive, and she needed my mom, not only to navigate the streets and to do her errands, but to navigate her life as a widow.
Being in the same place meant my mom and my grandma could help each other move into this new era, where they would live without the once-constant man in their lives. But I know my grandma made it very clear to my mom that she couldn’t leave. My grandma didn’t think moving away was the next step in my mom’s life. Moving away would mean my mom was abandoning my grandma in a time when she needed her most. Being the devoted daughter she is, my mom said she would stay for “a while.”
A while turned into months, then years, then decades. My parents got married and built a life in Cleveland, where they still are. I know my mom is happy with the life she has there, but there is always something a little wistful in the way she talks about moving, and how she might be different had she left.
My grandma, on the other hand, lived in the same house with a rotating cast of overfed schnauzers for more than half a century. But, unlike my mom, I’d never heard her mention wanting to move. In her day, women weren’t as free to dream of careers, relocations, and the people they wanted to be. Unlike my mom and me, my grandma didn’t go to college. She lived with her parents until she got married. Even after my grandpa died, she stayed in their house. Inside, she could still be Steve’s wife, even though she knew he wasn’t there anymore.
She stuck to a routine: scrubbing the tile floors, gossiping on the phone with her family and friends, cooking dinner and watching her “soaps.” The only certain outing she’d have all week was coming to our house for Sunday dinner. The lack of excursions didn’t seem to bother her. She knew, and liked, the person she was in her house. She never had any desire to leave.
Both my mom and grandma worked before becoming full-time moms. I adore my mom and grandma and have come to appreciate the sacrifice that comes from staying home. And, now, I think the world of my mom for staying in Ohio where she knew she was needed. But growing up, I never wanted to be a mom. And I didn’t want to stay at home in Ohio.
The first time I tried to become a fantasy version of myself, I went to a week-long choir camp. I was in high school and it was the only time I’d been away from home for more than a one-night sleepover. I cried myself to sleep every night because I missed my family.
I felt ridiculous. I hated that I cried. At home, I spent most days arguing with my parents because I didn’t want a curfew and was furious that they drove me to my after-school activities and friend’s houses rather than let me ride with fellow teenage drivers.
But, in those sleepless nights at choir camp, I felt the absence of a place from within me. I could only think about where I wasn’t instead of where I was. Much like when you work out and feel muscles you never knew you had, leaving for nights and days at a time made me aware of the space “home” took up in my heart.
I imagined going to college would be full of moments like those, and it terrified me. At the same time, I felt that going to college was my chance to be a new person. To reinvent myself, I was convinced I should leave Ohio, where I spent Friday nights crying and hugging books to my chest, trying to absorb the happier, fictional world I held in my arms.
So, on November 2, 2009, I wrote in my diary:
Mom and I went to visit Mizzou alone because she doesn’t want me to go there. I was supposed to be able to use this trip to show her how happy I would be there, and why it would be right for me. On the last night, we went to this pizza place that all of the college kids go to. It’s right by the journalism school and it was a random weekend in fall, so she was the only mom there. We sat in a wooden booth and while I crunched into the pizza, her voice broke and she cried and told me I couldn’t go this far away for school. She would miss me too much. I was hurting her.
In that moment, I felt something in my heart get strong, like my heart had a fist and it clenched it as if to say ‘No. I need this. I need to be here.’ And it pumped to the beat of ‘I. Need. To. Be. Here.’ as she cried. It made me sad to feel that way when she was upset, but I have this feeling in me that says Mizzou is where I need to go.
I’m scared. It’s far. And I know I won’t be able to just drive home if things get tough, but I also know that there’s something in me telling me this is right. That going to the journalism school there is what I’m supposed to do.
So, self, you know the decision to go to Mizzou will be a difficult one, which is why I’m writing out a list of reminders as to why you must go there:
1. You are alone here. Completely and irrevocably alone. You need to get away — far away — where you can get a fresh start. Missouri will be a new life, which you need.
2. No one will know who you are. You don’t know a single person there, which means you can be anyone.
3. I know mom and dad will be really sad. But they’ll have to learn how to be without you because you can’t move back here when you graduate either.
4. In Missouri, you will be confident. You will be ambitious. You will be fun. You will be better.
5. You won’t be depressed like you are here. You will be happy.
I remember looking in the mirror before my first college fraternity party and seeing everything that needed to change. More than beer pong or flip cup, the most common game I played in college was something called “close your eyes, count to 100, and, when you open your eyes, hope to see someone else.” Unsurprisingly, it never worked.
Still, at Mizzou, away from Ohio, I tried to be someone “better.” I straightened my naturally wavy hair. I wore tight skirts, no coat and four-inch heels in the middle of bone-dry Missouri winters, and posed with my hand on my hip in sticky basements before taking shots of cheap vodka. I didn’t want to miss out on the idea I had of “college,” even if it meant I spent the next day panicking because my head was throbbing and I didn’t feel I had enough time to finish my homework.
