Dear fourteen-year-old self,
When I was your age, I always thought if I eventually gave birth to a daughter, I would name her Elle. I don’t know you as well as I used to, but I was you. And because we once possessed the same body, I will call you L.
Fourteen-year-old Lauren avoiding first-day-of-school pictures.
I don’t wish I could change what I have done since I was your age, but I know what I wish I could’ve said to you. If we could meet and I could comfort you, I would do it the way we know best: sit somewhere with coffee and music and books, and then we’d go to a movie when the world is dark and the stars are bright where we would stuff our faces with buttery popcorn and drink so much soda we are convinced our stomachs will burst from carbonation.
But you are there and I am here and everything is different. I cannot take you to a movie with buttery popcorn just like I cannot change what I have done since I was fourteen. So I am left with words. You’ll learn how important these words will become. You’ll learn this soon.
Don’t forget to write. I know you keep that turquoise journal in your nightstand. Keep writing in it. Keep using those purple and aquamarine pens you love so much, and when you lose them or when the ink runs out, buy more if you can. The words you will write and string together and the patterns you’ll form will save you, L. You’ll begin to learn that when you feel inspired, you write in purple. When you’re anxious, you write in pencil. Eventually, when you go to college, you’ll write in black. Then, you’ll get bored with that so you’ll try to spice it up by writing in blue. Eventually, you’ll always write in pencil because your anxiety will seem to swallow you and erase your smile. But it won’t. You won’t let it.
Middle schools are messy. The loudness in the halls around you will try to stifle your voice, but don’t let it. I know you are an introvert, and I know you like to watch from the sidelines. Don’t be afraid to contribute to the noise. Shout and laugh. The world needs to hear you.
Experiencing stress is normal. You’ll scream and cry and your stomach will hurt and you’ll think you won’t be able to survive. You’ll think your Algebra test will crush you and everything you’ve worked for and you’ll think your teacher will be disappointed in you, but it won’t crush you. Your teacher won’t be disappointed. One test cannot ruin you. You’ll think that if you stay up into the early hours of the morning so you can study, you’ll perform better on your tests. You’ll think this until you’re in college. Then, you’ll learn that sleep is better than stress and it’s better to take care of your body than to try to pass an exam. You won’t pass if your brain is so tired all it can focus on is how your eyes feel like they’re burning and how badly you wish your chair were your bed. Stressing about grades and exams is much easier to handle when you’re awake than when you’re so tired you want to gouge out your eyes. Some people will romanticize losing sleep for the sake of productivity, but don’t listen to these people. Loving yourself is the most romantic thing you can do.
One boy will not ruin you. One girl will not ruin you. One person will not ruin you. They will mock you and they will frustrate you, but they will also love you and make you laugh. Love is fluid and all-consuming and it can be platonic, everlasting, and familial. You’ll think you cannot be happy without these people if they leave, but you can. You’ll even be happier. When you’re angry with them, tell them. When you want to be left alone, tell them. If you no longer love them, tell them. Just tell them.
Only you can allow yourself to heal. This responsibility does not lie with those whom you love or admire. This responsibility does not belong to your friends or your therapist or your significant other. Only you know what swims around your brain every night, enveloping your dreams and consuming your thoughts into the next morning. Allow others to help you. Allow yourself to open up and be vulnerable. Allow yourself to break apart and melt away and then reform. Allow yourself. When you need to cry, but you don’t want to appear weak, cry anyway. Sob. Cry so hard you can barely breathe. Take deep breaths. Wipe your tears away and then cry again. Expressing emotion shows strength and courage. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable shows your ability to empathize. You’re sometimes afraid of letting people know you need them, but tell them you need them. Let them know how they saved you. They come in the form of family members and friends and strangers and professors. You will meet them and you will remember them. You’ll be better for having known them.
Always say, “Thank you.” One day, you’ll think you say it too much, but then you’ll realize that isn’t possible. Expressing gratitude isn’t annoying or over-the-top or unnecessary. It shows you are a decent human being, and I believe you are.
