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Jun 22 2013

The Letter I Didn’t Write

[Content note: depression, suicide, self-harm, eating disorders, sexual assault]

This is a long and intensely personal post about college, which I graduated from today. I’m writing it more for myself than for you, so feel free to skip it if you come here mainly for the political rants and psychological babble.

A few weeks ago I got a Facebook invite about a book that some students were compiling. Any current Northwestern senior could contribute a letter, anonymous or not, about their four years at Northwestern, addressed either to themselves four years ago or four years from now. This fall, incoming freshman will receive a copy of the book.

I waffled for a few weeks, finally convinced myself that I had nothing to say, and let the deadline pass.

Of course, that’s not true. I had plenty to say, but I knew that if, four years ago, I had received a letter from my current self about my college experience, I would’ve packed back up and ran the fuck away. Why do that to an innocent freshman?

If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

I’ve heard this for my entire life, and it’s the little voice in my head that so often keeps me silent. But usually I can ignore it, which is why this blog exists.

This time it worked. While I won’t say that I have nothing nice to say about my four years at Northwestern, most of it is not very nice. So I stayed silent.

But now it’s my graduation day, and, as with everything else in my life, I can’t fully process or move on from these four years without writing about them. Besides, this is my blog, not anyone’s book meant to provide inspiration and guidance to a new generation of Northwestern students. This space is mine, and this is the letter I didn’t write.

~~~

Dear 18-year-old Miri(am),

Look, they’re letting me write you a letter! Even if all I did today were fuck with the laws of physics, I’d be pretty pleased with myself. But I also graduated from college.

I know how you like to know everything in advance, how little regard you have (and will still have in four years, I assure you) for the feeling of uncertainty and anticipation. So I will tell you. But I’ll warn you, much of it won’t be pretty.

To start with the superficial stuff: you will chop off your hair and dye it red, and you’ll finally chop off the last syllable of your name. You will gain weight–but don’t worry! Along with that, you’ll gain muscles and curves and an appreciation for your body that you’ve never had before. The scale you brought with you will lie dusty in the bathroom, untouched for two years by the time you graduate. But you will also, I’m sorry to say, have scars on your wrists–little red marks, barely noticeable but absolutely unmistakable once noticed–for months until they finally heal.

Your politics matter to you, I know. So you probably won’t be happy to hear that by the time you graduate, you’ll be a feminist and too progressive to support President Obama with a good conscience. You will go to demonstrations and rallies, you will chant and shout at marches, you will cover your bags with buttons, you will plaster your laptop with stickers, you will wake up every morning reaching for your phone to read the news, you will donate money, you will sign petitions, you will annoy the living fuck out of everyone, and you will write write write.

But most of your activism won’t really be of that sort. You will teach, you will speak, you will volunteer, you will start groups, you will meet with university administrators (mostly fruitlessly, I’m afraid, but you will try), you will spread the word about people and groups and causes that need support. And you will know that your college years are only the beginning, and you will graduate ready to fuck shit up.

You’ll decide to study social work. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. You’ll understand.

You will come out as queer, which is probably not a huge surprise to you right now. You will try in vain to get involved with Jewish communal life, but it’ll often seem hollow and fake to you, because, yes, you’re an atheist. You’re out of Puritan Ohio now, so it’s time to admit that to yourself.

None of the friends you make in your first year will still be with you at the end. Few of the things you try to get involved with will stick. I know you hate that process. Keep trying.

In a year you’ll meet two guys. One will make your life much better, then worse; the other will make it much worse, then better. Only one of them will still be in your life on graduation day, but I’ll let you figure out which.

For your 20th birthday, you’ll ask your parents for plane tickets to New York City for spring break. You’ll be going for a very stupid reason, as you’ll admit to yourself a little later. The New York City that greets you on that cold March day will be more colorful, more nerve-wracking, more beautiful than the New York City of your dreams, and you will fall in love at first sight in a way that you will never fall in love with a person (at least not within these next four years).

You will come back again and again–for a summer, for a few days here and there. You will spend New Year’s Eve 2013 in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, watching fireworks with your friends. You will swear to yourself that you’ll finish that year back in the city for good.

And two months later you’ll be accepted to Columbia and NYU.

Most of the people you’ll love will not be at Northwestern with you. You’ll see them rarely. Most of the time, your love for them will be like a gentle, slow-burning fire, keeping your heart just warm enough. But when you see them the fire will burn brighter each time.

If that doesn’t sound so bad, that’s because, unfortunately, I haven’t gotten to the shit yet.

You are an emotional person. I think everyone can agree on that. But do you notice your downs lasting longer and longer, going deeper and deeper? Pay attention. This year you will experience despair like you never have before. There will be only one person there to try to help you, and he will suggest to you that you have depression. You’ll wave him off.

