College Student at a Crossroad

By Kristina Randle, Ph.D., LCSW

I’m in the process of completing my freshman year of college, nothing about what i’m doing here or how i’m acting appeals to me. Over the past 5 years I’ve been through a lot; I came out of the closet, got ostracized from my community for being a lesbian, my father died. I was one of the top field hockey players in the country, became bulimic, abused alcohol, sleeping pills and pain killers. I quit playing hockey (one of the great passions of my life), then i shifted to anorexia and cutting, while still popping pills like candy. I lost a third of my body weight and would pass out when i stood up. During the worst part i over dosed twice, once was an accident and once i was trying to kill myself. I succeeded, for 11 seconds. Truth be told, it was the best 11 seconds of those 3 1/2 years.

It’s been a year and a half since then. I’ve put in a lot of time, effort, love and work. I’m back to my original weight, i have a healthy relationship with food and myself. I’ve even found Buddhism. All while making it back out into the world and going to college. I attend NA meetings once a week, there are a lot of temptations and i’ve tried using some drugs again but I don’t even like what they do to me anymore. So staying sober hasn’t really been too big of a problem.

From time to time, i get depressed. But that’s nothing i can’t handle. I do have this feeling though, like this isn’t what im suppose to be doing with my life. I know that no one can tell me if that feeling is right or wrong, but every day it seems to get a little bit stronger. Sometimes its all i can think about. When i look at my life from the outside and see all the things i have (tall, athletic, attractive, smart, a family who loves me, people i am truly friends with, a great girl friend) i think “this is all anyone could ever want.” Yet something about it seems empty, like i’m just going through the motions. Some of the other addicts in my group say that they’ve felt that way too, especially for the first few years while sober. But i don’t believe addiction is where this feeling is coming from.

I think it has something to do with everything i felt when i died. My eyes tunneled into this warm white light and it enveloped me. It was the most loving/beautiful thing i’ve ever felt. Everything was perfect, even when i woke up i was euphoric for hours. I don’t talk about it that much, mostly because it leads people to believe i have a morbid fascination. I don’t. And i never thought about it until one day a few weeks ago, i was painting and it just sorta hit me. I started to cry, but it was like i was watching myself cry. Ever since then, that feeling of my life going down the wrong path has exponentially gotten stronger. I just don’t know how to deal with that gnawing feeling anymore.

My mom wants me to stay in college, understandably. Longterm, I don’t know what i want. But right now i just want to make art, and to fully feel whatever this is. I’m not lost, just i guess a little unsure about all this because it hit me so hard and i don’t know what to do.

A. It is interesting that you noticed this feeling when you were painting. Painting is considered to be a right brain activity. Right brain activities are ostensibly associated with creativity and emotions. Many people, when engaging in their art, are actually in an altered state of consciousness (ASC) which is similar to a state of mediation. In a similar vein Maslow talks about peak experiences, which are similar but not identical to what you have described:

“…sudden feelings of intense happiness and well-being, possibly the awareness of an “ultimate truth” and the unity of all things … the experience fills the individual with wonder and awe….he feels at one with the world, and is pleased with it …”

“…feelings of limitless horizons opening up to the vision, feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless that one ever was before, the feeling of great ecstasy and wander and awe, the loss of placing in time and space with, finally, the conviction that something extremely important and valuable had happened…”

Joseph Campbell, the famous mythology writer, describes having his own peak experience:

When I was running at Columbia, I ran a couple of races that were just beautiful. During the second race, I knew I was going to win even though there was no reason for me to know this, because I was touched off as anchor in the relay with the leading runner thirty yards ahead of me. But I just knew, and it was my peak experience. Nobody could beat me that day. That’s being in full form and really knowing it. I don’t think I have ever done anything in my life as competently as I ran those two races — it was the experience of really being at my full and doing a perfect job.

Others have reported having what was similar to a peak experience. Astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon, reported this experience upon completing the Apollo 14 mission:

On the way home from the moon, looking out at the heavens, this insight – which I now call a transcendent experience – happened. I realized that the molecules of my body had been created or prototyped in an ancient generation of stars – along with the molecules of the spacecraft and my partners and everything else we could see including the Earth out in front of us. Suddenly, it was all very personal…It was an experience of interconnectedness. It was an experience of bliss, of ecstasy…it was so profound. I realized that the story of ourselves as told by science – our cosmology, our religion – was incomplete and likely flawed. I recognized that the Newtonian idea of separate, independent, discrete things in the universe wasn’t a fully accurate description.

Edgar Mitchell went on to found the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) which was born out of his profound transcendent (peak) experience.

You may have had a ‘peak experience’ while painting but there may be other explanations. You “died” on one occasion for 11 seconds and seemed to have had a near-death experience (NDE). According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, 15 million Americans report having had an NDE. Those who have an NDE report it as being one of the most positive and inspirational experiences of their lives. For many, the experience of an NDE is profoundly life-changing. If you would like to read more about this phenomenon I would recommend Dr. Raymond Moody’s classic book about NDEs called Life After Life. There are websites that may be helpful as well and are easy to locate with the quick Google search using the terms “near death experience.”

As for what you should do with your life, that is a question only you can answer. The experiences you have while painting are interesting. You should continue painting and attempting to understand those experiences. As a practical matter, you likely need a degree to find a job. Attending college does not mean that you have to stop pursuing painting. You can easily do both.

I am sorry for being unable to give you a definitive answer to explain your experiences but they are interesting and noteworthy. I would encourage you to document your experiences. You can find information that may be pertinent on my web site, click on the link that says “information suicide.” I would also recommend reading more about NDEs, peak experiences and the unconscious mind. Becoming educated about these phenomena may provide deeper insight into your experiences.

I wish you well. Please take care.

Dr.Kristina Randle

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 7 Nov 2010

APA Reference
Randle, K. (2010). College Student at a Crossroad. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 20, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2010/11/07/college-student-at-a-crossroad/