By Shuvi Jha
Each quarter, Brianna Booth, director of positive sexuality, teaches a class where students talk about sex, sexuality, intimacy and relationships by telling their own stories. Stories reveal the reality of a hidden culture in which students care, a lot. Students contend with unexpressed feelings, silenced desires, big love, big pain and searing heartache. This series is dedicated to sharing that reality — together, we’ll build a more intimate world. Read the introduction to the series here.
Before I came to college, I thought I had the perfect life. I was spending more and more time with my brother and my parents, and actually enjoying it. I was sleeping at least eight hours a night, and I’d finally learned how to cook pasta. Life was good; my health, family, and my future — all seemed intact.
I didn’t have a specific reason to take StoryCraft: Sexuality, Intimacy & Relationships. Initially, I thought the class was geared toward students who were struggling with parts of their sexuality or relationships — but as far as I knew, I was secure in my sexuality, intimacy and relationships. To be honest, the only reason I signed up for the class was because my best friend was taking it, and she said it’d be cool if I took it, too.
So I did, thinking that at most I would probably learn how to better engage in my relationships and express my thoughts more fully — skills I believe every person can work on. And I did learn those things. But it was the things I didn’t expect to learn — unearthing all the painful memories, old wounds, and lingering insecurities I had shoved in my metaphorical basement — that rocked my world.
Our very first assignment prompted us to think about our relationship with our bodies. We were asked to name a memory associated with three different body parts. I remember thinking, How can body parts be associated with memories? They’re just body parts, a rough collection of cells, tissues and organs. But it was our first assignment, and I really did want to make the most out of the class, so I decided to dive in, head first. I looked at myself in the mirror, and memories of high school came flooding back: the looks I got when I wore a revealing dress to junior prom, the words used to describe my long nose and acne, the messages someone showed me in an all-boys group chat discussing and rating my physical appearance. My stomach sank. Somehow, somewhere along the way, I had repressed those memories. I was realizing now that I was still insecure about the shape of my body, the acne on my skin, my hip dips. Time hadn’t taken my insecurities away; it had just allowed me to hide them better.
Our second assignment asked us to meet with a classmate and ask each other a set of 36 questions — an activity inspired by psychologist Arthur Aron’s study on whether intimacy between two strangers can be accelerated through smartly crafted questions intended to bolster intimacy, vulnerability and connection. Around the time of this activity, I was struggling to make my dorm feel like home. In my experience, pandemic-Stanford wasn’t looking at all like Cal U from “Grownish.” I was having trouble balancing my relationships with my academics and extracurricular activities. I felt as if I wasn’t being a good friend or a good student. Every Friday night, I would debate whether I should go downstairs to spend the evening with my dormmates or start my MATH 51 problem set early.
When I sat down for the 36 questions with my partner from class, a junior, I finally had the chance to talk about what I was experiencing in my frosh year. I told him about a Saturday night when I was sick and went downstairs to the common space to pick up my Boba order, only to find that the entire dorm was gathered there for a dorm-wide event. In that moment, I realized that even if I had been healthy, it was highly unlikely that I would have been in the lounge anyway; instead, I would’ve probably been writing, working on a problem set or FaceTiming my then-boyfriend. Admitting to my conversation partner — and to myself — that my loneliness stemmed primarily from my unwillingness to figure out my priorities was hard. It was a wake-up call.
Our third and fourth assignments asked us to come up with a list of topics that we’d be interested in talking about for our final performance — a five-minute story from our life. As I sat down on my bed ready to begin the assignments, a thousand thoughts raced through my head. In just four weeks, I had uncovered parts of my life that I didn’t even know existed. My life was not perfect — far from it — and truth be told, I had so many things I could talk about. I could talk about how I didn’t feel close to my parents anymore. I could talk about how many of my high school friendships felt transactional and sometimes one-sided, or how lost and alone I felt after my little cousin passed away, or how I depended on my loved ones for every little task and had no sense of my autonomy or agency. With every topic I jotted down, my heart grew heavier. There was so much I needed to look at. As I opened Pandora’s box, I saw my insatiable need to be perfect, stemming from my family calling me a role model since I was five and the constant need to appear calm and composed. I saw my fear of failure and my fear that I would let people down. All of these things were deep-seated and intimate, the result of years of denial, trauma and sadness. It was all so overwhelming to even begin to address these parts of my life; they were tangled up in so much history.
For the rest of that quarter, I delayed doing my assignments as much as possible. Although I had ample time to finish them, the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth reflections were all done at the last minute. Delaying those assignments was my way of living longer in the comfort of ignorance. The more I reflected, the more I realized that I needed to get help. In a society that stigmatizes mental illness and ridicules therapy, professional help was the last thing I wanted.
College was supposed to be the time of my life. I knew that a part of college meant learning more about myself than I had in high school, but I always took that to mean which fashion style suited me best or which careers I wanted to pursue. I never thought it meant confronting the parts of myself that I didn’t even know I had tucked away underneath the grind and hustle of schoolwork.
Our very last assignment asked us to think about what we’d learned over the course of the quarter. To be perfectly frank, I don’t know how much I changed in those 10 weeks. Although I did end up getting a therapist and talking to my parents about my mental health, I still don’t have a good relationship with my body. Sometimes I skip meals because I’m mentally and emotionally exhausted. My social battery runs out quickly, which makes it tricky to balance both school and friends. But maybe “getting better” was not the point of that last reflection or the class. Maybe the point was to acknowledge our experiences, to honor that there are parts of my body that I have good associations with, and parts that I have bad associations with, and parts that I have both good and bad associations with. Maybe the goal was to help us realize that we all have stories worth telling, we each deserve to live a beautiful life, and that we matter. Because if that’s the case, then, mission accomplished.