By spring you’ll know for sure there’s something wrong. You’ll try Northwestern’s counseling center and it won’t help. The night will swallow you. Trains and tall buildings and painkillers will suddenly become simultaneously deadly risks and sweet remedies. You will consider it over and over and over and over and over and over and over and

The summer after your freshman year, while your classmates are working prestigious internships in Chicago, New York, and L.A., you’ll be home starting antidepressants. They will work for a while, and then they won’t anymore. But it’ll make all the difference, believe me.

With a few exceptions, the months ahead will be draped in shades of blue and grey. You will feel more lonely and worthless and unlovable than you’ve ever felt at home in Ohio (where, admittedly, you’ve always been a bit of a square peg in a round hole). As an institution, this university will not be kind to you. You will feel like a number. You will be certain beyond a doubt that you’re not wanted here. Perhaps you’ll even be right.

You will be the victim of several crimes and misfortunes, including a few thefts, too many instances of harassment to count (of the sexual sort from strangers, of the bullying sort from classmates and a few adults who really ought to know better), and one sexual assault.

It’s that last one that will stick with you. It’ll be like a splinter under your skin; you barely notice when you get it, but over time it starts to itch and burn and you just want to get it out. You will never report it, because you’ll know what they would say. He will be in the line next to you as you get ready for the commencement processional, but that won’t be the only time you remember.

Your weight and your eating habits will fluctuate. During some periods, especially while you’re home, you will slip back into counting calories (below 1000 per day is best), weighing yourself every day, and poking and prodding at yourself in front of the mirror to try to somehow hide what you’ll thankfully learn to see as a gift.

But that, as many other things, will get better. By the end of college you’ll be exercising regularly, but eating normally too. Your arms and shoulders will grow strong and the weight you’re able to lift will triple within a few months. The gym will become a second home to you, and for the first time in your life, fitness and weight will become completely decoupled from each other.

One sweltering June day the summer before your senior year, you will wake up. Not in the literal sense, but rather in the most meaningful sense. You will blink in the sunlight and realize that the clouds have cleared for good. And one year after that, as you sit on your bed writing this letter and holding back tears, you will realize that you have now lived without depression for longer than you ever have before. This, not your diploma or the times you made Dean’s List or the A papers you wrote, will be the only collegiate accomplishment of yours that will feel meaningful.

People will talk half-jokingly about how hard it is for college students to learn how to do their laundry and figure out what to eat in the dining hall and choose their major and whatever, but these procedural challenges will pale in comparison to the rest. Over the next four years you will have to learn how to get out of bed and do your schoolwork when you want to kill yourself, when to cut your losses and give up, what to do when it’s 4 AM and you still can’t stop crying, who to remove from your life when they violate your boundaries.

You will learn a thousand definitions of the world “failure,” because you will live all of them. All your life you’ve been told that you can do and be anything, but you’re about to learn exactly what your limits are. Depression will teach you humility and the ability to say, “I am good enough.”

I still don’t understand what went wrong, why everyone else loved it so much or, even if they didn’t always love it, at least felt that it was worth it. So I can’t really give you much advice, except this:

Do not be too quick to forgive. Few people will like the person who firmly enforces their personal boundaries and lets others know when they have crossed them. Be that person anyway.

Do not fall in love with any particular vision of your future. It can all collapse in a moment, and it will. Save your heartbreak for people.

If someone you’re falling for asks you to take a walk by the lake, say yes.

Stop being so fucking scared of professors! They’re almost all wonderful. The ones that aren’t will make that clear very quickly.

Everyone who seems older and wiser will tell you to take classes in subjects you know nothing about and don’t think you care about because “you never know.” No, don’t do that. That will end badly every time you do it. You know what you’re passionate about. Go study that.

Do not ever become one of those people who asks people what’s that book they’re reading, and then sadly says that you never have time to read anymore. Make time.

It is absolutely not necessary to feel like a “Wildcat” or to feel part of the “Northwestern community.” You will never feel this way, no matter how many items of clothing you buy at the school bookstore.

“Networking” is boring and awkward and useless. Be the best version of yourself–not of someone else–that you can be. People will notice and all of a sudden you’ll realize that you have “networked.”

Whatever weak attachment to ideas of “status” and “prestige” you still have will completely fall apart while you’re here, so you’re going to have to find another way of assessing your own accomplishments.

You’re going to have the impulse to like the people who smile and ask you about your summer plans in a very socially appropriate way, while fearing and feeling intimidated by the people who don’t have time for small talk. It’s the former you should be more worried about.

As I mentioned, most of the people you love will be far away. People often think that long-distance relationships (both romantic and platonic) involve a lot of sadness and missing the person terribly and Skyping with them all the time, but it won’t feel like that for you. You’re an “out of sight, out of mind” sort of person. Try to get used to this and accept that it’s okay to be this way, and it doesn’t mean you’re cold or heartless.

