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Lilly & Me: Loneliness and Community

My Wednesdays are pretty hectic, so I decided to celebrate Valentine's Day on Saturday night.

With my roommates all in St. Louis for a Mardi Gras weekend, I had the place to myself. I whipped up my first actual meal in months -- cooking some red quinoa with sauteed mushrooms and scallions (the key, I've found, is using so much butter that the vegetables start to taste like cake) and carving out thin slices of jicama. I threw a John Denver record on my turntable for ambiance, dimmed the lights and set the table with our nicest paper plates.

Of course, as you've probably guessed, I wasn't expecting guests. The place across from me wasn't set with another serving of quinoa, but with a six-inch, roasted marrow bone, the biggest and most lip-smacking treat I had bought for Lilly yet.

For those who missed my first column, Lilly is my new dog, an adorable and energetic shepherd-hound mix I adopted over break and made the difficult decision to bring with me to school for my final semester. After three weeks in Oxford, she's slowly growing more comfortable in her latest home among all of her new friends. In fact, by Saturday, without the normal stimulation from her often-raucous roommates, she was content to sit calmly and enjoy a meal with me, all dressed up in her heart-festooned red bandana after our hike along Oxford's trails (during which she met none other than the first dog herself, Ivy).

I'm not throwing around all of these lavish descriptions to impress you. After all, it's not like I had a romantic date joining me. Rather, I think this rare evening of finery provides a nice point of contrast between where I might have been a year earlier.

Back during the darker period of my time at Miami, I would have spent the rare night alone with a Netflix binge of shows I'd already seen, an entire Papa John's pizza and a fresh bottle of Smirnoff.

For the amount I abused alcohol, I always preferred the experience of drinking alone to the scene Uptown. On my own, I wouldn't have to worry about embarrassing myself, about what my peers might witness when my lights turned off and the real monster came out. I could knock back countless vodka tonics and slide slowly into a state of serenity without bearing the judging glances of others, (And yes, I was blinded by all the red flags flapping in my face; I just wasn't ready to confront them).

College can be an incredibly lonely experience. Many of you have found your niche. You've joined clubs for activities you're passionate about, met lifelong friends, maybe even your soulmate -- but not everyone is that lucky, and even those who are can't always escape the clutch of existential loneliness. A lot of people are thrown into this new world, a world where they know nobody, where there's an endless variety of communities to observe but only to join if you can work up the courage to get out of your comfort zone, something not everyone is always equipped to do.

A lot of people are thrust into that and simply succumb to the darkness enveloping them as they lay alone in their dorm at night. Loneliness can be a cruel and addictive tempter, inviting you in with a promise of comfort that never comes.

Lilly came into my life at a point when I was learning to overcome this loneliness, and she's accelerated the process immensely. She didn't initiate my recovery -- to that I owe months of tough self-reflection, an impenetrable support system of close friends and family and the ultimate, terrifying decision to seek help -- but, in just my first two weeks of the semester, I've already noticed the benefits: the long and anxiety-ridden nights when I can let her out of her cage to nuzzle up with me on the bed, the daily walks and trips to the dog park that get me out of the house when I might have previously elected to stay in, the bursts of inexpressible joy when I see her bounding down the trails toward me with that huge grin spread across her face. She's made college life not just bearable, but enjoyable.

If we define community as a fellowship among multiple individuals, then Lilly and I are a community. Additionally, her being in my life has opened me up to a whole new set of communities I didn't even know existed. The regulars at the dog park, for instance. Or the past acquaintances who have gotten back in touch to offer their walking or sitting services, free of charge (even if I know that's more out of love for Lilly than it is for me). Or even the readers of this new column, who have already reached out with kind notes and reminders of upcoming community events, such as the Lyme Disease Awareness presentation on February 27 at the Lane Library.

Lilly has made me feel welcome where I never did before. But, her companionship extends beyond that.

What's most important to me, are those little moments of private connection. When she perks up at my pet names for her, like Silly Lilly and Little Miss Crazy. When she stops running down the trail at the trill of my whistling, leaving whatever phantom (or real) squirrel she was chasing to return to my arms for a hug -- and maybe a treat, if she's lucky. Or when she looks up at me as I'm making a pot of coffee in the morning, her ears flopped down, her mouth just slightly agape and her eyes wide and twinkling -- as if to say something that's always been true but that I never fully understood until I laid eyes on her: that I am loved and I am meaningful, not to everyone, but to those who matter.