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Starting Point

Her deepest learning came in the dark times


I see her lingering at the foot of the staircase and I know it’s been me a hundred times before. Up the stairs is the counseling center, and she doesn’t want anyone to know.

I want to chase her, want to tell her it’s OK. I go there, too. Every Wednesday, I’d say. And I know what it’s like when you lie awake all night because your mind is racing with doubt, and you’re terrified of everything or nothing at all, when it all comes crashing in -- and there’s a 10-page research paper due in the morning.

I know what it’s like to read an assignment when all you can see is your own sadness and despair printed all over the pages. When all you want is out of wherever it is you are, and you wonder how you got there in the first place -- and this is finals week.

How do you tell a professor you couldn’t study, couldn’t write, because you couldn’t stop thinking about death or your otherwise hopeless future?

“You’re not alone,” I should tell her. But I don’t. Me and my shame -- we stay in our seats. We keep our secrets.

In four years of college, I’ve had three major bouts with anxiety and depression. They come about every year and a half and last about six months, sometimes longer, sometimes not. The first time it hit me, I didn’t know what was happening to me. I left school for a semester to regroup.

I’m not really sure what brought it on this last time, a couple of months ago. Maybe it was my impending graduation and goodbye. Maybe it was fear of a new relationship I was starting. Maybe it was the moon.

For, like the moon, it seeped in through the slats in the shades one night and captured me in its gaze. Only this wasn’t light, hope or guidance. It was confusion, terror and despair. And I was lost.

That first time I didn’t know what to do. The second time I said, “My God, not again!” And this time I said, “Enough.” I was tired of being defeated, and I fought it every step of the way. I was two and a half months away from graduation, and nothing was going to break me, though my anxiety would give it the old college try.

It happened to be the beginning of Lent that week, and I entered into it as I never had before. I, too, would see myself die and rise again.

Sure enough, come Easter, things were looking up. I would finish. I would win.

As I look now at my college transcript, I see the ups and the downs. I missed a 3.4 grade point average, with honors distinction, by a few hundredths of a point. I feel dejected, disappointed. I wanted my name to have a star by it in the graduation program. I wonder why I couldn’t have done better or tried harder.

Then I look again at the semesters my grades were low, and I realize these were the times when I struggled emotionally. By no coincidence, they were also the times when I learned the most. These were the times when I grew.

These were the moments when the rest of life fell into stark perspective because each succeeding minute was a chosen endurance and my very breath a victory over despair.

These were the moments I realized that nothing, no homework, no test, no job, is more important than a person in need. I sculpted my values out of the knowledge that life itself is an explosion of miracles, each with its own story, value and purpose. I knew because there were times when I could not see the value of my own, when I thought of giving up.

These were the times I found the need of God.

And I know now I wouldn’t trade it, not one desperate moment, for I know the only valid evaluation of my college career is my own.

When I got my diploma, it didn’t say “with honors,” because they don’t know the half of it. But I’ll hang an imaginary purple heart over the corner of the frame, and I’ll insert the words cum laude under my name. I’ll paste it all up there in my mind and on my heart.

And I will know the whole of it.

Tara Dix graduated May 17 from the University of Notre Dame with a bachelor’s degree in American Studies. She is currently serving as a volunteer with Girls Hope in Fullerton, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, August 14, 1998