Day One

Today was the first day that I made my GoFundMe page public. I’ve been putting it off for a while now. It makes me uncomfortable to think that I’ve publicly asked for money, asked my family and friends, people that I adore and respect, to help me because I’m scared that I won’t be able to make it myself.

The response I’ve receive thus far has been overwhelming, and that’s what I to talk about.

Within twenty minutes I had my first donation, and it was from a woman who has always been one of my biggest fans. Just being around her makes me feel like maybe I will make it as an English major, because she’s one of the coolest ladies I know, and for whatever reason she thinks that I’m pretty cool, too. She’s the reason I love greyhounds. She’s the reason I love Okkervil River (my favourite band). And here, she was the first one to dive in and show that she thinks I’m worth her investment.

Some people can’t donate, and I know that. I’ve had a few friends who have shared and promoted my post, I have people who rally around me with messages of love and support. I’m deeply thankful for all of them.


My Name Is Madeleine And…

Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about ways in which I could share my story. It started with an open mic night last spring, at which I gave a brief account of my anxiety. The experience as a whole was one part terrifying and one part exhilarating, a cocktail of cold sweating and heart pounding and shoulders straightening and voice quaking. Afterward, though, the affirmation I received was incredible, and even though most of it came from my friends, who already know my story, I was moved.

In part, sharing my story is an incredibly selfish act. I soaked up my friends’ support like a sponge, and internally I used it to combat all those times when I could feel someone staring at my scars or those nights when I all but convince myself that my anxiety makes me unfit for human society. I hope, though, that sharing my story also does work that really isn’t about me at all, but is about other people who suffer and struggle and need to know that they are not alone. I hope that sharing my story helps to chip away at the stigma that prevents discussion of mental health. Even if I didn’t know anyone in the audience, if I didn’t expect that anyone would be there to hug me afterwards, I would share my story just on the off-chance that one single person listening might need to know that someone else experiences what they experience, and that it’s okay to talk about it.

I originally began writing this account with no particularly thoughts of where I might publish it or with whom I might share it. This blog is a coincidence– or perhaps, more appropriately, an opportunity. In trying to depict my present experience as a student, and as a person, it is necessary to include my mental health journey. If I didn’t include it, I think I would be lying.

My name is Madeleine, and I struggle with depression and anxiety that manifests itself physically as dermatillomania.

Everyone Loves the Jesuits

When asked why I like my school, the beginning of my answer is invariably “It’s a Jesuit university.”

I was raised Catholic. I went to Catholic school K-12. No, none of my teachers were nuns, and yes, I did have to wear a uniform. It wasn’t nearly as ugly as it could have been.

Generally, when people learn that I’m Catholic and have always gone to Catholic school, I can see them drawing conclusions about my person and my past in their heads. Rarely, though, does the picture they draw line up with my actual experience. Yes, I went to a Catholic high school, but instead of sheltering me from other world views and smothering me in an environment of solely like-minded people, it actually made the conversation of faith and how to practice it incredibly immediate. Children who are raised in Catholicism, who go to school Mass every week and listen to the priest delivery his homily in a gymnasium, fall very easily into the trap of apathy. They’re called “cradle Catholics”–people who are Catholic by default, because it’s how they were raised. In my experience, those of my peers who are Catholic “by default” either have little interest in their faith, or they end up raging against it. Some of the fiercest anti-Catholics I know were raised in a Catholic context.

My mother is Catholic, and my father converted to Catholicism a few years ago, having been raised Methodist. We go to Mass every Sunday, my brother was an altar server, and I joined the parish choir when I was seven. The presence of the Church in my life was never a question.

At some point, though, I realised that the external practice of Catholicism is meaningless without the internal intent, that elusive quality of “faith.” I made my Confirmation in ninth grade fully committed to pursuing my own definition of faith, but I never anticipated how difficult that journey might be. I couldn’t feel what I thought I was supposed to feel, my prayers felt empty and I grew increasingly frustrated. I was investing my time and energy and I felt like I wasn’t getting anything out of it.

The turning point for me was actually an argument. A friend and I were having a religious debate, he was agnostic, he was critical and difficult, but the more he challenged me the more I felt my own conviction. The more he forced me to explain myself, the more confident I felt in my beliefs. It was this exercise, this requirement to think, that made me embrace my faith more than any homily could.

In some ways, I envy my mother, who received her Confirmation as an adult. I respect her so much for having pursued her faith and made her choice entirely of her own volition. At the same time, I cannot imagine how different my life might have been if she had not insisted that I go to Catholic school, if she had not been there to ensure that I would share in Mass and the Eucharist.

Now, I find myself on a Jesuit campus, and the simple presence of both the Jesuits and the Scholastics is inspiring and comforting. I love seeing the black clothes and white collar. I love the conversations I stumble into–with people who have literally travelled the world, who are doing community outreach with the poorest parts of our city, who speak five languages, who are on fire with their faith to a degree that I find mind-boggling. Perhaps I could find this environment at any Christian university, but I have yet to hear of one with as much rigorous dedication to education and open discussion as the Jesuits.

I go to a Jesuit university, but we have a hall in the student centre with prayer rooms for students of every major world religion. We require two theology courses for graduation, but those courses could be Intro to World Religions or Intro to Islam. The amount of diversity and intellectual curiosity on campus is astonishing.

