On August 16, 2016, I drove across the country with my mom with butterflies in my stomach and curiosity in my heart. After spending nearly 19 years growing up in an upper-middle-class community in Colorado nicknamed the “Boulder Bubble” for its outdoorsy, utopian, well-educated, and extensively successful inhabitants, I decided to go to college nearly 1,000 miles away in a city I’d visited twice.
Most people ask me why I ever left Colorado—a place where I can hike or ski on a daily basis, eat locally-grown, organic food at every meal, and wear my hiking boots into every store in town. The truth is, I needed to distance myself from the environment in which I was raised to support my personal growth. To learn who I truly am and who I’m not.
The first days of college were pure fun. My school hosted a welcome week for freshmen, packed with activities and social outings. The first few weeks of classes went wonderfully, asides from minor growing pains. I was so busy meeting people, breaking in new pencils, and putting my name down at club fairs that my life felt like a dream—a vacation away from reality.
Eventually, the honeymoon phase began to wear. I watched as my peers formed friend groups while I stood in my corner of the universe, frozen in fear as a strange new reality unfolded before my eyes. I didn’t attend any meetings for the clubs I’d signed up for. I moved monotonously from class to class. I refused to let myself engage in the pleasures of college because I didn’t have a perfect 4.0. The boy who I was seeing chose to date another girl. Within weeks, I felt completely empty.
I essentially lost all motivation to live. That fall, I relapsed into my eating disorder, prompting my body to shrink along with any remnants of my personality. I lost my passion for things I’d previously identified with: being on the varsity swim team, friendships, my flourishing YouTube career, my dream of joining Nurses Without Borders. Instead I began to identify with the emptiness I felt on the inside and the act of manipulating my outer appearance to match it.
My doctor refused to let me shrink to nothing, and I was hospitalized in April and spent the remainder of my summer in treatment. As my body returned to a healthy state, I began to feel my personality come back to life. I had energy, emotions, and feelings again. While I still had no idea who I was, what I enjoyed doing, or what I wanted to make of my life, I returned to school in August with the curiosity and courage to attempt to find answers to those questions.
After deciding to go through sorority recruitment for the second time, I discovered just how extroverted I truly was, and later I was elected president of my class. I started going to biweekly wellness club meetings, which grew my interest in health promotion and wellness. I started dating someone in my new friend group. We broke up during finals, but my parents put their foot down and told me if I wasn’t going to take recovery seriously, they would have no choice but to stop financially supporting my education.
It took a couple more cycles of relapsing and going to treatment before I realized that if everyone around me was so adamant that my physical body live, I needed to keep every piece of me alive. And so I made a deep-seated commitment to myself that no matter what challenges I faced, no matter how much pain I felt, I was going to do whatever it took to remain alive. Along the way I’m discovering who I am: what I like, what I don’t, and what I can contribute to the world.
For starters, I like music. I could hike forever. My core values are integrity, authenticity, passion, intimacy, and growth. I’m extremely connected to my emotions (and sometimes let them get the best of me). Lifting weights is therapeutic. I find TV boring. Road trips excite me. I eat a lot of yogurt (and sweet potatoes). Sunrise is my favorite time of day. I love reading and writing. Dancing frees me. I’m working on overcoming my fear of never being good enough.
I am in part the books I read, the words I write, the songs I listen to. The appearance I present, the core values I hold, the mistakes I’ve made. But I’m also so much more. My identity isn’t fixed, doesn’t need a label, and can change over time. The more I grow, the more of me there is for others to appreciate—even those who have chosen to leave my life.
I realize now that at the start of my college years, I wasn’t only waiting for a continuous stream of invitations that were never going to come, but to be dragged out of my dorm room to join everyone else in the beautiful world of college. The friendships, the clubs, the hobbies that I secretly so desperately wanted to be apart of had always been available. All I need to do is take personal responsibility to accept those opportunities and continually show up. Yes, life is messy and I will make mistakes along the way—but I don’t need to sit on the sidelines watching my life pass by in front of my eyes. If I want to choose actions that result in me feeling alone, empty, and isolated, I am free to do so. People will let me partake in those behaviors if that’s the life I choose to live. No one can live for me.
I realize now that most of the “rejections” and broken relationships I’ve faced weren’t really about rejecting me—it was more along the lines of “Thank you for letting me see you. I appreciate who you are, and someone will love and cherish you—but for whatever reason that person cannot be me.”
Through going away for college, I’ve learned that I do want to keep the parts of my identity shaped by my hometown. Because I’m so far away from that community, I’m different from the people I go to school with. I love kimchi. I go to Whole Foods every day. I have a collection of Buddhist books and essential oils on my desk. My hiking boots are the most expensive shoes I own.
Once upon a time, I just wanted to shrink. But today, I want people to look at my heart and see the biggest person in the world.