Saturday, 21 June 2014

surviving adolescence: 5 things I learned.

I was thinking recently about my experience of adolescence, for a project I'm working on. I know that everyone's experience is not the same.  Some people seem to skip through it, but my experience of adolescence was visceral, emotional, and awful. 

I would only wish it on terrible criminals, as a punishment; but I would not wish it on my own children, whose process of changing from chubby-cheeked children into amazing adults I would wish to be smooth, and cheerful... I can wish.

I wonder now if I might not have become mentally deranged. I could certainly have used more help, but would I have accepted it?

Adolescence happened to me. Ripping apart that young girl with the pain of menstrual cramps, and a healthy dose of self loathing. I covered my mirrors. I did not want to see this chubby blonde girl whom I loathed for her imperfections. I cried a lot. I tried not to eat. I would only allow myself 750 calories a day, and would measure out all my food, eating with toy cutlery so I didn't take big mouthfuls.

I exercised, alone in my room. Following the instructions of the Canadian Air Force workout book I'd found on my parents bookshelves, then putting a New Model Army single on my record player, loud, and dancing as fast as I could to use up calories, because yes, my music had changed. I now had the darkness of Goth and the glorious abandon of folk rock by my side. I had gone into my bedroom a chubby, geeky girl. I came out angular and angry. 

My transition was painful. I almost died. My parents lost their patience with my pain and told me to not be ridiculous when I threatened suicide. The friends I'd had since childhood fell away, and I made new ones. 

Me, age 16. Not a happy camper.
Photo by Dave Edwards.
I dyed my hair from blonde to black, and dyed all my clothes too. I scrawled song lyrics on my bedroom walls, in loopy handwriting fast becoming illegible. I no longer went to school unless I wanted to. I no longer subjected myself to the rigours of school 'games' lessons.

I felt unloved and unlovable, and oh I made it hard to love me. 

Then I knew all about my faults, but now that my friends have teenage children I have learnt better than to consider it my 'fault'. I feel bad for that girl. She was going through hell. I knew I wasn't alone - some of my friends were suicidal as well, but I'm glad that we still seemed pretty unusual. I hate to think what I might have done if feeling like that had seemed normal. I hate to think of what my children might go through if they find a larger pool of people who feel like that.

We know now that teenagers cannot help but be impetuous (you'll find a link to Sarah-Jayne Blakemore talking about the teenage brain here).  The part of the brain that helps us make reasoned decisions develops as much in teenagers as it does in toddlers, and neither age is known for its reasonableness.  Besides, I quite liked that impetuousness.  It was a lot of fun, and I needed some fun.

I like to think that we learn stuff from going through difficult experiences, I mean, you've got to hope you get something out of it, right?  Adolescence was certainly difficult. So what did I learn?

Well, at the time, it didn't feel like much. It's only just now, writing this stuff down, that I've thought that maybe I wasn't right in the head.  Maybe it didn't have to be quite that awful.  I wouldn't go back and try it another way though!

But with the benefit of hindsight, this is what I've learned from surviving adolescence:
  1. There is nothing wrong with style over substance.  Substance will come. You can remake yourself with hair dye, diet, and clothes, and you can fake the attitude until you realise you actually have it.  It works.  And people believe it.  You should have heard the rumours about me at my school after I started dyeing things black; some of you did. They impressed me with their inventiveness, and I did not deny them, because they gave me a certain cachet, which was not a bad thing to have. However, 750 calories a day is bonkers (and, just to be clear, my parents did try really hard to do something about that). Teens need a healthy diet. So does everyone else.
  2. The people who are your friends in difficult times are really quite special.  Friends for me come and go. I wouldn't want everyone to stick by me for life; but the people who've been with me the longest, with whom I can be hateful and they won't even flinch, are the friends I was with through those dark days of adolescence.  You know who you are and I love you.
  3. There is more to life than grades.  My losing my way in my teens meant dropping from a straight A student to someone who got mostly Bs (and the occasional D).  It meant I didn't go to Oxbridge, as I'd envisaged, but I've still got a Masters from a great university (hello Leeds!). I've done fine. Some things do require you to do very well first time at school, but most things don't.  You can usually try again later (sometimes much later), and there are other things you can do.
  4. Snogging is fun. But it hurts people's feelings if you do it when you shouldn't.  On a related point, the longer you can stick to snogging the better, because once you've had sex you can't unhave it, and it's a whole lot more complicated.  There's a reason widows used to have a bad rep.
  5. When you're in adolescence your judgement is crap.  It's not your fault, it's a brain development thing.  Do not go into the alleyway with that man you've just met.  To try to make up for your crap judgement, stick with a mate and tell them what you're doing.  And do the same for them.  If you have been stupid and you are in a dangerous situation, then get violent and get out of there.  No one has the right.
I am very glad I'm a happily married woman and I don't have to do the whole snogging new people, or defending my honour down alleyways thing any more. As for style over substance, I am still faking it, and occasionally I own it.

What about you?  Was your adolesence hard work or did you breeze through?  And what do you reckon you learned from it?

Other posts you might like:
The book challenge
Words at 20/6/14 - 90,500.  Yay!  I've broken the 90,000 barrier!
51,500 words done since the challenge began! 9,000 this month.
Where I'm at in First Draft - Chapter 20.
What I did last - The heroine at a party.