I sat down to write this piece knowing it would be difficult. But as always, I wanted to all the same in the hopes of realizing some personal wisdoms. That’s the best case scenario. In any case, I can only hope the words will come out as I want them to, and if not, to know that I have tried my best should suffice.
Throughout my teenage years I have met some of the people that have changed in the most glorious, cataclysmic way. But, like everyone, I have suffered. I have suffered at the hand of my mental and physical health, and on occasion, by those around me.
I am twenty-two years old. My grandmother would tell me that I shouldn’t have anything serious to regret at this stage of my life. I’m young still, she’d say. Too young, she might whisper to herself. To me, that sounds like the wisdom of old age underestimating the burdens of youth. I can only hope when I am that age I can have the perspective of both youth and age to know the true answer to accumulating regrets. So tentatively, I shall step into the somewhat cold and fearful embrace of my teenage self and whisper the truths that are my most significant testament to youth.
If you are reading this than you are likely my friend. Or at least you know me. Maybe we went to school together, or maybe we’re struggling through Final Year of our degree together. Regardless of who you are, all I can ask is that you read this with an open mind. I wrote this in the hopes that we would all benefit from it. You, as much as me. Thus, I invite you to think about those formative years of your life.
Here is my letter to my teenage self.
No one calls you Jennifer. I don’t know why I just did. Never mind.
This is both peculiar and marvelous at the same time. I am imagining myself sitting next to you in your favorite spot at the top of the hill near Nan’s house. (Spoiler: It’s still your favorite.) For some reason, it’s always dusk when you sit there, looking at an orange sky. You’ll be picking off some of the mint green paint on the pillars and watching millipedes on the walls. I feel as though I am a phantom looking in on a past person I don’t particularly relate to anymore. I’ve grown my hair out, stopped wearing jeggings and my face is a little less round. I’ve accumulated more allergies, illnesses, obsessions, and personal revelations. Perhaps most impressively, I’ve also cured my fear of lighting matches. Otherwise, all that’s changed is how I view the world and myself, which has in turn changed my world.
There are things that hindsight teaches us without mercy. As we sit in the classroom of life and watch our mistakes as though they were a gag real it is almost like watching the protagonist of a bad horror film enter the attic even though we know they shouldn’t. Predictable as dawn, but unstoppable nonetheless. The decisions of the past make no sense to the now wiser future. If we continue to view life this way, without reflections, we begin to lose context on how to reconcile who we once were with the person we are now. In essence, all of those people are connection and the separation is minimal. Lessons learned mesh into lessons we are learning. With that continuous and somewhat convoluted thought in mind, I will carry on with the list. So, as sixteen, seventeen, eighteen and nineteen will be the most challenging of your life to date, I will offer you, Jen, the snapshot lessons I learned by being utterly and wholly, you.
Let’s begin with a big one:
Don’t worry so much about missing the bus to school in the morning or about asking Mrs. Kirby for extra help in Irish. The world will still rotate and birds will still fly. You have my word.
Never pass your class tests for the gratitude of your parents or teachers. If you feel happier with another’s pride in achievements which are solely yours, then you will be setting yourself up to fail the biggest exam of all – self-esteem. Thankfully though, you can repeat that one until you get it right.
Don’t kiss that boy and get a throat infection a month into sixth year. You know which one I’m talking about. Just. Don’t. Even. Go. There.
Your best friends are beautiful in all that they are. Yet, your hair catches the same light theirs do, and you are all equally lovely. If each of us had spent more time thinking of each other during those years as much as we thought of ourselves, we could have saved ourselves a lot of drama.
Never underestimate the changes you can enact with your words. You own them, hone them and command them as easily as wind moves a leaf. There is magic there.
It’s okay to miss a day of seeing your grandmother in the Nursing Home if you can’t face the stagnant energy of the place and overwhelming sadness. She would understand. Recuperate and strengthen in those restful moments.
Speaking of your grandmother; learn all of words to Silent Night. She can tell when you’re repeating the same chorus to help her sleep, and so can the nurses on duty.
Death is not evil, neither is the illness that takes the person you loved. A disease wants to live and thrive, as much as we do. It is a natural reaction. Survival.
Blame is a directionless emotion, particularly when directed at the past.
Your sister moving to another country has astoundingly little to do with you. Be supportive, not wounded. Revel and understand the pain of her leaving, do not take this first step towards turning to ice.
If your friends are laughing at someone you are not obliged to take part. Focus on that feeling in the pit of your stomach. That feeling is rooted in kindness. Nurture it and help it grow.
Though you feel it, you do not literally have to be at war with yourself. In doing so you will dig your own rabbit hole of sadness and you will find yourself alone in the trenches.
When you have an idea for a novel in the back of maths in the Leaving Cert, ignore theorems and write it down. Revel in the excitement of that creative feeling. This is what will fuel your will to survive. That is the persistence which writers need. And you never know – someday that book might be another Leaving Cert student’s exam topic.
