How My Roommate and I Created Healthy Space and Division in Our Dorm

published Jul 17, 2019
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Credit: Maria Hawley

In the beginning, everything matched. At the time, this seemed like a good idea. My freshman roommate and I agreed on a color scheme (black, white, and baby blue) and an aesthetic (cozy and classic, or so we guesstimated) for our dorm in Schurz Hall at the University of Missouri, the autumn of 2013. Our duvets, our pillowcases, our cheap Michaels wall decor—everything was meant to match. Even our names: She’s Laurel. I’m Lauren. 

We went to the same high school, less than a 15-minute drive from the Mizzou campus. We both chose to study journalism. We signed up for the same first-semester classes. We got into the same sorority. There were classmates who didn’t know one of us apart from the other.

As you might have guessed by now, college terrified us, so we latched onto the closest thing that could simulate stability: each other. But that delicate balance was threatened by context and personality quirks. Laurel had the sort of built-in smarts that she hadn’t needed to study much in high school. Now her courseload was awakening anxieties she hadn’t known she possessed. I had my own preoccupations: a boyfriend still in high school, stirring imposter syndrome, a looming mental health crisis back home. 

So Laurel and I pretended we could fix it all with a tether between us. The dorm room became our hiding place, and at first, we loved the clean, homey squeeze of those walls. 

The problem is, little else stayed clean.

For all our literal and metaphorical matching, Laurel and I were stratified by our differences. She always poked fun at her own worries. The outside world was a bear to deal with, but, hey, she’d manage. Me, I was so high-strung I once spent 23 combined hours studying for a single economics test. 

I kept my mouth clamped shut as textbooks and crushed bags of chips inched their way across our dorm room floor. I told myself I’d never jeopardize the solace I found in Laurel. Her wry humor kept me sane. For that reason, my space was hers, and hers was mine. 

But as slipping grades, a fresh break-up, and a mountain of stuff threatened to swallow us, we lost control of our tenuous connection. Anyone who’s had a breakdown will recognize the patterns we followed: Multiple studies demonstrate a significant link between housing quality and cleanliness and mental health. Laurel and I became the other’s crutch, excusing behaviors, avoiding confrontation, choosing to be silent because we recognized our own crises in the other’s mess. We felt a closeness in chaos. We couldn’t acknowledge that shutting out the world together was dangerous.

Credit: Lauren Puckett
Image credit: Lauren Puckett

Our room became something we were embarrassed to discuss. Abandoned shopping bags, ripped cardboard, empty water bottles, old carry-out containers, and dirty laundry concealed the floor. I’ll be as blunt as possible here: There was a stench. 

It was only after a mutual friend stepped in—she might use the words “butted in”—and helped us clean, reorganize, and reconcile that Laurel and I were able to live together peacefully again. She acted as counselor, guiding us through our insecurities and neuroses, letting us vent but never attack.

Then, she told us what we had to hear: We couldn’t expect the world from each other. We couldn’t act like an old married couple anymore. We needed space. We needed boundaries. And, for the love of god, we needed to organize the dorm. 

So we rebooted the room from the ground up, with added space and healthy distance between us. And we rebuilt our friendship, with the addition of Maria, our nosy but lion-hearted mediator. Today, though years have passed and we live in three different states, our trio still calls one another every week. 

When I told Laurel and Maria I was writing this story, they said my first piece of advice should be, “Never put two hormonal teenagers together in a tiny box.” And though they’re probably right, there are a few (more helpful) do’s and don’ts Laurel and I have compiled from our journeys in dorm survival. Here’s how we created boundaries—and thrived in our tiny box. 

Do: Debunk your beds.

Physical distance reinforces the idea that your bed is a place for you and you alone. Next, decide exactly where your space ends and your roommate’s begins. These boundaries can be traversed, but they’re worth the time and effort to establish. 

Do: Find lighting you both can work with.

Laurel liked to stay up until 2 a.m. studying; she’s a natural night owl. I tend to be drowsy by 10 p.m. We compromised by stringing up fairy lights, which were bright enough to illuminate Laurel’s textbooks but soft enough to coax me to sleep. 

Do: Share your schedule, but not your life.

Keep a calendar on the wall so that your roommate knows your class times. But don’t feel like the two of you have to attend every event together. 

Do: Choose seating that doubles as storage.

Most college freshmen already know about the benefits of bed risers to make space under your bunk, but be sure you’re also picking chairs, ottomans and other furniture that can conceal your clutter. 

Don’t: Let personal items pile up.

Laurel and I designated a drawer as the “out of sight” space, where we put personal junk we didn’t need littering our room. You can also buy small ceramic bowls to use for collecting keys, sunglasses, and other essential but easy-to-lose trinkets. 

Don’t: Overpack.

Freshmen are notorious for this, and Laurel and I were no different. We had so many picture frames and piles of clothes that we lost track of who owned what. Respect your roommate’s space enough to only bring what you need. 

Credit: Lauren Puckett

Don’t: Wait until the holidays to clean.

Find a chic way to display your supplies (Laurel and I recommend filling antique bottles and jars with cleaning solution and displaying them on a bar cart), or toss them into the “out of sight” drawer. But make sure you have them, and agree on a schedule for using them with your roommate. 

Don’t: Rely on Febreze to freshen up.

You and your roommate need air to breathe, and not only in a figurative sense. Diffusers or, better yet, plants that clean the air, create a sense of openness that isn’t typically present in such prison-like rooms. Wall plants are an excellent option for college dorms because you can hang them with Command hooks, and they don’t take up your precious counter space. 

Most importantly, remember that this tiny box might feel like a prison cell, but it’s your first home away from home. Take care of it, and you’ll remember it forever as a refuge. If you’re lucky, it’ll be the place where your lifelong friendships get their messy, beautiful start. 

Want more dorm ideas, inspiration, and stories? Head over to Dorm Therapy HQ!