An Open Letter to the Class of 2013, Inspired By My Friend Graduating Today Who Suffered a Nervous Breakdown and Ended Up in the Hospital

A letter to a now 18-year-old I used to babysit when I was in my 20s who gave me permission to write this so it would help other freaking-out college graduates.
Publish date:
May 23, 2013
college, graduation, nervous breakdowns

Dear Sweet Beautiful,

I reached out to you today because you've always been a terrific writer (which I watched develop as you grew up from the little girl I used to care for in San Diego and became a grown-up girl in another part of that sprawling state). I asked if you wanted you to write something for xoJane. You told me that today was your big graduation day, and I was so happy for you! I AM so happy for you.

Maybe you could write about what it's like going through the graduation process, I wondered. Picking out the cap and gown? How silly and overwhelming the whole process is? And you said: Maybe, but lately you've just been so stressed.

Understandable, I said, not realizing the level of stress you meant, and continuing on awkwardly, misguidedly with my dumb story idea.

I told you how when you write about things in the moment, as they are happening, it can be so interesting to read! You told me you understood, but you didn't feel good about things right now, but not to worry, really, things were definitely OK, you were just going through a lot...

And that's when I felt that sense inside me -- that nagging gut sense -- that things were definitely NOT OK.

Forget the writing, I said. I don't care about the writing, honey. I care about you. Are you doing OK? Tell me what's really going on.

Well, you said, laughing a somewhat bitter laugh, I could write about how I got so sick from stress that I actually ended up in the hospital.

Then you changed the subject. You asked about me. You didn't want to talk about the hospital anymore.

But you know how people mention things and they may not even be aware that they are wanting to talk about something that is gnawing at them, that hurts like a dull throbbing pain, so they hint, and they give you clues? That's what I was sensing.

Why were you in the hospital? I demanded. Did you try to hurt yourself? You know you can always call me no matter what, right? You know that I always love and care for you no matter what, don't you?

Yes, she said. But you are very busy and you're all the way in New York.

It doesn't matter, I said. I'm always here. Always. Any time of the day or night. Now tell me why you had to go to the hospital. Please.

You said that it wasn't a big deal, you just took too many pills because you couldn't handle the stress, and then your roommates got scared, and you had to go to the hospital. Thankfully, they pumped your stomach in time, and really, it was mostly just embarrassing.

I'm so sorry you were hurting so bad, I said. And I'm so glad you are doing OK now.

I can't emphasize to anyone reading this right now just how much I mean that statement.

Here is what I want her -- and you, and anyone -- to know about graduation, about college, about "making it" in the real world and all the stress that accompanies this big important day where you suddenly embark upon the rite of passage to Become an Adult in the Real World.

Are you ready?

The day absolutely, definitively does not matter. The day is not big. The day is not important.

I'm dead serious. And this is why.

It is always and only you who matters. It is you who are big. It is you who are important.

End of story.

I know it's hard to internalize this: to actually believe that what I'm saying.

"You don't understand," you might say. "My parents spent thousands of dollars, and I have so many expectations riding on this, and if something goes wrong, then I've ruined everything. My life won't be the same. If I don't make it through this, if I don't finish all the courses I need to finish, if I don't make the grades I need to make, then my life is essentially over. Do you even understand that kind of pressure?"

Oh boy do I.

And that's why it sometimes breaks my own heart that it took me over 30 years to realize what illusions these external carrots of validation really are.

So you get a diploma. So you get a job. So you get a promotion. So you get a corner office. So you get an award. So you get an Oscar. So you get a Lifetime Achievement.

So what?

The only thing that matters, always and forever, at the end of the day, is you. How YOU feel about yourself and what you are doing in your inner life. Are you happy? Are you appreciating every victory and failure and sweet moment that happens along the way (even when the moments are not so sweet)? Do you feel alive? Do you understand that there are no rules, there are no boundaries, there are no walls, there are no pieces of paper that will ever change who you are. Do you understand that YOU and who YOU are does not depend on a piece of paper or an award or even the words that I'm writing right now?

Because you will always be you.

Spectacular, wonderful, loving, talented, amazing YOU.

Absolutely, it is GREAT to graduate. It is great to receive the award of The Best Person on the Planet, or whatever the ultimate accolade might be in life (president of the United States?). But please always remember: All of that stuff goes away. All of it is an illusion.

It is an illusion of security and stability and strength and safety. The only immutable security, stability, strength and safety is what you feel in your beautiful heart right this very instant.

Did you take a risk you felt good about today? Did you learn something? Are you excited about something? Are you grateful about anything? How much did you love?

None of that will ever go away -- or be predicated on a diploma, or an article, or a job, or an interview, or a credential, or an open letter I am writing on

If there is one thing I've learned in 37 and a half years on this planet it's that people's lives change on a dime. Sometimes the most crushing failures spell success and opportunities in ways that you never even knew were possible. Sometimes the most spectacular successes lead to heartbreak.

But what happens does not matter. It is what you do with what happens.

And if you have resilience, you have everything. If you have love, you have everything.

And if you are having trouble right now feeling that love for yourself, I want you to know that I will be right here, giving you as much as I can until you can feel it for yourself.

Because you are so spectacular. And I'm incredibly proud of your graduation today.

But my pride for this accomplishment is nothing compared to the eternal, the unchanging, the always-there-no-matter-what love I feel for you.


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