Sandra Cohen
Intelligent, funny, a bit weird

The Truth about Brown and Me

Rabbi Cohen in her study

Stuff from Brown University Alumni keeps appearing in my email box.

I don’t like to use the passive voice, but in this context, it seems correct.  I have done nothing to encourage Brown to view me as an alum . . . because I am not.  Why they might think so is real story, the one I am going to tell you now, the one of which I am still ashamed, more than 37 years later.

I was a great student in high school:  National Honor Society, Debate champion, valedictorian.  I had a small, but good social circle.  I looked like any intelligent kid might appear.

This, of course, is why Brown accepted me when I applied – early admission and everything!  I considered other schools as well:  Williams College, who accepted me and Yale University, who did not.  But Brown it was!!

At my high school graduation party, at my house, my parent gave me a warm, cozy, red sweatshirt, with letters in white:  Brown.  My sister Lynn wondered why, if I was smart enough to get into Brown, why I could not get my colors right.

In any case, in late August, off I went to Brown.  I did well in my classes those first few weeks, and I made some friends – and even a boyfriend.  Again, all looked well.

Underneath, however, the ice was cracking beneath me.  The regular therapy I had been doing in high school was not enough to sustain me in this first attempt at leaving home.  It wasn’t that the work was too hard, or that I was too lonely.  Rather, I was acutely suicidal, and kept telling that to my therapist over the phone.  At about six or eight weeks, we (my therapist and I) decided this was no longer tenable.  She called my parents, and they came.  We packed up, went back to Minneapolis and I was hospitalized.

The year that followed was hard.  I went to work at my dad’s law firm as a paralegal aide (the position I had held during the summer), and I had lots of therapy.  My depression and difficulty adjusting sparks some latent fires at home, and my parents went into couples counseling.

And we said nothing.  I certainly couldn’t reach out to friends in town;  how could I explain what was happening??!  The model at the time was if you were hurting, get therapy.  But don’t talk about it.  And if you are really struggling, so much more the shame.

One of my closest friends in high school, Stephanie, visited me in Denver about 18 months ago.  She was in town with her husband, and while he was doing his stuff, Steph and I spent a few hours together, eating and then walking around the Botanic Gardens.  She had clearly browsed my website, with all my writings about my mental health issues.  At one point, she looked at me and said, “I am sorry I didn’t know.  I wish I could have been there for you.”

I wish I had known I could tell her.

Because she was a good friend; she cared about me!   We spent hours together in high school, studying, playing cards, talking about books we loved, and making chocolate chip cookies.  And yet, I was afraid to tell her that I was in pain.  That I was seriously considering killing myself.  I was so frightened of letting anyone know, lest I disappoint and come up short.

But life  moves on.  I applied to, and then attended, Macalester College in St. Paul – away from my parents, but still close to the therapist I saw once, twice, three times a week.  Because I felt like I failed at Brown, Macalester, for years and years, felt like a back-up college, a last choice, the place I landed because of my depression, instead of seeing Mac as being the highly-selective, small liberal arts college.

And it was good.  My first semester, I met Clare, the woman who would become my best friend (to this day!), and I took an “Introduction to Hebrew Bible” class that changed me:  I entered Macalester determined to be a lawyer.  By the end of my first year, I wanted to become a religious studies professor.  And, after time spent learning and also spent getting involved in the synagogue where I grew up, I finally decided to become a rabbi.   It was bashert; it was meant to be.

I am close to at least 2 women who are Brown alums.  One, I met as a rabbinic coach, a woman I speak with from time to time about my professional life.  She is amazing.  The other is a woman I know from my graduate fellowship.  She was in the fellowship class ahead of me, where I would have been (in theory only!) if I had not “lost” a year by leaving Brown.  It is as though I was destined to know her, Rabbi Sue Fendrick.

I am taking control of my Brown story.  Instead of mumbling about time off, I now refer to the year between my high school graduation and being a freshman at Macalester as my “gap year.”  This is something people do, I tell myself.  There was, there is no shame in needing help or being unready to leave home.  The way my sister did it, the way my parents expected my life to unfold. . . it turns out that her way was not the only way.

Forgiving myself is always the hardest part.  Inside, I feel I failed.  But, if I step back, or I step up on the balcony to see the pattern my life has taken, it is hard to realistically to believe I botched my life.  Instead, I want to proclaim the wonders of my college years, the things I learned and the faith I discovered.  All of these helped to get me to where I am now, with a life full of blessings.

And so, when something from Brown Alumni arrives in my email, I am learning to just ignore it.  It is not taunting me, telling me I let everyone down because I did not finish at Brown.  Rather, it is just an email, generated by people and technology who, ultimately, are just hoping I will donate some money.   And I won’t – because I am not a Brown Alum.

And there is no shame in that.

About the Author
Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado.
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