“I’m Not Going Back”: Tillie Quattrone’s Freshman Year

June 9th, 2017 was a humid day, threatening rain, and U-32’s graduation was moved indoors to the gym. The crowd chatted with their arms over the backs of chairs, fanning their programs, applauding as the graduates filed through the double doors in their blue gowns.  

From her seat in the back row, Tillie Quattrone could not clearly see the graduates. She could not make out the speakers’ words, blurring in the cavernous room.  

She hunched forward on her folding chair, feeling shrunken, exhausted. In the past few months she had lost forty pounds.   

She thought back to her own graduation, a year earlier, when the sun broke through and lit the crowd on the grassy hillside, the culmination of a charmed four years. Her accomplishments had been celebrated once again, this time with the prestigious Gahagan Award, and as the school board chair was reading the criteria—“to the student who truly exemplifies the spirit and soul of U-32,” a classmate let out a fart. She stifled laughter as she made her way out of her row and to the podium, grinning, radiant.

But now, a year later, she felt lost. Some people didn’t recognize her as she moved through the crowd. Other people kept stopping her.

“Tillie!!! How are you? How was school? How was your year?”  

“It was good!! Yeah!” she told some.

“It was tough, but I got through it,” she told others.

And a few heard something like the truth:

“You know, I don’t think I’m going back, but I made it.”   

*

Tillie’s year was a success by most measures. Partying and boys weren’t issues. She had a 4.0 for the year. She made some close friends.   

But her body told a different story. Like many first year college students, she had experienced a crippling depression.

And now, even with tuition mostly covered by scholarships and financial aid, she couldn’t go back to UVM. She had come home to her parents, to heal and rethink her path.

She traces the roots of the crisis back to her first home: a hospital room in Pennsylvania where she was born three months early, a “micro preemie,” one pound-fourteen ounces and a foot long, struggling in an incubator until around the time of her scheduled due date.   

Her parents, Pitz and Amy, filled the room with music, toys, and smells of homemade food. Everything depended on Tillie eating, growing sturdy enough to bring home.    

And it had to be the right home. Growing up Amy had attended nine schools and moved eleven times; she went to college a year early to avoid another move. Pitz cut college short to raise a daughter, Tillie’s half sister Chelsea. Both of them married and divorced young. Later, when they found each other, they moved to Vermont together, to build their home for Tillie.

*

Tillie brimmed with imagination—the ferns in the woods were a village; chicken wire and duct tape became a tornado for Halloween; her diorama of the Boston Massacre had a snowball that flew on a string.

But her imagination could slip into anxiety. In sixth grade her parents bought land, a hill on the edge of a swamp, and moved into a twenty-two foot camper while they built the new house. The camper had a kitchenette, a bathroom and four bunk beds. She would lie in her top bunk, mind racing, convinced she had leukemia.   

Her mother drew on her training, working with battered women and as a children’s advocate, to make ‘Tillie’s Toolbox’, strategies to cope with what Tillie described as helpless feelings: singing, spelling out words on her hand, each finger a letter, finding equations in the clock — 3:26 can be 3×2=6. Tillie lost herself in Nancy Drew books, eighty two of them. The crisis passed.

At school she discovered theater, the stage, where it was not an option to give in to her anxiety. She loved the classroom, too, the high of mastering material. She studied hard for the big test about the rise of the Nazis, preparation for her class’ visit to the Holocaust Museum in D.C.. She could not eat the day of the test, scoring 100%.   

She remembers effortless years in the new house: Amy cooking in the yellow light of the kitchen; Tillie studying cross-legged in the worn depression in the couch known as the “homework hole,” her binders within reach on the bench of the masonry fireplace; Pitz at the table, working or watching hockey on the computer.  

There was comfortable silence. And then, when he got bored, Pitz would try to distract Tillie with weird noises, songs and dancing.   

She’s amazed now looking back, how she juggled it all in her school planner, the pages filled with assignments, meetings, to-do lists.  

She had no time for driver’s ed., couldn’t afford private lessons, and never got her license. Late at night after rehearsals or working on the school paper, her mother would be pulled up in front of the school, reading under the dome light.

