On Happy Death Day and endurance

Warning: There are spoilers for this series of films in this article.

Sometimes we associate films with emotions for weird reasons. A movie becomes inextricably connected to the person you were at a specific moment and no matter what happens, no matter the film’s quality, it carries that with you.

In 2017, I suffered a nervous breakdown. This is not something I share lightly but I share it because I doubt it was a secret. It was brought on by anxiety about becoming a father (which has worked out great) and the political climate (as horrible as feared.)

This was something I endured to the point that at one moment, I had to take a trip to get clean. Just 24 hours to myself. And I did purge a lot of those feelings. It was a long and emotional journey and maybe some day I’ll write it up more fully. But I came back probably as broken as I’d ever be.

The day I got back, the trailer and poster for Happy Death Day came out. My mind immediately rejected the premise. The idea of a film where someone died over and over again sounded like the most nihilistic premise possible. And that was what I felt like I was going through. So this movie? It became tied to my breakdown.

But a funny thing happens in breakdowns. You’re not prepared for them to end. They do though. I’d put the first phase of mine ending in September of that year. Took a bit longer to fully heal but I’m stronger now.

When that happens you have to reckon with the symbols. And that’s how I came to watch Happy Death Day and discover that yes, it was the right film to connect with my breakdown. Because it’s, weird as this is, one of the most optimistic films I’ve seen in a long time to the point it’s becoming a comfort movie for me.

To explain why, I have to basically spoil the ending of both the first and second movies: The heroine of the films, Tree (Jessica Rothe), survives both films ultimately. There’s no sucker punch middle finger ending in either case. She goes through unimaginable torment (within a PG-13) and comes out better for it.

That’s a really wild hook for a horror film, the idea that we are stronger for going through hell. It’s why most horror, save for exceptions like The Babadook, is lost on me. I don’t need more reminders things are bad. I avoid torture porn for a reason.

But this series, which fits more in comedy than horror honestly, breaks that. With the first film’s endless loop of slasher kills and the second’s ludicrous suicide loop, the experiences serve more as a character test. Tree starts the first film utterly humorless and terrible. She ends it kinder, funnier, and happier.

And that strikes a chord with me. I’ve been through a lot this last year, especially with Amanda in the hospital. But am I better for it? I think so. I’m more flexible. I’m more willing to grow. I’m more devoted to my family. Is it necessarily true that what doesn’t end us strengthens us? No. But it was for me.

The second film came out not long before I was to take a second trip, this one to symbolically let go of the emotions of the first and to go do some things I really wanted to do. I saw it the night before I left for the trip. On one level it was me just seeing a (very good) film I wanted to see. On another, it was nodding at the past as it passed by me. I made it.

In Crisis: An Account of the Last Month of My Life

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A few weeks before

Before I start my story, let me discuss how I feel about hospitals. I’ve only had two stays in my conscious life. The first was for an appendectomy. I was in at 5 PM and out at 1 PM the next day. The second time I stayed over several nights for the birth of my daughter. I was severely sleep deprived and going through the biggest change in my life that week. Both stays reflected extremes of how a trip could go. Neither one however reflects my view of hospitalization. To tell that I need to describe what I’ve been through.

It’s been a long month. I mean December is a long month for anyone so I’m not saying anything new. But it’s been especially true for me and my family. More so than ever. I know the meme this month is what a long year but trust me, I’ve had the longest year.

Not that it began this way. It began as a hopeful moment. My wife Amanda experienced terrible stomach pains throughout the year. Eventually she was confirmed to have stones in her gall bladder and needed it out. A routine surgery if ever there was one.

So you go through the paperwork, the prep work, schedule a week off at work, take the kid down to her grandparents, and assume it’s all gonna be ok. And if it was I don’t cover this in anything more than a cover all entry. Amanda had surgery. I had to take time off. It’s over. Next.

For the first few hours, things seemed normal. I dropped Amanda off for surgery at a hospital a few blocks away then went home, cleaned, and slept. Then she called and I went to pick her up. She came home and rested. This was how it was supposed to go.

Then the stomach pains began along with the nausea, the horrifying nausea. Amanda couldn’t stop vomiting and could barely move. At 8 o’clock I called her doctor. The doctor, a rather brusque fellow, had no advice beyond either wait until tomorrow to see a doctor or go to the emergency room.

