Baby girl no one’s gonna feel the pain for you.
—Lorde, “Secrets from a Girl”
The eyes and the faces all turned themselves toward me,
and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread,
I stepped into the room.
—Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Once upon a time, on the precipice of turning 20, a girl spread your cards into a strategic formation across the table at a booth in a restaurant. She told you to think of a question. (What do you want me to know?) And, after she got done flipping your cards over, one by one—after she told you all about your life in great detail—she broke the news: “All of your cards lead to the devil card.” Of course, you thought. “What does that mean?” you asked. And she told you with the widest smile, “You’re gonna fail.” So, it was true. Everything you’d always suspected about yourself: failure, your biggest fear, was your fate after all. You held onto the negative outcome, and forgot about everything else; like you always did, with everything, you allowed the worst of it to define you. Now, I guess I’m here to tell you, it’s true: A lot of people graduate from high school with some idea of who they are, but you are not one of those people. When you were sixteen, you wrote: There’s no right or wrong, you just have to live. And, afterward, you felt guilty about the ambivalence lurking inside your heart; you felt malleable and insubstantial, like the center of a chocolate candy. Now, I’m here to tell you: You’re going to spend a decade unlearning that guilt—this is the consequence of spending a childhood and adolescence trying to be someone different from who you are. Away at college, in your second semester, you wrote: If you think about it, everyone spends their entire lives defining themselves by their parents. Whether it’s by rebelling or obeying them to a fault. Our parents lay down the guidelines for our lives; either for us to cross them, or to stay safely tucked away behind them. And so we’ve created these mental safe spaces that keep our lives in check, and our sanity from spinning out of control. Then you leave home, and that’s not there anymore. You have nothing concrete to represent who you are, or where you come from, and it’s blissful freedom until suddenly you don’t feel quite right, and you start to wonder whether you should be living your life differently. (An IG psychologist has listed this as an “inner-child” fantasy: “If I judge & criticize myself enough, I can get myself to behave differently.”) Differently, Differently, Differently… it reverberates through you like a mantra. It won’t occur to you until you’re 26 that maybe it’s just not possible to correct yourself: you either remain stuck inside other people’s expectations, or you grow into what you are; you learn to accept the blind spots in your character. Now, I’m here to tell you definitively: There’s no such thing as Differently, there’s just Your Best—which is exactly what you’ve always done, even when it wasn’t enough. And I don’t want to tell you not to worry. I don’t want to tell you it gets better. But: Don’t worry. Or worry. Keep heart. Consider killing yourself. It does and it doesn’t get better! (I guess you’re always going to be a little ambivalent.) At the very least, here’s one thing that’s concrete: It is very difficult for anyone to be a decent person in their twenties. At 24, you held a gun to your identity; you played russian roulette with a mysterious mixture of downers and uppers. And then, in a hospital bed, you felt like you had no one to call. (You’ll deem it the worst year of your life, and someone will ask you: “Really? Why?” And it’ll never stop bothering you, wondering how it was possible that they didn’t know.) Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. You try to treat everyone you meet as if they are fighting a battle you know nothing about, and you often fail—because you, yourself, are fighting a battle you know nothing about. You find a therapist who says: “No one has suffered from this more than you.” (Someone will suggest rearranging your room as an antidote, and you’ll realize how resigned you are; it’ll feel like you’re never allowed to be going through it, and the fact that you’re going through it is just a problem with your perspective, not the result of something seriously wrong having been done to you; like it’s always supposed to be as simple as scooting a chair from point A to point B, and: Voila! Who are you to suffer? Don’t you know how lucky you are? You feel like someone is crushing your ribs in, one by one, having your reasons invalidated like that. Would it have killed them to just ask you “What’s wrong?” without criticizing your response; without the pretense always being: What’s wrong with you?) You have recurring nightmares where you hysterically beg your loved ones to listen to you, and your therapist says: “They may never understand what you were going through, and you have to learn how to live with that.” Your absolute best during the worst point in your life just wasn’t enough for so many important people, but