CN: brief mention of difficult life circumstances including abuse & trauma, general discussion of mental illness.
About a month ago, I was dinking around twitter when I saw the hashtag #DearMeTenYearsAgo. Woah. Where was I 10 years ago?
When I first saw this hashtag, I was about to turn 30, which is a big deal on its own, but 10 years before, the lead up to my 20th birthday had also been a big turning point in my life. Things were feeling good and stable for the first time, maybe ever, I had a great birthday party with my good friends, I had hopes for the future.
But then my lease ended and I moved into a studio apartment to live by myself for the first time, which worsened my mental health. My boss at work pressured me to quit, so I lost my job. My dysfunctional romantic relationship that had been on and off for about a year became dangerously abusive in ways that took me years to understand and much longer to recover from. The economy was crap, I had no job searching experience, and I ran out of money for rent before I could find a new job. I had to sell all my furniture, put most of my stuff into storage, and I lived with whatever friend would let me stay with them-- six locations in three months. The generosity of my friends and the fact that I successfully left my abusive relationship were the only reasons I wasn’t homeless.
Even after I found a job and a place of my own to live, things stayed survival oriented and chaotic for several more years: An eccentric landlady who communicated badly and had double standards for what she expected of me vs. herself; a brief but intense romantic relationship that thoroughly broke my heart when it ended; escaping the weird landlady and moving in with four people I didn’t know who were all somewhat dysfunctional and hard to interact with; losing my job and finding a new one that paid me illegally low wages and worked me so hard I had a nervous break down after five months. I turned 20 in 2009 and my life didn’t really stabilize until the end of 2011.
Imagining meeting myself at this point in my life, when I had recently enacted dramatic life shifts that were a partial catalyst for everything that was to come, knowing now that at that moment I was on the precipice of so much change, it gives me particularly powerful perspective on what I’ve learned in the past 10 years. If I were to speak to my Just-turning-20-self, this is what I would say.
Dear me ten years ago,
So, you’re about to turn 20. You’re enjoying your last few months of living in your first apartment with a close friend. Your trauma processing has settled a little bit, at least away from daily life-shattering realizations, and moved closer to the long slow healing part. Your romantic relationship is still pretty rough but you have hope that it will improve. You have a job that you like that pays pretty well and still leaves you plenty of time to do what you want to do (are you writing? You should do more of that.)
You feel like you’re starting to get a handle on life. This last year was so life-changing. You broke up with your deadbeat boyfriend and started dating someone new and exciting. You moved out of your parent’s house into your first apartment. You started college. Normal young adult stuff.
But you also did a lot of things most young adults don’t do. You confronted your parents about the problems in your relationship to try to fix them. You changed your major from what everyone thought you would end up doing to general education to learn about lots of different topics and find out what really interested you. You researched your health problems and found how to significantly improve a lot of them. For the first time in your life, you looked deep within yourself and listened to what you wanted. You had to learn what your own voice sounded like, you were so used to tuning it out.
You walked away from relationships that were causing you pain. You started financially supporting yourself. You dropped out of school. You uncovered and processed trauma. You went to therapy.
By the age of 20, you had accomplished more than many adults do in their entire lives, and every single one of those accomplishments was absolutely integral to your development as a person. I am so proud of you.
But I have to tell you, that feeling you have of finally getting a hold of life, finally settling into a rhythm of learning and improving, finally pursuing what you enjoy so that your life can gradually become richer and closer and closer to what you want it to be; that feeling is true for the moment, but it’s not going to last. You have so much more to do. And life has a lot more curveballs to throw at you before you’ll get to relax again.
Here’s what will be helpful for you (and to other 20-year-olds in a similar position) to know:
1. Don’t be afraid of taking medication to help with your mental illness.
It doesn’t cause scary artificial feelings of false happiness like you’ve been taught to believe. It’s actually really helpful and makes you feel like you’re more yourself.