*

Then, in her Senior year, a misstep. As part of an independent study, she arranged music and directed performances for the school’s chorus, loved it, auditioned at six schools for a vocal soprano music education major, was accepted to all six, and visited her top two.  

She shadowed a student at each school.  She followed them as they practiced six hours a day, studying theory—this is a phrase, this is a cadence— and sat beside them as their teachers handed back tests. She saw no love in this experience of music, no heart.

She asked both the girls: “Have you ever felt moments of doubt, like ‘this is not what I want to do’?”

Both girls said no, they had no doubts, they were sure. And Tillie thought, if I’m feeling this way, doubting before I start, then I can’t do this.  

After so much traveling, so much of her parents’ time and money, the plan had evaporated.  

The only other college she had applied to was the University of Vermont. She visited, took a tour, didn’t hate it. She met with the dean of the honors college. She felt no excitement, but she was also relieved. She had a plan. She would go to UVM in the fall.   

*

The dining hall had big windows looking out to the mountains, a salad bar, a station for hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, french fries; one for sandwiches; one for a dish that changed nightly–orange chicken, beef stew; and another for pasta, instant-cooked, that fell apart in your mouth, the flavors flat.

The room was chaotic. She couldn’t hear what her friends were saying and she felt like she had to rush to get food before it was all taken. Her stomach was often uneasy. 

She roomed with another Vermont girl whose sisters had been to college and had an idea from the start of what the roommate relationship would be.

“We can write each other’s schedules on this calendar! And write each other notes on this whiteboard!”

And on the white board, the first week of classes, she wrote ‘I love you so much! Have a great day!’  

Tillie was taken aback. She needed to become friends with someone first, before she was their friend. She didn’t even know this person.

The roommate was unsettled, restless, constantly talking, tapping, humming, playing videos. Tillie would leave a light on for her when she was out late. She would lie awake in the bright room, trying to tune out the racket of the boys above them.

*

She slowly became aware of herself changing. One night she went to dinner with old friends from home, ate the watery rice pilaf, and some chicken and salad, but quietly noticed it was her only meal that day, aside from a few crackers and cheese.    

She made it to Christmas, but she could not find time to prepare for the Spring musical auditions, didn’t get a part, and felt both shame and relief.  

Back at school she struggled to will herself through the same tasks she had always devoured. She would lie in her pajamas, feeling shriveled, like a raisin.

She never hid anything from her parents– she never had to–but now she was getting too skinny, had stopped laughing, and bristled under their constant concern and scrutiny. One morning Pitz took her out to breakfast and when she came back from the bathroom and he asked her:

“Did you just pee?”  

The subtext was clear: Did you just make yourself throw up? Do you have an eating disorder?”

She was offended but also knew something was wrong, and they talked. By the end of breakfast they were calling that morning what they hoped it would be: “T.P.’s T.P.” , Tillie Pearl’s Turning Point.  

But back in the dorm the breakfast burrito gave her a stomach ache and she berated herself: You shouldn’t have eaten that—there’s so much oil in that cheese.

*

By April, at UVM, she was only eating dried fruit, fresh fruit, peanut butter and sometimes hardboiled eggs. Some days she ate just a fruit leather; some days she ate nothing.  

Her clothes no longer fit. She invited her mother to an awards banquet (her grades were perfect) and they planned a shopping excursion for the same day. She spent every free moment leading up to the special day browsing online for clothes, jewelry, nail polish. But in the car, before they went shopping, her mother broke down.  

“I want you to see somebody. I want you to get help…. I don’t know what’s happening.”

But Tillie wasn’t ready. If she acknowledged what was happening she wasn’t going to last until the end of the year… and she was not a quitter. They cried together, at each other, without listening.  

Tillie agreed to see a UVM nutritionist, but this only made her focus strangely on servings– this fruit cup is two servings, I should only eat half of it.

It was a rainy, cold April and May. She found joy in small things: flowers, the kindness of the woman who sold her shampoo one day at the campus store. But she was weak, out of breath walking across campus. It was hard to open doors.

Backstage, working “run crew” for the Senior one acts, she sat in her puffy black coat with her headset on for hours, browsing clothes, looking at Facebook pages for cake making, and rationalizing: well, that person is being much more unhealthy than me, I’m doing ok.

