Chicago

To my former [18-year-old] self

This post has been a long time coming.

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Its hard to believe that five years separate me from the person in these pictures. I guess it isn’t so crazy, though, when I think of everything that has happened since then.

I’ve graduated college, traveled abroad, shared an apartment with my boyfriend (of almost four years!!), and started graduate school. I’ve also lost countless loved ones, been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and ADHD, and dealt with losing close friends. Nevertheless, when I look at these photographs I can’t help but wish that I could have known everything I know now and feel bad that I can’t do anything to fix it.

There are many things I’d want to say, but here are some of the big ones:

  1. You are not flawed and you are not insane. That constant blanket of the ‘blues’ that covers every moment of your day-to-day? That’s depression. No, that feeling is not normal, but it can be treated. Talk to your parents, they love you and will understand. You won’t need to battle with your emotions alone anymore. That tingly warm feeling you get all over sometimes, where your skin starts to feel numb and prickly all at the same time and your chest feels heavy and crowded? That’s anxiety. Yes, you have that, too. Sucks. I know. Look into relaxation techniques. Lay off the caffeine. Again, talk to your parents. Life shouldn’t be so painfully stressful, you’re only 18. You’re probably thinking everything is okay because you’re on the Honor Roll and take AP classes, right? Wrong. Your ‘study’ habits won’t fly in college. Things are going to get harder and there are going to be myriad distractions on campus. Oh, that’s right… Your inattentiveness, untidiness, and short temper? That’s ADHD. All of it. Yep. I know. I’m sorry you were so good at hiding those symptoms after being disciplined for talking in class all those times in kindergarten. There’s not really time to learn how to change these habits and behaviors now…but there’s a way to fix this, too. Above all, these are your body and brain’s way of warning you that something is wrong. However, they are not indications of lower worth, ability, or mental stability. You are okay. You are going to be okay. Please talk to someone.
  2. You’re beautiful. No, catcalls and the number of people who grind with you at dances are not indications of your self-worth nor your attractiveness. Also, those things will get really old once you realize that you’re not ugly. People suck and you just have one of those faces that draws in street harassment. I’m sorry. Back to you … People are fucking mean in high school. Whether they’re jealous, battling their own demons, or cold-hearted. Don’t listen to them – or at least listen more closely to those who are lifting you up. Confidence is NOT a bad thing. I know you’ve been told throughout your life that confident women and girls are bitches, bossy, or stuck-up — that’s all part of gender socialization. You’ll learn about that soon. Smash the patriarchy, too, if you can… But above all, don’t listen to B. (the one who called you E.T. – every day) on the bus. What a lame insult honestly – at least use a movie people our age watch. Also, do NOT use Formspring. Oh wait, that happened in high school. Sorry I’m too late. Either way, if it matters, you’re beautiful.
  3. Stop chasing boys who do not love you. You can’t make them love you. Also, stop investing more time and energy into potential relationships when you’re not receiving any in return (more on this later). You’re going to meet this amazing guy very soon. When? Well, if I told you then everything might change. But I will say that he loves and respects you more than you have ever loved and respected yourself and he will help you in so many ways. He’s a really good person and your whole family approves. I guess my best advice is – you haven’t seen the last of M., but give him a second-chance (NOT in that way) and you won’t be disappointed. Also, you probably want to be a little more reckless your freshman year. P., N., and M. do NOT like you back and it is a total waste of time. Also D., stay away from D. Be patient — he is worth the wait.
  4. Manage your savings better. Experiences are more important than things. You don’t need to spend so much money and someday you’ll understand this, but for now, make sure you have about three thousand saved up for spring of your sophomore year. You’re going to blow your whole savings – but it’ll be amazing and a once in a lifetime opportunity. Also, you’ll probably have to learn some Italian.
  5. Keep in contact with your loved ones and never hesitate to express your love for them. This is one of my biggest regrets. Shit happens in life – unexpectedly and inconveniently – and you’re going to have half a dozen brushes with death by the time you write this blog post. Don’t worry, “he” and your parents are fine. But still. Be mindful of your impact on others as much as you are of theirs on you. Forgive quickly, forget sometimes (if necessary). Things are going to get really hard for you and you’re not going to know how to handle it. The last time a loved one died, you shirked the real writing assignment and turned in an essay (with a construction paper backing) on your dead cat. You still aced it, but that’s exactly what I mean. You could be in a grocery store and see an owl cookie jar and start sobbing – prepare yourself. (This didn’t happen…but almost)
  6. WORK OUT. Endorphins, energy, and (more) eating are the three benefits that are probably the most relevant to you. Sure its cool to have an amazing metabolism and eat whatever you want, but guess what? That’s going to change – FAST. Also, Chili’s basically serves junk food. Junk food is not real food. Eat sparingly. Pay attention – I’m serious. But yeah, if you’re bored please go run a lap around the block or something.
  7. Friendship breakups suck, but you have to move on. They did. This brings us back to the investment part I talked about earlier. You’re an extremely loyal and loving friend — which is to be celebrated. But you know what happens to those people? They get dumped. Unexpectedly. Harshly. Unfairly. And there is absolutely nothing to do to avoid this. It’s going to happen. Two to three times if I remember properly. Yes, even that friend you defended freshman year – she’s going to dump you, too. For someone you introduced her to. Sucks, don’t it? Don’t be like them – but move on like them. They don’t care anymore, I know you’re sentimental, but fuck them. Also, stop sub-tweeting. Its not cool. Break (and recycle) a glass bottle for catharsis. Or write a blog post I guess. They’re probably going to read it – but they moved on, so who cares, remember?
  8. BEING SMART IS COOL. Fucking patriarchy strikes again. Stop pretending you don’t understand things or letting someone else answer questions in class. You’re intelligent as hell. Brag. Yes, I am telling you to brag more. Us adults call it networking. Although I’m not sure how the 34 on the ACT is going to be helpful. Sorry. I’m still proud of you, though. That’s not the last standardized test you’re going to see either. (Oops. I think I said too much.) Also, your major is totally going to change. Roll with it.
  9. Boys Like Girls is going to break up or morph or I don’t even know…sorry. Not much to say about this one. Just thought you should know.
  10. You still haven’t been on Big Brother. That pipe dream isn’t really cohesive with your current living situation. Maybe they’ll do a Big Brother reboot when you’re like 40 and then you can try out? Julie’s still beautiful, too. Ugh.
  11. You’re going to get burnt out. A lot. This is okay. You care about things. Possibly too much. What isn’t okay is that you don’t learn from it. Breathe, assess, exercise self-care (this does NOT mean alcohol or food), take a time out even. Life is going to keep happening – but this is a necessary step. Learn from your mistakes and your failures. Even success can be stressful. You are too smart and too kind to live life in a constant state of war. It doesn’t have to be about to-do lists, deadlines, and ‘being productive’. Who gives a damn if you are productive on a sunny Sunday in July OTHER THAN YOU? No one. So please, take a break sometimes. Life is not measured in how much labor you suck out of every second of every day. Slow down.