At 8:50 PM, Amanda and I once more found ourselves in the hospital. It was a painful situation. It took us nearly three hours to see a doctor as her severe pain wasn’t assessed as bad enough to merit seeing a doctor ahead of others. So we sat in uncomfortable chairs in an ice cold waiting room with Amanda getting up to vomit every few minutes. All I could do was be her spine through it.

Finally at about midnight we started to be seen. I stress started. It took at least an hour to get pain medicine in intravenously and fluids to be delivered. At least Amanda could rest. I was in full alert mode. Had to be. After four hours, we were freed to go, the problem assessed as a negative reaction to the pain meds on an empty stomach.

And then things went as I hoped. Amanda rested. She slowly recovered. There was definite pain. But she seemed to heal. That next Monday I ran down south to get Lola. The next few days Amanda recovered with us. It was nice. I even went back to work Thursday.

This is all prologue. Let me note that now. Everything I’ve just told you is necessary setup but it’s not the story. Again, it should be in a fair universe. It’s not in this one.

Early Friday morning, Amanda begins to experience pain and nausea again. My dad gets called to stay with Amanda while I go to work but that plan doesn’t last. In minutes, the plan changes to go to the ER again with my dad picking Lola up for the day. Work was out again. I thought my routine was restored. I was wrong.

I hate to admit this but my primary thought as I got Amanda to the hospital was on my job. I work at a newspaper and this week I was laying out the Sunday business section. The previous night I left my work unfinished, knowing I’d be there Friday morning to complete the section. Unfortunately I found myself on the phone with my bosses telling them I was on the way to the hospital.

I shouldn’t have felt guilty. I did though. I felt like I was letting people down. I absolutely caused chaos. But it wasn’t like there was a way around this. My wife needed me and even in my cold equation mind, she had to come first. I love her.

Once I’m parked and Lola is handed off to my dad for the night, I go with Amanda to a room. There’s no wait at 10:30 in the morning. We’re promptly installed and a nurse checks Amanda out. Tests are ordered. But mostly there’s the wait, the damnable wait. The wait for the medicine to kick in. The wait for nurses. The wait for test results.

But then the tests come back. There are stones in Amanda’s bile duct, the source of her constant pain. There’s also a fluid pocket but that seems ambiguous with us hearing different things from different doctors as to the severity. What counts is this: She needs another procedure and it can’t be done that day.

Hospitalization is floated but ultimately we decide to go home. Through the muck of a gray December day we trudge the few blocks to the house. Amanda once more takes pain medicine. I go out to grab dinner, checking in again with my job. I know I’m going to be out through the next day at least. Lola will stay with my dad until Sunday.

The next day is largely peaceful. Amanda rests. I clean. The downpour that permeated the previous day is still there. But there is calm as we wait for Monday when hopefully an outpatient procedure will help Amanda.

Then Sunday morning comes. The pain hits at its all time worst. We race to the ER but we know what’s coming. This time there’s an even stronger battery of tests but all of these are to affirm the outcome we expected. Early in the afternoon, Amanda is admitted to the fourth floor as a patient.

This is all extremely awkward for me. I don’t really know what to do in this situation. I’m on my phone far more than I should be, mostly surfing the Internet Library. I have no idea what my position should be when doctors speak. I want to be invisible honestly.

But as we settle into the room, some order does start to firm up as it must. I take to a chair bed in the room and sit while IVs are set up and nurses check on Amanda. The few supplies I brought are stashed in a corner. I relax as best as I can while she tries her best to pass out.

After a bit I make my way out of the hospital and get the car. I run back to the house to shower and grab toiletries. I grab dinner at Popeyes, less because I’m hungry and more because I know it’s dinner time. I buy a few snacks at Big Lots for a similar reason. Then back to the hospital.

At the hospital, Amanda is still awake and still hurting though the medicine is kicking in. We watch TV, probably the first Family Guy episode I’ve seen live in a decade, and rest together. That’s my role in this moment after all. I’m supposed to be there for her. And I am.

Then sleep comes. It’s better than it was when Lola was born but there’s also actual darkness and no newborn in the room to wake me. It’s cold though. Definitely uncomfortable.

