Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series of commencement addresses commissioned by The Atlantic for students who will not be able to attend their graduations because of the pandemic. Find the collection here.
When I was 12, I bet my cousin $100 that I would graduate from an Ivy League school. I didn’t really care which one, but Georgetown—not an Ivy, but what did I know?—and Harvard were my top choices. We shook on it. At the time, I had no reason to think my goal was unattainable.
Some kids are on the fast track to the top. They get straight A’s. They are at the top of their classes and in the 99th percentile of every standardized test they take. You can find them in every after-school club. They play sports and the piano, join the debate team, and volunteer. Animals gather around them with complete trust and faith. The heavens part and light shines upon their angelic faces. Everything they touch, they excel at.
That kid was me.
All my middle-school report cards said “extremely bright.” I was a model of discipline. I was driven by one goal and one goal only—to get into a prestigious college. I’m not telling you all of this to brag; I’m trying to paint the picture of who I was, so you can understand how far I fell.
What I didn’t know that day I shook hands with my cousin was that forces were in motion that would change the course of my life. I didn’t know that my parents would soon separate and that my dad would move from our home in Connecticut to Washington, D.C. I didn’t know that, a year later, I would be in Minnesota with a stepfather who was dealing with undiagnosed mental illness. I didn’t know how hard it would be to maintain my focus and drive when there was so much chaos at home. I didn’t know a lot of things.
When I first got to high school, I still clung to my dream of higher education and fought to keep up my grades. But they were slipping. I was slipping, sinking into chemical dependence. Not too long after my parents got divorced, I discovered the joys of alcohol and marijuana. In middle school, I had written my best friend a letter about how I would never do drugs. And yet, by the time I was 16, I was smoking weed daily and drinking as much as I could. All of my potential and focus went into creating the most talented party-girl persona I could.
The persona became the person. I remember sitting in my room as a teenager, playing Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” on repeat. I’d listen to that song, and I’d often wonder who I was wishing were there. It’s taken me almost 25 years to realize that I was longing for my former self—longing for the girl who had hopes and dreams and potential. Every day, that girl felt further and further away, until one day, she was gone. I nearly failed my senior year. To the great shame of my parents, I attended my high-school graduation drunk.
In May 1998, I should have been finishing my first year at an Ivy League college. Instead, I was in a state-funded halfway house in Minneapolis trying to recover from a heroin addiction. I distinctly remember sitting in the cafeteria at a table by myself, looking around at the other 40 women, wondering, How did I get here? How did any of us?
Maybe you chose never to go to school, or you did go and you’re sitting in your childhood bedroom rightfully upset that you can’t graduate with your friends. Maybe your parents are unemployed, and you’re trying to figure out how to provide for your family. Perhaps you have a loved one fighting for their life, and you’re sitting in a hospital waiting room asking yourself, How did we get here? Maybe you’re single and haven’t hugged another human in weeks. Wherever you are in the world or in your life, I can almost guarantee that you didn’t have “social distancing due to global pandemic” on your 2020 bingo card. Many of us are asking the same question: How did we get here?
It was during those seven months in rehab that I first heard the joke “Want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.”
My first instinct when life doesn’t go my way isn’t Zen acceptance. It’s rage, self-pity, and a victim mentality. Sitting in that cafeteria, I was mad at everyone. Mad at my parents. Mad at the institutions that I felt had failed me. Mad at my ex-boyfriend, who introduced me to heroin. Maybe you’re mad too. Mad your kids can’t socialize. Mad you’re trapped in your house. Mad at the Wuhan bat. Mad at your boss who had to lay you off. Mad at the government. Mad at God.
That’s not to say that righteous anger doesn’t have its place. It absolutely does. Growing up in a dysfunctional household taught me a lot about the harm that narcissistic adults can cause, and about the need to hold them accountable for that harm. However, at a certain point I realized I had to focus on what I could control. My attitude. The quality of my relationships. My impact on my immediate environment and community. My work. That’s it.
All that my rage and frustration and self-pity did was keep me from looking forward and managing my situation as best as I could. Perhaps my family bore some responsibility for what happened to me. But I had to choose between nursing my wounds and moving on. I chose to move on.
This decision didn’t mean that I suddenly had a perfect time. Far from it. Despite my repeated efforts to make my life go according to plan, life had other ideas. I had failures and successes and constantly struggled to get out of my own way. In my 20s and 30s, I traveled the world. I was married and divorced. I started a company—and I went bankrupt. I eventually got sober. I became a professional writer. I never did get that degree. I still owe my cousin that $100.
But I learned a lesson that is more valuable than any piece of paper bearing a university seal, and it has served me on the long road back to myself: How did we get here? is not as important as Where do we go from here?
My only dream for as long as I could remember was to walk the stage and get a diploma. So take it from a woman who never got to do that—I know this is a huge disappointment, but with time, it will be just another one of life’s many curveballs that you have faced. The way you approach hardship will define you. At any point, you can cast yourself as the hero of your own story. You get to make that choice. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Bad things can have a bright side, if we let them.
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