In one of my first weeks on campus as a freshman, I found myself at 9 pm Mass in one of the Jesuit residence buildings. I was in a tiny chapel, the west-facing window pitch black, the only illumination around the altar. There was a student at the piano, two more singing with him, and a cluster of students just like me who felt that Mass was the perfect way to spend a Thursday night. In that moment, I felt at home, even though I was away from family for the first time, even though I didn’t know any of the songs. I knew the prayers, and I recognised my own pursuit of faith in the faces of everyone around me.

The English Major

Pursuing an English major is a truly terrifying experience.

Now, it’s not a terrifying experience in the same way it’s terrifying to be a pre-med student, who has eighteen credits every semester with labs and online work and med school looming on the horizon. As scary as an English major is, I prefer it infinitely over the fate of my peers in the STEM field.

English is terrifying in that it is exhilarating, passionate, “mad, bad, and dangerous” in the tradition of Lord Byron, and everyone who encounters an English major looks at them with wide, concerned eyes and asks “And what do you want to do with that?” Or, if there aren’t wide, concerned eyes, then there’s a smirk and a Starbucks barista joke.

And yet, I realised at some point, in agony over my future and my desperate desire to not wind up as a Starbucks barista, that it would be antithetical to my being, my personality, my self, to not continue as an English major.

The decision to be an English major has been long in coming, and like my decision to come to Loyola, it felt incredibly natural. My interest in reading and writing started with my mom, who loves to read as well and made words a part of my life before I could even pronounce most of them. I learned to read with Harry Potter in first grade– every night my dad would read my brother and I a chapter of the first book, and the next day I would reread the same chapter for myself. This introduction to literature led to a love for fantasy novels that characterised my reading material through grade school and is still present in my tastes today.

In fourth grade, I found an attraction to writing. Never will I ever claim that my first few attempts at narrative are worth reading, but it was a process I enjoyed enough to pursue. Over the next few years I would speculate about novels and scrawl poetry,  and it was probably at this point that my intellectual interests turned most decidedly towards the arts over the sciences.

I can still remember with clarity the first essay I wrote of which I was actually proud. Sophomore year we read The Scarlet Letter, and I think after the reading we had a 4-5 page paper assigned. For the first time, the words bubbled up like magic. For the first time, it wasn’t just the content that I found intriguing (sometime in eighth grade I wrote a paper on Lewis Carroll that I enjoyed immensely), but it was the language itself. It was the imagery that I could apply even in a nonfiction, analytical, school-assigned paper.

The next year, I was introduced to Virginia Woolf. At the time I was struggling with my writing style, and in order to help I wanted someone to imitate, but I couldn’t find the right combination of formal and colloquial, eloquent and direct. I asked around, and a friend lent me the third volume of Virginia’s diaries. From there, I fell in love. I’d tried reading Mrs. Dalloway before, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. The diaries, though, were accessible in a way I never could have imagined. I devoured them, and I moved from them into V.’s novels, her short stories, her biographies. In falling in love with Virginia, I fell in love with her time period and culture, with Bloomsbury and the literary movement between World Wars I and II. It was only natural, then, that in entering into higher education, my goal should be to spend the rest of my life studying the people and writing that I love, and teaching whatever I can to others of similar passion.

And now I’m an English major. As a second year I’m also taking CORE classes, like  U.S. Experience or Stats, but the further I journey in my education, the more my time will be dedicated to reading and writing and, starting this year, research. Being an English major, despite the stereotyped job concerns that come with it, gives me a profound sense of peace. My confidence that this is what I’m supposed to be doing has never wavered, and every passing day only makes me more determined to continue and contribute to the legacy of the authors who inspire me.

The Story of a Decision

Given that the original purpose of this site was to describe my university experience, it seems only appropriate to begin at the beginning, with the decision of where to go. Generally, when I’ve asked my friends about their college decision stories, there’s a lot of talk of visiting schools and comparing Financial Aid packages, there’s a first choice and a safety net, and in many cases, the story ends with either an acceptance of second-best or a coin flip to help steady an indecisive mind.

Their stories make me wonder how on earth I managed to fix my mind on one school from beginning to end and pursue it, desperately and determinedly, always with the conviction that I could make things work.

I heard about Loyola by chance. One of my friends was in the area our junior year, visiting Loyola and a few other schools, and for whatever reason, on this campus, she thought of me. She sent me a text, insisting that I would love it, insisting that I search them online and look at their English department, insisting that this was the perfect school for me. At that point, my mind was barely engaged with the college hunt. I had a vague idea of going to a Jesuit university near my house, but little particular desire to go far away to some dazzling university that would turn me into an erudite academic. I had done well on the ACT, my GPA was high enough to qualify for most scholarships, and I was unconcerned. I wanted to be an English professor, and since no college but a liberal arts college was paying particular attention to their humanities programs, and since undergrad is more or less inconsequential except in terms of setting one up for graduate school, I saw little reason to adopt the frenzied, college-obsessed attitude that typically rears its head second semester of junior year.

This status of only mild interest changed irrevocably once I’d spent no more than twenty minutes on the Loyola website. The first post I found on the English department page was an announcement that several graduate students had been offered and accepted tenure track jobs. There was another announcement about a talk delivered on Virginia Woolf, who was by then my favourite author. In that moment, the world that I wanted, the world that I could have, of academia and books and lectures, became real.

I applied to more than just one school, of course, and I was accepted to more than one as well. Loyola remained my first choice from beginning to end, though, and here I am, just as happy as I always wanted to be. I live in a metropolis, at a beautiful Jesuit university, with a world of possibilities always at my fingertips. Deciding on a school was, in many ways, the easiest decision I’ve ever made.