Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 30, 2022

A psychologist sits down with her 1999 self

By LIISA HANTSOO | May 17, 2021

liisa-hantsoo-image

COURTESTY OF LIISA HANTSOO

Hantsoo could often be seen around the Gatehouse and Homewood Campus wearing plaid pants.

LIISA HANTSOO / The News-Letter

I still walk past the Gatehouse sometimes, 20 years later. Its arched windows and vestigial chimney still stand sentinel over the students who pass through its gently creaking doors, clicking their words onto screens late into the night. The sameness is somehow comforting. 

I penned my last article for The News-Letter around 2001 before graduating with a degree in Neuroscience. As a freshman in 1997, I started out as a staff writer and then in 1998 became the Focus & Special Issues Editor. The Focus section, located on page B2, was a weekly deep dive into a particular topic that ranged from the serious (homelessness, political activism) to the fun (travel, vintage shopping). The Special Issues were quarterly magazines and included a Dining Guide, Housing Guide, Cover-Letter for incoming freshmen and a lacrosse issue. 

My team of writers and I spent many late evenings brainstorming ideas for the Focus page (can we really do a full page about squirrels?) and coming up with lists of restaurants to include in the Dining Guide (R.I.P. Funk’s Democratic Coffee Spot). The Gatehouse is where I learned that I am completely inept at driving a golf cart (the newspaper racks were stocked late that day). It’s where my friends and I cackled at the latest “Hot at Hopkins” column and groaned at the terrible interview that we did with a then-up-and-coming British band (aptly titled “Musing on How Not to Do an Interview”). 

I moved back to Baltimore a little over a year ago to take a position as an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the School of Medicine, where I am a clinical psychologist. I moved to a neighborhood sandwiched between Mount Vernon and Charles Village, and on days when I’m out on a long walk, sometimes I meander past the Gatehouse. And as I walk past, I have urges to run down the stairs, race across the little wooden footbridge, fling open the doors and step through space and time to try to find that 1999 version of myself. 

I want to tell her a few things. She would be perched at a computer working on the Dining Guide with a wild mass of magenta-dyed hair, plaid thrift store pants and Doc Martens. She would be, for those hours that evening, free from worrying about organic chemistry or neuroscience or whether she should apply to medical school or PhD programs. She would be focused on coming up with a catchy headline or spitballing ideas for next week’s Focus topic. She would be happy, in a state of flow, unshackled from expectations. 

I might sit down and tell her, “Hey kid, guess what — you will never get into medical school, but someday you will be faculty at a medical school. Crazy, huh?” 20-year-old me would narrow her eyes and shake her head in disbelief at 42-year-old me. “What are you talking about? And why are your pants so boring?” she might say. I would grin at her and say, “I know! Weird, right?” She would give me a skeptical grin. I would tell her that I still love writing and editing, and as a postdoctoral fellow, I was Editor-in-Chief of the University of Pennsylvania’s Biomedical Postdoctoral Newsletter. I think she might lift her eyebrow and say, “Really? You’re still into that stuff? Nice!”

I would also tell her that the woolly cardigan she’s wearing? I still have it and the elbows have worn out, but I’ve patched them up and I still wear it all the time. I would tell her I’m still close with so many of my Hopkins friends; I just had drinks with Elena the other evening here in Baltimore at The Brewer’s Art — yeah, that place is still around! I would tell her that her old apartment building is now a frat house and that Donna’s, Video Americain and Louie’s Bookstore Café have all disappeared and hope that she wouldn’t cry. 

But the main thing that I would tell her — and would tell anyone who finds themselves in the Gatehouse late at night — is to listen to the Gatehouse. Listen to how you feel in the Gatehouse. As a psychologist, I tell my patients to listen to how they feel, that their feelings are a signal. Feelings let us know to pay attention; they give us clues when we’re on the right track and let us know when we’re doing something we love. When we’re lost to the world, when we’re in a state of flow, when we feel happy or excited or content — our feelings are telling us that we’re on the right path, that we are where we should be. Listen to those feelings. Follow them. 

I would tell her that there’s an ember of creativity in her that glows at the Gatehouse — notice that; don’t let it snuff out. Explore it. Follow it. I would tell her not to worry so much about taking the “right” path, that maybe the path doesn’t matter that much and that different paths can lead to the same place. I would tell her to do what she really loves, not what she thinks other people want her to love. To go study abroad, to do a summer internship unrelated to her major, to take a Writing Seminars class instead of that weird paleobiology class that involves memorizing the dental structures of extinct species. To keep dancing and exploring and traveling. Mostly, I would tell her that I still write, that she should still write, that she shouldn’t give up on it.

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