2. Take care of your body.
I know that’s hard to do on the budget that you have and health care won’t be consistently accessible to you until a number of years into Obama’s presidency, and he hasn’t even been elected yet! But as much as you can, sleep the amount you need to; buy shoes that don’t hurt your feet; do yoga (while you still can) even if it’s just in your room on the carpet; learn how to cook-- the internet will teach you; get some veggies in your diet even if they are frozen; don’t be afraid of doctors; and take time to rest and recharge.
3. Lean into opportunities for art, music & creativity.
I know that you need some time to separate out your identity from the world’s expectations of you, and for a long time now you’ve been doing music and acting because that’s what you’ve always done and people think you’re good at it and you don’t know anymore if you actually enjoy doing it. But it actually is deeply important to you. It’s not shameful to embrace it just because it’s associated so heavily with your past. The memories and friendships that you will cherish mostly come from participating in community geared creative projects and the creation of different kinds of art will be soothing to your mental health. Let these opportunities come into your life.
4. Learn about labor laws.
A lot of small businesses don’t follow these closely and you might have to advocate for yourself to make sure you get the pay-rate and the breaks that you’re legally required to get. You are not a burden on your employer if you take a full lunch break. You do not have to be a non-stop work machine.
5. Your friends love you.
No, really. You have a large number of people who really really care about you. Some of these friendships will be developed online with people you’ll never meet and those friendships are just as important.
I know how deeply you’ve internalized that your friends don’t love you, that you’re a nuisance to them, that they tolerate you. It’s not true. There are plenty of people who will treat you with kindness, respect, and consideration. You don’t have to gravitate towards the ones who don’t.
6. Let your friends help you.
You’ll have to ask, as hard as that is, because you do such a good job of pretending that you’re fine, that they won’t always know when you need help. It’s okay to ask, it’s okay to say, “I don’t really know what I need right now, can you help me figure that out?” There are a lot of things you don’t know how to do, and you are about to go through a really hard couple of years, which you won’t be able to cope with on your own. Your friends want to help you. They want to see you succeed. Let them.
7. Therapy does help, but it takes time.
You are so used to being good at things quickly, at being able to produce results in a short amount of time. Mental health and behavioral patterns don’t work that way. You have to practice your new mental habits over and over again, and they slowly become more automatic, and occasionally you’ll have a big aha and take a big step forward and then other times, you’ll hit a wall and slide backward, and that’s all okay. Even when you lose progress, you will never stay in that regressed place for long. Give yourself time to heal.
8. You are capable of loving and receiving love.
Love does not have to be painful. Love does not have to be happy and perfect all the time. Love does not have to involve self-destruction or debilitating heartbreak in order to be real. You don’t have to rely on finding the one and only person who is capable of loving you/enabling you to love them. You don’t have to stay in a relationship out of fear of never finding another. There will always be more potential romantic connections.
9. Do more of what you love and what you are good at.
Write more. Accept that you’re good at writing and use that skill as much as you can. I promise, it’ll pay off later.
10. Life will always have ups and downs.
While you can expect your life to level out in a few years and get back to building up clear progress in different areas of your life--a good housing situation, financial stability, healthier romantic relationships, better mental health-- the road to self-improvement does not look like a consistent, stable increase, that just steadily lifts you to a better place in life.
You will have set-backs, big ones, again, and then again, and then yet again, and likely many more times beyond what Future-You (Me) is aware of. Life includes big ups and downs and none of those peaks and valleys are permanent.
Your life circumstances are the result of a million tiny variables, many of which were put into motion years ago, and most of which you have no control over. It is not a failing on your part that you have faced and will continue to face so many challenges. You could not have avoided them. Every time that you go through something painful, you’re going to get through it, and that alone is an incredible accomplishment.
While your growth will never feel like a steadily more positive state of being, you will continue to grow as a result of your setbacks. You won’t learn nearly as much about the world, the people close to you, or yourself, without them. Let them teach you. Let yourself be imperfect now so that you can be a better version of yourself-- me-- in the future.