(This essay is adapted from the June 16, 2014 Briar Woods High School Commencement speech delivered by me at the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Virginia.)
Thank you for sharing this awesome, auspicious day with me.
A few years ago, a close friend from high school, who had known me since I was 12 years old, offered an observation about my life that got my attention.
My friend told me: “You’ve had so many bad things happen to you.”
Her tone of voice made it clear she felt kinda sorry for me.
In many ways, my friend was right.
The first bad thing that happened to me: I grew up in a family with active alcoholism.
My mother was a smart, beautiful woman whom I adored and admired tremendously.
She got drunk every night of my childhood.
My mother was not a silly drunk.
She was a mean drunk.
When Mom had few rum and cokes in her, she called me a whore and chased my little brother with a kitchen knife.
Then, when I was 17 and a senior in high school, I became anorexic. I lost 40 pounds in a few months. I headed off to college weighing less than I had in fifth grade.
Anyone watching could have predicted that I would be kicked out of school, or hospitalized, or dead, within a few months.
Then, Bad Thing #3.
In my early 20s, I fell head over heels in love with and married a fascinating, talented, utterly brilliant man who had been beaten as a child by his stepfather. He proceeded to repeat the abuse with me. He beat me on our honeymoon, on Christmas Day, and on my birthday.
Alcoholism. A devastating eating disorder. Domestic violence.
Pretty bad stuff, right?
But let me tell you why my friend was wrong about my life.
My mother’s alcoholism showed me, up close and personal, how destructive drinking can be. Watching her addiction destroy our family, I vowed when I turned 18 that I wouldn’t let alcohol rule my life. I haven’t had a drink or taken a drug since that day.
When I got to college weighing 90 pounds, I realized that being anorexic was going to kill me. I wanted to live. I asked for help from people who understood eating disorders.
I recovered fully and graduated from Harvard College right on schedule. I wrote a personal essay about anorexia that was published in Seventeen Magazine. It launched my lifelong career as a writer and editor.
Last but definitely not least, falling in love with — and then leaving — a troubled, physically violent man taught me how important it is to put yourself first in life and in love. The memoir I wrote about domestic violence, Crazy Love, became a New York Times bestseller and a TEDTALK that millions of people around the world have seen.
So: my words of wisdom for you, on this beautiful, exciting, highly memorable day in your young life: Embrace your personal problems.
This advice applies to parents, too – don’t let your kids’ troubles, or your own, shame you.
Be proud of the cards life deals you. Everybody gets some terrible hands. Obstacles and tragedies can actually be wonderful opportunities to discover your own courage.
For the record, you can make a lot of mistakes in life and still grow up and leave the hard times behind you. Especially if you have a little help from friends and adults — teachers, parents, coaches — who believe in you, when you are not able to believe in yourself.
ALWAYS ask for help; always tell others your problems. You are NEVER alone. I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t asked for help, or if I hadn’t gotten it.
So if you find any of these challenges in your life, common problems that so many people experience yet we are still unnecessarily ashamed about — alcoholism, addiction, eating disorders, family violence, sexual assault – remember me.
Like me, in your life you WILL face and solve seemingly unsolvable problems. One day you will be like me, standing here today in front of you. With my degrees from Harvard and Wharton, my three amazing kids, my TED Talk, my three bestselling books.
And most of all, peace in my heart.
Always face life head on — on life’s terms, on your own terms, with hope and forgiveness in your heart.
And with laughter — joyful or cynical laughter–but laughter at all costs.
If you want to be happy in life, no one can stop you.