Now, it wasn’t like I didn’t have fun in college. I did. Some basement parties were great. I loved most of my classes. And some of the moments I felt most young, free and alive were when I was able to stop worrying about assignments and laugh with friends while eating nachos and talking about our lives at 3 a.m.
But it wasn’t easy for me. In my first few years at Mizzou, I found myself calling home every day. I told my parents I was calling “just to say hi.” The truth was, I called because I was struggling to figure out who I was and felt like I needed to talk to the people who knew me best.
I had imagined I would be happy when I finally got away. It didn’t work. Trying to be everything I wanted ended up making me feel like no one.
A few months ago, my mom went to my grandma’s house to pick her up for an eye doctor appointment. My grandma didn’t answer the door. My mom used her spare key to get inside, where she found my grandma sitting on the toilet. Her kidneys were failing. Unable to get up or reach a phone, my grandma sat there for hours. She spent the next few weeks in the hospital, then moved to a rehab facility. She kept trying to tell us she was “fine” and “nothing was wrong.” She wanted to go home.
“Oh, Allieeeeeee, I don’t want to be here,” my grandma wailed when I visited her a few weeks ago. It’s the first time I’d ever heard my grandma talk about wanting to be somewhere else.
Not only did she not want to be in the assisted living facility where she now lives, she didn’t want to be there in her body, a body whose knees are shaky and unsteady; whose arms are too weak to push her walker across the room. Going home, in my grandma’s head, will solve the problems she has now. She knows how to navigate her kitchen. She knows how to work her microwave. The button on the remote control, which never seems to work in her new room, will work to turn on her soaps there. More than anything else, she knows who she is when she’s there.
She doesn’t realize that her body has changed, even though her home hasn’t. The problems are inside. The depression, the lack of confidence in her own stability, have blossomed in her 87-year-old body, a body that hadn’t been asked to figure out who, or what, it is in decades. Now, she’s moving into a different era of herself. But she doesn’t want to do it alone. She wishes I still lived in Ohio.
I did live there for a while. After I graduated from college, I was fortunate enough to move home as I searched for a job. My grandma, then living in her old home, asked me to look in Cleveland. My parents told me repeatedly how nice it was to have me home after so long. It would’ve been easy for me, then unemployed and dependent on them, to stay in a place that was familiar and comfortable. To let my roots grow into the Ohio soil, where our family has bloomed.
But, when I was the same age as my mom was when she wanted to move to Chicago, the pulse in my heart came back. I took a job in a different state. A few months later, I moved cities again.
“Why don’t you live closer to us,” my grandma said when I visited her a few weeks ago. “I didn’t move far away and my life was still happy. And your mother is close. I want you to stay. We need you here.”
Going away to college gave me the chance to figure out who I was apart from my family. But it meant I had to try to figure out who I was in the context of other kids in a very specific timeframe that we’re meant to believe is “the best four years of our lives.” It’s too much pressure. Four years isn’t enough time to determine who you will be for the rest of your life.
Four years isn’t enough time to determine who you will be for the rest of your life.
Now, I’m free to figure out who I am away from old friends and family. I moved to a city where I could, theoretically, live for the rest of my life. There’s no expectation to leave after four years have gone by. There’s no expectation to make it the best time of my life. There’s only me.
Like my grandma, we will all change and grow old and stop knowing our own bodies. It’s selfish to want to keep people close and it’s selfish to want to leave when you’re needed. But it’s hard to ignore a pulse in your heart that tells you where you need to be. I knew where mine led me.
That’s why, on the last day of my recent visit to Ohio, even though my grandma begged me to stay and my parents teared up when they dropped me off at the airport, I flew home to Boston with no list of who I hope to become. I feel guilt knot up in my stomach when I talk to my family on the phone and I know they’re having tough days. I am still trying to reconcile the fact that I am the woman in our long line who chose to leave. I feel my heart hurt on days when I need a hug or when I have great news that I have to tell them over the phone and not in person. I miss them.
Here, I still watch the sky bleed, and bruise, and scab over as I move from one day to the next. But now I am able to believe that, if the earth can hurt and blot — but heal — itself each night, maybe I can, too. That the pink and purple and red that bleed within me will fade overnight and be replaced with blue.
I might still be blue, but I get to start over. I get another day. And it’s in these days, when I am able to look in the mirror without wanting to see someone else, that I feel happy. I know I’m home.
Allison Pohle is a writer for Boston.com who sometimes eats Oreos for dinner, just like her four-year-old self always wanted.
This is the first installment of the My Teen Diary series.