Content note: mention of disordered eating.
Lesson #2: Against all odds, I’m never really alone.
I keep talking about the really bizarre and paranoia-inducing atmosphere at Bob Jones University for a reason. It’s really difficult to explain to people who have never experienced an environment like it, and I’m hoping that the constant referencing helps to answer the inevitable, “Why didn’t you just leave? You should have known better!” questions and accusations that get thrown at those of us who lived in such controlling situations.
The atmosphere and its complete permeation of BJU dorm student life is important because of the necessary isolation it engendered. There was simply no way of knowing who was following the rules because they believed them to be right, and who was just trying to keep their head down long enough to get out as unscathed as possible.
Not without opening yourself up in ways that could have pretty serious consequences.
That made it all the more precious when people would accidentally let slip that they were a normal person trying to get by, just like me. These moments were quite rare, but absolutely sacred — memorable if for nothing else than the brief solidarity they brought.
I remember my very first week there, as a group of students sat outside our adviser’s office waiting for our one-on-one class schedule consult. We were all sitting in relative silence, consumed with our schedules and thoughts, when a guy’s phone started ringing — playing Dolores Umbridge’s theme from the fifth Harry Potter movie. His eyes widened in horror as he fumbled with his phone in a rush to silence the uncheckable music. Once successful, he straightened back up in his seat, relief pronounced over all his features…until our eyes locked. I couldn’t suppress a conspiratorial grin. He visibly relaxed and returned the smile. We never spoke, but in that moment, we had each others’ backs. We weren’t alone.
Come to think of it, if you want to imagine the atmosphere of BJU, just imagine Hogwarts under Umbridge’s rule, and you’re pretty damn close.
Sometimes, though, the most surprising people of all were the people who discovered my secrets and didn’t use them against me but banded around me rather than turning me over to the lion’s den that was the administration.
As I mentioned in part 1, I was ignoring a host of serious mental health issues during my time at BJU. One day after chapel, I ran into a girl from my hall. Melissa. We were typically friendly with one another, but not actually friends. My eating disorder, long in hibernation since junior high, was once again starting to overtake my life, and I was fighting the resultant migraine and dizziness. So when she asked me how I was doing…I didn’t have the filter to stop myself from saying, “I haven’t eaten in days…I’m just…not doing very well.”
I knew, without ever really having to have it spelled out for me, that depression and anorexia were things that could get me in trouble at BJU. But Melissa looked momentarily surprised, then suddenly understanding. “I have a car. I can take you to lunch if you want.” I’ve often kicked myself for refusing her offer, for not trusting my gut that she was someone I could lean on, especially since we reconnected after school and are friends now. But I’ll never, ever forget her kindness in offering to help and her understanding in not pushing the issue.
Perhaps the most meaningful situation I found myself in, however, was the time that my boyfriend and I were caught hugging.
No. No, you really didn’t read that wrong.
We were the same major, and during our second semester, we were taking a drawing class together. The project at the time was for us to draw faux-marble busts that were set up and lit in the drawing room, so we met there to work on our project and simply be together. This night was unusual because there was no one else in the room, but since we both needed to work on the same project, we assumed that wouldn’t be a problem. (You know. Since usually men and women aren’t allowed to be alone together…ever.)
Since this was after our Great Transgression (mentioned in the introduction to this series), emotions were high and we were guilt-ridden and afraid, constantly trying to figure out how to fix our tremendous sin. During the course of our conversation that evening, I began crying. My boyfriend, being a normal human being in the face of grief, comforted me with a hug.
Unfortunately for us, that was the moment that the hall monitor decided to check in on the room.
Realizing that it would be better to come clean than pretend we hadn’t had any physical contact, we answered honestly when she asked if we’d been touching. She was flustered and clearly had no idea what to do with us. After calling the head of the department to see what he wanted to do, she told us that we had to leave. The next day, she reported us to the administration, who called us both out of class, interrogated us for the better part of an hour (separately, then together), then told us that we weren’t allowed to see each other for a full month as punishment.
All because we hugged.
Later in the week, the head of the department took time to talk to me. Apparently when he got the phone call the night of the incident, he drove to campus to talk to us. Since we’d been told to leave the building, of course we weren’t there. He’d planned to take care of the incident himself without taking it to the administration, give us a warning, but the hall monitor went behind his back. He was so kind and understanding, telling me how sorry he was for the punishment we were going through and assuring me that he didn’t think less of either of us. I needed to hear that so badly, and was impressed and grateful that he seemed to realize the situation was completely blown out of proportion.
Still riddled with guilt over everything, exacerbated by being socialled from my boyfriend, I apologized to my professor and admitted that I felt like I deserved no more chances, that I seemed to squander them with all of my bad choices. His reply is something I have never forgotten, something that helped me survive the months to come: “Christ gives me chance after chance, even and especially when I don’t deserve it. Who am I to treat you any differently than He treats me?”
There are more of these moments and these wonderful people. My roommates, Terrianne, Danielle, and Alyssa (and of course our honorary roomie, Tamra) and the many wonderful adventures we had. Alissa, from my prayer group, whom I often took to various doctor and chiropractic appointments in town who was so guileless and yet so full of compassion. Kristin, who one evening when it must have been clear that I was struggling with depression, cupped my face in her hands briefly while singing hymns of encouragement. (I promise, it’s not as weird as it sounds.) People like Erika and Melissa who have reconnected with me in recent years, friendships (however sporadic or casual) that seem to redeem the time I was there.
Even when submerged in a culture like Bob Jones University, designed to isolate people and erase individuality for spirituality’s sake, when I felt like no one really got me…I learned that people are a constant surprise, and we’re none of us truly alone.
Lesson #3 will be coming next week!