Yesterday evening, while sipping a fancy cocktail at the Seelbach Hotel and discussing Girl on a Train with my book club, I received a text.
"Hey Aunt Randi, can you talk now?"
It was from my nephew, Dan. Dan had just moved into his dorm room at his college, and I was excited about going home after book club to stalk all his college pictures on Facebook. Seeing his text concerned me.
I called him the minute I left, sitting in my car with the windows rolled down in a parking garage in downtown Louisville.
Dan was fine. He's a bright, competent, capable, wonderful young man, so of course he was fine. But it was his first night living on his own and he wanted to hear a familiar voice.
Through my iPhone, I could hear his words reverberating around his empty walls, not yet plastered with posters of his favorite movies or ironic sayings. (Wait - do the kids still do this?) It's early to be on campus - he had to arrive early because he's in the marching band - so his roommate isn't there yet, nor are scores of other people. I could imagine his sock-covered-feet pacing the floor while he surveyed his new twin bed, his new comforter, his new desk, his new life. I imagined the chilling loneliness that could come from suddenly being alone after so many years living among parents and a sister. I could imagine the petrifying fear of realizing that life - from this point forward - would never be the same.
It was a good conversation, and as I clicked "end," I knew with certainty that this chapter of Dan's life will be an exciting and fulfilling one for him. I can't explain it, I just knew that it would be great.
And yet, I cried all the way home.
My emotions have been so close to the surface lately. I feel so much better after my summer of depression, due in large part to eating nutritious food, exercising, getting enough sleep, and carving out time for myself (in addition to going to therapy religiously, of course). I'm back at work, and although the pace of that is rapid and the hours are long, the strict schedule and frequent interaction with sweet kids and smart colleagues is very good for my soul.
But it feels like my empathy-trigger is just way more sensitive than it has ever been. If a student shares about a hard time at home, I'm crying. When a homeless man asked us for some money today, I started crying. When my nephew texted me on his first night of college ever, I started crying. You should probably go out and buy some stock in Kleenex.
Here's how the train of emotion and/or anxiety (depending on how you define it) traveled through my brain.
1. Oh, sweet Dan. I know how scared he is. This is such a big deal! College will be a wonderful experience for him, but I wish I could hug him!
2. It feels like yesterday that he was a skinny little preemie, cradled in my arms. I was so worried about how he would turn out - physically, emotionally, you name it. Now look at him! At college! I'm so proud.
4. But oh! My poor sister. It has to be so hard to deliver your child to a school, drive away, and pray that you've raised him well enough for him to take care of himself. She must be proud, but this has to be so hard on her. I wish I could hug her.
5. Oh my God, in just 10 years, Stella will go to college. How can that be? Wait - I can't do this. What if she gets there and she has trouble making friends? What if she sits alone in her dorm room every night while everyone else has fun? Or what if she makes bad decisions and drinks too much and has to get her stomach pumped? Or what if some angry student gets a bad grade and has mental health issues and has unfettered access to military-grade weapons and goes on a shooting spree? Or what if we can't even afford college because the tuition by that point is $4.8 million a year in state?
6. But I did OK at college, and I had an awkward, difficult, lonely time all through high school. In fact, college was four of the happiest years of my life. Oh, college! Sweet Centre College. Those dry erase boards where we would leave messages to tell people where we were because we didn't have cell phones. Those long nights of lying on a friend's dorm floor, talking about boys and assignments and eating cookies we sneaked out of the dining hall.
7. I miss my friends. Jeez, those were good friends. Why the hell do we have to be so scattered across America? Why do we have to be so busy that I barely even see the few who live locally?
8. Funny, I remember thinking I would never be friends with those women. I remember meeting them that first week - these girls from all across America living on my hall. They seemed nice, but I was sure we'd have nothing in common. Certain they'd all be too cool to want to hang out with some goofy idiot from the sticks. Afraid they'd be mean or uninterested in me. By the end of that week, we'd made somewhere around 100 trips to Walmart together, had a couple of meals at Fazoli's that made the restaurant question their unlimited breadstick policy, and had soul-baring conversations in our PJ's while cramming ourselves sardine-style into one dorm room.
9. I also remember sobbing my eyes out on that drive to Danville when I was first moving in. My best friend and my mom were in the car with me, helpless and confused as I sat there and cried so hard I couldn't even respond when they asked me if I was OK. Why was I crying so hard? It's still unclear. I was excited about college, but I'd just gone through so many changes, so much turmoil. My dad had been so abusive to my mom he'd nearly killed her. My parents had almost divorced, but ended up staying together (much to my chagrin). My best friend had lost her father tragically the year before, and we'd grown apart a little bit as she struggled to cope with her unthinkable trauma and sadness. I was terrified of college. Terrified of not making friends, terrified of not being smart enough, terrified of not keeping my scholarship and having to leave, terrified of my dad killing my mom in my absence, because my magical-thinking-prone-brain had convinced me that my sheer will was preventing my dad from finally snapping to the point that he committed homicide.
Mind you, all of these thoughts happened in a rapid cascade that lasted probably ten seconds. So many overwhelming, neurotic, emotion-fueled ideas pounded on my brain and I just had to sit in that parked car in that parking garage and cry like a crazy person for a solid five minutes.
Empathy is a good thing. It makes me want to make the world a better place, it helps me be the kind of teacher (most of the time) who can treat her students gently and kindly, even when that's the opposite of how they're acting toward me. It makes me want to speak out on issues that matter to me. It makes me love my kids with a passion that could rip through mountains.
But it also makes me cry. A lot. And I guess the biggest change that's occurred in me is that I'm no longer fighting it. I may be a woman who "feels too much," as Anne Sexton described it, but I'm working to channel that, not fight it.
So, if you ever see me read a text on my phone and start crying, don't worry. My brain just went from A-Z in 2 seconds and I experienced every possible emotional along the way. I'll be OK in a minute or so.