She worked Monday evenings on a ‘scenery flat’, a 3’x4’ painting of a hummingbird hovering at a red plastic feeder. She worked using a grid to enlarge the image from a photograph her aunt had taken. In the hours painting she felt no emotion, no thought except to finish, to be done.

*

One night when her dad was away she slept with her mom. She noticed for the first time how bony her shoulders were, and she recoiled from her mother’s hugs, when she would feel how skinny she had become, her spine protruding in her mother’s arms.

The last month of school and exams she was merely surviving. Her bag was packed a week before the day finally came to go home.  

Back at the house, the fog slowly started to lift. One night she heard her mother sobbing and almost passed on to her room– not another conversation –but stopped, went in to find her in the tub, and sat down on the floor beside her.  

Amy told her that she felt helpless, that she had called a number of therapists, called Tillie’s doctor. Tillie made the case that she knew what she needed, to give her time. It was the first moment in months they had really listened to each other.

With her father, too, things started to turn around. Just before bed one night, horsing around in the dark kitchen, he turned to her.

“You know how I know you’re coming back? You just made a joke.”

She chuckled and went upstairs to sleep.

*

The house is still unfinished. There is no trim around some doors; some of the floor is still plywood. Upstairs, Tillie’s room looks out over the swamp to the hills beyond.  

She is seeing a therapist and nutritionist in Burlington, learning to let go and eat freely. She still fights the voice of rigidity, the part of her always trying to implement rules.

She has gained a few pounds– it isn’t uncomfortable to sit in the car anymore. But she knows she has a long way to go.

She has a new desk, a gift from a friend’s father, where she works on the courses she’s taking this year, at CCV. Taking down the old posters, looking back at the old pictures, the tickets from her old shows, she feels like she is moving again.

“If I was able to be that person then, I can do it again,” she says. “It just might take a little work.”

48 thoughts on ““I’m Not Going Back”: Tillie Quattrone’s Freshman Year”

  1. What a beautiful way to start my day. Thank you and Ben for putting this out into the world. There is a painful disconnect between our cultural narrative about this phase of life, and the reality of what is often like. I saw much of my own experiences in your story, though it “rolled out” differently for me. Rediscovering and recreating oneself, with questions and doubts every other minute, is an excruciating necessity. Being human is a wild ride for us all. Sending you love and gratitude for sharing this.

  2. Tillie,
    Thank you for sharing your experiences and where you are at the moment.
    I know you are probably getting all kinds of advice and words of wisdom everyday all day (everybody loves you and means well, but it is a lot to receive as well, right?) so I hesitate to share my take on life but sorry…I will. Ha!
    You are making your way out of a terribly dark place and while I am so sorry you ended up there, I am so proud of you for just putting one foot in front of another every day, every minute, sometimes every second. When/If this dark place finds you again, you will recognize it and while you will never welcome it’s presence you will have acquired even more tools in “Tillie’s tool box” to make it through. Just try to remember that everything is always changing, no moment lasts for very long- good or bad. I wish you the best.

    Sarah (Noah’s mom!)

    1. Thank you Sarah!! You have so much wisdom, and I really do appreciate your sharing it! Thanks for always being so kind and supportive of me, maybe I will be lucky enough to see you around Montpelier again soon!

  3. My dearest sweet “little kumquat.” From the moment I felt your tiny day old hand wrap around my little finger, I had an abiding sense of your strength and power. Watching you grow has been one of my greatest joys. It still is. When I saw how thin you had become, I knew what was happening, and told your your mom so.
    Amy and Pitz love you beyond words, and will provide the support and care to help you heal. Tillie, you have a big chunk of a place in my heart. I pray that our love connection is strong and intact. You can do this thing. Loving you beyond words, Nana

  4. Dearest Tillie, I have had the absolute pleasure of watching you on stage and witness the magic of Tillie. We have never met in person but I knew when I saw you this summer at the Chandler that you were struggling, exactly how or why didn’t matter just that there was a change. You have always had a beautiful spirit about you and the change was startling.

    The absolute love that your parents have for you was and is very evident, not all kids are so lucky. You have a safe haven to fall back on while you regain your footing, a resilient energy and family and friends that are there to support and nurture.