All in all, I am a much better person today because of what I have been through. I’m still learning and I don’t see that ever changing. I’m unhappy with how I have handled a lot of things in life, but I’m going to try to fix them moving forward. This is why it is important to sit down and think about what you would tell your former self sometimes. Its insane to think that I truly knew NOTHING in 2012 – and I’ll bet my future self in 2022 thinks the same of me now.

What would you tell your 18-year-old self?

 

 

X

 

Danielle

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Chicago

Dandelion

It has taken me years to get back on my feet after being diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and ADHD during my freshman year of college. I remember how surreal it felt to know that my life wasn’t the way it should be. Finally, someone could put a label on the complicated mess of feelings, somatic symptoms, and obstacles I had dealt with for the better part of my childhood and adolescence.

All it would take to feel better was medication and scheduled therapy, so they said. So for a year and a half I played the game (so to speak), taking the lowest possible dose of Zoloft plus Ritalin (“as needed”) and went to see a psychologist weekly (sometimes biweekly).

I was ecstatic because I would finally see how it felt to be “normal” and “happy”. Just like someone who suffers from physical illness or disorder, I dreamed of being ‘cured’ and knowing what it would feel like to have optimal mental health.

Nevertheless, this system worked for a while until it started to dawn on me that my new Zoloft-fueled feelings weren’t authentic. Perhaps I wasn’t bothered by Amy* sleeping with a guy I liked because it really was no big deal, rather than an inability to feel anger due to the medication I was taking.

As a result, I started to question my reality. 

