Editorial note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Aisling” is a pseudonym.
The heavy wooden door to my dorm room closed with a definitive click behind my parents. I exhaled the weight of eighteen years spent wrestling for control, for individuality, for personhood.
I was free.
I imagined this moment often, with ever-increasing fervor as the end of my homeschooling approached. Some people who grew up like me, children of conservative Christian homeschooled parents, were not allowed to go to college. But the proudly educated tradition of my family would not allow for depriving my sisters and I of higher learning. My mother was the first person in her family to go on to college after high school. It was expected.
It was my ticket out.
I chose a school not far from home, but far enough that my busy parents would be too busy to come visit often. I chose a big state school, with enough room for me to roam and spread out my roots and grow tall like the oak trees all over campus.
I imagined the freedom, the ability to do what I wanted without asking permission, to spend my days and nights as I pleased without being fussed at for staying up on my computer until 2:00 in the morning. I didn’t expect the overwhelming weight of overstimulation, social anxiety and drastic personal revelation that occurs when you spend every waking moment trying to suppress who you are and play a role.
I played the part of devoted Christian, loving and virtuous daughter, for so long. Once I had a chance to find out who was really hiding inside, I almost tore myself apart on my way out.
The last couple of years before high school “graduation,” I spent most of every day alone in my parents’ house. Dorm life, with my roommate’s near constant presence across our tiny room and shared hall bathrooms, was at once liberating and meltdown-inducing. I began quietly panicking inside as my daily hours spent in isolation suddenly gave way to never being alone. For someone who considered herself an extrovert, it was confusing. I had craved social contact but I got more than I bargained for, certainly more than I could handle.
I was also lost trying to keep up with academic pursuits far beyond anything I’d undertaken before, thanks to a barely-supervised home education that left me with no math skills to speak of and no idea of how to study successfully. My ADHD, which my mother called laziness and procrastination, made it even harder. I cried in secret frustration many times because everyone else knew things instinctively, like labeling every paper with your name and the date in two neat rows at the top left corner of the page.
From when I began homeschooling at age 6 right up until the speech at my makeshift graduation ceremony, adults told me I was the cream of the crop. Homeschoolers were supposed to be stellar academics, with fantastic test scores and great grades. Those grand speeches were little comfort to me as I struggled in a biology class I was failing because I never learned about genetics.
I hid the fact that I was homeschooled for as long as possible, only letting in a few people here and there. I was overwhelmingly met with, “I couldn’t tell! You’re so…normal.” It made me feel proud and also terrified: was I playing a part again? I definitely was very far behind on pop culture, videogames and “throwback” music, and I spent a lot of time faking it until I could catch up.
But I also found real friends. One of my first close friends was a staunch atheist, and she patiently listened to me as I parroted all the Right Words You Say To Atheists per evangelical Christianity. Through her and others like her, I began to reconsider everything I knew and formulate my own ideas about what I believed.
I made many mistakes due to ignorance. I abused alcohol, lubricating my existential crisis with cheap booze to forget the realization that everything I told myself was true might actually be wrong. But as the fog lifted, I realized there was a freedom for me to be the bold, fearless woman I’d tried to hide in fear of the countless reprimands for being too forward and opinionated.
Without the restraints of the beliefs I was taught, I was afraid I wouldn’t have any kind of moral compass. From the ashes of the beliefs I’d clung to out of fear and ignorance, I was able to rise into a person I could live with, a person I actually wanted to be.
My experience has taught me a few important things: children need freedom. Children need a safe place to make mistakes. They need to be adequately prepared for life outside the bubble of home and church. Children need socialization and adequate education. They don’t just need these things, they deserve them and have a right to them.
To the homeschooled graduates heading to college: if you are struggling personally or academically unprepared, don’t be afraid to take care of your mental health and seek extra help. Be prepared to question everything you think and know. Relish it and embrace it, because the only things worth believing will withstand the test. Don’t be afraid to burn it all down and start over if you have to, because you’ll find someone to be proud of in the ashes.