It never once dawned on me that this was the beginning of a nightmare.
Before heading off to college, Greek life was the last thing on my mind. I had Pulitzer aspirations. And as a direct admit to one of the best journalism schools in the country, social and fraternal organizations were outside of my tunnel vision.
But as a freshman, National Pan-Hellenic Council organizations (NPHC), or Black Greek-letter organizations, mesmerized me. And over time I learned that being an accomplished Black kid from St. Louis at a predominantly White institution made me a prime candidate for every Black organization on campus, Greek or otherwise.
Teeth-rattling, high-energy step shows combined with the roar of the crowds at probates as colorfully decorated masks fell to the ground left me in a constant state of bewilderment. My chest full, bursting with anticipation and inspiration after every event. Slowly, I found myself watching the Black sororities; observing them in lecture halls and watching their behavior as they waited in long lines at food halls, trying to see which group best fit me.
In the spring of 2010, I accepted an invitation to attend a group informational for a particular, well-known sorority. The only other active Black sorority had an unapproachable demeanor on campus that left a bad taste in my mouth. So, to me, this particular organization was the only option.
The informational was pretty straightforward. With a breakdown of the organization’s key founding principles and a quick Q&A session with the seven members, I started my journey with these ladies. And I was thrilled.
To this day, I still don’t understand how an act so pure could be transformed into such a poisonous thing.
The next five months of my life were spent allowing these women, who would be my so-called “sisters,” into my inner psyche.
We all started spending countless moments with one another. Along with my two closest friends, we found ourselves enthralled with these young women, our prophytes. We invited them for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and they consistently obliged. We attended every study hall, showing our due diligence and dedication to scholarship. We spent our time doing charity work. We even set up our own outings; late-night study sessions on campus where homework was interrupted by shrill laughter as we developed intimate jokes and phrases.
We were building the skeleton of a sisterhood. But skeletons tend to live in closets.
Less than three weeks into my sophomore year, as I was blindfolded and placed in the backseat of a dark car on the outskirts of campus, I knew I’d made a mistake.
The first night of set, we were blindfolded and taken to a park. There were eight of us and it was the middle of the night. We’d all been on edge weeks prior, patiently awaiting the day we’d begin the process.
The prophytes led us over a wooden bridge. It creaked under my feet as crickets and cicadas screeched loudly through the darkness. I could hear a few quiet laughs and snickers around me. But they were short-lived.
I felt the hand leading me let go and, although I was still blindfolded, I could tell we were standing in an open field. There was too much space, too much air.
Suddenly, we were engaged in a full-fledged game of tackle football. Them versus us. But we couldn’t see. All around me was screaming and swift moving feet. Wisps of heavy breathing had rushed past my ears before a rock-hard body came crashing into my chest, knocking all the wind out of me. I collapsed.
I tried to get up. But another body ran over me, knocking me back to the ground.
After a few minutes, their sick game ended. They instructed us to line up and somehow, and I was forced to the front of the line. Seconds later, the prophytes pushed me to the back instead, putting the smallest girl in the ace position.
I felt relieved.
We were placed in the cars and returned to the house we’d initially met at. There they led us into a garage and removed the blindfolds. And set began.
I remember us having to “defend our line,” locking our elbows together in such a fashion that nothing could break through us. And our big sisters did everything to break the line. They rammed their bodies into ours and threw nasty concoctions filled with hot sauce, spoiled milk and nacho cheese in our faces. I was humiliated.
They told us we couldn’t call them by name, only “Big Sister.” And we couldn’t look them in the eyes anymore. Instead, we were instructed to gaze at a letter of the Greek alphabet stationed in the corner of the room. I focused so hard on that corner until my eyes hurt, babbling pieces of information I’d spent the day memorizing and being punished for saying it wrong, or not clear enough, or not fast enough.
And night after night it got worse.
Every evening, before sunset, I started having anxiety attacks. I knew what came at nighttime. My heart would speed up uncontrollably as I sat in study hall right across from the girls who, in a few hours, would be doing everything they could to break me down. My breathing would become unsteady each time I saw a member of the sorority on campus. My eyes were darting across the library corridors and dining halls wondering which Greek was watching me, monitoring my behaviors and reporting back to my big sisters. All my time and focus was consumed with fear, not sure of what would happen when the sun went down.
