Breaking Out

The following op-ed will appear in a print edition of The Crimson the week of June 2.

For the past few months, I’ve been in denial about graduating. When well-intentioned, but infuriating, people asked me how I’m feeling about it, I generally avoided eye contact and said that I’m looking forward to new experiences. It didn’t quite feel like lying because I never forced myself to think about it. As someone who has spent the last four years trying to become, against the odds, an in-control, together person, the thought of being shoved out into the world on someone else’s terms was difficult to stomach. So I didn’t. Until, about a week ago, when the rash appeared, covering my arms in quarter-sized, red, itchy bumps, and resisting my every effort to suppress it.

Hives, as tells me, are often idiopathic. Which means less that idiots get them than that it’s hard to tell why exactly. I racked my brain—was it the suspiciously cheap sushi I ate for dinner? The alcohol-drenched lifestyle I was leading? The dust bunnies-turned-basketballs gathering around my bed? While my anxiety mounted, my rash burned brighter, spreading to my neck. I finally fell asleep after slathering myself with Benadryl cream, and woke up the next morning, rash-free.

Yet the fear lingered. I was leaving for a trip to Maine with my roommates the next morning, and was terrified that my hives would return to leave their telltale red tracks. When my alarm sounded at 7 a.m., I heard my roommates scurrying to get their things packed, and then I noticed the burning itch on my arms. My hives taunted me with their cruelly bad timing, and only seemed to feed on my fear of them. I got in the car and fiercely wished them away, becoming more and more frustrated by their resistance.

When we arrived at the house in Maine, my roommate noticed that my cheeks looked unusually blotchy. They began to itch, and I ran to a mirror to discover that the hives had spread to my horrified face. I wanted to cry, but the rash didn’t actually hurt that much. It was the embarrassment, even shame, I felt at being so visibly and conspicuously out of control that upset me. My face glowed angrily with a rash that I couldn’t make go away, and even though I was surrounded by my closest friends, I was so embarrassed that I took a nap instead of going downstairs to help cook dinner.

The rash’s unstoppable, uncontrollable, pushy presence left me with the same helpless feeling that graduation does. I can’t control the fact that my life is going to radically change. There’s nothing that will stop my roommates from scattering, and my dorm room from filling up with someone else’s stuff next year. The Yard will never quite feel like home again. I know I should just realize this and let go yet it’s hard for me to come to terms with that utter lack of agency, especially when it pertains to the people and places I love the most. My fear and shame at my inability to control the changes that confront me only make me anxious at a time when I should be celebrating.

When I awoke from my nap I decided to cede defeat to my rash. Somehow, this conscious surrender to a force outside of my control helped me to enjoy the weekend more—a trip that could have been spoiled by the specter of commencement. I decided that graduation, like embarrassing skin diseases, is just something you have to let happen to you. Unlike hives, you might even enjoy it.

I realize I am at risk of carrying this analogy too far. Graduating is not exactly like an untreatable rash that sometimes spreads to the face. But it has felt like a process utterly outside of my control, and I have approached it with the wariness of a hypochondriac. The last four years of college have fed my desire to be in charge of my life, and perhaps it is a good thing now to be prodded in the other direction a little, to be forced to realize how much of the world happens to us, instead of the other way around. I only hope that in the home I build for myself in the next few years, I learn to be brave in situations I cannot control, and that I endure the hives of life with grace and humor.

Liz C. Goodwin ’08, a former Crimson News Executive, is a history and literature concentrator in Eliot House.