    Thank you for your honesty and bravery with sharing your story. I have no doubt that you have helped others that find themselves struggling, you have given hope in a hopeless situation and shown that there is light after the darkness. Wishing you all of life’s best as you continue your healing journey.

    1. Hi Ruthie! Thank you for noticing my family’s love and for your faith in resilience. I am grateful for support form people like you who clearly see such hope in the world! Thank you again!

  5. I am very touched reading your story and impressed with your courage.

    As a young woman, I had pretty severe social anxiety. I have battled self doubt throughout my life. When I first went to college, I dropped out 6 weeks in. It took me 6 years to go back to school. I had no goals at 18, and the freedom and chaos of college was overwhelming. Despite my self doubt, when I had a path I wanted to follow, life sorted itself out.

    I hope you can love yourself and believe in your ability to survive and triumph!

    Maureen

    1. Hi Maureen! Thank you so much! I loved what you said about choosing what was right for you, and how important that is. Thanks for commenting!

  6. Tillie, the best in life is yet to come. An open book where you write the stories. And a very large world to see. You’ve got backbone, wonderful parents and a home. You’ll make it. Kudos to you for moving beyond the problem, a big first hurdle. I love you, your family loves you, many many friends adore you. Without expectations. Just you being you. Relax, take up some tai chi and don’t set any goals for awhile. When it’s too cold up the come visit. Bring the family including any pets you want. Love ya.

    1. Thanks Skip! So great to hear from you and read your words of encouragement! I would love to visit sometime and get to know you all better! Sending love!

  7. Dear Tillie,
    I was very moved by your story. You are so brave and strong. Life can be difficult but also beautiful. The bumps make you stronger. Your parents’ love will carry you through, but remember to Love and forgive yourself. I too, like so many who have commented, went through a deep depression my freshman year at UMASS. Although, at the time, I wasn’t sure I would survive; in hindsight it was both the worst and best thing that ever happened to me. I became a stronger person. I can see that you are getting stronger too. You have so much to give and I wish you all the best. Shine your light!!! Thanks so much for sharing your story.
    Love and peace,
    Joanne

    1. Thank you Joanne, there is so much truth in your point about gaining strength from our trials! They are tough times, but we really do emerge as deeper, stronger, people!

  8. Tillie, though it was with great sadness that I read your essay, it is also with great hope. You are a courageous and beautiful young woman (both inside and out) who dares to tell her truth–a difficult thing to do, for all of us. But you have done it; and from that moment forward, you are in a new “place.” Much about that place will be difficult and even strange, but remember that you also have many of the wonders, joys, and loves of the old “place” surrounding you, accompanying you on that walk.

    Your mom is one of the people in my life whom I have most loved and admired (she even lived with us for awhile while she was at A Woman’s Place), and I remember your parents’ wedding, and the day you were born: how loved you were, how loved you are!

    Thank you, Tilly, for your painful but beautiful words.

    Be safe. Be well.

  9. Tillie — thanks so much for your story….There’s a saying in the 12th step recovery fellowship — “you have to give it away to keep it”…. and you have done that and now are officially on the recovery path — this is my humble opinion and I have no doubt about the truth of it.

    I think possibly it is extra important for a preemie to always be at home — wherever they may venture…My daughter was born 3 months early also….as an adult she struggled so long and hard and so bravely, and now in her 40s she is living next door and we have created a community of gardening and friends…Life is hard yet so worth living….I salute you Tillie…and three cheers for choosing great parents!

    1. Thanks, Alex. Us preemies are resilient but need just as much love as any full-term person out there! So nice to have your love and support.

  10. Dear Tillie,
    How courageous of you and your family to share your story. You are an amazing, talented strong woman and have begun a new lifelong journey. I have always been and continue to be awestruck with your talents both on the stage and in life. You are a giver, and I’m thankful you are giving to yourself now. Welcome home, may this journey be filled with love and laughter, and the support of friends and family near and far. You’re in my thoughts and prayers as you continue to learn, grow and become strong again. If you ever want to spend some time with some little people who would adore your presence, let me know. We’d love to see you at EMES! Hugs to you brave lady!

