Dan Hoffman, College Graduate


The post-graduation experience is filled with intense malaise and anxiety. I’m somewhat of an extreme case, admittedly, having had a nervous breakdown, but I’m sure that my sentiments are shared by many recent grads. I decided to stay in my school’s town over the summer and work at the library there. I thought it would be an enjoyable last romp, or something like that, before I moved on to new things. Instead, I ended up suicidal and panic stricken in the emergency room of the local hospital.

I guess it started when my ex-girlfriend pointed out to me that I’d seemed depressed and less interested in her. I remember waking up and finding that she wasn’t in bed. She was out in the porch room, smoking a cigarette. I lit one for myself. We smoked and had a serious conversation. Ezra, one of her roommates, came by, but seemed to realize it was a trying moment, and soon left. Somehow I convinced her and myself that whatever was happening would soon pass. That weekend we went to my hometown for the fourth of July. I felt sick to my stomach a lot of the time, and couldn’t sleep past early in the morning. I was starting to fall apart. On the bus ride back, we broke up for the first time. I don’t think either of us understood why. A week of utter despair followed, and then we got back together.

It didn’t work. I started having panic attacks and I couldn’t eat. We kept trying and trying, but I wasn’t the same person anymore. My insomnia worsened. My cognitive faculties declined. It started to feel like I was walking around in a haze, only able to think of one thing. After about a month of this quasi-relationship status, I crumbled. I was working at the library and it occurred to me that I couldn’t finish the day at work, go home, and sleep in my bed again. The thought of suicide popped into my head, and I decided that drastic measures were called for. I went to the ER.

What does one do with oneself?

The result of all this was that I canceled my plans to go to France the following academic year, came back to my hometown of Bethlehem, PA, where I was hospitalized in a day program for two weeks, and severed all ties with my confused and frustrated ex-girlfriend, who lives on in my head as a source of a rather acute feeling of loss and despair.

Now that this series of events are to the extent that it’s possible over with, I’m settling into the true post-graduation misery, a state filled with anxiety, panic, boredom, and other awful sentiments. Without the constant stream of academic work (or any employment, at this point), the company of my ex-girlfriend or friends for that matter, there is an immense hole in my life. The mornings are the worst, because there’s a whole day ahead of me. Eventually, I get out of bed, feeling more tired than the night before. Panic, or existential nausea, as a friend of mine calls it, over the wide open day is inevitable, and I medicate myself accordingly with Ativan, a common anti-anxiety drug.

What does one do with oneself? Sometimes, I have job interviews, usually for jobs that I don’t really want. Yesterday I went to a place called Starter’s Pub. It’s filled with plasma TVs projecting sports. I don’t know anything about sports. I wear nerdy hipster glasses and skinny jeans. I guess I’m a little strong looking, so maybe that helps. The manager, Jay, approaches me and I shake his hand. He’s portly. He’s probably not used to meeting people like me, not that I’m anything special. For the interview he reads a series of questions off of a sheet of paper. I don’t get the impression that he’s very sophisticated or subtle about interviewing. I ask him if he prefers people with college degrees. He jokes, saying no, he prefers high school drop-outs. I understand why he responds this way to my question, but if I were him I would be wary of education. My education makes me feel like this job is beneath me – or, if not that, merely a stepping stone to get the hell out of Bethlehem, PA. More than that, my liberal arts education makes me slightly critical of and bemused by the kind of bro culture that Starters Pub attracts. But I don’t think he’s given it that much thought. Nonetheless, I don’t leave feeling assured that I’ll be working there. Perhaps when he asked me to find one word to describe myself, I should not have said “cerebral.” Yet I wonder if he even knows what that means.

Actually, I am employed. I work at this coffee shop and deli called Déjà Brew once or twice a week. Bad pop art and posters for unknown indie movies cover the walls. There are two couches, in an attempt to create an Friends-like atmosphere, I guess. The sandwiches have pseudo clever names like “Royale with Cheese” and “The Big Kahuna Burger.” On the surface, since I’m an arty guy or whatever, I should like working at this place. In truth, I think I’d rather work at Starters and learn about bro culture. The people who come into Déjà Brew are boorish Lehigh University students fooled into thinking they’re interesting because they’re hanging at a place with crummy looking chairs and sandwiches that reference Pulp Fiction. I treat my co-workers and the patrons with a polite yet restrained deference, as I try to tell myself positive things to keep from losing it.

The streets of my residential neighborhood in Bethlehem are usually empty. When I was at the hospital, we talked about coping skills. If you feel anxious, go for a walk. Take in the scenery. When I take walks, I’m assaulted by painful memories. The emptiness encircles me and evokes an urgent feeling of despondency. Sometimes I stand on my porch and smoke cigarettes.  It helps if I can call someone while I smoke. I’m starting to wonder what I enjoy more, the smoking or the talking.

So the days go by, slowly, painfully. This is the immediate post-graduation situation. A whole lot of emptiness. I have my hobbies and my pastimes. I like watching movies, reading. But the sentiment that these things are only passing the time – and not very well, much of the time – creates a feeling of dread inside me. I’m supposed to be an intellectual. I write film criticism, after all. I’m supposed to enjoy watching contemporary Asian cinema, for example. Movies are my thing. But there is no longer anything that validates this part of me. There’s no one to talk to. I don’t belong anywhere, except certainly at the therapist’s office twice a week.

When I was in school, I wondered, often, what’s the point of it? Who cares about film theory, for example? Well, it’s a diversion, I guess. It can be stimulating. Maybe it’s a means to an end – the end being to graduate, to move on to a new phase in my life. I can’t count the times I’ve had conversations with my college friends about how irritating Derrida is, or Foucault, or any theory with a capital “T.”  Now that’s all moot. I used to question the point of Lacanian film theory. Now I question the point of getting out of bed.

I got my haircut the other day. The same guy cuts my hair every time, Kevin. We have a rapport. He’s been depressed, suffered. He tells me that as long as he’s not suicidal, then it’s worth it. 

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