it had to be enough for you because: In sickness and in health, til’ death do you part, your choices are your choices. What else was there? Now, I’m here to tell you about the best and worst part of life: No one can ever know what it’s like to be you. I’m not real, you thought, on more than one occasion. As you stretched the skin beneath your eyes, and almost passed out upon the sight of your own reflection, you thought: I have loved so many people, and none of them think of me as a person. And, to be honest, you were right about a lot of them; you were right to give them the ax, swift and quick. (A guy will tell you that he thinks you’re “kind of a bitch” and it’ll undo the tens of people who once called you “too nice”; another will say “you put yourself out there too much”; “you’re too opinionated”; “you’re too intense…” Too-Too, Too-Too, on and on, like another useless mantra.) And, sure, maybe you were wrong to scream at some of them as if Satan had always been waiting to jump from your throat. But it felt good to lend your own rage credence like that, didn’t it? Now, I’m here to tell you: The bullies—the abusers and the manipulators—never really go away, you just stop listening to them; they have nothing new to say. You shrink them down to size and learn to ignore them with a set of simple understandings: They’re bored. They’re hurting. They want something that you have. They have no other way to be. (A professor—a man with a PhD—will tell you to go home and accept your place in life as a nobody; so you’ll go home and claim your place at a bar stool next to a nameless junkie. He’ll ask you about your life. He’ll say, “Baby, you don’t belong here.” And you’ll realize that the people who “do everything right” are full of shit.) Such is life: people are disappointing, and you’re kind of disappointing too. It’s true: everyone is just doing what they need to do, or what they think they need to do, in order to survive—including you. So who could blame anyone for being so awful? When we’re all stumbling around like newborn fawns, stepping on each other’s hooves—we’re all pained and confused, born to become prey. Now, I’m here to tell you: The cruelty of others isn’t what’s shocking—the discovery channel has shown you that much. What’s shocking is that, despite humanity being so vast and varied, we find it in our hearts to tolerate—to like, to love—anyone. (You’ve never been very good at forgiveness; your heart has always been a clenched fist holding on to so many disappointments. But the death of a friend will loosen that grip; what you thought was heartbreak wasn’t heartbreak after all—not like this—and suddenly so many grievances will become completely irrelevant. You’ll realize that, day after day, we fail to adequately communicate what we mean to one another out of pride and shame. And you’ll wonder whether it’s better to be foolish; to detonate the whole thing and just say it—what you mean.) Now, I’m here to tell you: You can’t cheat grief, and—besides—avoiding the loss of love won’t make the inevitability of it hurt any less. We’re all going to die. What’s the risk of rejection compared to a truth like that? And, so, I guess it’s true: The scope of possibility does become an ever-shrinking pinhole with time and age, and, yes—you should be afraid. More than once, you have found yourself standing beneath Sylvia Plath’s anecdotal fig tree—the purgatory of your adolescent nightmares—watching the fruit fall, losing your mind trying to salvage all that wasted potential. Wondering: Could it have gone any differently? (There it is again: Differently.) There were so many roadblocks: unresolved traumas, an undiagnosed mental illness, abusive boyfriends, a struggle with alcoholism, blown cash, more drugs than you could’ve possibly anticipated… (In the dark, with “Closer” by The Chainsmokers blaring at the highest volume, you’ll make out the face of someone you once thought you loved. He’ll have snuff stuck between his teeth like black licorice, and you’ll think he sort of looks like a jack-o-lantern. You’ll realize there was a time when you longed to taste the bitterness of that candy in some defiant act of self-detriment; when you believed the back of your head pitched through his garage window would’ve been preferable to any amount of better judgment. And, somehow, despite all that—the pining and the whining and the waiting—the rekindled flame—the unresolved rage—you’ll just feel tired. He’ll seem so ordinary; the whole thing will feel so anticlimactic. It’ll hit you. The reality of everything you’ve ever romanticized is this: No graduation ceremony was ever as sad as it should’ve been.) Time after time, you followed your nose all the way home, and walked through the door with your tail between your legs, reduced to an animal finally admitting that it needs others to get warm; you shook off the residue of your second life and licked your wounds; you curled up at the foot of your parents bed and promised that—this time—you’d be different. (At 24, you will experience the very first break in the bond