Letter to my teenage self
Photo: T. Sunday / Illustration: Erin McPhee
First things first: let’s talk about your style choices. This little phase will be thankfully short-lived, but I still need to make clear that fluorescent orange is a colour you wear when you’re hiking in the woods so that a hunter doesn’t mistake you for wild game. It is not fashionable!
You’ll also find that you have an on-and-off urge to experiment with boxed hair dyes. I won’t try to stop you, but just know that going from blue-black to dark red will require a short stop-over at bright yellow – much the colour of pee (if you’ve taken a multivitamin that day). You’ll be having a few problems with fluorescents, it seems.
The good news is that when you look back at the few photos you have from your early teens, you’ll have no choice but to laugh, which is great, since your late teens will be heavily peppered with depression. Seriously. And, I want to tell you that everything will work itself out. I want to say to you that wounds will heal and scars will all but disappear, that relationships will mend themselves.
But, truth be told, the people in your life don’t change much, and the relationships you have with those toxic people don’t change much either. The only thing that changes is you; how you deal, the way your values and politics develop, the way you care about yourself, and the standards you hold for the people around you (hint: you don’t take anyone’s shit anymore).
This means exactly what you think it means; to choose to stop tolerating abuse you’ll have to put an end to a lot of sad and problematic family relationships. It’s not an easy thing to do – you’ll try and fail pitifully, again and again until you figure it out – but it is, without a doubt, the best thing for you. In fact, you’ll wish you’d done it sooner, like, at birth.
But, as I said, it’s not easy. Creating a safe space for yourself can be a slow, lonely process. At times, it can lead to vulnerability and, unfortunately, there are people who will take advantage of that. They can be subtle. They can leave you feeling confused, wondering if what you think just happened actually did happen (it did). With just a few words they can silence you, or keep you from leaving: “You know my dad was a cop in this town, right? They don’t even give me speeding tickets.” Translation: Don’t bother going to the police, you’ll get nowhere. “You’re all alone, but I can be like family to you.” Translation: You can’t leave, because I’m all you have. The person who does and says these repulsive things can be your boyfriend, and he can fool you, for a long while, into thinking he’s a good guy.
Here are some ways that you can become stronger, more independent, and less susceptible to manipulations by disgusting bottom-feeders like him: Remind yourself that you deserve respect. Be compassionate; give yourself the same advice that you’d give your best friend if she were in your situation. Know your worth – it will keep you from seeking validation. Realize that being alone is better than trading your dignity for company. Understand that real love and support do not come at a physical or emotional cost.
If this kind of garbage still happens to you, despite this very meta, past/future-changing letter, just know that you’ll be okay. Let it be a lesson and a message of caution, but don’t let it define you. Don’t let it stop you from connecting with people. Yeah, some guys are actually the worst, but there are others who believe in equality, and are willing to learn about feminism. Spoiler alert: You’ll meet someone amazing to spend your life with, and he will listen raptly to your long and poignant feminist rants. You will travel together, to incredible places, and you will support each other through everything. In short, you will love each other intensely.
Now, let’s talk about those jagweeds who exclude you or make fun of you, and the teachers who treat you like you’re just some unruly child telling stories to get out of doing work. The thing is, you’re dealing with issues now that many of your peers, and even teachers, will never have to deal with in their lives. When they look down on you for being poor, for having family problems, for any facet of who you are, just know that they’re in a different world than you, and they judge you from a place of privilege and very limited understanding. Don’t base your self-worth on your grades; it’s pretty clear that most of your teachers would likely get a giant F on any of the real-life tasks you’ve already aced. Know yourself. Don’t let anyone’s gaze or whisper make you ashamed.
Focus on the positives; spend more time thinking about the ways in which you’re lucky. You have a few wonderful friends, and there are some special teachers you’ve bonded with. You are physically healthy and able. Being happy can be tough, but it’s up to you to make it happen. Despite what your mother tells you, there’s no shame in therapy or medication. It will be extremely useful to you in the future and you’ll wish you’d done it sooner, so fuck what anyone else says and just take care of yourself!
The things that are important to you now – working, paying your rent, taking care of yourself, getting out, and getting an education – seem pretty basic, but they’re actually a really big deal. I know you’ll hate me/yourself for saying this, but I’m proud of you for recognizing what you needed to do and getting it done on your own.
It’s tough to keep yourself from getting tunnel vision, but while you’re looking out for yourself, don’t forget about the people you love; be a good sister, and friend, because you won’t always have a chance to make it up. Spend more time with your brothers. Really talk to them, and never leave them behind. Let them know you care. They have problems of their own, and maybe you can help. Now I’m finding myself really wishing that this letter had the power to change your future and, by association, change your brothers’ lives. Unfortunately, hindsight, and the lessons I’ve learned can’t undo mistakes I’ve already made, and that’s something I have to live with. Depression is a horrible disease, and the grief that comes from losing someone to depression is intense and lasting. If you see someone struggling, go to the ends of the earth to help them, and never give up.
Life is joy, love, pain, and regret. There have been some incredible times for you, and trying times too. I thank you for powering through even when you thought you didn’t stand a chance. Thank you for finding the fun in things even when other areas of your life were crumbling. You toughed it out, and you pushed forward to a great place. It wasn’t easy, but it was/is worth it!