The next day is a long wait. The only punctuation I get is running a couple of small errands. Mostly I’m bound to the chair, drinking a Sprite. Finally the doctors come to take Amanda to ostensibly get a scope to see the stones and perform the procedure. I relax and play on my laptop, knowing things are finally happening.

Except they don’t. Of course the doctors don’t do the procedure that day. It took too long to get to her so they didn’t even do it. This frustrating moment goes on yet longer.

It also means my therapy appointment the next day is off. I’ll miss the three year anniversary of seeing that good man. It’ll hurt. I needed him right now. But then again maybe I didn’t. Not yet. I’m in the hurricane and therapy is for when I’m out.

Once again I run out to get supplies, shower, and eat. At dinner I get a call from Amanda’s grandmother, checking on her. I vent so hard to her my frustrations with the hospital and the doctors. Her grandmother makes me feel better, affirming that yeah, this is awful.

Another night but this time without much sleep. Amanda sleeps more than she has at home though and that’s what counts. She’s getting what she needs. The crick in my neck is just a thing I’ll face for this.

The next morning, by now Tuesday, we’re finally given word she’s going into surgery. Amanda has two requests. She wants a present and she wants me to eat. So while she’s wheeled in, I do both.

The meal isn’t major, a spicy chicken biscuit and hash browns from Chick-Fil-A, but it satisfies. Sitting in the restaurant, I’m happy to eat for the first time in days. That’s a relief. The fat and carbs give me a boost.

Then it’s on to the mall to find Amanda a present. The mall I’m in has giant glass skylights which provide me which something I haven’t had in days: Natural light. You don’t realize until you’re trapped in a situation where you lack it how nice it feels to get it. It’s cleansing.

That helps put me in a good mood as I select the gifts. Inevitably, Bath and Body Works gets a stop so I can get her a bath bomb. I spend most of my time in Spencer’s Gifts. She’s weird enough items like a Chucky fleece throw is considered but I need to show I know her. Amanda values a Nightmare Before Christmas mug above most possessions. I get her two pint glasses as companions.

Then it’s back in the room. For the first time I’m truly aware what a prison it is for me and I can go as I please. I can’t imagine what it is for Amanda. For me, it’s becoming incredibly frustrating. That several hours pass as I wait doesn’t help. Even with good books, I’m just waiting, tethered to the room.

After a few hours, Amanda comes back, finally having had everything she needed done. There’s a peace to the moment. She’s in severe pain but she’s going to get better. I give her the¬†gifts, much appreciated, and we’re just together, the two of us. It’s nice.

Amanda’s friends come and we reach a decision: I need to go home tonight. I need to get the rest I truly need. So after a bit I go home and once more shower. I take a nap. I load up a podcast on my phone. I head out on a mission.

That mission? To see Lola at dinner. I meet her and my dad at a Waffle House. Lola is happy to see me, clinging tight to me. She plays and laughs and I’m reminded that I’m only briefly in a sojourn in another world. In time I’ll be back with her and things will be normal.

It ends all too quickly but then there’s another reminder things will end. I drive over to pick up my good friend Sebastian, a one time online associate turned Little Rock resident. We hang out weekly and this week proves no exception. Our plan is to go to Target to do some Christmas shopping.

As I pull up, Amanda calls. She wants chips and cheese dip. So Sebastian and I find ourselves at the hospital with food in tow. Honestly I’m glad for it. I cherish the few extra moments I get with my wife. It’s clear us being there takes her mind off the stress. It’s just nice.

Then the rest of the night is me getting lost in the things I love. I shop. I drive. I chat with my friend. I’m just plain happy to be there. After I drop Sebastian off, I go home and drink a few hard lemonades as I blast the rest of the cast.

This would be the climax if it was a film. The next scene would be me taking Amanda home. After all the plot has ended. We can move on.

Here’s what actually happens in reality. There’s another day of observation. Amanda was definitely not having any of it. She’d been grumpy all week but it peaked Wednesday and I didn’t blame her. There was a reason we were there but it felt so useless. She was ready to go home.

The next day I got up. I went to the hospital. I bought Amanda a small bottle of her favorite perfume the hospital happened to have. We waited. And waited.

And then in an instant we got the news. Amanda was going home that day and I was going back to work. As fast as the event began, it suddenly ended. I packed the car, Amanda got dressed, and she went home.

