I grew up in a stereotypical white town in the suburbs of New Jersey. I went to Catholic school from grades K-8. I “had a choice” of deciding between going to public high school or two all-girls private schools in the county. The life I was set up to live directed me to choose the academically rigorous and athletically superior option, the one that would set me up to go to a top college in four years.
I spent my first year being exposed to the richest of the richest, the smartest of the smartest, and the strongest of the strongest. I learned that in order to survive the next four years, I had to compete. Competition became my life: who was the fastest on the field, who could get recruited by the most college teams, who could take the most AP classes, who was the skinniest and prettiest, who could get the most scholarships, who could go to the best college.
I was drowning under the weight of the expectations placed on me. I was a top athlete in the state. I was in the top percentile for my college entry tests. I was in the most AP classes. I had a boyfriend and tons of friends. I was recruited for soccer, softball, bowling, and the Navy. I received scholarships in figures that I didn’t know the magnitude of. I was pushing, pushing, pushing.
Underneath the mask, no one knew that all I saw was blackness. When I was in class, I would ask to go to the bathroom when I couldn’t hold the tears back anymore. When I was on the soccer field, I shed tears during sprints so everyone would assume I was just crying from being in physical pain. When I would party and go out on the weekends, no one would know that I spent the last three hours crying and putting makeup on to cover it up. I was battling depression and a long-term war with an eating disorder in a desperate effort trying to keep up with the life society was telling me to live.
“It’s okay, you can just transfer to the public school”, my parents said.
What I heard was: I’m a failure, I’m not going to get into the best college, I’m not going to have the same opportunities, I’m going to let everyone down on the path that they desperately set me up to follow.
And so I stayed. Darkness became my norm. I applied to 16 colleges that I was expected to go to based on my so-called achievements: the Naval Academy, the Merchant Marine Academy, Boston College, Columbia University, and Villanova University.
I got nominations for the Naval Academy and Merchant Marine Academy but was rejected, I got wait-listed for Boston College and Columbia University, I was rejected by William and Mary, and received a Navy ROTC scholarship to Villanova University. Villanova was “the best school for me” and so Villanova it was.
Before arriving on campus, I rescinded my Navy ROTC scholarship which meant saying goodbye to $180,000. My relationship with my then ex-boyfriend was more toxic than I realized. I lost most of my high school friends. I didn’t have sports to turn to. The darkness got darker and darker.
I went through the motions, keeping up with what society deemed I should do. I partied, I stayed up till 2AM studying, I joined all the clubs I was supposed to join, I did things just to build my resume all with the goal of transferring to William and Mary the following year. There, I thought I would be happy. If I could just get into one of my “dream” schools, I’d be happy. I’d figure it all out. I would see the light again.
I was accepted. Finally, I was doing something for myself. I applied to Villanova’s summer study abroad program to Prague that upcoming summer as a last goodbye. What I didn’t know was that it wasn’t a goodbye; it was an introduction to a new chapter of my life: a chapter where I would finally learn to move past the judgment and overcome society’s expectations.
I sit in a coffee shop near my childhood home as I write this. I think of all the pain I endured because I was living a life that society told me I had to live, and how much my life has changed since that summer. After that summer, I studied what I wanted to study, I started this blog, I lived in China and then in Italy for a year, I traveled to 25 countries (5 solo), I became vegan, I let go of the idea that I had to have a corporate job to be successful and instead became a teacher, I found God, and I watched the life I always prayed for begin to unfold before my eyes. It takes courage to ignore the judgments, to take a different path, to overcome society’s judgments. I won’t tell you it’s easy, but to see the lightness amidst the darkness again is worth every ounce of who you are. Be strong, be courageous, and life the life you want to live.