I never imagined I’d be a person who left college the same day I arrived.
For me, venturing off to school had high stakes. While most 18-year-olds wanted to get away from their parents after high school, I felt like I had to; I’d spent the last 18 years tethered to my mom. The only person who could and would keep me safe.
When I was six, she lovingly showed me how to use my house keys as finger knives in case anyone ever attempted to mug me at the upscale Santa Monica Place Mall, and months later she coached me on how to identify suspicious-looking parked cars. Those cars, I’d learn and later memorize, were most likely to have men inside who could jump out and strangle me with a Ziploc bag if I wasn’t paying attention. I was grateful that she taught me these vital life lessons.
Mom, an Italian-American from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, made sure that I committed these scenarios — these truths — to memory. It was the only way she could ensure my safety. These weren’t facts she made up from her imagination, they came directly from her father, who was born and raised in the rough-and-tumble depths of New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. “Don’t look behind the car when you get in, look under the car — you’ll see the killer’s feet,” he would tell her. And, “Don’t take the numbered streets at night, take the avenues, they have stronger street lights so it’s harder to rob you.”
He raised her to be fearfully vigilant, and the lesson stuck for life. So, while other L.A. mothers were busy giving their six-year-old children Easy-Bake Oven demos, mine was passing the torch by preparing me for a hijacking/kidnapping/mugging. Like her, I became fixated on being protected — except ultimately this backfired. In my desperate attempt to follow my mom’s teachings and remain safe, I felt continually unsafe anytime she wasn’t nearby.
When I tried to walk to elementary school in fifth grade for the first time without my parents, three adult men got out of a dented van and headed in my direction. I was so convinced that I was going to be abducted — identifying suspicious utility vehicles was a part of my training, after all — that I screamed for help and ran into the street, flagging down an oncoming van for help. It was only later that I learned that the three men were just gardeners.
My later attempts at escaping from Mom’s safety blanket were equally as laughable. At 16, I drove south to hang out in Venice, certain sections of which I knew (or at least I thought I knew) to be ruled by the Shoreline Crips gang because of newspaper clippings Mom had shown me. Desperate to prove her wrong, I went anyway. Once, in Venice, an orange Impala pulled up next to me and the driver tried to get my attention. He shouted something out of his window, but his voice was buried underneath the sound of my roaring heartbeat.
This guy was going to chase me and drive me off of the road, I was certain. I pressed the accelerator into the floorboard and flew north, back toward the safety of home. Inside my house, I collapsed to the floor, practically drowning in my own thick tears. Both because of the danger I thought I’d escaped, and from my own self-pity — I couldn’t function away from Mom. I realized that if I ever wanted to feel safe away from her, I had to go as far away as I possibly could, to a place she had no reason or ability to warn me about.
It felt like a corset was cinched around my neck and squeezing me tightly. Reality was setting in: I had just chosen to move across the country, and there was no going back home to Los Angeles.
The University of Michigan was more than 2,000 miles away from home, in a utopic college town, and I liked the sound of that. I was going to pack up my anxieties and leave them with Mom.
I knew something was wrong the moment the flight took off from LAX, but at the time I didn’t know what was happening to me. I’d had feelings like this before, but this angst — this tightness in my throat — was severe. It felt like a corset was cinched around my neck and squeezing me tightly. Reality was setting in: I had just chosen to move across the country, and there was no going back home to Los Angeles. Ciiiinch.
By the time my parents and I landed in Detroit, I hadn’t relaxed one minute. I’d spent the entirety of the flight bouncing in my middle seat, oscillating between begging Dad, who was seated at the window, and Mom, who took the aisle, to “please let me just go home.” I thought I was going to throw up. Possibly pass out. Probably die, even. I had to get off the plane and go back home.
My mom said we could talk once we got to the school.