    1. Mrs. Christy! Wow, thank you for your comment. I am so lucky to have the foundation of EMES to support me – elementary school was a wondrous and enlightening time for me, due greatly to the plethora of fabulous teachers like you who work so hard to make it the accepting and nurturing learning environment every school should be. Thanks endlessly for your support, and I will be sure to be in touch about a visit if the time seems opportune! Much love!

  11. Tillie, I had the good fortune of being your counselor at art camp for who knows how many years, and we’ve crossed paths many a time since. I don’t have many words that can’t also be summed up with, you’ve got this. Dark places are hard places and not easy for us to pull ourselves from. I’m proud of you for taking this step and sharing your journey. You’re an amazing being.

  12. OH My Tillie ,,,I have spent my life working with and coaching students and this has profoundly hit Me !! I arrived at U-32 6 years ago as a basketball coach . My Wife & I went to all the theater and variety shows just to watch you and receive your gift of talent in so many ways. You did not know us and we never did officially get to meet you in person. But we are proof that You have touched so many and many you do not even know. You see you are a gift to the world. You are strong and will be getting stronger everyday and now you are on your schedule ! I feel so relieved that you are turning the corner. When I see you someday I will introduce myself and I want you to know how proud we are of all you have done and I somehow feel that you may be headed to a very special show and it will be the best of all ! This is Tillie’s journey and we have to be patient as we are on Tillie’s schedule. I wish and hope I can do something to help you on this Journey. My oldest daughter while a freshmen in college had a battle with depression,, under privacy laws we were not told until too late. She maybe did hide some of her struggles. Like you she ,, was strong and pulled through finally going from Trinity to Washburn University over a period of time. She is married now and has one daughter. Tillie you have the best parents ever and They have the best daughter !!! Boy don’t they know that !!! Love You Jim & Adelle …

    1. Hi Jim and Adelle! I’ve been Jim’s friend on facebook for awhile, and always am so thankful for his support! Thank you both for believing in me throughout any struggle, and I really appreciate such a selfless outreach. I look forward to meeting you in person, too! Hopefully it will be soon!!

  13. Tillie — sending you love across the valley. I have loved watching you shine since you were at EMES. I love seeing you shine here, in your honesty and courage. Thank you for finding your way back, thank you for sharing this story. My mom used to say, “I’m sending you good vibes.” TONS of good vibes coming your way .

  14. Dearest Tillie – I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen you in person – possibly when you were a baby- but I love your mama madly and think your dad’s the bomb. I’ve followed you all on FB and see how your parents adore you and how proud they are of you . . I have a feeling that you’ll pull out of this funky time and fly before too much longer! You have self-awareness, and that’s SO important to get through such a challenging issue. I’m officially in your fan-club and, if you need another loving, long-distance ‘auntie’, I’m here, cheering for you!! <3 <3

  15. Tillie. You don’t know me, but I’ve known about all your life. I’ve been awe inspired at the woman you have become given your beginnings. Your mom and I knew each other when I was in the same place you describe here. Your courage is amazing being in the midst of the grips of anorexia and yet being able to be so open and honest about it. You know how I know this is T.P.’s T.P.? Because of this writing.

    How my heart aches for you. I cried reading this. You will get through this. Just please know that even though you’ve put this out there and announced to the world that you’re going to beat this, even if you slip in the future and fall back into the chasm (because you may), you haven’t failed. You haven’t let anyone down. Just please, as here, be honest about it, with yourself, with others. We’re all human. We’re not perfect. And neither are you.

    It took me 4 hospitalizations. And many, many years. And years of therapy. And I will not tell you that I love my body today, because I don’t. Even last night at urgent care I refused to get on the scale because I knew what it would do to me (your mom and I met ~24yrs ago). This shit is hard. All we can do is take it one day at a time.

    And all you need to remember is to forgive yourself and know that you are human just like the rest of us. And us humans? We make mistakes. We are not perfect.

    Your parents love the hell out of you. Use them. Know that they’ll keep loving you no matter what. Don’t worry about letting them down because from what I know of them, that’s about as possible as living on Mars right now.

    You got this, Tillie. This article is proof positive.

    Love to all of you. My heart goes out to all three of you. Know that the woman in PA you’ve never met is rooting for you. And crying with you.

    Hang in there kid.

