There was something about starting freshman year that made me feel invincible. Leaving my parents’ home in our suburban Midwestern town and going to a school that was only a few hours away somehow gave me an inexplicable sense of power — one that I had never felt before. Maybe it was because it was my first taste of independence. Perhaps I derived this power from the fact that I was living in a dorm full of other testosterone-filled eighteen year olds who drove my primal instincts to be the biggest and the strongest. But it wasn’t physical power that I felt. I mean, sure, I had played football and wrestled in high school, so I was a pretty strong guy, but that wasn’t it. The power I felt was a sense of security. I guess that’s why I was so surprised when he started coming around, threatening that feeling of security that I had held on to so tightly.
The first time I saw him, I was in the dining hall across the street from my dorm. My roommate had just left dinner to go to some frat party he had been invited to, but, since I hadn’t finished my dessert, I was stuck back at the table doing my best Steven Glansburg impression. As I ate my frozen yogurt, I scanned the tables, admittedly looking primarily for the attractive girls the campus had recently become notorious for, and that was when I saw him. There was nothing special about him really, except for the fact that at the moment when I looked at him, he happened to be looking right back at me.
I quickly broke eye contact, and to my relief, when I looked again a couple of minutes later, he had stopped staring. Like me, he was sitting alone, but there was something strange about his loneliness; he looked much more comfortable in it than I ever was. Maybe it was because he was older, so he had been around for a long time and had become used to sitting by himself. As I continued to watch him, I noticed that he was staring at different people in the dining hall, jumping from person to person. First, he looked at a girl who sat quietly with someone who appeared to be her boyfriend. Then, he moved his gaze to an older woman from the dining staff, who dutifully dragged her mop across the floor as students walked through her freshly mopped trail, some even spilling food onto the freshly cleaned linoleum. He then watched a group of boys who had snuck a flask into the dining hall. They laughed as they spiked their drinks, and he just continued to stare. Finally, his eyes made their way back towards mine, which is when I realized I had been staring at him for the past fifteen minutes. Embarrassed, I put my tray away and went back to my room.
That was the only experience I had with him during my first semester that year. In fact, I had almost forgotten all about him. I was so caught up in school and the “extra-curricular activities” that make college so exciting that the first encounter had slipped my mind.
Unfortunately, so had my grades. This part of my story is so clichéd that it’s barely worth telling. I had maintained my high school study habits and tried to apply them to college-level courses, a trap that so many freshmen fall into during their first year at school. If you combine this disregard for studying with a little bit of alcohol, you get the perfect recipe for something slightly above a 2.0, a grade point average that no respectable employer would want to see from an applicant. The reaction I was most afraid of at that point, however, was the one that would come from my parents.
There is something cruel and unusual about schools deciding to send out final grades right at the beginning of a month-long period of being back at home with the very people who are funding students’ feeble attempts at getting an education. Not to my surprise, when my parents found out about my grades, they were horrified. I was their oldest child, and, up until this point, I hadn’t given them any major reason to be upset with me. It was as if they had been saving up their ability to show disappointment for the very moment I told them about the C-, two C’s, a B, and the complete absence of A’s I had received during that first semester. My dad yelled while my mom cried, and I just sat there and pretended like I wasn’t just as upset as they were about those grades. For the first time, a season that normally meant family and “holiday cheer” for me just meant thinking about how I could salvage my college career and remove the dark smudge that first semester had created.
Because my time at home had been so focused on my new status as a failure within my household, I was extremely excited to return back to school. Little did I know, it was returning back to school that welcomed him back into my life, and this time, we had a class together. I was doing everything I could to raise my grades, including sitting in the front row of my classes, so I didn’t even notice him until the end of January after we had just received our grades for the first exam.
He sat in the very back of the classroom, and, when everyone else packed up and left, he just sat there. I couldn’t help but think he stared directly at me every single day. It wasn’t just the stare that scared me, though. It was the slight curve of his mouth, not to the point of a full smile, but instead in a look that said, “I’ve got you”. And eventually, he did. I was captivated by his stare. Every time I left that class, which just so happened to be my most difficult class, all I could think about was him. Keep in mind that I wasn’t attracted to him; this isn’t one of those college stories about experimentation and self-exploration. I couldn’t help myself, though. He was locked into me, and I couldn’t get him off of my mind. The worst part was that the more I thought about him, the more he seemed to show up everywhere I was.
I would see him at the library when I studied, at the dining halls, which always caused me to lose my appetite, and, although I didn’t see him at night, I spent many sleepless nights thinking about him, with that terrible look he gave me haunting my dreams.
