Though I should have been grateful to be on my way to State College to attend school and play tennis, what I really felt was a sense of entitlement. On some level I believed that if I had to take on this tennis player persona, the least the universe could do was reward me with a scholarship.
Somehow I saw being a gifted athlete as my cross to bear.
And because heavy is the head that wears the imaginary crown, and because I was hungover as f*ck, taking the SATs early one Saturday morning was rough—but not nearly as rough as it would have been if my scores were actually going to matter. I had pretty much been told that I simply had to take the test—I didn’t have to do well. Test day found me bleary-eyed. I had drunk myself silly the night before mostly because I could, but also so that if I did end up doing sh*tty, I could say, “I was so hungover when I took that test.” It was a self-fulfilling prophesy fueled by Sam Adams, more likely it was stolen Stroh’s.
But, fear not: things like GPAs and SATs were never going to stand in the way of my State College adventure.
I was accepted before I even finished the application. Several of my friends, who had way better academic credentials, had been required to attend summer session in order to gain acceptance that fall. Obviously it’s not a policy unique to Penn State to grant athletes special treatment. Rules are bent and broken for quarterbacks, shooting guards, goalies and girls with backhands like mine nearly everywhere. Plus, I was no dummy. Academically lazy, you bet, but also well aware that Penn State and the other programs that had been recruiting me didn't much care about my classroom prowess—so why the hell should I?
Anyway, when people say, “We Are … Penn State,” I always think: I Most Certainly Was Not.
Though I waltzed into Happy Valley in August of 1991 like God’s gift to Joe Paterno, I should have shouted: get a load of me while you can … this could be brief.
Of all the scenarios that played out in my 18-year-old head, none of them included going down in flames before the conclusion of my freshman year. I was seriously convinced it would be f*cking magical like every coming of age tale I had ever read.
Before I got to Happy Valley, I had to prove to my folks that I was in fact well enough to go. I promptly willed myself to be fine, or at least play the role of “girl recovered” to the hilt. In my defense, I was a little better. I had been getting more honest in therapy, found a way to keep my fingers out of my throat and had succeeded in maintaining a healthy weight. I wasn’t cured, but I wasn’t in crisis.
Have you ever had such high hopes for something that there is no way in hell that reality could rival your expectations? Penn State was like that for me. It started off happily enough on the weekend of my arrival. It wasn’t like I was venturing into some uncharted territory; several of my very good friends from high school were already there. One, Jill, of the infamous projectile vomit affair, was even in my dorm. This was going to work out nicely. I would be an awesome addition to the tennis team, hang with my buds from home, make new friends, too, party my a** off and generally start enjoying the best years of my life.
School wasn’t due to start for a few days, there were orientations and such, books to purchase and a roommate and new tennis teammates to meet. I also recall encountering kegs virtually everywhere. I put down my red Solo cup only long enough to attend the many “optional” tennis practices that were absolutely not optional. I had a chip on my shoulder about the whole tennis thing from go. I was the star. I had always been the star. Not only was it weird for me not to be the star, but to have to prove myself to these b*tches, well, that was intolerable. With my winning attitude, how could things have possibly gone wrong, right?
There was a girl on the team who I had competed against since I was 10. She was a sophomore. Instead of ingratiating myself to her, showing a little humility and trying to be one of the girls, I allowed myself to believe that they didn’t like me. Maybe they didn't like me. Maybe I was pretty unlikeable. Either way, I showed them that there was no “I” in team. I didn’t have time for that DI dynamic, anyway, not when there was so much fun to be had.
I really thought that school was supposed to be like a movie, and that movie was Animal House. It didn’t take long before it became abundantly clear that I had some Belushi tendencies.
Winter came and I “came to” feeling like absolute garbage most of the time. I blame cheap beer. It didn’t help that tennis wasn’t even a little bit fun anymore, and my body hurt all the time from lifting weights, doing sprints and not taking care of myself in the least.
While my non-tennis crew was off pursuing Greek life, and most of the tennis team was busy bonding, I was sort of lost. I wasn’t a sorority girl, I had a few—okay one—girl on the tennis team who I liked, but mostly I didn’t know what to do most of the time. Nothing gave me joy—no person, place or thing.
I felt like I was drowning in a blue and white sea while everybody else lapped me.
I could have been studying or practicing, surely there was plenty to do. Busy girls with long, straight hair named Lara and Gwen always seemed to have places to go and people to see. They had a socials and mixers like every five seconds. I watched as they hogged fogged bathroom mirrors while discussing fluffy sh*t that made me want to clock them into silence. I know it sounds like I was mad, but mostly I was very, very sad. I spent more time than I care to mention daydreaming about being taller and skinnier with silkier hair and more expensive jeans.
I longed to be vapid and pleased with myself—it was just easier to make the assumption that the pretty, socially connected sorority girls were shallow egomaniacs.
Days turned into weeks and I turned down opportunities to do anything with anybody. Occasionally I’d meet Monday with a renewed attempt to get my sh*t together: I’d eat better, drink less, sleep at appropriate times and start taking school seriously. Certainly sheer will could turn my darkness into light?
