Five colleges later, here I am…
By Matthew Liptak
The first time I went to college was in the fall of 1989. Tienanmen Square had just happened. The Berlin Wall was about to fall, and so were the iron fists of Mike Tyson. The world was changing, and so was I.
I hit the campus of East Stroudsburg University, just north of Philly, with all the enthusiasm of a typical college freshman. I had newfound freedom. Through the school’s orientation program I made new connections. Through my dorm I ran into people regularly who were to become fast friends. We shared nights in each other’s dorm rooms, eating food that was bad for us, watching Chris Farley on SNL and listening to the latest from REM.
It was the best of times that quite suddenly turned into the worst of times.
I had taken a major that didn’t interest me as much as I thought it would. My dad had convinced me to go into business because there were more career options in it than in journalism, which had become a burgeoning passion of mine after I took a high school class.
I wouldn’t normally advise you to disregard the advice of your father, but in my case business just didn’t motivate me.
I found my mind drifting off in micro and macroeconomics classes. To make matters worse, my mind didn’t seem to quite be what it should be either. I had trouble focusing on textbooks, would read and reread passages in them and also started to adopt other repetitive behaviors.
Looking back now, I wonder how much pain I could have saved myself if I told the younger me to go get help.
I had undiagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder — or OCD. But then again, back in ‘89-‘90 there wasn’t a lot of good therapy for that anxiety disorder. OCD was something that would ravage my life in the years to come, but back then I was just dealing with the tip of the iceberg.
Because my brain didn’t work like other people’s (and I didn’t know that yet) I was unable to cope with the emotional ins and outs of college life. And my focus on studies waned. My grades quickly plummeted and so did my relationships with those fast friends.
Five weeks from the end of freshman year I told my parents I had to drop out, for my own wellbeing. Needless to say, they were very upset. I was supposed to be the first of their seven children to graduate from college.
On my last day at ESU, my dad brought me down to campus to get my stuff. Perhaps the universe was telling me to stay but I ignored it. I ran into a half-dozen of my college friends that day and they were all happy to see me. My dad marveled at all these friends I seemed to have. I was surprised, too. It was a bright spot in a dark semester.
When I went into the administration office finally to fill out the exit paperwork they offered me one last lifeline.
They offered to get me counseling if I stayed on campus. I politely declined and sadly got in the car and headed north to my hometown.
I wonder now how my life might be different if I had taken that opportunity to get counseling.
Would it have helped? Would I have gone on to graduate at ESU? Would those fast friends from my first semester, be friends with me today still?
It wasn’t to be for me. Instead I went back home to Norwich, N.Y. The next year I enrolled at SUNY Morrisville and spent two years studying the subject I was to come to love — journalism. But OCD wasn’t done with me yet, and I spent much of my time there isolated and off campus, though I did manage to focus enough to get on the Dean’s List, and take home a 3.0.
There would be three more colleges after Morrisville before I got my Bachelors of Arts at the age of 36. By the time I spent my last years of study at Buffalo State, the world had changed much more. And so had I. My parents were gone by then, but I made our dream come true. I got my bachelor’s in communication studies and had a ball while I was on campus.
They were the college years I wished for back in ‘89, but it took me almost 20 years to get there.
Someone said, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” That certainly was the case with my academic life after high school.
For most of us, life isn’t really a straight line, but a winding road with lots of ups and downs. It’s how we get up when we fall that will determine if we get to see the great views from the mountaintop.