Then I was back at work and it was as if nothing had happened. I was back in my routine. I wasn’t at all off my game. Things were just what they were.

Slowly the world around reshaped. Lola came home the next day. Amanda went back to work a week later. The Christmas holiday came and went. The order of life found its way again.

And that’s what fascinates me. Things can be completely thrown out of whack. The world as we know it can be torn completely asunder. Everything can go wrong.

Then one of two things happens. Either a new normal sets in for a permanent change or for a temporary change things get back to normal. Either way chaos isn’t eternal. Crises end. And we move on.

So it is for us. We had a period where it seemed like nothing would calm down. Then it did.

And we keep going.

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Why I’m “damaged”

I feel like I don’t even need to give context for this entry, so widely known is screenwriter Terry Rossio’s Twitter post. For the unaware he started by referring to “vaccine damaged” children and ended by comparing being called anti-vax to being called the N-word.* Yeah, it was a mistake. You knew I had to write on it.

So allow me to speak, in absentia as he will never read this, to Mr. Rossio. You referred to vaccine damaged children. You meant autistic children. I know you did. No other condition is linked to vaccines and though you don’t want to hear this, neither is autism. You referred to autistic people, a large population, as damaged in public. We can read it.

The thing is, you’re right, guy who cowrote Little Monsters. We are damaged. I know I sure am! Just not by vaccines.

I’m damaged because we live in a society that allows people like you to insult people like me without a second thought. You didn’t think for a second that autistic people would read your words. In your mind, we’re non-functioning drones. And how often has your view been refuted after all? Not often in your business. That hurts.

I’m damaged because society constantly allows others to speak for us. I’m not talking about my now deleted and staggeringly wrong post on Steve Silbermann who has proven himself in the last few years to be the greatest NT ally we’ve ever had. I’m talking about the doctors and “advocacy groups” who assume we don’t know what we’re talking about. Imagine the blow to your self esteem to be told you’re not qualified to discuss your own life.

I’m damaged because the traits that define my condition are universally treated as negatives. I know more likely than not I’ve bombed job interviews for positions I might’ve gotten based on my work because of my struggle with eye contact. My obsessive interests are derided and mocked. My utter need for routine to function is called out. Yeah, that’s damaging.

I’m damaged for going through a school system that didn’t respect my needs. It was extremely difficult to navigate a world set up at almost precise opposition to my mental state. It wasn’t until high school I got any help but by that point the psychological toll had been extracted.

I’m damaged because no matter hat I achieve in life, the second I give my status as an autistic man, I know or many people their estimation of what I’m capable of drops. It doesn’t matter that I graduated high school and college with honors. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been at one high skill job for 10 years. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been married for five years. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been a father for 2.5 years. All that I’ve done can be wiped out with a word. That leaves scars.

I’m damaged because I even have to say any of this. It should be obvious vaccines don’t cause autism and even if they did in a tiny percentage, not dying is far better. I shouldn’t need to have thousands upon thousands of words up here. I’m autistic, not hopelessly broken. That I’ve had to live my life refuting that idea? That’s the most damaging thing of all.

It doesn’t really matter what I have to say at day’s end. People like this loathsome creep will never listen to us. And yeah, this was a guy so unaware that he used THAT word in public. He doesn’t matter. But there are others, many others who are supposedly well meaning and who would never be consciously bigoted. But they think nothing of throwing us away. And nothing we will say will change that.

I’m not damaged because I’m autistic. I’m damaged because being autistic means something bad in this society.

 

 

*YOU CAN NEVER USE THIS IF YOU ARE WHITE! EVER! Like I’m not wasting any more time on this. WE DO NOT GET TO USE THAT WORD!

Still here

I haven’t posted in 2 months and there’s been a very good reason why. Every time I’ve tried to write, I’m stopped myself. So this is a quick post but its a declaration.

Yes, I’ve been battling violent depression and anxiety. This is true and all too well known to most. I haven’t been hiding from this. I’ve been using every technique I have and I’m finally making a bit of headway.

I’m on an increased dosage of Prozac. I’ll be open about that too. I’m up to twice what I was on. It’s not a slight dose but I’m not a slight case. It’s ok I’m seeking this. I’ve also added an emergency medicine for severe episodes. It’s helped too.

