An alumna recalls a memorable writing course helmed by one of America's literary giants.
This is only the second time in my life that I’ve ever written about my drinking problem. It’s hard to believe, since I’ve written about so very many things. Crime in East Orange, N.J. Eating disorders. Escapades in Ecuador. Babysitting. Murder (unrelated to babysitting). Kim Kardashian. Parenting. I’ve had an expansive and totally random career (#millennial).
The only other time I wrote about my alcohol problem, I was a first-year at Barnard. My friends and I had been caught drinking beer in my Sulzberger room. (“Guzzling” and “hoarding” are probably more accurate in my case.) We were informed that, as punishment, we each had to write an essay — or risk getting thrown out of the dorms. I groaned, as if this wasn’t a completely reasonable punishment for breaking dorm rules and the law, since we were underage.
For the essay, we were told to write about someone who had disturbed their community and discuss the consequences. In a brazen move — or a cry for help — I decided to write about the mother ship itself: Columbia.
See, I fancied myself a real champion of the underdog. At the time, Columbia was embroiled in eminent domain battles in Morningside Heights. Without doing any research, I put forth the following logic: My tiny dorm party was a dummy-dumb issue compared to what the University was doing to the neighborhood around it. I remember the final sentence nearly verbatim: “I’m very sorry that we were loud while the rich, white kids of Barnard were trying to sleep in their beds.”
On a macro level, maybe I had a point? But in the reality of my small life, I was acting like a petulant child, and I knew it. Where did all that anger come from? I was a good kid, and a rich (relatively), white one at that. Even my booze friends, who were politically convulsive at all times, thought I’d crossed a line.
I couldn’t see it at the time, but I was having a lot of issues at Barnard. It was academically challenging compared to my breezy public high school. The architecture was too gorgeous. The women too smart, passionate, and into stuff. They took themselves seriously. Barnard Magazine was always bedecked with suited women who were actually championing underdogs. I scoffed and lashed out. In reality, I was frightened and hopelessly insecure every second I was there. I was a cynic with no center to speak of.
To fill the void, I became a fix-seeker. My drinking was nigh a wee babe at just five years old when we got caught with beer in Sulz. But it would be in full force for another 15 years before I called it quits. I’d yet to discover other party drugs, a way-too-old boyfriend, warehouse raves, risky travel. I had so much denial ahead of me. In truth, fixes came in many forms: getting A’s and B’s in the face of hangovers; gaining other people’s approval while also raging against authority; writing constantly; working constantly. Jogging up and down Riverside Drive for miles and miles. It’s why my career is all over the map. It’s why I pitched this essay. It’s why I inhale my toddler’s hair every day. It’s why I yoga and work instead of drinking and drugs.
The Head of Residence made me rewrite the essay. I think I wrote about Hitler. She accepted it. She must have been tired of me.
Then I blinked, and suddenly I’d graduated. Everything was gone: the dorms, the passionate women, the architecture, the library, the brilliant professors, the clubs, the classes, the gym, the support. Gone. I was just another lost kid in New York without health services or a dining hall. I certainly went to college, but somehow I’d missed it.
Many people regret that they didn’t have enough fun in college. Not me. I regret that I wasn’t present. I regret that I didn’t see that Barnard was giving me a thousand hugs. I regret that I fought off every one of them.
Halley Bondy is a freelance writer, editor, author, playwright, and scriptwriter based in Brooklyn.