I explained my apprehension towards continuing to take Zoloft to my psychologist and we made a plan to wean me off of it. I didn’t experience similar adverse effects with Ritalin, so I chose to remain on that medication.

A couple months after I stopped taking Zoloft, once the nasty side effects ceased, I felt like new again. Of course, I was a bit more emotional (maybe even irrational at times), but I finally felt real. I relished the fact that I could feel anger, sadness, and all kinds of emotions when they were warranted, as opposed to making cognitive assessments of the appropriateness of said emotions in a given context. This new normal seemed to work for me.

Over time, I stopped seeing my psychologist, too. At first, I made excuses about time, money, and whatever else. I cancelled more appointments than I kept. Finally, I convinced myself that I could be okay on my own. I manipulated myself into believing that my depression was transient. I was free. Cured.

The stigma associated with mental illness provoked me to escape – at all costs – from any aspect of having one. Rather than call my psychologist to schedule an appointment, I would bottle up my feelings. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I would take my anger and frustration out on those around me (my parents, Luke, and even myself).

When I gained 20 pounds, I used it as ammunition for blaming myself for any problems I experienced. (“Oh, your friends didn’t invite you out because you’re ugly now”) I became the self-destructive person I always had been, but all the more dangerous because I falsely believed that those experiences were all behind me. I thought that my renewed depressive and anxious episodes were something that resembled “normal” anxiety and sadness.

I listened time and again to people around me talk down about mental illness. I even mentally victim-blamed others like myself who suffer from real and dangerous mental illness (and disorder), labelling them as weak or whiney. I knew that I fit those descriptors, too…but I was more focused on distancing myself from that stigma than being true to my own beliefs.

Rather than become an advocate for myself (and others) by speaking out and getting the help I needed – even if that meant budgeting time and money to do so – I internalized all the negative energy and experiences. This process intensified over the last 6-7 months.

Before my diagnoses, I tricked myself for over 6 years into believing that this is just the way life is: daily panic attacks, tears, and anxiety about my social and emotional well-being. I accepted a less than enjoyable life under the premise that everyone lives this way and that those who don’t vocalize their problems (like I do) are just “bigger people” because they can accept these feelings and still be able to function.

In the past 9-12 months, I’ve reverted to that lifestyle. I don’t recognize myself in the mirror anymore. Sure, I own my successes and I recognize my failures, but I don’t feel like a participant in my own life. I’m a spectator, along for the ride. Bumps included.

I stopped living for me and started living for others. I inquired about others’ lives and reached out more than I had before. I thought that the perceived decline in my social life might be due to being introverted or having a tendency to self-isolate.

Once I reached out, I was able to make plans and have something fun to do almost every weekend. It was exciting to want to socialize and to have access to as much as I wanted.

Despite my efforts, things turned sour at the beginning of this school year. I became a burden, an annoyance, a friend who needed to be coddled and reassured of their worth. I recognized that my “normal” mask wasn’t doing its job. People could tell that I wasn’t happy-go-lucky and fun-loving all the time. I’ve realized that people don’t want to be around someone who can’t pretend to be those things.  

But I tried to make things work. I backed off a bit, thinking I may have came off too strong. I stopped asking about others and waited for them to come to me. When I felt excluded, I avoided bringing it up. Except no one seemed to notice and I felt an even deeper need to be included. I was hurting myself more and more each day by trying to be a more perfect image of the type of friend I thought others wanted to have.

So, I tried to re-evaluate if I had done or said something wrong. I thought that maybe I might be to blame for my problems. In effect, I gaslighted myself. I criticized my own thinking, deciding that I was being either irrational or foolish and not intuitive or perceptive (as I had previously thought). I began to question my reality (again). I didn’t trust my own assessments of things, consistently asking for others to weigh in on a situation and tell me what they thought was real.

At times I would make sure that everything was okay and would be reassured that it was. This fueled my thought processes, further confusing my conception of what was really going on in my life. But asking for reassurance never fixed the problem. It never made me feel more secure, happier, or loved. Nevertheless, I bit my tongue and continued to go to events (when I was invited) and reaching out in order to maintain friendships and relationships.


In the last month, my creeping suspicions arose again. In a sense, I am a dandelion. 

Sure, some people can see past the fact that dandelions are weeds and even find beauty in them…but no one would really miss them if they weren’t there. They’re a nuisance, even.

