A Story of Transitions Through One-Way Tickets

by Mohammad Mia; illustration by Charlie Theobald

I was hit with a strong case of the sophomore slump. Depression and mornings spent in bed staring at the ceiling, searching for a better reason to get up other than having to pee. I wasn’t sure if I belonged at Colorado College. Only my parents were proud of my Economics major, and my girlfriend had just broken up with me. I felt lost.

 I was reading Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” at the time and came across the idea of the monomyth, a pattern that traced the development of heroes across narratives from around the world. Campbell explains that “the usual hero adventure begins with someone…who feels there is something lacking in the normal experience available or permitted to the members of society. The person then takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir. It’s usually a cycle, a coming and a returning.” 

I reflected on my family’s history as I read, successive one-way tickets with very few returns. A grandfather who left India in search of adventure, a mother who immigrated to Zambia from Pakistan at the age of eight, parents who sold everything and moved my brother and me to the United States when I was seven, to me arriving alone in Colorado as a first-year. An acute awareness of these transitions pervaded my consciousness and compelled me to embark upon a two-semester journey to try to understand the role these transitions have had in shaping who I am.  

I was filled with equal parts excitement and anxiety as I landed in Denver International Airport after a year abroad, head shaved, walking past Gate A to wait for two bags camouflaged somewhere on the carousel. As I walked into Worner the next afternoon for lunch, familiar faces became names at the tip of my tongue and left my voice trapped in my throat. Once people’s initial surprise subsided with a hug or a handshake, the inevitable questions arose: Where have you been? What have you been doing? How does it feel to be back? The questions came from a place of care and curiosity, but by the fifteenth person, my responses started to feel like canned laughter on late-night reruns. I didn’t know how to communicate what it felt like to be caught in transition, opting instead for an easily digested ten-word response: Chicago-for-a-semester-followed-by-D.C.-and-Costa-Rica. 

I felt fractured.

Spread out across seven cities, fastening seatbelts as I mouthed the words to the flight attendants’s safety demonstration. Personalities pressed upon strangers like passport stamps as I transferred from Clark/Lake, Michigan to Teneleytown, D.C. Atop mountains in Monteverde, jetlagged and dislocated for the past year, I’d wake up late at night and look around, just wondering where and who I was. I stared down at clouds crawling above emerald forests and simultaneously screamed into the roaring abyss of Lake Michigan after hearing about a friend’s suicide. 

During one of these nights, I walked through the cold January campus and spotted the ghost of my first-year self ducking out of the Fishbowl. Or perhaps it was my sophomore self, stumbling home drunk from some party, hoping God is awake at 3 a.m. 

It was embarrassing to watch myself at times, but ultimately humbling to make note of what had changed. My comfort with vulnerability had grown; I balanced ambition with friendships and relationships and stopped perceiving happiness as a by-product and instead understood it as something to cultivate daily. Ultimately, I felt I had overcome what I had once heard Ernest Becker say: “The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”

My first class back at CC was a half-block called “Sustaining Oneself Through Transitions.” I hoped it would help me communicate what I was struggling to say. The class dealt with the structure of the self during college, with a particular emphasis on “what one can do to lessen the trauma and sustain one’s self through the transition out of college.” We learned that the primary reason for undergoing trauma is the dissolution of ideals and identity, coupled with the loss of our closest friends. Kicked out of paradise, we tumble to the floor alone and disheveled with only a piece of paper and loans to repay–no longer the students we identified as for the past twenty years. We can leave these broken ideals beside us, strewn about and stagnating, or we can set about constructing new ideals that can imbue us with a renewed sense of vigor. 

From the close of a block at noon on fourth Wednesday to the beginning of the next, from orange leaves setting fire to the quad and God’s dandruff extinguishing it, life is lived through transitions. The greatest of freedoms is stringing them together into a narrative reflective of who we are.