One day the tennis team was supposed to show up at 6 a.m. on a Sunday to clean Beaver Stadium after a home game. It was fundraiser in which many of the athletic teams participated to raise money for their respective sports. It was a pursuit affectionately known as, “Cleaning the Beaver.” Nice. Well, I was so hammered the night before that I had set my alarm for 5:15 p.m. instead of a.m. Consequently, I showed up unfashionably late. I can still see the look of disgust on my coaches’ and teammates’ faces when I rolled in at around 7:30 a.m. If they hadn’t hated me before …
If anybody had told me at that moment that drinking was to blame for the events of the “Beaver Incident,” I would have been livid. It was my alarm that had failed me. It was a stupid mistake. It could have happened to anyone. I just didn’t see how drinking had anything to do with my issues. Perhaps more accurately, I wasn’t willing to look honestly at the role my drinking played in certain events.
Not long after the “Beaver Incident,” I made a desperate phone call one evening and choked out the following sentences: “Mom, it’s me. I can’t stay here. Please come get me.”
It’s always good to have someone who will take that particular phone call. Not everyone has those people in their lives. I thank that woman and that man for not launching into some pep talk about how I should give it some time … try and stick it out. They just knew better.
As my parents rose at the crack of dawn the next day to collect their fifth-born broken child, I set off to tie up the loose ends of my brief academic career. First stop: visiting my counselor to officially withdraw from the university. I had never even met the woman. She had hundreds of students with whom she was charged. Knowing that I was just one of many, I didn’t want to be a squeaky wheel, you see. I hadn’t bothered to show up for our scheduled meeting back in August because I was a tennis star and a good-enough student, and obviously, I had things all figured out.
She looked at me. I looked at her. I told her I was leaving school while doing my very best not to liberate a lifetime of tears. She was sensitive and kind while she told tales about the great number of students who have to take time off for any number of personal and/or financial reasons. Placate me though she tried, there was simply no way to shake my certitude that I was a weak, needy embarrassment to the entire human race.
To me, her voice echoed nonsensically like the voices of all the grown-ups in the Peanut’s holiday specials. And as I sat in the chair across from her, I felt like Charlie Brown always did when Lucy got the best of him.
The funny thing: when I quit the tennis team just weeks earlier, the coach had been very understanding and kind. She told me I would be welcomed back to the team if I ever felt like giving it another chance—this counselor was basically saying the same. It has taken me a long time to realize that had I simply asked for help, there was plenty of it to go around.
I was not the only girl with an eating disorder at Penn State in 1991-92. I was not the only girl with an eating disorder and depression. I was not the only girl with an eating disorder and depression who was in complete denial about her drinking problem. I wasn’t even the only girl in my dorm with some combination of those issues. But because “help” was a four-letter word not found in my vocabulary, I was f*cked.
In my one full semester at PSU, I earned about a 3.2 GPA. I say I earned it, but that’s a stretch. I showed up for classes when I had to and did the absolute minimum. The classes for which I had registered, and remained enrolled, were not particularly challenging. I had picked my spots well. I don’t recall actually studying. In any event, that was all behind me now. I would leave that campus, never to return. I had bad feelings about Penn State for years, but I don’t anymore. I was a sick kid. I’d have been that same sick kid at any university that would have had me.
The ‘rents arrived the next afternoon. My sh*t was packed. I was hungover, but ready to roll. My roommate looked fairly dazed and confused by the sudden turn of events. We were like ships that had passed in the night, but one of us had been destined to sink. “See ya, Lara,” I said. “Good luck.” I knew we weren’t going to keep in touch so I didn’t even bother to suggest as much.
The three-hour drive from State College to Pittsburgh seemed like an absolute eternity. We stopped for lunch, and even though I had already eaten, I ate again.
My plan was to launch into serious starvation mode the very next day so I deserved a last hurrah.
My parents tried in vain to have a conversation with me over lunch. I was practically incapable of stringing a sentence together. There’s an antidepressant commercial that says, “depression hurts.” Well, it sure does. It was painful to open my mouth, move my lips or will even a tiny sound to come out. I wish I had been able to say: please help me.
Know anything about Geographic Cures? Well, my journey from Mt. Lebanon to Happy Valley was my first attempt at one; the return trek was my second. Essentially, the idea is that you leave a place, hoping that starting over in a new place will make things all better. You don’t think this in a conscious, rational, way—there's nothing rational about a Geographic Cure.
It’s not where you are, it’s who you are … and I had the acute displeasure of being me whether I was hiding under the covers in a dorm in State College, or beneath a blanket on my parents’ couch in suburban Pittsburgh. I was sad, sick and sorry me—poor f*cking me.
So no, I wasn’t glad to be back home exactly, but I was sure ready to hit the sack for a couple months. Returning home after my failed semester and a half at Penn State was as low as I thought it could go for me. I actually thought I was like the only person in the history of my high school to go away to college and not stay there for four years and emerge with a degree. If I could have a conversation with myself as that barely 19-year-old college dropout, I would have many choice words, but I'd start with these:
“Listen, nobody cares that you left Penn State—literally nobody. Some people never go to college in the first place. Some people are starving to death—and not on purpose. People everywhere are dealing with all kinds of sh*t storms every second of every minute of every day. Believe me when I say: not everything is about you. Now would be a really good time to get your a** into therapy and make it count. There's a big world out there and it's time you figured out a way to live in it.”