Desperately unhappy in the top Ivy League school


Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 22, 2008

I want to work in New York publishing, and I know this is the route, but I’m miserable and depressed.

Dear Cary,

I am a freshman at the top Ivy League school in the country, and while this has never been easy, or, to put it more accurately, not too traumatic, recently things took a turn for the worse. Now I can’t imagine how I am going to survive until the end of the semester, much less three more years.

I’m from Los Angeles, a place with which I very strongly identify (which I discovered only after I moved to the Northeast). While I was really into journalism in high school, my true passion has always been creative writing. I had a lot of choice senior year, and it basically came down to the premier private university on the West Coast or on the East. I chose the East, mainly because I was really impressed with the sheer opportunity that comes with going to a school like this, but also because I was (and still am, although not as much) interested in getting into the publishing world of New York, both as an editor to pay the bills, but then hopefully as a writer myself. Having begun an internship at a literary magazine here I now know that my first estimates were accurate: If this were something I wanted to pursue, I would have no problem getting the connections I might need to succeed through this school and its alumni network. (Seriously, words cannot explain the alumni network. You eat breakfast in the dining halls and look up into intimate portraits of the presidents.) But since beginning here I’ve also become a bit rankled (and, if you can’t notice, a little bitter) at this empire that, under the pretext of academia, stretches to every office, every field and every department in the world. I just suppose that my experience here has tempered my previously bewildered awe for this place.

My freshman year so far has been something of a disappointment. I find myself coming up short on everything I’ve done here. Up until now it’s just been the work, and the unending papers and deadlines. Last semester I took only three classes but ended up writing 17 papers. I get really stressed under pressure and the weather just upsets me in general (the long, cold winter where everything looks dead is not something I enjoy). This semester I sought out student health services therapy for my depression, which had been ongoing for about a year before college, and while it wasn’t exactly a grand panacea, it did help somewhat to talk over things.

But even all of this was endurable because my dorm life had been relatively OK. I don’t have a lot of friends because first semester any participation I might have had in any writing organizations was stopped by the fact that I was already writing two papers every week, and I didn’t want to write more “for fun.” Also, I’m really quiet and introverted by nature, and my self-confidence in new social situations is lacking. So basically I didn’t really branch out a lot but that was OK, because I had made really good friends with my roommate and a couple of other friends in housing. However, ever since winter break I had considered the possibility of transferring, because even though I had made a couple of good friends, I am mostly miserable on campus.

I feel completely invisible here, like no one notices me or everyone looks through me as I walk around campus, and I feel my minority and female status has a lot to do with it. More than once I’ve wished that some fortunate and not too fatal accident/disease might land me in the hospital to relieve me of my responsibilities and let me somewhat gracefully bail out under an acceptable circumstance. While my grades last semester were fine (I got a 3.5) this semester is going quickly and neatly down the tube. I got an extension for this eight-page paper due two weeks back but still have yet to write a word. I’m barely toeing the line in a chem class and my languages are suffering as well. I’ve thought about dropping the class with the paper due as I’ve yet to read any of the book on which we are to have a final in three weeks, but each time I have been talked out of it, or talked into hanging on for a little bit longer. I’ve talked to my dean and my mom and my therapist several times about this, but they don’t seem to understand that when I say I’m sinking I mean I’ve already drowned. I feel awful about everything.

My dorm life too, which I had once depended upon so much, also recently imploded. Basically the major thing that happened was that my roommate, with whom I usually get along very well, became really upset with me because I didn’t give her enough advance to tell her that I didn’t want to enter into the housing draw in a suite with her because I didn’t want to room with another person who we were supposed to be rooming with. She said some things (including that she couldn’t trust me anymore). I didn’t say anything, mostly because I was feeling so guilty myself about it because she was completely in the right and I was in the wrong. Yet I just couldn’t room with this other girl next year. It would be a suite, always type-A, high energy, partying and drinking, and I’m just way more chill, more relaxed, than that.

A week or two later nominally everything had been settled, as we had the room draw and she got a single and I got in with these other girls who are pretty chill and low-key as well, except my roommate and I are still not talking. I had apologized the day of and then about a week after, except nothing came of it. Except the worst part about it was the way in which I was so totally dropped from the group, and people with whom I had been really close friends, even better than with my roommate, wouldn’t even greet me as we passed in the hall. It felt awful. At first I avoided my room completely, and I didn’t have a place to crash on campus except various common rooms and libraries. I felt so totally isolated. I remember going to a pizza parlor that day and sitting there for three hours and not ordering anything, just slowly turning over my own depression in my head.