You can never be too kind. Spread kindness everywhere you go. Walk slower so you can read the poetry hanging in the hallway. Hold doors open. Drive slower in neighborhoods. Spend more time writing and creating, L. Let people know when they make you feel comfortable or when you appreciate something they say or do. Let an author know when their words saved you. The world will not always be kind in return. Be kind anyway.
Stand up for injustices. Like I said, I know you’re an introvert. I still like to stand in the corner of the room near a plant for peace or near a door for a quick escape. But sometimes we have to put ourselves in uncomfortable situations. Walk in marches in twenty-degree weather. Wear extra mittens and layers. Tell others when they are being irrational bigots. Volunteer when you can. Donate when you find you have too much. Doing any of these might save a life.
Stop worrying about whether or not you should use a bookmark. You can dog-ear your pages. You can even write on them. Underline your favorite passages. Mark your favorite pages with colorful Post-Its. One day, you’ll open these books again and be thankful you were able to lose yourself in something as fragile and vulnerable as paper. Sometimes, vulnerability is our biggest strength. One day, you’ll be able to smile when you find these books buried in your bookshelf even when the notes in the margins were sad and lonely.
When you are torn between doing what is right and what is easy, think about your situation. Sometimes they are the same.
When the words aren’t coming and you’re alone in your room at 1 a.m. and the boy you like isn’t messaging you back, turn off your phone. Turn on your favorite song or your favorite movie. Burn a candle. Paint. Draw. Be messy. Create. Take a long, hot shower and sing your favorite Stevie Nicks anthem. Re-read your favorite book or your favorite series. I’ve recently started re-reading the Harry Potter series–yes, again–and I’ve been able to find peace. It’s okay to cry it out, too. If you need to, take a long, hot shower anyway, and curl yourself up and face the showerhead. Let the water fall on your face so you can no longer tell if your cheeks are wet from sadness or cleansing or warmth.
Feed yourself. Nourish your body. Allow it to become soft and strong. It’s your barrier and your protector from everything that tries to tear you apart. Starving it won’t make you stronger. It won’t prove your ability to handle stress–it will only show your inability to do so. You can’t starve away or purge away or carve away your sadness and grief and anxiety. You can only nourish your body with food and literature and writing and love and friendship.
Perfection doesn’t exist. Beauty exists, though, and it exists in the way you pet every dog you see, the way you hold the door open for strangers, the way you hug books when they tear you apart, and in your ability to be torn apart. Remember this. Charting your pounds and counting calories will never lead you to perfection, but they will help you master basic addition and subtraction. There are other ways to do this, like in how many cents and dollars you donate to charities and how many earbuds you lost because you listen to music everywhere you go and how many times you sang karaoke in college and how many times you wish you would have.
One day, you’ll sometimes find that all you need is a bottle of wine, a slow playlist, and a circle of friends to remind you of warmth. In the middle of the night, when the warmth you feel isn’t coming from the heater or the love in the room, but from your own body buzzing with each sip of wine, you will feel nostalgic. This nostalgia may cause you to drift away and remind you of when you believed the world to be innocent and pure, but try to stay grounded. It’s okay to be sad about the past, but remember the present. What happened to you is not your fault. Believe me, but above all, believe yourself.
If a man says, “We live too far apart. Let’s try this again when we graduate,” don’t see him when you graduate. Run far. Run fast. If a man tries to persuade you to do something you don’t want to do, don’t do it. If you do, don’t blame yourself. He is the one to blame.
Me too. You’ll soon know what this means if you don’t already, and it will break you. But glue exists and so do I and so does chocolate chip cookie dough. Trust me. I believe you.
Go forth with confidence and kindness, L. You’ll learn how much power lies within empathy, and you’ll understand the importance of spreading it everywhere you go. Sometimes you’ll wonder why you feel too much and you’ll wonder if feeling everything so immensely makes you weak. It doesn’t. It never will. You’ll be thankful for vulnerability one day. One day you’ll write about these feelings and emotions and you’ll reflect. When you realize how writing has saved you, you’ll find yourself at home.
With all the love I can give,