It dawned on me that the only reason communication was intact between myself and others was because I continued to reach out and start conversations. Here I was, bright yellow and ever-present — asking for someone to pick me, to choose me, to prefer me. I became infuriated when I was passed over for the red roses in my life. Red roses are inviting, have apparent beauty, and seem to say “pick me, you won’t be disappointed”. But unlike dandelions, red roses can hurt you because beneath their facade hide sharp thorns. Red roses, unlike dandelions, hold power over others. Try as I might, my attempts to be empowered resulted in others holding power over me.

As a dandelion, I spent so much time making myself accessible and available that I didn’t realize that I had lost my appeal. I wasn’t a red rose. I didn’t think I even wanted to be a red rose. But I was jealous of them. I wanted someone to see me, as I was, and recognize how dependable and loving I could be. However, my best qualities weren’t displayed on the surface, but rather were integral to my character. Unless someone takes the effort to really appreciate them, no matter how hard a dandelion tries, it will only ever amount to a child’s disposable flower crown (at best) – essentially, dandelions are perceived as replaceable.


I don’t want to change who I am, but I sure as hell don’t want to be in my current position either. I have seen how it feels to be a dandelion and I will remember to appreciate the dandelions in my life. I have also seen how I can be fooled by my own intuition whether it relates to my self-concept, my reality, or my relationships. Moving forward, I choose to believe in me before I believe in what others tell me. 


I’m tired of expressing how I feel only to be gaslighted or forced to apologize for my words.    I was raised to advocate for myself and that quality had been all but stamped out after years of being told I am “too emotional” “dramatic” or “overly sensitive”.

No matter what someone tells you, it is imperative that you own your truth and recognize that both you and your feelings are valid.

I’m tired of waiting. Waiting for someone else to text me first, to invite me out first, or to post an Instagram collage on my birthday when I did the same for them. While seemingly minor, these experiences add up over time and contribute to a sense of worthlessness. I have lost my patience because I have waited too long for reciprocal acknowledgment. I am exhausted because I have given so much but the result has been a net loss.

The bottom line is that I simply do not have the energy to reassure myself that my friendship with someone else is healthy and nourished. I need something in return, some evidence that I am not the only one who cares. I need proof that I am appreciated in spite of being a dandelion.


What’s worse, I’ve run out of ways to solve this conundrum. I am stuck.

I can’t express how I feel, because I know how that ends.

I can’t wait for others to notice that I’m gone from their lives, because I’m only hurting myself by letting them continue to treat me like a weed.

And I can’t just move on, because I do love and cherish these relationships. I invested so much time and energy into these relationships that I simply can’t go without something in return.

I’m left with several questions: Does anyone care? Does it matter that I’m losing my will to withstand and my ability to grow? Will anyone recognize that they’ve done me wrong? Will they admit to lying by omission, not appreciating my presence, and allowing me to recognize that I’m simply a weed and nothing more?

History tells me the answer to all these questions. I pray that somehow I’m wrong.


I hope that by writing about my experience I can remind others (and myself) about the dangers of relinquishing control of your own truth to others around you. The important thing is that I have learned a few lessons through these struggles.

  1. Don’t change your lifestyle in order to be more palatable to other people. Go to therapy, take medication, or meditate if that’s what helps you be the best you. Don’t do those things in order to become someone you are not because you will fail time and again. I thought that healing meant becoming someone new, but I was wrong. If you cast away your true self in the process, there will be nothing left to make you you. It’s important to embrace your faults and allow for some of your quirks to remain.
  2. Don’t associate with people who pick and choose when they are there for you. Even on my best days, I have felt utterly alone. Your support system should lift you up when you’re down but also celebrate when you succeed. If others don’t express interest in your life, or even refrain from sharing theirs with you, its not worth it.
  3. Finally, BE HONEST. If you don’t love and cherish someone in your life, it’s better to tell them how you feel than to perpetuate the relationship where they give more. It’s a waste of someone else’s time and frankly, it’s rude. If you do love and cherish those people, tell them. Maintain connections with people who maintain connections with you. Some express their emotions more than others but everyone needs support and attention from time to time.

This takes it back to Kindergarten (“the Golden Rule”), but please please please treat people you call your friends the way you would like to be treated. 


*Clearly, not a real name.