When Mara reached out to me to participate in this year’s Teen Week, I had no idea what I’d say. None of the subjects spoke to me…my teenage years seemed too far in the past, even though last year’s letter to my teen self came so very easily.
How, in the course of just one year between ages 48 and 49, could I go from not only remembering – but also relating to – the pain of adolescence to having it be a foggy memory? A senior moment? Or maybe there’s a whole lot of growing up that has taken place since then. There’s a surprise for you…you never stop growing up!
And then I remembered something.
One day, back when I was relatively new to Facebook, I reached out to a high school classmate, a woman who had been a couple of classes behind me, and asked about her brother, who had been in my class (1980). He had an intense crush on me in sixth grade and had once drawn a beautiful heart with our initials in it and stuck it with tape to my locker. I don’t think we ever spoke two words to each other.
In high school our paths didn’t cross much but I remember thinking that he was a bit odd…and awkward. He was also a great artist. Turns out, he died when he was 35 of a cardiopulmonary embolism brought on by cancer he had no idea he had. His sister also told me that he’d had been diagnosed with schizophrenia while in high school.
At one point, as she I and compared stories about our teenage years, our families, the pain, the dysfunction, and how it felt back then, she responded: “The more I communicate with people from town, the more tragedy I find out. Was it something in the water there for God sakes?”
And I thought to myself…no, nothing in the water, it was just life. Everyone was going through the same stuff and yet we all felt so alone.
Since then I’ve compared notes with many of my fellow classmates…some of whom were close friends, others who were not. One thing on which pretty much everyone agrees, is that adolescence sucks.
The girls all felt “fat, ugly, insecure, and awkward,” even the girls who, on the outside, appeared to be the opposite of those things, and even the girls who were bullies. There were boys were “out of control” and had “discipline problems.” There were boys who, outwardly, were “fine,” but acted out in other ways.
It was a time when getting pregnant was an embarrassing matter and no one had ever heard of ADHD or eating disorders (although anorexia nervosa and bulimia were just starting to be talked about, but were very much misunderstood). It was a time when no one knew that so-and-so’s parents had gotten divorced, or that one’s mother had an affair, or this one’s father beat their mother, or that one’s brother was on drugs. There was so much shame and secrecy, which made it all ten times worse.
Nothing has really changed, has it. Except that we’re much more aware of these issues, and we talk about them a lot more. That’s good.
But there are a whole new set of pressures and variables, from the massive amounts of “information” and images to which we have access, to the way it is communicated and accessed. Bullying seems to have reached epidemic proportions…or maybe it’s just talked about a lot more?
Being a teen generally sucks. It always has and it probably always will. Whether you’re the all-star jock, the beauty queen, the bully, the “smart” one, or the loner. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s impossible to get through one’s teen years (and beyond) unscathed…without hating one’s body/appearance, without feeling insecure and awkward.
My point isn’t to tell you that it’s all pointless…that you might as well suck it up and give up any hope of a “normal,” (whatever that is) happy life full of potential and contentment.
The point is to tell you that the suckiness is temporary.
Between the hormonal changes and brain rewiring that happens in adolescence, the suckiness of adolescence is a given, but it’s not permanent. The key to getting through it is to understand that. To know that even when it feels hopeless (and it will) your feelings are not facts and they can not destroy you.
There will be adults in your life who will try to protect you – to make it all better, to keep you from feeling that horrid suckiness, but they can’t. And what they don’t realize is that it’s IN that pain and suckiness that your sense of self will take root and start to grow. And if they overprotect or overcontrol you, it will take longer. There is one thing I know for sure: nothing is better than coming out on the other side of adolescence having overcome the suckiness…and it’s given. It WILL happen. And the good news is that once you know what it feels like, you’ll be able to do it again and again. That’s where the victory lies…not in never feeling the suckiness, but in being able to overcome it sooner.
“The unending paradox is that we do learn through pain.” ― Madeleine L’Engle