In mid-May I saw the Facebook posts about a black, female Columbia student (Nayla Kidd) who was missing. I said a prayer for her safety and hoped that she was okay. When I saw posts a few weeks later that she had been found alive and well, I was surprised and relieved because sadly that’s not how stories of missing black women usually turn out. On May 29th Nayla shared her story and decision-making in a New York Post article. While I saw a handful of Facebook posts affirming Nayla’s courage for walking away from an Ivy League school to pursue a career in music, I had a different reaction. As a therapists at a university counseling center I spend a lot of time helping young adults as they wrestle with questions about what is important to them beyond grades and academic success. I know that Nayla was not alone in her desire to escape because I have supported students who are questioning their place in a predominantly white university. I do not believe disappearing is a constructive way to get on a meaningful path. In addition to causing distress to people who cared about her and unnecessarily using resources (police department, search teams etc.) Nayla’s disappearance may have enabled her to avoid some difficult conversations that likely would have supported her personal growth.
I think many of us have had the desire to escape at one time or another; whether we wanted escape from being in school, a job, a relationship, or financial situations. The thought that we could just walk away may have crossed our minds. While just disappearing may seem like an easy solution, it is not the best (with the exception of getting out of an abusive situation). What follows are my suggestions for what to do if you are looking for a way out.
Seek the Advice of Someone You Trust
Many of us walk around carrying the weight of shame about things we struggle with. We worry that no one else has experienced something similar and if they knew about our mental illness, that our partner cheated on us, or that we are failing at something, they would judge and reject us. The shame and self-judgment makes whatever we are experiencing worse. In her New York Post article Nayla wrote that she was scared to talk to people about what she was going through; her response was to avoid the people who loved her and strike out on her own. It is impressive that she was able to devise a plan to earn money and move out on her own. However, if Nayla told someone she trusted what she was going through she probably would have received empathy, support, and relief. She may have still decided to leave school but it would have been in much less dramatic fashion, without causing distress to her loved ones.
If you are considering a life altering decision, I encourage you to take the step to talk to someone that you trust about what you are going through. They will probably be much more understanding and supportive than you think and you will no longer carry the burden of shame with you. The person you talk to may have helpful suggestions and advice to share with you and being free from shame will help you to think through your decision clearly. If you don’t have anyone you think you can talk to, consider going to therapy. Therapists provide a safe, nonjudgmental space, to process your experiences and concerns and figure out what is right for you.
Have the Hard Conversations
Deciding to take a significantly different path than the one you planned often involves having difficult conversations with the people who have supported you along the way. It can be emotionally challenging to be authentic with the people who you don’t want to disappoint. These conversations require us to be vulnerable and they push us to be bold and assert our true needs and wants. These conversations help us to mature and grow in ways that we might not otherwise. Whether you are thinking about leaving school, changing jobs, or leaving your partner, I encourage you to be courageous and have the hard conversations in which you are honest about your feelings and experiences and give the other people involved the space to process your decision with you.
It can feel very tempting to give everyone the finger and tear things down in an attempt to escape and yet doing this only makes things worse for ourselves and for everyone else involved. Exiting gracefully involves leaving with your dignity in tact. This means letting an employer know that you will no longer be working there and not just failing to show up to the job. It can mean finishing out the rest of a semester or taking a leave of absence. The idea of exiting gracefully reminds me of the oft-quoted statement by Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” When you don’t exit gracefully you leave a bad taste in people’s mouths that may negatively impact your reputation and unfortunately, may reflect poorly on people who look like you.
I hope the path Nayla is currently on is a good fit for her and that she is receiving the support she needs and reconnecting to friends and family. I also hope that these suggestions help those who feel like they need a way out and are not sure how to go about changing course.