Both entering and leaving college were huge times of transition for me, not only because of the obvious reasons like moving across the country and leaving my family and starting a rigorous course of study, but also because I felt this huge loss of community when I left my hometown. I grew up in a tiny town - small enough that the one time I tried to rent an R rated movie before I was 17, my mother heard about it in a matter of hours. Small enough that we have one McDonald’s and literally no other fast food. Small enough that any actual shopping trip involves driving at least half an hour. My high school graduating class was considered somewhat large at 120 students and I had been with the same classmates since kindergarten. SMall enough that I felt close to people from a huge range of age and life experiences and had a wealth of life-knowledge at my fingertips.
As a teenager, I both loved and hated this closeness. It meant that I sometimes felt stifled by the lack of big city culture and what I saw as close-mindedness among my peers and fellow residents. But it also meant that I always felt like I had someone to turn to, someone to ask advice of about any difficulty I was facing. In my small town, I knew my neighbors and was on a first-name basis with most of the community leaders. Most of the elderly people acted like surrogate grandparents for all of us teenagers - to our benefit and chagrin. There was a sense that I could look to the people older than me for their wisdom and that they would really care about helping me find answers to my questions.
In college, I missed the multi-generational feel that had always surrounded me. Outside of professors, who felt so distant to me when I first arrived, I was surrounded entirely by people about my same age. While I definitely found friends who often gave me advice, there were moments when I felt like we were all in a sinking ship and no one knew quite how to use the bucket meant to bail us out. Simple things, like filling out tax forms or learning how to use a laundromat, or even how to refuse a date I really didn’t want, seemed like insurmountable obstacles. Always a private person, I didn’t want to explain my lack of any clue to just anyone. Though I have a very close relationship with my mother, and am grateful for that every day, there were questions I just couldn’t ask her in a cross-country phone call. And there were some things that I just didn’t want to tell her as I asserted my independence.
Being naturally inclined towards research, I often turned to the internet to ask advice and figure things out. I googled things constantly, from inane things like “how to I ask for a friend’s phone number without making it awkward?” to potentially life-threatening choices like “Is it really safe to microwave chicken?” On the more serious side, I desperately looked for ways to help a friend suffering from depression. As you can imagine, I found all sorts of information and eventually learned to sort through the good and the bad.
Yet relationships remained a messy area that I couldn’t seem to find any advice on. There were thousands of magazine articles about Not Scaring Boys Away, and other sources of wisdom about the importance of clear, honest communication. But I saw very little advice about how to actually achieve that lofty goal when being clear and honest felt like the most vulnerable thing I ever had to do. I felt that my situation was different and I could see how to apply generic knowledge to my own life.
My freshman year consisted of a long-distance relationships that collapsed catastrophically into a very very rushed summer romance with a boy I hardly knew. I was unhappy but in denial; it all seemed like my own stupid fault and I couldn’t see how to get out. I thought of who I could ask for advice and came up empty. My mother, more conservative than I, didn’t know all the details and I couldn’t bring myself to fill her in. My friends, though supportive, were also busy with their own issues and decisions and I wanted to preserve my own image of having it all together. In the midst of this confusion, I stayed in a relationship that was wrong for me in so many ways and punished myself for feeling miserable in it.
Then, I stumbled along an internet advice blog. I won’t name names to protect the innocent, but I pored over every single letter this kind soul had answered. Still too scared to submit my own question, I read between the lines of other people’s stories of indecision and uncertainty. I felt validated, both that other people had these issues and that it was possible to ask for help without being blamed for getting into this mess in the first place. Finally, cobbling together my own path from these answers, I had a very tough conversation with Summer Boy and felt freer than I had in a year and a half.
Thus began a life-long love of advice columns. I still read the one that saved my sanity, though it has gone through several versions and no longer seems to give quite the same advice as it did 5 years ago. I’ve also added several other columns and blogs to my reading list, all of which remind me that it’s ok to ask for advice and that it’s ok to want to remain anonymous while doing it.