I don’t remember all the reasons why I chose to go to a small school far away from my family as a freshman in college. I do remember thinking, when I made my college decision at 17, that this would be the safe choice. During my senior year of high school, two of my friends died suddenly. I had it in my head that if I went far away to school, I could escape the loss, and somehow, feel better mentally. I would be able to hang out in social scenarios without thinking about all the dark moments in the past year.
But it turned out going somewhere very small and very far away didn’t solve all my problems; I still had panic attacks when I was out with friends. I still felt depressed and anxious most of the time. Recovering from grief isn’t necessarily something someone can solve, but things did get easier when I transferred, as a college sophomore, to a very large school much closer to home. What I did differently my sophomore year of college was actually pretty simple: I took the time to decide what it meant to me to feel safe. The first thing I learned about safety was that it meant finding a group of people who would serve as my support.
Before I went to college as a freshman, I’d gotten all the usual advice about how to stay safe at parties: “Don’t set your drink down at settings where you don’t know everyone” and “keep your emergency contact in your phone under ‘ICE.’”
During my first few weeks of my sophomore year I joined a sorority and gained a whole new social group. This meant I had all new friends who didn’t know what might trigger me into a panic attack. The mention of suicide, loss, or grief made me feel as if I couldn’t breathe, and once I got like that, talking to anyone was out of the question. If someone asked me what was wrong after panic had already set in, I couldn’t answer, because I was just too far into the attack.
Alcohol and substance abuse surrounded the losses I’d experienced my senior year of high school, so being around excessive amounts of those things weren’t a good idea for my anxiety.
It was in my sorority where I found the people that made me feel the safest. I met two women who weren’t big partiers and who I knew I could text or call the moment I felt like I wasn’t safe. I also knew that these friends—Kelsie and Kylee—would understand when I said I couldn’t deal with a situation. They wouldn’t judge me if I had to leave a movie because it involved guns—another thing that set my anxiety spiraling—or if I could feel a panic attack coming on and wanted to leave the area before it happened.
Kelsie and Kylee came into my life very quickly after I transferred schools, and they still remain a huge part of my support system. Because I had them backing me up during those first few months at my new university, I felt the confidence to seek out other sources on my own that would be helpful. I found my way to therapy on campus, (which was free and usually is at most schools!) and I started volunteering at the women’s center on campus, where I met kind-hearted people who were sensitive to my anxieties and empathized.
I put together my own support group from many different places on campus: By the time I graduated in 2014, I had met people in my journalism classes, from my volunteer organizations, and yes, sorority, who I knew were in my corner. Grief and anxiety don’t always get better; they get different. My triggers changed or lessened in some cases, but I never stopped needing to keep analyzing what safety meant for me.
When I moved to New York City five years ago and came out as queer, I still often encountered social situations that included people who did not make me feel good about myself because of their actions, what they talked about, or how they treated me. I had to decide for myself when it was time to exit those scenarios, and I still had a support group (this time including my adult non-college friends) who had my back. If I was at a party where I saw an ex who I knew would only set off my depression for the entire next day, I tapped my friend Kari on the shoulder, and she would drag me to the dance floor, which at queer parties, is somehow inexplicably covered in glitter.
Safety can look different for you based on what you’ve experienced in your life. There are going to be so many times in life that you just feel flat-out uncomfortable. Most likely, this is the first time you’re living away from the small community where you grew up, and you’re learning about opinions and lifestyles that are much different than yours. Taking a moment to assess what makes you feel good and what doesn’t will only serve you well. And sometimes it leads to a glitter-covered dance floor.
Hilary Weaver is a freelance writer based in New England. She writes about celebrity, politics, social justice, and health. You can find her work at VanityFair.com, ELLE.com, the Cut, BuzzFeed, and more.