Dear Nineteen Year Old Shalini;
I’m writing this to you fifteen years in the future, so hold on to your hat. I know, you never wear hats because your hair is too big for that, but just go with it. I know things seem a little bleak right now. I know you’re thinking about dropping out of college at this very moment, even though you’ve got a decent GPA and an employable skill set. I know you think life could not possibly get worse. I have some news for you: you’re correct. This is the bottom. It is bleak and dark and miserable. This year is terrible. This year is awful. You’re in the thick of horrible things. This is the year you confront not only your friends and family about being sexually assaulted, it’s the year you really confront it yourself. This is the year you don’t eat for days. This is the year where you sleep for days in a row, and then not at all. You don’t do so well at your classes, either.
But guess what? This is the bottom. That means that everything afterwards is better. I know that can’t be all that reassuring from the bottom, but trust me on this: your life is so good. There are some dark spots, but honestly, you can do this. You can climb out.
But let’s focus on you and the good things about 1998 for a few minutes. You get to do some fun things, like start one of the best jobs you’ll ever have, as a resident advisor. Let me explain this to you: any job where you get to watch skits where your coworkers rip each other’s pants off in front of a live audience is a good job. Any job where one of your coworkers tries to make you laugh by making fun of all the sorority girls on your floor is a good job. You work with excellent people who have your back. Feel free to enjoy every single minute of it.
You will laugh a lot, and it turns out that laughter and joking is a coping mechanism for dealing with trauma. Guess what? Laughter is not just any mechanism, it is the best coping mechanism. Use it often, because it will bring other things to your life: funny people, fun books, funny shows, and it turns out that you, yourself, are kind of hilarious. It turns out there are a few hundred people on the Internet (that’s a thing, right? If not: spoiler alert! The Internet is a Big Thing; buy big in Apple and Google. Trust me) that think you’re kind of funny, too.
Also, I don’t want to be that old lady who harps on younger ones, but in 1998 you weigh about 120 pounds and are 5 foot 7. Girl, you will never weigh 120 pounds again. I wish you would go out and wear a bikini every single day, even in the middle of Illinois winter. You are smokin’. You have no idea, of course, because you’re in the thick of it, but honestly. One. Hundred. Twenty. Pounds. And no, don’t ask what almost-thirty-four-year-old you weighs. The answer is, “You’ll find out in 2012, and yes, I DID need to eat that carrot cake and no, there’s nothing you can do about those stretch marks.”
I know you’re conflicted about boys, too. You think that douche bag who kind of liked you is the best it gets. You think that all men think you’re invisible. You’re also pretty terrified of them. You think maybe if you could just be a little prettier or stylish or smarter or outgoing that life would be better. You’re also not going to believe this old-lady-ism from me, but you’re already awesome. You’re already amazing. You’re going to figure it out next year, too. You can’t see it now, but next year you’re going to have boys trying to date you all the time. One guy will even take swimming lessons with you just to hang out with you. He will read books you suggest just to talk to you. You will find out much too late that he is in love with you.
And he won’t be the only one. There will be a few. I know you don’t believe me, because you hate yourself now. When you climb out of that hole, you’ll find out that you clean up pretty well. You’re awfully pretty when you wear makeup, as our mom would tell us.
Spoiler alert! You meet your husband in a few months. (It is not the boy who takes swimming lessons with you. I don’t actually know what happens to that boy, but hopefully all good things.) Your husband will be better looking than that douche bag you think is the best you can do. (Another spoiler alert: he keeps getting better looking, because men do that, because they are jerks. And you are lucky.) He is also kind and smart and laughs at all of your jokes, even the terrible ones, because you make him, and he’s alright with that. He does not pull out the chair for you or get you flowers or open your door, which is good, because it turns out you hate that shit. But he does fix all the broken things in your house, play with your kids every free minute he gets, and love you a lot more than you think you deserve. (Spoiler alert: you deserve it.) So, yes, you get married. You get a Happily Ever After, but marriage is not really all that it’s cracked up to be. Love is wonderful, but it is not the magical problem-solver people tell you it is.
You know what the magic problem solver is? You. Your self-esteem. Confidence. Love. Not the kind for another person, the kind for yourself. Belief in the world. Belief in good things. Here is something I remember about you at nineteen: you are in that dark, bleak hole, and you still believe in good things. That is what ends up pulling you out. The good things like friendship, and true love, and brownies. You’re going to eat a lot of brownies. (I told you you wouldn’t be 120 pounds much longer.) They are going to heal your soul, very slowly. You are going to meet even more wonderful people who are like you, who have been in the exact same hole as you, who can tell you how to get it. They will draw you a virtual map for your heart to guide you out. And you’ll do it.
And more, you’re going to do other big things, besides True Love, and being read on the Internet (in case you’re wondering, the Internet is cat pictures and porn, essentially, with a little bit of other stuff thrown in). You’re going to go to graduate school. You’re going to be a mom. You’re going to have a few careers. I won’t tell you what they are, because finding out for yourself is one of the best discoveries of your life. You’re going to live in an old, mostly broken-down house that you adore. It’s a lot like It’s a Wonderful Life, to be honest. Your life is so good.
The most important thing is this: you are strong. You don’t believe me, I know, because other people will tell you this and you won’t believe them. You’re skinny and tiny and a shrinking violet of a personality. You have zero confidence. Your throat goes dry at the thought of public speaking. You think you’re ugly and an awful human being, a bottom-feeder of souls. It’s not true. The truth is that you will meet so many people in your life, and very few of them will have done what you did: climb out from the bottom with amazing grace, with strength, with success, and find happiness. Better: you stay happy. You know the secret after a little bit, and that is something you’ll hear this week, when you’re almost-34.
The secret is to remain unstained by the world. Some religious people will tell you that this means to not commit sins, whatever that means to them, to remain pure in your actions and in your heart, but that’s not what it will mean to you. It really means that the world is still a good place to you, even after everything you have been through, and what you’ll have to go through after this. You know of some of the worst of humanity, both in yourself and other people, but you know that above it all, every single person has a soul, a good, shining one. Especially you.