Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Case of the Rising Sophomore

Writing to a rising college sophomore who apparently got lost in her mind-- or perhaps she just lost her mind-- during her first year at college, New York Magazine’s Ask Polly has a few pieces of good advice mixed in with her usual quota of mental drool.

And yet, she does make one egregious error, one that I will point out before even looking at the letter in question. See if you can see it:

If you sounded clinically depressed to me, I would have different advice for you. But I think your instincts are correct on that front: You’re not deeply depressed. You’re frustrated and lonely because your circumstances at school are frustrating and lonely.

Quite simply, depression is a clinical diagnosis. Polly is not a clinician. She is neither a psychiatrist nor a psychologist. She has no business offering an opinion on a matter she knows nothing about. OK, I get it, she does the same thing nearly every time she doles out advice, but still, getting involved in the practice of medicine when you have no qualifications is very bad indeed. We do not want to see people avoiding treatment because an advice columnist told them there is nothing wrong. For all I know, she might not be depressed. It’s not for me to say. It’s not for Polly to opine. A competent editor should have caught this.

Without further ado, here is the letter, signed Sophomore Slump:

I was raised by a loving, lower-middle-class family in the kind of small town that feel-good TV shows are set in. Virtually from birth, I had a group of disgustingly Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants–esque friends who were more like sisters. And I was an academic golden child, graduating first in my high-school class: the kind of kid everyone expects to leave town and do big things. (I also fell in love with the boy who proved to be my constant competitor for small-town success; we started dating halfway through high school.) I loved people because the people I knew loved me. No material comforts could have made me more content than the knowledge that I was supported by my whole hometown.

To everyone’s delight, I received a full ride to a university with two big, scary sells: It was  very prestigious and very far away from my home state. I was ecstatic … until I moved in last fall and I found myself tremendously unhappy outside of class. I spent my first few months inviting classmates to endless lunches, hallmates to Friday frat parties, and groups to museums and concerts. In response, I got detached rejections. When I joined various clubs, and even a sorority, members seemed to be more interested in competing for prized officer positions than building connections. I hadn’t dreamed of replicating my hometown friend group, but I also hadn’t anticipated eating every meal alone. I hadn’t anticipated going whole days without talking to anyone, or smiling at all. Maybe people were actually competitive and unfriendly; maybe I was randomly unlucky; maybe I was just bad at making friends because I’d never really had to before. All I know is that I got the flu at the end of my first semester and, bedridden, realized I had nobody to come check on me. No new contacts in my phone. I cried for days. I was fucking lonely, and it broke me.

After returning from a comforting winter break, I guess I chose to feel beaten rather than productively challenged. So I started to treat myself like a victim. I attended my morning classes and went right back to bed. I ate approximately one meal a day, always in the comfort of my room. I quit my part-time job and all of my other activities. Sometimes my unfairly awesome boyfriend would take a four-hour bus from his own college to visit me on the weekends. He would force me to sleep at normal hours and eat real meals, dragging me out of bed to the point that I resented him. He, my family, and my hometown friends were all concerned about my well-being. But I felt guilty and whiny and ungrateful and increasingly burdensome, and flaked on all their FaceTime check-ins to nap more and stare at the ceiling.

I essentially retreated into bed for the entire semester. I became lazy and solitary, descriptors that had never applied to me. I only spoke when spoken to; I straight-up stopped trying socially. My RA noticed the change and referred me to the campus therapist, who suggested I see a psychiatrist about clinical depression. But I was, and am, pretty sure I was only suffering from a combination of privileged problems, “gifted-child syndrome” and homesickness among them.

Now I’m back home for the summer, decent grades in tow, and I’m already doing much better emotionally. But I’m at a loss when I think about how to proceed when I go back in the fall. My parents think I’m overreacting, that I should focus on my classes. My boyfriend and friends think I should stick out another semester and consider transferring out. I don’t know what I think. Most of me believes I just gave up too easily and felt too bad for myself, that I’ll have the college experience of my dreams if I just go back to school this fall and try harder to form lasting connections. Another part is convinced I need to lower my standards for relationships and chill out, and that people will come into my life accordingly. And a small voice in my head just wants out of the fancy-name university — but I’m almost certain that my problem stems from my own damn expectations, and the town-size family I grew up with, just as much as it does from my school.

As has become my habit, I will not share what Polly is saying. It’s a pep talk coupled with another pep talk. To be fair, Polly does advise an exercise program. About that I concur.

Anyway, consider what we do not know… because, as happens with these letters, we never have enough information. We do not know where she comes from and where she is attending school. We do know that she was involved with the same boy for her entire adolescence and now finds herself at a four hour distance from him.

She might be homesick, but she might also miss a boy who has been an integral part of her everyday life since she was an adolescent. Dare we say that said boyfriend has been a prince… traveling hours on weekends to be with her, trying to improve her daily life habits, being a true friend as well as a lover. We do not know how said boyfriend relates to the young men on her current campus. Do they condescend to him? Do they treat him like a friend?

As you might imagine, Polly recommends that Sophomore Slump take more distance from said boyfriend. But folks, why remove the sole support she really has. Besides, if the boyfriend is on campus often, perhaps the two can socialize together with her friends, and even with her sorority sisters.

We also do not know anything about the dating culture on campus. If the other girls are running around looking for hookups and she has a stable steady boyfriend, she cannot really be part of a game she does not want to pursue.

BTW, did you notice that this girl, bereft and alone, did manage to join a sorority. I do not hold myself up as an expert in sororities, but I imagine that sorority sisters hang out together and even have meals together. If she was welcomed into the ranks of the sisterhood, might she not make more of an effort to be one of the girls? How can you belong to a sorority and eat all of your meals alone... unless you choose to do so.

Apparently, she thinks that they are all superficial… but they did like her enough to invite her into their company. Might it be—as Polly does suggest—that Sophomore Slump is somewhat standoffish and even stuck up. After all, she was the Queen Bee at home. She is no longer the Queen Bee.

We do not know the social origins of her sisters or her classmates. But, we suspect that they are playing a game that she finds unfamiliar. She seems unwilling to learn it.

Or perhaps the other girls are. We do not know from whence she comes and we do not know anything about her personal habits, about her appearance and personality. One understands that these things matter. Groups, even cliques, have dress codes. If one does not respect them one is excluding oneself from the group... however bubbly one's personality is. One cannot draw too many conclusions because one does not have enough information.

Again, we note that she quit her part-time job and her other activities. It sounds like she was punishing other people for their failure to worship the ground she was walking on. After all, if she feels along and isolated, what better way could there be than having a job, having colleagues and managers, participating in activities.

Yet, she threw it all away. For all I know she expected to be the queen of the campus and found out that she was not. Perhaps she just misses her boyfriend and cannot stand being without him. Perhaps she has recoiled at the level of indoctrination that occurs in the classroom. Perhaps she just needs to get over herself and to work harder at getting into campus life.

All told, we do not know.


sestamibi said...

Perhaps she should read this:

Anonymous said...

Frog meet smaller pond.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Advice columnists don't really like people all that much. They just use them as soapboxes.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Good point... certainly this one does.