    1. Wow, I am humbled by your words, Wendy, truly. Thank you for taking the time to share just a small glimpse into what has evidently been a constant and unwanted presence. I truly and deeply appreciate your wisdom and support. The reminder of our flawed human nature, our vulnerability to relapse, is quite welcome as it is so helpful to be reminded of our innate imperfections. <3

  16. Tillie. I’m so proud of you! For sharing. For seeing. For feeling. Your story will connect with one or two or maybe more people. And it will help them. And the ripples of your story will continue to grow outward even beyond what you can see. I think you’re finding your way. And I’m so proud your bright light is shining again! My prayers are with you always and our home is open to you if ever you need it! You are an inspiration my dear! ❤️ ~wally

    1. Wally, thank you so so much! I have always felt so welcomed by your family, and am so thankful for the open arms you’ve offered! Thanks for all the love and support!

  17. Dearest Tillie –
    During my eating disorder recovery (back at home, having left college), I wrote a poem about moving from the very intense black and white of what was my life leading into the anorexia – to the grayness of real life in recovery. Today, I can only recall the closing stanza: “feeling and fearing the balance of gray”. It’s a long road, Tillie. But you are ON IT. And you have come so far – Keep going. I am with you. Sending you love upon love – and many more blessings.
    + Auburn.

  18. Glad you’re working your way back to health. I went through a similar depression (albeit without the eating disorder) while at UVM about 40 years ago. I came home, took classes at CCV, recovered, and later finished my undergrad work at Goddard. Like you, I had a wonderful and active high school experience, and just didn’t see this coming. Is it really any surprise that leaving the only home, social cohort, and environment that you have ever known could lead to depression? Take all the time you need. Be comfortable. And keep talking about it. 🙂

  19. What a gift you have given your community, sharing this glimpse of you in a time of trouble. Tillie, I’ve seen you grow up, not as a close family friend, but you always have had a special shine to you. When I saw you last spring I think, I had to go straight to your Mom at the Community Singalong and ask if you had an eating disorder. You see I was anorexic for a couple of years in my early 30s and it hit me hard to see your body, your face. I knew where you were. I had been there and it was so painful. I remembered the obsession with food, and I had an obsession with compulsive exercise. I loved skipping meals. Women friends asked what size pants I could wear. Guy friends said I looked too skinny. My body had a weird odor even right after a shower. But a wise friend caught me at it, the secret was out, and she helped me start eating again, smoothies at first. You can get through this with help. You have wonderful parents and a supportive community. I rose out of my old hell and never went back. You will do it too.

    1. Wow, thanks Jennifer. It really is inspiring to see so many people whom I respect so much and see are so successful share their stories of similar struggles. Thank you so much for sharing, I really appreciate it. I am so glad to have your support and wisdom.

  20. “Tillie, My Girl”
    Tillie.
    Thank you for sharing your heart with us.
    I have tears as I read this because I feel the truth you are allowing us to witness.

    There is also a part of me nodding in acknowledgment of the powerful soulwork you are undertaking. I support you in your steps forward, as you create your way, your pace, honoring all that you feel and all that you need.
    I am on Team Tillie.

  21. I read every word Tillie. I think, even at such a distance, I may have contributed to a powerful message that you would somehow be our great hope for the future. Even in your pain you are giving us a gift. I hope you can just be Tillie. You are the only one you can save. love to you

  22. Dear Tillie, I have been a distant absentee Aunt for your whole life. I loved you when you were born, because I loved your mom and saw how magic they were together. You have always been their precious gift. I wasn’t surprised you became a student and theatre star. I know anyone can fall into a dark tunnel, since I worked in Social services forever, and have battled major depression for 30 years. My heart is with you honey, and consider me another ally. You are worth all the work yo fix this…..Love, Bobbi

    1. Thank you so much Bobbi, it really means a lot! Thanks for taking the time to read the essay and offer the truth about your own struggles. <3

  23. Thank you for sharing dead Tillie. You are certainly a very brave young woman it just broke my heart to see that “skelton” photo when I was your age i was in that dark place so I understand a little bit how you were feeling possibly you’re still within it. Do not give up hope. The essence of Tillies is strong true and kind and much more. Hang in there. You are beautiful and talented and a human being. You will get though this. An inch at a time kisses and hugs auntie Jane merrylees

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