I told a friend about him one day, and I immediately wished I hadn’t. My friend began to ask why I hadn’t told somebody about him yet. Surely my RA could help me out, making sure he stayed out of the dorm and left me alone. I could have even gone to the Counseling Center to talk to someone about him. I’m pretty sure my friend thought I was making him up. I wasn’t crazy, and this wasn’t something that other people could help with; I had to deal with him on my own.
But at this point, he was taking over my life. For some reason, he was a reminder of the failure that I had become. He would show up at the Rec Center when I would play basketball with friends, and all of a sudden I wouldn’t want to play anymore. Every time he was around, his patronizing looks reminded me why my parents seemed to call less this semester or that even when they did call, I would just let it go to voicemail. In fact, I did that a lot during the time when he was around. At one point, I remember having six voicemails and sixteen unread text messages from various people. I didn’t read them because of him. The effect that he was having on me made it difficult even to respond to all of these people whom I cared about. Soon enough, I just accepted the fact that he was always going to be there, and there was nothing I could do to make him go away. I stopped seeing him in class, but that was only because I so rarely went later on in the semester.
Sleepless nights meant that even that class, which started at 11:30, was not safe from being slept through.
All of a sudden, he was everything. Someone that I had never invited into my life was following me everywhere, affecting every aspect of my being. There was a girl from my class that I really liked. I wanted to be with her, but he chased her away. I had made it clear that I didn’t want him in my life, but he wouldn’t leave me alone. I wasn’t myself anymore. I didn’t want to go to class, because I knew people would see me walking with him, and I didn’t want them to know about his presence in my life. I felt comfortable only in my bed, so I spent most of my time there. I knew that even a trip to the bathroom would result in seeing him standing there next to the sink, giving me that smile that was burned into my retinas at this point.
I had an idea one day about how I could escape his constant presence in my life. Suddenly a burst of unexpected energy caused me to remember that there was a place my roommate had shown me in the fall, and I knew exactly how I could get rid of him there. I began my walk through the woods, checking to make sure he was following. Sure enough, there he was, walking twenty or thirty feet behind me. He waved in my direction with the same look on his face, although this time the look was different. Even though I was finally going to escape, he looked triumphant. If only he knew what was coming…
The walk wasn’t the same as what I remembered. The natural beauty that amazed me in September wasn’t there this time. Maybe it was because the last time I had been there, the red, orange, and yellow leaves that littered the forest floor and the canopy above me had been more captivating than the barren trees with a few buds that accompany early spring, or maybe it was knowing what I was going there to do.
I made my way through the small opening on the side of the path, making sure he saw me turn, and I began the upward climb. I reached the top of the hill, and the reality of it all hit me as I looked over the edge of the cliff. I walked along the precipice, until I came to a clearing. I watched as he fearlessly came towards me, confident despite the threat of a sixty-foot fall to the ground that was only one misstep away.
Hearing his voice was so strange to me. It didn’t even occur to me that he could talk, since most of our interactions had been related to his presence and nothing more. The idea of him actually speaking to me took me by surprise, and what he said was even stranger. “Jump,” he said, as his smile grew.
It was like he knew why I had come up here. I had determined that the best way to escape him was to take matters into my own hands by jumping from this very spot. Hearing him say it made me have second thoughts. I didn’t want to do it for him. I wanted to take him by surprise and steal his power away; I didn’t know he was expecting me to do this.
“I said jump”, he repeated, taking a step towards me. I noticed that the place where he was standing was less sturdy now. As he began to take another step towards me, I pushed him, and to my amazement, he fell. I watched as he fell to the bottom of the cliff, feeling a huge weight lifted off of my chest. Even when he stood up and brushed himself off, taking one last look at me before walking away, I knew that I was victorious. At least for the moment, his power over me was gone. That night I got the best sleep I had in a long time, and the next morning I ate a full breakfast before attending all of my classes. You can imagine the look on my face when I noticed the empty chair in the back of the class that used to be occupied every day by my “friend” named Depression.
I still see him around sometimes. He walks past me, following people with their noses buried in their phones in the same way he followed me.
I still see him at the dining halls, searching the tables for his next victim. But to this day, I can proudly say he hasn’t looked back at me, and I’ll do everything I can to keep him at the bottom of the cliff where I left him. That fateful day in the spring of my freshman year taught me that even when everything is telling you to run away, the knowledge of your ability to take control can save your life. It sure saved mine.