Dear Carolyn: I've pretended to go to college for almost four years when I actually dropped out my freshman year. I've been working as a temp since then and living "off campus." My family doesn't know since I fake my grades, account statements, everything. None of them went to college, so it hasn't been too hard to fool them.
I've used the money they've been giving me to help me afford my room and board.
I know I'm going to have come clean soon since they expect me to graduate soon with an engineering degree. I just don't know how to do this. They are going to freak out. They're immigrants and me going to college was their dream.
I'm actually thinking of just disappearing for a while and telling them by letter. I know that's the coward's way out, but I could come back when it's all blown over and they'll probably be so relieved that I'm back in touch that they won't disown me.
Is there a better way to handle this that won't also get me disowned?
— Faking College
Faking College: This knot is so tight and complicated and emotional, and the consequences of “disappearing for a while”(!) potentially so severe, that I urge you not to untie it alone.
Please find a good therapist to help you untangle its many threads — especially your fear of being authentic.
If you still live near the school, then there is likely to be counseling available in the community on a sliding scale based on income. You can call the school’s mental health service to see if nonaffiliated people have access, and if not, where a good local resource might be. If it’s a university that offers degrees in counseling fields, then there might be a clinic where the students train and charge little to nothing for their services.
If you have insurance through a temp agency, then find out who provides therapy in-network.
However you manage it, please start the work of telling your truth by sharing it with people who are not invested — as you told me here, which is a start. Make the next person a trained health-care provider who can meet with you regularly. Do not wait any longer to face this, and take care.
To: Faking: My brother did something similar, and came clean only when he was in distress because of the lies he told. Please take Carolyn's advice to go for therapy now. My brother told us, went to therapy and is in a good place. My parents and I accepted him as he is — a flawed human who made a mistake, the same as us. Please know you're not the only one, and you can get help.
Re: Faking: There's nothing wrong with deciding an engineering degree wasn't for you, but letting your parents subsidize your alternate path without their knowledge wasn't fair. One of your top priorities should be an absolute commitment to pay your parents back.
Were it my kid, I would want to hear: "Sorry I did this, please forgive me. Starting right now, I'm going to give you [dollar amount] per week until I've paid you back." It's important to take real actions to prove remorse and bear responsibility for your actions.