Returning to school, leaving home and looking dread square in the face

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Dread has a curious, almost funny way of creeping up behind you, of squeezing you tight until its weight around your abdomen leaves you breathless. It’s in these moments, it seems, when all you can think about is the constriction — you lose focus of the original object that brought this unwelcome visitor knocking at your door.

In the summer after my first year of college, I found myself increasingly paralyzed in terror at the thought of returning to school. From childhood, I had always been susceptible to the seductions of dread, unwilling to release it for fear (and a certain conviction) that my apprehensions carried with them a certain gravity. In late May, however, as I settled back into my childhood room and all of its familiar comforts, this fear began to slowly and increasingly consume me. In June, I had a bad feeling in my stomach. By July, the dull ache had spread, becoming an additional tightness in my chest and as August lumbered its way onto my calendar, my days were punctuated by a sort of frenzied panic, messy and unkempt and festering.

I couldn’t say what exactly inspired this sense of terror in me. I can say that I lacked direction, a sense of purpose or a perceived path, and finding effective guidance at UC Berkeley felt impossible or at the very least beyond my reach. I know that I felt isolated and I had to kick myself to remember to smile as high school friends told me about the new companions they’d found in college.

Rationally, I felt lost. But even on a level outside of logical confines, Berkeley unsettled me. Used to the blanket of fog characteristic of my hilly San Francisco neighborhood, the blinding sun of the East Bay felt offensively glaring. The more time I spent in San Francisco, the more viscerally unsettling even the thought of the East Bay became for me. When my parents and I visited BAMPFA one day in July, I found myself overcome by nauseating anxiety at the sight of the unabashed Campanile declaring its reign from up high.

When the semester began, I gritted my teeth and began to inch back into college life. The effort was half-hearted to say the least, practiced with such delicacy and trepidation that it didn’t really feel or seem like I was completely returning at all. I closed off thoroughly from the opportunities — social, academic and extracurricular alike — around me. Not committed or even concretely on the path to a major, I had taken a mismatched amalgam of broad, introductory courses, and I attended these begrudgingly and with minimal engagement. I spent weekends at home in San Francisco, foregoing opportunities to go out with friends. I no longer frequented the cafes I had often visited in past semesters, venturing outside of the confines of campus only to catch the BART train headed west.

Unsurprisingly, the semester largely lacked fulfillment or the sense that I was making progress in approaching any sense of direction in really any area of my life. I felt largely tired and defeated, exhausted from the pangs of anxiety that racked my body in fits for days every time I returned to my residential hall from San Francisco. And perhaps equally unsurprising, it was the small moments of grace that buoyed me through the semester, eventually convincing me that UC Berkeley could be worth it.

Backed into a corner and feeling like I had few options, throughout the semester I practiced resourcefulness: the art of finding silver linings. My fear of setting foot in the East Bay had put a strain on my relationship with an individual with whom I spent the vast majority of my time freshman year — we had barely seen one another over the summer though she was staying in Berkeley for most of it. Finding myself without such a close companion forced me to seek out others in my residential hall with whom to eat meals and in whom to confide. As such, I found myself spending more time with people I had previously known only casually. I found that there were more people from campus I wanted to hang out withpeople who were kind and funny and intriguingthan I had realized at all in past semesters.

Academically, I largely solidified what I had known coming into college — UGBA 10 demonstrated to me that I indeed had no interest in pursuing an undergraduate business degree and my upper division English course confirmed my passion for literature. My calculus course did, however, demonstrate to me that I would find a degree combining math and English more fulfilling than one comprised entirely of the latter.

Winter break came as a welcome break from a semester so uncertain and lacking in commitment. I relished the time spent with family, caught up with friends from high school, basked in the simple pleasure of having the ability to drive my dog to the dog park. And over these five weeks, the dread has beckoned with its familiar call and I’ve found myself at times consumed again by a sort of paralyzing fear of returning. But the times when this has happened have been less severe and less frequent than over the summer. This time around, unlike the last, there are opportunities to come that I’m looking forward to — I’m excited to take a cartography class, I miss friends from campus and I’ve compiled a list of spots in the East Bay I hope to visit on weekends (during which I intend to stay in Berkeley). It goes without saying that the semester won’t be perfect or constant smooth sailing. But at the very least, I feel better equipped than I did just months ago to know dread when it makes its way toward me — and to know that often, its bark is worse than its bite.

Ryan Tuozzolo is an assistant arts editor. Contact her at [email protected] .