What do I want to do with the rest of my life?" The thought at seventeen years old just seemed crazy. I was expected to go to college straight out of high school. How does a teenager decide what direction to go at such an undecided, young age? The word "career" seemed as intimidating as the words "forever" and "lifetime." I hadn't even figured out who I was yet, let alone what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I realized the only way to find myself was to relinquish certain aspects of my life that defined who I was. My family, religion, and culture were ideals I knew I would have to reexamine to discover myself. With my college acceptance letters silently demanding to be answered, I knew I had to choose my life path.
There was a time limit to everything, and after graduation, the pressure increased; so I panicked, and I ran. I joined the military, and Uncle Sam shipped me to boot camp before the ink was dry on my high school diploma. It was like I traded one set of parents for another. I traveled the world before I was old enough to drink on US soil. My job itself revolved around weaponry and orderly chaos. When I enlisted in the United States Navy, I always found myself alone amidst a group of strangers who felt just as alone as I did.
Upon deployment, I dreamed that I had made a different choice and lived an alternate life. Instead of enlisting in the military, I imagined going to college and living in the dormitories. I envisioned myself going home on the weekends and partying with my friends.
When I closed my eyes, I was afraid of losing my homework, not my life. The dream would end when I woke to the sound of jets flying overhead. As they accelerated and took off, the whole ship would shake. One jet would take off, another would land, and the ship would shake again.
Though I was raised a devout Catholic, I had not prayed nor gone to a church since I left home. After two years of not seeing my mother's face and ten months of being out to sea, I was homesick. I was afraid and enveloped in my self-imposed loneliness. I got on my knees and prayed that if God would just let me make it home alive, I would spend the rest of my life committed to saving lives. Out there, amidst nothing but ocean, I figured out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
When I came home, I spent almost a year trying to function with PTSD. There were days when I did not leave my house. I was claustrophobic as a direct result of being on the carrier. Loud sounds like fireworks or a diesel engine firing up sent me running. I left the structured chaos of the military for the more chaotic civilian world. My mind could not understand how civilians managed to function. There was me, and there was them. They lived in what I thought to be a state of perpetual ineffectual madness. It seemed like they just blew around in the wind like dust particles with no direction or purpose. I frequently had violent episodes because the chaos frustrated and confused me. For the first four years of my adult life, there was a time to wake up, a time to go to work, a time to work out, and a time to sleep. There were even set times to use the bathroom and smoke. Then with a handshake and "Good luck," I was spat out into the civilian world with nothing but a seabag and a plane ticket home. One moment there was structure in my life, the next moment, I had no idea what was supposed to happen minute to minute. After yet another violent fistfight with my sister, I realized that I needed help. I could not put my finger on what was wrong; I just knew that I was not the same. I was so ashamed and haunted by the recurring thought, "why can't I just be normal?" It was like I left the military and the ship, but somehow I managed to carry them home. After intense counseling, I was by no means 100% back to what I was before I left, but I could function well enough to be on a college campus.
When I told my family, my intention was to go back to school. I assumed they would be proud, but, instead, they simply questioned my sanity. I spent many late nights talking with visiting family members, relentless in their attempts to persuade me into nursing certification. By the time I graduated, I knew of the nursing shortage and the starting salaries of LPNs by heart. They told me that it was too late for me to pursue a degree. It was as if there was an expiration date on getting an education, especially if your career choice was medicine or law. I felt like expired milk, or an old wrinkled grape accidentally left out in the sun too long. In the fall of 2009, I registered at Housatonic Community College.
On my first day of school, I looked out at the sea of teenage faces in the Algebra classroom and felt that pang of self-doubt. I felt so out of place that I promptly turned around, intending to go home to my children, marry a rich man, and become a stay-at-home mom. I felt like I was nine years late to prom. I felt the eyes of these children burning holes in my forehead. In my mind, they were whispering and wondering why the crypt keeper was in their classroom. The more likely scenario was, they were probably wondering why I was standing in front of the class. I looked like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. I took a deep breath, and with my head held high, I walked back in, and I sat down. I soon realized that I was the only person who cared or noticed how much older I was than my classmates.
There were many days like that first day. Other days were great, and I made terrific progress. I pushed myself to complete a 19-credit semester with a 3.8 GPA. My mornings were spent in class or in the college community. Then I would go home and spend my evenings with my children. Now and then, I would get a sitter on the weekend and go out with my friends. It was like the other life I had dreamed while I was on deployment was happening years later. I would find myself feeling self-conscious sometimes. I wondered if I looked like some old fogy who was having a mid-life crisis. Then I would get over it. This was my college experience, and it was going to be whatever I allowed it to be. I had gotten involved with activities on campus. I had made lifelong friends of all ages. I even had the opportunity to get dressed up for a winter formal, and I was nominated for the winter queen! Despite my insecurities and self-doubt, I could have the full college experience without the dorm life, but it was close enough for me.
In May of 2012, I put on my cap and gown. I thought, "That well-adjusted GRADUATE looking back at me could not possibly be the same freshman who stood in front of her algebra class too dumbstruck to sit down." I got choked up. The tears I tried so hard to keep back just came pouring forward. I finally felt like a returning hero. I had been home from the military for 7 years, but the girl I was before I enlisted never made it home. The woman who came home in her place, saw a problem, sought out help, and survived the transition. I was proud of that woman. Many veterans are not so lucky. I smiled, laughed, and cried all at once.