Twelve hours before I reported for Cadet Basic Training at West Point, a boy came knocking on our hotel room door. “Are there any cadets in this room? Some of us are getting together down the hall to shine our shoes if you want to come.” I was 17. My family and my boyfriend had spent a week driving to the Hudson Valley so I could begin my future. Hair cut short, Army mesh shorts and West Point t-shirt, I dutifully walked down the hall to meet some of my classmates. A year before I was invited to attend a weeklong summer workshop at West Point; really a recruiting trip. I thought I wanted to go to West Point before that workshop, but after I knew it was for me. I excelled that summer. I even won an award during our final assembly, something for being uber aggressive at intramural sports I think. Now, one year later, walking into a hotel room full of mostly men shining shoes, I felt every ounce of confidence evaporate in a second. The tape in my head started playing. “Why don’t you know how to do this? They all know what they’re doing. You’re the only one who doesn’t. You’re not ready for this. You’re already behind.” For the first time in this journey, I was terrified.
The next day was a blur. No other experience has ever been like this before or since; so much to take in, so much to figure out, so much to process my brain literally could not keep up. I can only describe it as hours of sheer panic. Before I went to the academy, I watched TV specials about what to expect on R-Day. I watched as new cadets stood in front of upperclassmen in the red sash and only had to salute, say their name, and repeat one line. Almost all of them messed it up. Some even forgot their own name. I thought it was ridiculous. Until I got there.
Everyone shouts everything. They point to things on their uniform when you call them “sir” that mean nothing, so you just guess. Whether you guess sergeant or sir it’s always wrong. No one tells you how to do anything. They expect you to know already. They give you this big blue sack and throughout the day you carry it everywhere as it gets filled with everything you need for basic training. It gets so heavy. But you’re not supposed to put it down unless you’re told. You hold it in one hand and in the other hand you hold your knowledge book directly in front of your face because you’re supposed to memorize it. Heels against walls. Eyes looking at nothing but supposed to see everything. It’s July so it gets so hot. It’s so hot that you just sweat. Sweat through everything. And all the while your brain just will not work. When we finally got to go to our rooms, they ran us up flights of stairs in our barracks. The heat, the heavy, the mental overload…it was like frying a hard drive. I just collapsed. The next thing I remember was waking up in a locker room surrounded by female upperclassmen. Respite. As I regained consciousness I could hear the words stumbling out of my mouth, “It was just too much….I don’t understand…I’m just so confused…” “Don’t break rank” one of them growled at me. No safety. No relief. Nothing reassuring. The loneliest feeling. A feeling that stayed with me throughout my whole time at West Point.
I know what they were all doing. I get that this all is purposeful. Something they believe is character building and a rite of passage. Something that is the beginning for many who become great leaders. Still, there is nothing about that day I look back on fondly. Nothing that 16 years has made funny. It was awful. Every second. It became the lens I saw every other experience at the academy through. It was something I couldn’t recover from.
I look back now and feel ashamed that I couldn’t recover. I really wanted this. Getting in to that school would have changed my life, given me a real chance at doing heroic things, attending an Ivy League graduate school, ensure financial success. It would have given me access to an elite class and maybe, just maybe, the possibility of fooling them into thinking I belonged.
I’m not sorry I left. Maybe I would have bounced back, found my place, gotten my footing and excelled. But this didn’t feel like a place I wanted to to be part of. The cruelty and belittling I saw from people just a couple years older didn’t feel like training. It felt like entitled elites entertaining themselves at other’s expense. It felt like humiliation. And it felt like brainwashing.
The process of getting out is almost as cumbersome as getting in. That’s an exaggeration, but nonetheless there are safeguards in place to ensure people don’t make this decision lightly. You speak with people all the way up the chain of command to the general himself. Some people tell you to stick with it, it will get better. Some people tell you to go home if you don’t want to be there. You have to see a shrink. One appointment with someone you’ve never met to make sure your decision isn’t the product of abuse or sexual assault or mental illness that can be addressed. If you’re smart enough to get into West Point, you’re smart enough to get through this meeting.
The truth was, I had all the signs of depression. I remember a bright-eyed high school all star shadowing my roommate, a varsity athlete, coming into our room and asking us “what’s the best thing about West Point?” “Nothing,” I said flatly. “It’s all terrible. Day after day of terrible.” My poor roommates, squad mates, class mates. I was my worst self. Despite having the shiniest shoes, and the tightest bed, even getting a leadership position for plebe parents’ weekend, I was totally unable to detach from the constant criticism and corrections from the upperclassmen, I internalized every single thing anyone said. I hated myself for not being perfect. I hated them for not giving me one scrap of positive to hang on to.
Years and three therapists later, I discovered I was doomed from the start. Every achievement in my life was for one reason: validation. I never had the skills to internally recognize my worth and value, so I had to externally achieve to show myself and everyone else how great I was. Being good enough is a constant struggle. I always thought it was that I wasn’t good enough for others, but the truth is that I never let myself be good enough for me. I’ve invested a great amount of time and energy to work on. Meditation and the Shambhala center have been a big part of this process. Constant reminders to acknowledge and accept who we are in this moment, with all its limitations and potential. I thought I was in a good place when…
Last week I look over another faculty member’s shoulder to see him working on the lecture that I’m going to demo. We are at a weeklong training to teach young defense lawyers how to be more effective in trial. The man enthusiastically agrees and asks where I work, how many trials I’ve had. I tell him and return the questions. “I stopped counting at 100 and that was in 2005 he says.” He was one of many incredible trial attorneys on the faculty. There I am, back in that hotel room feeling like that Midwestern 17 year old who has no business here. The sweating began. The blur of panic began to set in. Just breathe. Just breathe. Come back.
Of course in the end, it all worked out great. I learned a lot, I met wonderful people, I was proud of my presentation and felt I contributed as best I could. But, the week was hard. Fighting against the urge to fall into those same mental patterns of doubting and questioning would have been so easy. So would mentally checking out. Having to live in this moment and really feel uncomfortable, or insecure, or vulnerable…feeling all those feelings and knowing that the best way to handle it is to feel it fully, stay away from self-judgment, and just stay in it as long as it takes for the feelings to give way. A rainbow isn’t a rainbow without all the colors. I am grateful for the reminder that challenges can show us how far we’ve come. I’ve come a long way. Far enough to know that “belonging” sometimes requires you to fake it til you make it, but remaining grounded and authentic to self will never steer you wrong.