Homesick at college: Been there, beat that

Freshman year at college.

The flashbacks are coming fast and furious this week as my oldest nephew begins his college career.

“The best time of your life,” people keep telling him.

I decided to share with him a different possibility, as I still look back and wonder how I made it through my first quarter.

It wasn’t the workload, doing my own laundry or managing money.

It actually was something so much more basic than that.

I was homesick.

Not homesick in a slightly blue, “Oh, I miss my family and my dog” kind of way. No, looking back, I think I was suffering through what people now call anxiety or panic attacks.

It was no surprise. I had had this problem ever since I was a little kid. Yeah, the girl who grew up to travel the world and become a network news anchor couldn’t even spend the night at a friend’s house.

Slumber parties? My stomach started getting queasy the moment an invitation arrived. I tried sleepaway camp because my older brother had loved it so much. After a few nights there, I wrote a letter home to my parents in felt tip ink, held it under my chin while I cried and let the tears run the ink down the page. My parents came and picked me up.

No one really understood what was going on with me because it wasn’t like once I was home I wanted to hang around my parents. No, I was Miss Independent. But away from home, overnight, I was a disaster.

Eighteen years old and moving into my dorm at Stanford I was no better. Looking back, I think only way I made it was planning to see some friend or family member at least every other week. It somehow let me hang on through the ringing in my ears, nausea and fast heartbeat the homesickness seemed to wash over my body.

I shared those memories with my nephew a few weeks ago. Not because I wanted to scare him. Rather, I wanted him to know that if there were times at college that seemed hard, it didn’t mean it was the wrong place to be.

I also told him that I wish I knew then what I know now. No matter how hard you are struggling, there is someone struggling more. Look for that person and help them. It’s the perfect antidote for what ails you and tries to dominate your mind. You simply can’t be focused on someone else’s challenges and the swirling thoughts in your head all at the same time. It also feels really good to do something nice for someone else.

That “every other week” plan helped until I got to November when I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. I called my parents to say I wanted to come home that weekend. It was my mom’s birthday — the perfect excuse, I thought, to come tell them in person I wanted to transfer to a school in my hometown.

“We won’t be home,” they told me. “We’re going to visit your brother.”

Whether that was the truth or they were simply doing some tough love, I still don’t know. I do know it kept me on campus for a fabulous football game weekend. For the first time, though hardly the last, I did have the time of my life at college. There was the game, the parties, the rallies. And best of all, staring my fears and anxieties straight in the face.

That was the sweetest victory of all.

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