Nothing has been as key though as taking time to be me. I’ve binged a number of Marvel novels. I just read a great Star Wars book. I’ve got three Cathy sets to read at home. I’ve had a few good drinks. I’ve found Austin’s moment.

Lola is doing great as is Amanda. I’ve got people I actually socialize with now. I’m not in isolation.

I have my columns I’m working on. A new one hits Tuesday and another Wednesday.

I have a fiction project I’m working on. It’s coming slow but it is coming.

I’m here. That’s all I’ve got for today. I’m still here. I’m still in the fight. But I’m here.

A Letter to Lola

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Dear Lola,

Today I took you to Delight. You cried and you cried for most of the trip. I could tell you were frustrated because you wanted down to play. You definitely couldn’t do that. You screamed and made my heart hurt.

Lola, I want you to know how much it hurts me when you scream. It hurts me because you’re upset and I can’t fix it. Sometimes it’s because you want the impossible like a snack we don’t have. Often it’s because you want to do something you can’t do like today or when you tried to escape the house the other night. Either way I feel bad.

The worst are when I don’t know. I speak of those mornings when you wake up screaming. You’re pure upset and I don’t know what to do. I feel so frustrated. Sometimes I have to leave the room in the hopes you’ll calm yourself down. Then I’m more scared than I’ve ever been.

Lola, my child, I want you to know how frustrated I can feel as we enter this tricky stage. You’re not yet truly verbal but you are communicating. You’re willful and stubborn. You don’t know your limitations. You’re testing us constantly. It’s hard for me because I can’t just wave a wand and help you. I want to though.

Right now I’m wrestling with a real struggle. Am I good enough? I’ve felt such doubts lately. I’ve screwed up nonstop in every area of my life. I’m not feeling like a successful adult, Lola. I hate that.

It’s hard for you to understand, I know you’re still 2, but then it’s hard for anybody to understand. When you’re an adult, you’re supposed to be fixed. You’re supposed to be this whole thing. And I’m still me. I’m still this guy trying to fix years of being very broken. And I wrestle with him.

I’ve been so mad at so many people of late, even when I’m mostly mad at myself. I hate living with anger but I’ve felt it so much of late. Often it’s just reflected energy from others. Nobody’s happy and it hurts me.

What makes it worse is how I’m not allowed to say how I really feel in public. I can’t vent these emotions easily. I used to throw up statuses where I admitted how I felt at a given moment. Of late I can’t and I hate it. I have to wear a mask even though this isn’t my brand.

Lola, I worry about you. I don’t want you to hurt like I have in life. I don’t want you to face these issues. I want life to go well for you. It terrifies me that you might ever have to struggle like I do. But I know you might.

My fight is to be better so I can be there for you. It drives me to fight even when my reserves are gone. I do it to make sure you are happy. I’ll never stop doing it.

My angel, please know how much you are loved. I ache because of that love. I want only to make you smile. When we snuggle while taking a nap, I feel rare moments of fulfillment. In these moments I feel hope. You are my star.

Love,
Papa

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My 5 Worst Meltdowns

Meltdowns are almost forbidden as a subject of discussion. There’s this terror of admitting that you have this horror in you. That under the right circumstances everything you’ve built as a mask can collapse. But they’re there and you have to face them.

I’m writing this not to self flagellate but to release. I want to come clean and own what I did to grow. These are 5 times I snapped and it went badly. I’ve ranked them in order of destruction in my life.

Honorary mention: the 2001 Missouri/Northwest Arkansas trip I’ve written about before. All because I didn’t realize bookstores don’t work like Amazon.

5. The time I snapped because a movie didn’t play Little Rock. This is a very minor one but I feel such shame it had to make the list. In the spring of 2007 I was excited for a comedy to play Little Rock. Then it didn’t make the Rave’s listings. I broke. An RA had to help me calm down. This was such a silly reason but it came just before college graduation. I didn’t have a job lined up. I was under pressure so I broke. Nobody was upset with me but it was such a silly reason. Then there was the humiliating kicker that it did indeed play that week. And the slightly redeeming factor that it was Hot Fuzz which became a favorite movie that week. Still bad.

