Content warning: Sexual assault
While I had never been the most social person in high school, I had several fantasies for my college self: hoping I’d miraculously overcome my social anxiety, make a solid group of friends and never have to worry about having plans for the weekend. But even with the opportunity to live on campus amid the COVID-19 pandemic, my first semester at UC Berkeley lacked excitement and included a very questionable sleep schedule.
It wasn’t until the following semester that, after rashly taking on a leadership position in a student-run organization, I found myself actually invested in both my work and my peers.
I still remember the excitement I felt when I talked to my mom about how the other person in my position was also a freshman living on campus; I remember being even more excited when said freshman initiated our first meeting in person.
Instead of the same dread and sleepless nights I had faced the previous semester, I had found a genuine community: people with whom to share the insomnia through hourslong Zoom calls and Slack reaction threads.
I had found more than a professional organization — I had a personal connection. While I still came across the occasional drama or argument, I thought I’d finally achieved the life my high school self dreamed of.
This, unfortunately, all changed after a close friend in the organization told me she’d been “using me as a crutch” and blamed my promiscuity for a nonconsensual sexual encounter I had experienced. I felt myself starting to slip from the community I had once idolized.
When I got into an argument with another friend in the organization months later, I completely fell from the group.
While I thought the fallout would be limited to our friendship, I soon found that the aggression extended beyond the bounds of our relationship.
Though I’m no stranger to oversharing, I tried to separate my personal life from the workplace by avoiding discussing the details of our relationship with our peers, naively hoping the situation wouldn’t affect our work environment.
Very quickly, however, I began noticing my former friend collaborating on projects with other staff members; and then, without having any conversation with me, some of said co-workers — who used to comment on my Instagram posts and smile at me on campus — started blocking me on social media and giving me dirty looks in the workplace.
The community I had once looked toward for comfort became one of hostility.
One of the most frustrating things was that I didn’t even know what people were saying about me; it wasn’t just that a single conflict spiraled into alienation, but it was a conflict no one cared to talk to me about.
I resented doing the work I had once enjoyed because I had to face the loss of not just a close friend — but the subsequent community that came with them.
While that’s not to say that every person at the organization immediately “turned on” or was rude to me, it was enough for me to notice.
And even though I wanted to pursue friendships with other staff members, part of me was too scared to: of both the circulating rumors and the potential failure of yet another professional friendship.
I understand that I probably sound kind of dramatic, but it was disheartening when the institution I’d dedicated so much of my time to shifted into one I felt the need to avoid.
Though I have since separated myself somewhat from the organization, it wasn’t necessarily a decision I anticipated making. I was — and still am — grateful for the personal relationships and community I gained, but I’m often reminded of the community and fantasy I lost, from the occasional social media post to a TikTok to the tune of ABBA’s “Angeleyes.”
I had found solace in the organization, but I only realized after removing myself that I, too, had been using it as a “crutch” in a way. Rather than exploring the area and people around me at a large college campus, I threw all of myself into a single community: one that I was scared to venture out of until being pushed out.
The worst realization is perhaps that I was never truly part of that community; while I had been upset with my former friend for whatever might’ve been said about me, it’s not like my peers made an effort to talk to me or consider my feelings.
I’m not going to claim I’m not still upset or frustrated. But I recognize there are certain spaces, people and communities that I can acknowledge my appreciation for while still prioritizing myself and keeping my distance. I may not yet feel comfortable returning to that same space, but it’s, at least, given me the motivation to explore other careers and relationships from which I had previously shied away.
The illusion of a community that cared for me was shattered, but that doesn’t negate the experiences and opportunities I gained while there. I definitely wasn’t — and am not — perfect, but I’m grateful to have learned that it’s OK to let go of spaces that cause me pain.