Students share secrets on bathroom stall walls
By Rachel Stark
Ballantine Hall, first floor, across the hall and down a short way from the computer lab, first stall on the left – my go-to bathroom stall. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays when I make this pit stop, I usually get in and get out and on to my gender studies class.
This day was different.
I pushed through the swinging door and marched to my stall and let my backpack slam to the ground with a thud.
Then I noticed it – a large circle of notes in an array of handwriting and colors located right next to the toilet paper dispenser.
Oh, typical graffiti, I thought. But this was unusual.
I had read the “(So and so) is a slut” and “I hate the world” comments on this stall before – one-liners that we’ve all read so many times we just roll our eyes when we see them.
No, this jumble of notes initially caught my eye because of the large area it consumed on the stall, but what hooked my interest was the one sentence that had triggered a flurry of responses:
“I’m becoming bulimic and don’t know how to stop.”
Questions flooded my mind. Who is this woman? Why, of all places, did she reach for help on a bathroom stall? Did she scribble that note on the cold, gray stall after throwing up her lunch? Is she OK?
* * *
I was disgusted when I read the first response. “That sucks” was all one person had written.
But I read on and realized I wasn’t the only one who worried about this woman.
The clutter of notes that followed had turned this first floor bathroom stall into a forum, the writers anonymous but connected.
“Don’t shut down or isolate yourself … talk to people. Don’t feel scared or ashamed.
Your true friends will still love you. They won’t judge you. Good luck!”
The messages were written in red, blue, black ink. Some were in bubbly printed handwriting, some in scribbled cursive.
“Ask a friend for help. If they judge you, they’re not good friends anyways. (I know … I used to be anorexic.)”
Some, like this one, ended with a smiley face.
“Don’t ruin your life or body! You are beautiful and unique – don’t deprive the world of what only you can offer. There are many who struggle with the same battle and win – you can do it! Believe in yourself!”
These encouragements captivated me. It became routine to check in to see the latest updates on the stall.
“PRAY,” one woman had written. With an arrow leading away from the one-word message, another woman wrote, “and take control.”
Someone went beyond the advice everyone else gave by suggesting a specific person for her to visit:
“I would suggest seeing Dr. Stockton at CAPS – she’s a great psychologist. But get help before it’s too late … Please.”
One woman seemed to echo my exact thoughts on the stall in two brief sentences:
“I love the support people show here. If only it was true everywhere in life.”
* * *
One afternoon I walked into the stall to see yet another note had been added to the top of the graffiti circle. It was written in the same handwriting as the initial message, in the same color pen.
“I’m getting help at CAPS – thank you all!”
Intrigued and inspired, I wanted to find anyone who knew something about this bathroom forum.
And so my search began.
My first stop, naturally, was the Counseling and Psychological Services on campus. I was well aware that the counselors couldn’t just supply me with a name of a client.
But maybe I could clue the counselors in on my story, and if they knew the bathroom stall girl, they could see if she would want to talk to me. A long shot, but I had to try.
“Well, that is a very unusual story,” an administrator from CAPS said to me on the phone. She was willing to pass the request along to her staff, and hoped it would lead to something. I thanked her, and then anxiously awaited her return phone call for days.
I got nothing.
But each time I went back to read the writings on the bathroom stall, something inside of me told me to keep trying.
* * *
Eventually, all evidence of the bathroom forum was erased. I hurried into the stall one day, my eyes meeting a blank, freshly cleaned metal wall begging for new graffiti.
My next step? To search for the janitor who washed it away.
When I tracked her down, Jessica Hoene explained she was just doing her nightly duties.
Each night, she and the other janitors working the night shift in Ballantine move through the halls and periodically disappear into the bathrooms to make them shine.
Hoene had scrubbed countless notes off bathroom stalls. She had done it so often, she rarely even read what she was rubbing off. She sprayed, scrubbed and carried on.
But she said this circle of graffiti caught her eye.
A week later, she could recall a little bit of what she stopped to read.
“A girl wrote on there that she had bulimia,” she said. “It said they were gonna get help at a place called CAPS, or something like that.”
* * *
I posted a note on the stall where the graffiti had been. I explained the story I was working on, requested that anyone who wrote on the wall contact me, and I gave my e-mail address.
I checked the stall daily, and found that my note kept getting torn down, so I kept posting new ones.
And I waited.
A week later, a new message at the top of my e-mail inbox entitled “Graffiti” made my heartbeat race.
“I was the person who suggested that the person with bulimia should try going to CAPS, and to Dr. Stockton there, specifically.”
I wanted to talk with this woman.
She agreed to meet in the Indiana Memorial Union. I soon found myself face-to-face with senior Lindsey Krantz.
The bathroom forum was not made up of notes from anonymous people anymore. It was a real back-and-forth between real women on this campus. I finally had a face.
Krantz had an easy smile and looked me square in the eye when talking about what would be sensitive issues for many people.
Within minutes of speaking with her, there was no doubt in my mind that she was the one who had directed the woman to CAPS.
Krantz told me she had had a friend with an eating disorder three years ago.
The friend could not admit her problem; she instead pushed her friends, family – everyone – away. Her life turned into a downward spiral.
Krantz decided against taking her pen to the stall the first time she read the graffiti. She said she was never one for property destruction.
But the senior visited the stall again not much later. Her heart felt for this woman who was reaching out, and the senior wanted to affirm this sort of plea for help. So she took out her pen and wrote on the stall.
After all, Krantz figured, this woman’s issue was more important than some measly graffiti on a bathroom stall.
The senior shared her knowledge of CAPS and Dr. Stockton. She said many people don’t realize the help available to them on campus.
“The whole incident in the stall is just one more attack on the stigma of mental illness,” Krantz said. “It happens to a lot of people. The more people see exchanges like (the graffiti), see people respond positively whenever people reach out for help … well, it’s not like it used to be.”
The day Krantz read that the woman had gotten help at CAPS, relief flowed through her.
“I was like ‘thank you,'” Krantz recalled, placing her hands into a prayer position. “I was so glad she had gotten help.”
But didn’t she want to meet the woman she had helped? Didn’t she have other questions for the woman? Wasn’t there some connection?
No, Krantz told me, she didn’t need to know who the woman was. Good works shouldn’t be done ostentatiously. Just knowing the woman heeded her advice was good enough. She was content.
For Krantz, the girl sitting next to her in class could be the one she helped. The girl she bumped into on the bus could be the one who wrote a supportive note next to hers. No one will ever know.
* * *
I still hoped to hear from the woman who had begun the Ballantine bathroom forum.
But weeks went by, and I realized I wasn’t going to.
My conversation with Krantz resonated with me. She was happy with never meeting the woman she had helped.
Although I had not found the woman who first wrote on the bathroom stall, I realized I, too, should be content with that.
I walked along the streets of our massive campus later that evening. I was just one of 40,000 complex, individual students. I had no idea what was going on in the life of the man who rushes by me, of the woman who chats on her phone.
Anonymity surrounds us, yet we are all connected.