4. A breakdown in a Walmart because a gift card didn’t work. Spring 2014. Notice how all of these are adult stories. These are the ones I can’t bear. This one happened because a gift card I had wouldn’t run. It happened at a moment when my funds were low. This one hurts me because of how nice the clerk was to me. I was collapsing and he was being so kind. I felt certain I couldn’t show my face around him ever again. I did ultimately. In fact he became a beloved figure with Amanda and I for how nice he was to Lola. But that realization of what a monster I was hurt.

3. The time I was handcuffed during a meltdown. Same season. I’d just crashed my car. Pretty great reason for a meltdown. That’s not the reason I have this here. The reason I have it is how I was treated. I was handcuffed and put into the back of a police car. It not only didn’t help that I tried to explain I was autistic, it made it way worse. I’ve never been so aware how dangerous these are to me. I could have been maced, tased, or sadly shot. This one is less on me but a reminder that society does not understand me.

2. The meltdown at work over satellite radio. Fall 2010. This ended so badly I left work early and had basically a complete psychotic break the next day, nearly escaping to Memphis for a day before turning around halfway. I was on the phone with a satellite radio representative trying to get an answer to charges with no luck. It built and built to a screaming fit. At work. I was shamed hard for this by my coworkers. If I hadn’t had family on site by nights end I wonder how I would’ve handled that night. This is the single greatest humiliation of my adult life. I still want to apologize to those I angered that night. I will never forgive myself for it. So what could be worse?

1. The meltdown on the playground in November 1994. There are moments that destroy your life. This one is the most destructive moment of my life without any doubt. Yes, I was 11. No I don’t hold it against myself. But I don’t ignore that the meltdown I had for being punished for acting out in class destroyed my 4th grade year and for a long time my image in Conway. It was the moment I became a pariah in that town. I was mocked endlessly for it. I heard the things I said over and over. It’s sad but this was the moment I’ve spent my life outrunning and often repeating.

So these are five moments I’ve lived with. What can I see from them? They’re almost all times of high pressure. I was moving during #4. I had just moved to a new town before #1. Graduation looked over #5. They’re also moments where what haunts me most is how I hurt others. That’s the really painful thing.

But there is hope. I do let go in time. It took turning Fort Smith into my happy place when I’m stressed to release the first incident. I’ve exorcised Conway by accepting the world didn’t know how to help me. The others I’m still fighting. But I will get there.

I must accept this demon. Maybe that’s how it’ll die.

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Live in a dorm: The most important advice I’d give an autistic youth

The subject of advice is always a tricky one. No piece of advice works for everybody and that’s true for autistic people especially. We’re not a monomind. So thinking of one piece of advice is risky. But one idea has been rolling around in my head and I think it’s worth discussing: If you have any intention of living on your own as an adult, live in a dorm.

I know this is weird but bear with me. No decision I’ve ever made helped me grow more than silencing the voice in my head that screamed at me to stay in town and go to a local college. I had two options after all. I could have lived at home. I chose not to. I chose to go away.

Why was this a vital decision? I mean if you’d looked at video of me at any random point during my first semester of freshman year, you wouldn’t think it was. I spent a lot of that time crying, having anxiety attacks, and falling into delusional psychosis towards the end. In theory, this was a terrible decision.

But it was needed. I had to go through it. The person I became because I survived that semester is indisputably a much stronger person for it.

See, going to college is a great way to test the waters of adulthood. You’re reliant on yourself to stay properly fed. You’ve got to be in control of your own schedule. You have to stay on yourself to succeed. At the same time, you’re not paying your utilities. You’re in school but unless you have a part-time job, you’re not working. (Get a job btw.) You’ve got a safety net.

Living in a dorm was also a vital crash course in socialization. You don’t really get to be a hermit. You probably have a roommate. You definitely have neighbors. You have to learn how to interact with them. You’ll learn fast that no matter how patient your family was with your meltdowns, society won’t be.

You’ll also learn something truly important: Who are you? When you’re in an environment without a wave of people you know–I knew one person from Conway in college–and your family around you at all times, you figure yourself out. I wouldn’t say I changed much but I developed an awareness of who I am there. I became more secure in who I was.

The person you become out of college will become a functional adult. You won’t be scared to go out on your own. You’ve cracked the four year training program. Time to live.

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