Stop apologizing for being “nerdy” or for acting “too enthusiastic” about something. People who are not nerdy or enthusiastic are literally boring as hell.

Dudes (come on, it’s almost always dudes) will try to harass and intimidate you for being outspoken. They will do this in the pages of the school newspaper, on the internet, and even in person. Shrug it off and observe with fascination how pathetic these dudes are.

Oh, and that little blog you’re starting this summer to rant about random shit? Keep it up. I’ll leave it at that for now.

And now forget everything I said and go figure it out for yourself.

Love,

Miri

11 comments

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  1. 1
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    You’re a hell of a writer, Miri.

    There’s a WHOLE LOT of me in what you wrote. I knew there was a reason our friendship felt natural and easy to me.

    I’m glad you decided to stick around. World’s better with you in it than not. :)

    1. 1.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Thanks so much, Caitie. :D

  2. 2
    Kate Donovan

    I love you. And in a few weeks, I’m going to give you a really huge hug. <3

    1. 2.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      I love you too. <3

  3. 3
    Karen Locke

    There seems to be something in my eye. No, scratch that, I’m really crying. So much of what you’ve written (except for the part about sexual assault) could have been a letter I wrote to my 21-year-old self graduating from college. Except that I didn’t understand that the melancholy was depression; that troubled me from childhood but didn’t get diagnosed until my mid-30s, when I came very close to a nervous breakdown. Back in college I tried so hard to fit in, but I was always the outlier. I was a woman studying in a male-dominated field (computer engineering) and the guys mostly had no time for me. I remember bursting into tears of relief when I consulted one of my professors on being a minority in the program, and he looked me in the eye and said “but you know more than they do”. College was painful. Friends were fleeting. The work was hard, the successes rare. (I was a A-/B+ student overall, and that never felt good enough.)

    Fast-forward 20 years. I was an engineering manager, getting mighty tired of fighting with men in my group who couldn’t take direction from a woman. My parents started to fail. It became necessary to work part-time so I could support them physically and emotionally, and then my company failed. I didn’t look for another job; I took on parent care as my job. They lived 75 minutes from me in non-commute time, so I ended up putting a lot of miles on the car as I spent time ferrying them to doctor appointments and shopping and getting home to fix dinner for Husband; living half there and half at home. Thank goodness we didn’t have children. When my mother died, we put an addition on our house so Dad could come live with us, and I started taking classes at my local state university in geology.

    Suddenly life became pleasurable again. Dad gave up driving voluntarily (yay!) and I didn’t mind ferrying him about. The geology classes encouraged a part of my brain I’d never used, and were mostly delightful. Rather than the “girl who didn’t know anything” I was regarded by classmates as the “lady who knew everything”. Totally different college experience. I could explain math to the math-impaired, and was at the top of most of my classes. When I had trouble on field trips keeping up or scaling an obstacle (I really am old and fat, as well as asthmatic) a dozen hands reached out to help. I had a bit of a problem finishing my thesis — I was really lost for awhile when Dad died — but I got my MS Geology in December of 2011.

    So I’m a geologist with enough health problems that I can’t work at the moment. I’m working full-time on my health. But my experience has convinced me that college is wasted on the just-out-of-high-school crowd. Find a job, even if it’s flipping burgers and you have to live at home, for a couple of years to let your brain sort out the inevitable tangle it finds itself in just out of high school. Ponder what you want to do, both from the standpoint of making a living wage and from the standpoint of what is it you want to do. Then get your first two years in at a local community college, where changing your mind is relatively cheap and you don’t have to deal with 500-student lecture halls and clueless TAs. I chose engineering out of high school because I like pondering problems and wanted a good wage; in retrospect, I have more of a scientific bent than an engineering one.

    That’s my story.

  4. 4
    rumblestiltsken

    Thanks Miri,

    that was really beautiful. Now I feel all maudlin. Congrats on graduations.

  5. 5
    Robert Arnow, Freeze Peach Inspector

    That was one of the most beautiful things I’ve read this year, darling. I can’t wait to see you again. I’m gonna go cry profusely to bed now, but know that I love you.

  6. 6
    oolon

    Really good, enjoyed reading it…

    (BTW, has anyone mentioned that this link in the sidebar impinges on the post text?
    “http://www.reddit.com/r/atheismplus/comments/1gp6yk/tell_kickstarter_not_to_fund_this_gross_book/camom8r”

    On Chrome – it breaks out of the sidebar and sticks out into the page)

    1. 6.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Oh, that’s silly. I’ll get rid of it when I’m on the computer. Thanks.

  7. 7
    imnotspecial

    I am a 72 year old grandfather and I never went to university. I have been reading your posts for some time now and find you fascinating. Congratulations.

  8. 8
    Christopher Lucas

    This is terrific, even inspiring. I really admire your emotional courage and self-awareness. Thank you for sharing.

  1. 9
    Occasional Link Roundup » Brute Reason

    [...] « The Letter I Didn’t Write [...]

  2. 10
    Telling the Truth About Shit | Boredom Breeds Contempt

    [...] when we talk about college we hear things like “it’s the best years of your life”. But Miri’s post about her college experience got me thinking: for a lot of us it isn’t. Unfortunately when we [...]

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