with your mother, like a distant twig snapping from underneath some nameless beast’s foot out in the woods; except it’ll feel more crushing than that, like losing a religion you would’ve died for. [There is a proverb: “God could not be everywhere, therefore he made mothers.”] She’ll read The Little Red Hen, and her voice will crack, and you’ll hate yourself for being one more lazy animal in her roost. You’ll write about carrying her pain around inside you like a jammed locket, lodged in the back of your throat; how, if you could have one wish, it would be to cough it up and pry it open and show her her own love.) But there’s no use in force feeding you old figs from the ground, telling you about all the things you already know about. And, besides, I’m not here to count your failures. I’m here to tell you about everything—including the things you got right. So, here you go… (You’ll internalize your big sister’s advice: “We are given this one life.” You’ll study abroad, even though that not-so-great boyfriend doesn’t want you to. You’ll graduate with honors, even as you’re ripped in half by the waxing and waning poles of an undiagnosed mental illness; even as a professor harasses you. [Yes, you did that.] You’ll leave the one who threw a half-full beer can in your direction. [You got the message, loud and clear: It works until it doesn’t.] You won’t regret the time you got drunk, fell out of your shoes, and stood up to your best friend—even though it still baffles you, even though it still hurts. [How humiliating.] Your father will take your hand, and you’ll think: You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. You will cry and laugh at yourself as you eat an ice cream sandwich in the bathtub; because of your self-indulgence, the tone deafness of your own privilege; how these little luxuries still fail to provide any adequate consolation. You’ll be impatient and critical of your inability to “let that shit go”; and, still, no amount of personal inventory will make you shut up about the loss. So you’ll write the same stories, over and over again, until you don’t need to anymore. [Yes, there will come a time when you won’t need to anymore.] You’ll realize that where you are is where you need to be, because: What other choice do you have? You’ll turn the devil card on its head, and then you’ll rip the thing to shreds. You’ll step off the merry-go-round; pay homage to Joan Didion by saying, “Goodbye to all that.” You’ll stagger around, dizzy and filled with motion sickness; until, finally, you’ll sober up. [No, literally. You quit drinking at 28.] The base of Sylvia Plath’s fig tree will come sharply into focus, and you’ll look up; squinting your eyes, past all the shriveled fruit, among the tree branches, you will show your mother so many goldfinches.)
2 thoughts on “Self Help For My Twenty Something Year Old Self”
“And you’ll realize that the people who “do everything right” are full of shit.) Such is life: people are disappointing, and you’re kind of disappointing too. It’s true: everyone is just doing what they need to do, or what they think they need to do, in order to survive—including you… You’ll study abroad, even though that not-so-great boyfriend doesn’t want you to. You’ll graduate with honors, even as you’re ripped in half by the waxing and waning poles of an undiagnosed mental illness; even as a professor harasses you.”
Love this, Cat. A very well-spoken and honest piece here. Most of what we understand is the “right” path or seeing how people have it together is always shown to be an illusion. We wake up, do our daily routines, and survive. Nothing more or less, and not a soul – not that PhD professor nor family member – is worth any more or any less than anyone else; they are doing all they can to survive too and respecting that without imposition or shame is key. Maybe that old flame won’t come back, but self-dependence and trusting others go hand in hand, recoverable. And at the same time, meditating on this point ironically makes letting go difficult. Accomplishments on any level, merits and even the bonds we share with people are often forgotten or uncelebrated due to factors out of our control. When honesty meets respect, bluntness devoid of its bitter fruit, we will have people who we can communicate with on that special level, who will know how we feel about them and hear their words in kind. While I’m a passing visitor here, my condolences for your lost loved ones, bonds and possible outlooks. However, your realist view on moving forward anyway is so refreshing; none of that go outside, travel the world bit most sites write, but encourages sobering up and coming to terms with the truth. Sometimes it’s okay to not know what to do or where to go, so long as you’re honest with yourself and know that letting go of the past is both possible and acceptably painstaking.
We really do have this one life, lets make it count.
Hi Nick, I know this is kind of late… but I just wanted to thank you for such a thoughtful response. Your kind words mean so much to me. Thank you for commenting!