(Content warning: mentions of depression and suicide.)
When I was a depressed, self-hating and all together messed up teenager, adults used to think they were being comforting and helpful when they told me that these were the best years of my life! I responded, entirely seriously, “you mean it gets worse!?”
Only it doesn’t. I really have no idea where people get this cliché from that school years are the best of your life. Perhaps people who had really perfect idyllic childhoods, but even then…
You know what? If I’d really believed it was only going to get worse, I would have killed myself.
I had a really difficult time as a kid and teen. Ridicule and attacks followed me everywhere I went. I always had few to no friends. I was horribly, desperately lonely. At fourteen, I fell into the arms of the first boy who promised to look after me, because I so badly wanted to believe that somebody would. When that ended, my world seemed to collapse in on itself – not because of the actual relationship, which really was barely a relationship at all, but because it reinforced my feeling that I was unlovable.
I was considered hilariously unfuckable, and obviously I didn’t have the context to respond “well yeah, I’m a child!” I didn’t have the confidence or the feminist sensibilities or anything to help me realise that my sole purpose in this life wasn’t to attract – and keep – a man. I knew I had thoughts and desires that weren’t altogether ‘normal’ – that pretty girl in the year above was so much more fascinating to me than the male heart-throbs I was supposed to fancy. Like so many young people, my ideas about relationships came from Disney and rom-coms and classmates who made fun of me for being a virgin at fourteen. When I was a kid, I was depressed (among many reasons) because I thought I’d never find my One True Love who would come along and sweep me off my feet and make all my problems disappear, and have the fairytale wedding and the bunch of children and the happy-ever-after.
I love being an adult because I didn’t find that. I found something so much better.
I was the damsel in distress who longed for a man to come and rescue her, because she didn’t realise she could rescue herself. Because I couldn’t rescue myself then – becoming an adult gave me the power to do that.
I love being an adult because I learned the joy in relationships with people who want to be with me, not people who want to save me.
When I started having sex, I justified not waiting until marriage by telling myself that at least I’d given my virginity to the man I intended to marry. (I don’t know entirely where this came from, as I wasn’t brought up in a religious way or anything, and my parents never preached abstinence until marriage. I was a weird kid.) I didn’t – and wouldn’t for a good few more years – have the context to realise that I wasn’t a horrible, ruined slut if I didn’t marry the first man I slept with.
Daydreams of traditional, Disney-style love helped keep me alive once, and I can now truthfully say I couldn’t be happier that none of them came true. Instead, adulthood gave me my beautiful, wonderful, totally non-traditional brand of love and happiness.
So we shouldn’t be telling kids that everything goes downhill once you enter adulthood. Honestly, I’ve never heard anyone say that this was their experience. Instead, we should be preparing them for it by giving them some sort of idea of what freedom and responsibility over your own choices actually means, and encourage going after whatever makes you happy. Even if it’s something the world still sees as totally out there and weird.
Empowerment isn’t being told “make the most of this crap, it only gets worse.” Empowerment is being told “you will have the power to change things, to make your life whatever you want it to be.”
On a related side-note, this is exactly why I love the “It Gets Better” campaign. Because “it gets worse” is unhelpful at best, and fatal at worst.