Some transitional age youth, budding adults who are trying to find their way in the world, pressured to succeed at Ivy League colleges, pressured to reflect well on their parents, are pushing back, not by failing out of school, or joining a cult, but by saying goodbye, by calling it quits. Each story is unique, and yet the common thread seems to be Winnicott’s concept of the “false self.” Living a life which does not feel genuine or authentic creates anxiety and distress, which when extreme, can feel that the only solution is to shut off the console, shut off the life force. This black and white thinking, so common in young adults who have not figured out the nuances of the world, puts them at high risk for drastic behavior. As the adage goes, “suicide is a long-term solution to a short-term problem.” The problem is that at this tender age, when these “kids” have worked so hard for a college admissions letter, their mental interiors can be shallow, with few resources to navigate internal pain and suffering.
Clay, twenty, female, comes to mind. She had an eating disorder in high school, but when she was admitted to a “respectable” college, her eating normalized. For years, she studied hard, worked on building her resume, and drilled down into the game of college admission. She never gave much thought to what her life would be like when she went to college; she only cared about getting in. When she finally went East for college, despite how proud her parents were, she felt no pleasure in the experience. She felt, by her description, that she was “around a lot of privileged kids who do not understand the world.” She said that not only did she feel empty, she felt that everyone around her did too. The world, by her account, was a meaningless game of giving her parents something to talk about at dinner parties. She resented her parents for making this step, her emergence into the adult world, so much about their narcissism, but she could not express that to them. As a result, she avoided talking to her parents, and if she did, she always said things were “fine.” Yet, things were not “fine”. She had multiple serious suicide attempts, which managed to fall below the radar because she regretted her behavior and then she only told me, months after the fact. When she confessed, she emphatically said that those thoughts are “gone now,” preventing me from being able to discuss her behavior with her parents. Clay, eventually, dropped out of college, reporting that she was now feeling more authentic. She was no longer suicidal, by her report, but she reports painful confusion over what college is supposed to be about. “If I could see how it was for me, I would have stayed, and maybe I should have stayed, but at the time, all I could think about was that I never wanted to go to college, I only wanted to get into college.” Clay’s parents feel she made a horrible mistake, causing Clay to be both resentful of them, and scared for herself. “Maybe I did,” she says, “I just don’t know,” she continues with pain which speaks to her dilemma as to whose life is she leading: hers or her parents? The question remains.