As the nights continued, the anxiety grew. I was overwhelmed with fear and paranoia. Day and night I wrestled with myself. How did I get into this situation? Quitting or “dropping line” isn’t an option, right? I was at a complete loss. But I wasn’t a quitter.
The inner battle between dropping line and fighting for my sanity raged within me. I was losing my mind. How would people look at me if I dropped line? The Black population on campus wasn’t that big and my inability to wear colors on campus and consistently fatigued demeanor was a dead giveaway that I was on line. People knew. I would become a social pariah if I dropped line, sacrificing the minor significance I’d established on campus. Some of the girls on my line were my closest friends, how would this impact them? Would our friendship endure without the sorority?
Time would answer all questions.
The night before I dropped line I was very apprehensive about even showing up. I knew the other girls were depending on me, that we were supposed to be a team, a family. But the panic attacks worsened. I spent each day trying to figure out how I would survive the night. Somehow I stomached the terror and went on, hopping in the car once again and closing my eyes as my heart beat out of my chest on the ride to set.
The prophytes lined us up in the living room and told us to begin spitting history. And as we started chanting, they proceeded to break our line.
I struggled against them as much as I could, still babbling history and trying to stand on my own two feet, but I broke. And the line collapsed.
The ADP, assistant dean of pledges, told us to “lock up” and we hastily clenched our fists together, locking our elbows to one another in a straight line. She walked over to me and slapped my fists down with a wooden paddle and my arms fell, breaking the line again.
Barking at me to put my fists back together, she proceeded to do it again. And again. And again. Slapping the top of my hands with more force with each blow. My fingers started to cramp up, and my hands began to shake. I could see welts and bruises forming around my knuckles. I started getting lightheaded and stepped back into a wall, breaking the line.
As I looked down at my swollen hands, all I could hear was someone telling me to get back in line. All eyes were on me as I struggled back and forth in that split second, unsure of what to do. My hands felt like they’d been run over by a semi. I could hear my heartbeat throbbing in my temple.
I walked away from the sorority that night, but that didn’t stop the nightmare.
After dropping line, life changed drastically. The relationships I’d established with every girl involved, fell apart even those preexisting before I even knew what about the organization. Our friendships weren’t real; they were plagiarized fictions, loosely based around a reality that I wasn’t meant to exist in. As Chinua Achebe put it, “Things fall apart. The center could not hold.”
My social life became obsolete. I could feel the stares of other Black students on campus who knew I had been on line. Despite knowing the chaos and terror I’d endured that led me to quit, I still felt ashamed. Everything that gave me a sense of place was gone. One day I was surrounded by people who I thought loved me like sisters. I gave that up and instead there was just silence and loneliness.
I felt like a walking pariah.
I didn’t understand what was wrong with me. It was as if my mind was always racing at 100 miles per hour, but my body could barely move at all. I couldn’t shake the thoughts of terror. And the nightmares always caught up with me. Every night I’d continually end up back in that field on that that lukewarm night playing blindfolded football, trying to find my line.
The paranoia and anxiety caused me to isolate myself and I sank into a deep depression. It wasn’t long before I stopped leaving my apartment altogether. I always felt like someone was watching me. I lost myself. Slowly, I stopped attending my classes. I would spend days in bed, not eating or drinking. Just sleeping. Trying to sleep away the pain of everything I believed I had lost.
Anxiety and depression is a chemical imbalance that before pledging I never knew. And it has taken five years to heal from something that was supposed to be so sweet. There is no fear like fearing someone who’s worked to gain your trust and misused it. With years of psychiatric help and therapy, I have been able to overcome the effects of anxiety, depression and the effects of PTSD from pledging.
Looking back, I never would’ve associated PTSD with pledging a BLGO, but with so many failed attempts at controlling the underground hazing process and so many eager college students seeking new experiences and their desire to belong, it all makes sense. Many kids have died trying to pledge, and I wonder how many more mental casualties there have been, caused by those who perform ritualistic hazing processes. How many emotional scars have been left on the hearts of those who chose to walk away? I’ve never been to war, but I bear the scars of someone who survived the terror of an organization that wasn’t so much about sisterhood after all.