Never confuse intelligence with having an affinity for academia. The two are not mutually exclusive and neither make you less of a person. When you’re twenty-two nothing will matter less to you than those comparisons.
Be real with yourself, a career in pharmacy would have killed you and spread decay among the only part of you to ever make you feel alive; creativity. Trust that you know yourself more than those around you and far more than you think.
Take pictures but do not spend too long looking back at them just yet. The moment for reflection is not when the story is still being told.
Never drown the parts of yourself which continue to crack through the surface. Should an adult you love or admire be cruel, cutting or insulting, you have the right to speak up for yourself and others. You are not less for considering cruelty unacceptable, they are less for engaging with it.
You will grow into your school skirt just in time to graduate from the school. Don’t be bitter with your mother.
Your instinct is your ammunition against those you cannot trust. You are never wrong.
Badminton is the only thing that makes you feel as writing does – simultaneous elation and freedom. Illness may take the fundamental sport from you, but never those feelings. Never encapsulate your emotions into objects, experiences, or people. They are not nearly as eternal as the beauty you can craft from those self-born emotions.
You will find peace in characters in books. But remember that what you love in them, mirrors you. Never forget why you love Lilly in The Secret Life of Bees. You are not unlovable, despite your beliefs – nor was she.
“A rising tide carries all boats.” Those who face your successes with you will rise. Those who do not, you need not worry about as they shall not be concerned with you.
You are entirely justified to be as confused about the word ‘fridget’ as you were on the first day of Secondary School. Seriously.
Thank your German teacher, Mrs. Dowling for instilling a love of words and language in you which has only grown. Thank her seeing a future linguist in a sixteen-year-old who didn’t see anything in herself just yet. She won’t be around forever.
Don’t worry about learning how to publish a book just yet. All will become clear.
When it comes to choosing between a lifelong friend, and your morals – be glad you know yourself enough to understand that it is not a choice at all, nor is it a position you should have been placed in.
Don’t argue with your mother for time on the family laptop. Relish a time when there was only one in the room and together meant communal consciousness of each other.
The minute that food becomes an enemy and not a life-source, recognize that you have lost your objective view on your self-worth. I promise you, you are as wholly magical as you always were, and in time, you will find that magic.
The first breath on your first day of college will feel remarkably like that of school, which will be disappointing. What has changed is the number of possibilities you are willing to take which compound upon themselves every year until the number is too high to count and the action to valid to require a number.
Class parties are intimidating. I won’t deny that. But sometimes you will find what you need in the college bar over pitchers of beer. There is safety there.
Should someone be rude to you, they are handing you a choice – you can return their rudeness or live contently despite it. Only one of those options feeds your best self.
You hate salad. You’ll be a vegan and still hate it – and that’s okay.
You do not know physical pain just yet. But that is not an excuse to live without empathy for others. Within time, you will beg for that empathy and be surprised at its rarity.
Do not hero-worship anyone. That includes J.K. Rowling. No one deserves that level of awe and kindness from you, but you.
I promise you’ll learn to love baths. But if your heart is pounding super-fast, you should get out. Low blood pressure is only going to become more interesting a complication, which you too shall master.
Holly trees have thorns that hurt. It’s not a good idea to take your little cousins to see the berries. When you make eye contact with your Nan watching you through the window, it’s already too late to run. Yet sometimes it is better to ask for forgiveness, than permission.
Shame breeds shame. Should you listen to another’s opinion upon how vocal you should be about your own mental health, you are not as recovered as you think. Your mind has brought you to your knees, but only for mere moments. In those moments, you gathered strength. Now is the time to be another’s strength when they are on their knees. That cannot be achieved in silence.
You will be called blunt in college, just as you were in school. Yet what they don’t understand is that their definition of blunt is your definition of the honesty we all deserve.
However, not everyone works from the same rule book of life as you do. Your Junior Infants teacher has compared you to a Reverent Mother because you are so principled. But you have adopted negative connotations of this part of you since you were five-years-old. Principled does not mean stiff, uptight or rigid. You were simply aware of your morality from a young age. Knowing right from wrong is what the world needs, rather than mockings of such truths, so do not join in and laugh at yourself.
There will be parties during these years, before you took your sister’s ID, that will make you uncomfortable. You will persist to go to them claiming that the closing of your throat and the alienation you feel at the decisions of others is your fault. Once again, you’re wrong.
The world will begin to hand you the ability to demonize your own personality and appearance from the moment you enter to Age of Internet. For a while, you will play with fire. You will feel consumed. Yet this is my promise to you – you will never slip under the flames of such a dangerous minefield. You will become the flames and flesh out what threatens you with strength.
Here you are eighteen. This was the first time you started to become aware of just how little you knew.
That’s all for now. Thank you so much for reading, especially if you made it to the end.