We landed, rented a minivan, and drove to the majestic University of Michigan campus, where the pain in my body only increased. By the time I got to my dorm and met my roommate Erin, I was no longer a human. I’d separated from what was happening; it was the only way I could survive it. I was a shell of a girl, more like a robot than anything else.
My parents headed down to the quad. I looked at Erin and took a deep breath. I so wanted to fill my lungs with courage — with anything that would have given me the strength to remain in that room with her — but in came only the humidity from the August air. My heartbeat clacked around my body and my intestines felt like cement. I needed a bathroom; I needed air.
I took the emergency stairs down to the ground floor, crossed the lobby where massive navy-and-gold banners promoting freshman social activities hung, and went outside.
My mom was looking at a University of Michigan quilt when I found her and my dad. “I can’t. I can’t. I can’t. I can barely even breathe. I have to leave this place immediately.”
I trembled and reached out for my mother. She let me grab her, but I felt nothing in return. Her arm was there — I saw myself holding it — but she wasn't resuscitating me the way I needed her to. The way she’d spent my entire life doing.
I was a shell of a girl, more like a robot than anything else.
My dad asked me to give it a month. He said I could always decide to come home later. I wanted to believe him. He was a logical man, and what he said sounded very logical. As a family we had decided Michigan would provide me with everything I wanted — the ideal college experience, a top-notch sports program, and freedom — but there, in that quad, I wanted out. There wasn’t a single strand of DNA in me that knew how to hear my dad. I knew I couldn’t stay in that dorm room with Erin for a day, much less an entire month. Not because I didn’t want to, but because my body wouldn’t allow it.
We decided to talk about it over dinner.
Inside the restaurant, I only felt more nauseous. I told my parents that I hadn’t stopped shaking since we’d gotten off the plane. I asked to sleep at their hotel instead of going back to my dorm room. My mom put her head into her hands and started crying. Then, miraculously, she agreed that yes, I could go back with them.
I could leave. Not just that restaurant, but that campus and that state.
So on my first day of college, while my peers were socializing and playing fun ice breakers with one another, I put my own unique stamp on the freshman experience and did the ultimate walk of shame. I went back to my dorm room, carried all of my luggage back to the minivan, and drove with my parents in silence to their hotel room. Erin wasn’t in the room at the time, and I didn’t even leave her a note.
When I landed back home in Los Angeles, I was too ashamed to tell people the truth. Primarily because I didn’t really understand what happened. I’d crumbled and cried the way I had done when I tried to drive to Venice, and when I walked to elementary school for the first time, but this time the consequences of my fear-driven decision were monumental. I’d left college before it even started. And it wasn’t Mom’s fault, or the way she raised me. It was my fault. I left Michigan. Me.
None of this would make sense to me until a full year later, when I was finally diagnosed with panic disorder. A doctor at my new, close-to-home college, UC Santa Barbara, said that my persistent fear warranted treatment. In Santa Barbara, my panic was only intensifying, preventing me from sleeping almost nightly. I had never even heard of panic disorder before, but I had to admit it made sense. I wasn't just a stressed person who had sweaty palms before school presentations, the doctor explained. I was someone who repeatedly experienced intense episodes of debilitating fear.
When I set out for college, I never considered that my tendency to panic — the thing that had controlled my decision making throughout my life — actually wasn’t all my mom’s doing. I was naive to think that it would just vanish. That it wouldn’t be right there with me, attached to my side, from the moment I boarded that plane and with me ever after.
Coming to terms with this truth — that panic is in fact a part of me — hasn't been easy. I wish I could say that with medication and the ensuing years of therapy, it's now gone for good. But the fact is, it will always be tethered to me.
I may have walked away from Michigan on the first day of school, but it wasn't the end of my story. It was the beginning of a new phase of my life, one during which I would learn how to work with my panic to overcome each overwhelming wave of fear as it comes.
Rebecca Brown is an editor at Popsugar and has just published her first memoir, Stop, Drop, and Panic…and Other Things Mom Taught Me.