The most disturbing thing about the situation, however, is that this happened basically once before, when I was in high school, over a journalism position for editor in chief with another girl who used to be one of my closest friends.

Over spring break I finally got up the courage to apply for transfer to the West Coast school I had turned down once before (I did this before the whole rooming thing happened). I don’t want to run from my problems, and I harbor no illusions about how much better life there might be than life here, except the way I figure it, even the worst there is better than the worst here because my friends and my family are nearby, and it’s not freezing six months out of the year. I just have no place here anymore, and I’m really alone and isolated and depressed nearly all the time. I don’t know what to do, and I certainly have no idea how to begin making headway on my homework. Most days I feel accomplished if I just go to class. I feel as though I can’t do anything, much less think, much less write. I feel like I can’t do anything right.

So I suppose the reason why I am writing is to ask your advice on how to continue on with the semester and general thoughts on the roommate situation and whether I should transfer back to the West Coast. I’ve never been one to read advice columns much, but I’ve read a bit of your stuff (well, OK, a lot), and I’m rather encouraged.

California Dreaming


Dear California Dreaming,

I suggest that before you go back to the West Coast, try something new: Try really taking care of yourself. If you can really take care of yourself, you can get through this. And if you can get through this, you can have your dream of working in the New York publishing business. Or you can do whatever else you want to do, if it turns out that’s not your first-choice dream.

By really taking care of yourself, I mean giving yourself not just what you need but what you want, and more of it than you are used to giving yourself. If you are under a doctor’s care for clinical depression, continue that routine. But along with whatever you are doing with the doctor, try really taking good care of yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually.

After all, you are a California girl. You know how to do this. There are probably activities you used to take for granted in your California life that kept you sane and healthy. When did you feel happiest in California? What were you doing? Were you going to the beach? Were you in the sun? Were you getting massages or meditating? Were you dancing? Were you driving? Make a list of the activities that used to make you happy.

And then for six weeks do the following things. Exercise three times a week for at least half an hour. Eat three meals a day that include fresh vegetables and fruits and enough protein. Take a daily vitamin supplement with extra minerals and B vitamins. Get eight hours of sleep a night. Once a week, get a massage or sit in a hot tub or sauna or all three. If you come from a religious practice, do your religion. If you have a favorite food or meal, eat that favorite meal. Get your nails done. Have a facial. If you like animals, find some animals to be with. If you like to swim, swim. Consult your list of things that make you happy and do those things. Don’t worry about what other people think. Just follow your instincts and give yourself what you need.

If your grades slip a little, that’s OK. If it would make it easier to drop one course, go ahead and drop it. Meanwhile, establish a routine that keeps you in top physical and emotional shape. Do it as a program. Keep track of your self-care activities in a journal. Write down each day the things you do to keep yourself in good shape. Take note, in the journal, of any improvements in mood or attitude, but do not expect any overnight changes. You have been running yourself ragged for so long that it may take longer than a month to feel any genuine improvement. That’s OK.

Perhaps you can also adopt a new set of beliefs to get you through this. Try these new beliefs out: “It doesn’t matter how people treat me day-to-day. What matters is how I conduct myself. If I conduct myself with dignity and self-respect, and if I take care of myself, I will be fine. I do not need everyone to like me. I know what I want. If I take care of myself and work toward what I want, I will be fine. There is enough time for everything. I do not need to rush.”

Keep your mind on what you want. Establish some goals that make you happy to think about. If you want to be an editor and writer, what publishing house would you like to work for? What would be the titles of some of the books you would publish? What authors would you like to work with? But perhaps your East Coast experience has soured you on that dream. If it turns out that what you would rather do is work in the Los Angeles film business, then begin visualizing that in the same way. What directors would you like to work with? What movies would you like to produce?

Meanwhile, ask your therapist how to minimize the stresses you are most prone to. Ask what forces might be working on you that you are not aware of. For instance, you say you are introverted, but sometimes you sound like an extrovert. It may be that you have needs you are not fully aware of, and that you are incurring stresses because you do not take these needs seriously. Perhaps you have a higher need for approval than you realized. Perhaps you have a need for solitude but also have certain traits of the typical competitive, power-motivated extrovert. Winning does seem to suit you.

Explore these things. But do not expect quick answers. Just explore them to see if you can identify areas of stress that you can eliminate. This is all in the interest of taking good care of yourself while you work through this four-year program.

Do this and see how you feel by the end of the year. Take the summer off and enjoy yourself. Come back in the fall and do it again.

And if you do all these things and you still hate it there, no problem. You can always move to the West Coast and finish up there. Nothing wrong with that. The main thing is to learn to take care of yourself.

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