Dear 17-Year-Old Me,
I think I should probably warn you: nothing is going to turn out the way you imagined.
That guy you’re dating? He’s going to dump you next summer (and by the way, your mom was totally right about him).
That college major you picked? You’re going to get a D in computer-programming and be weeded out.
Don’t worry, though. I’m not writing to you to give away the farm or anything — doing that would take away all those golden learning opportunities. And, trust me, you’ve got a lot to learn.
No, I’m writing to you because I want to share something with you that you need to hear. That a lot of 17-year-olds need to hear, actually.
I know that you think that up until now, a lot of things have been unfair. The divorce wasn’t fair. All the anger, and resentment, and name-calling going back and forth between your parents … totally not fair. Your mom’s illness … that wasn’t fair, either. Your dad’s second wife that turned into a big ol’ witch the moment she said “I do?” Completely unfair. Your older sister always looking at you as though you are a wad of gum stuck to the underside of her shoe? Not fair. The friends who love you one day and hate you the next? So unfair. That family member you still have to see on the regular even though you know he belongs in jail? The most unfair.
I’m not writing to tell you that you don’t deserve to feel shitty about all this stuff. Because, believe me, I know how shitty you do feel. I know that along with your clothes and the new sheets your mom bought you, you’re also packing up your bitterness and resentment and taking it with you to college. Taking it with you as you embark into the world on your own.
You’re going to spend a lot of time dwelling on all of it. Let’s just get that out of the way right now. Right now, you think that once you drive away from the home you grew up in, and the people who were so unfair, that all of these things will stop making you feel like crap — like a gigantic, do-over, second-chance eraser or something. That won’t happen.
Instead, all the unfairs are going to grow — festering inside of you until all of a sudden, you get really mad about it. Really, really mad. And once you get mad, you’re going to start doling out blame. All the bad choices that you are going to make? You’re going to find some way to blame that on someone else, you’re not going to take responsibility for it. You won’t hold yourself accountable. Because you think that you were dealt a shitty hand, and it’s just not fair.
Accountability. Remember in high school when that was your step-dad’s favorite word? Remember when he would say, over and over and over again, that he wanted you to take accountability for your actions? Remember how you thought you knew what that meant? You didn’t.
So I’m going to help you out, and I do hope you’ll listen to me.
The first thing I think you should know is this: you’re not alone. The world is filled to the brim with people who’ve been dealt a far shittier hand than you. In fact, someday you will realize just how good you had it, even with all the unfairs. But you’re not there yet.
The second thing you should know — and pay attention because this is the most important thing — is that you, only YOU, are responsible for your happiness. Not your parents, or your friends, or your boyfriend, or anyone else. YOU. Just you.
The people who’re closest to you … are highly flawed, because they are human. They make mistakes, some bigger than others. You’re going to spend a lot of time wishing that your mom was more mellow, or that your dad was more patient, or that your boyfriend was less jealous. But all that wishing is never going to get you anywhere, because trying to change people is simply an exercise in misery. Stop wishing. Start appreciating. And if you find there’s nothing to appreciate — then walk away. It’s really that simple.
You’ve been told before to “get over” some of the things you’re hung up on — and at the time it sounded harsh. It sounded like you were being told that your hurt didn’t matter. But the truth is, you do need to get over it. Or at the very least, learn to live with it. Because holding on to grudges is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.
One of the best pieces of advice you’re going to get someday will come from your best friend’s dad. You will call him on what will arguably be one of the scariest days of your life. You will lie in a dark room and tell him how afraid and unhappy you are. And he will tell you that the absolute most important thing you need to do is self-preserve.
He will tell you that nothing else matters if you don’t take care of yourself. And he will be so right.
Self-preservation means different things for different people. But what it will mean for you is this: you need to let all the unfairs go. Dwelling on them is only going to make you miserable. It’s more than forgiveness, because forgiveness, for you, has always been easy. It’s making the choice to cut away all of the things that are dragging down your happiness, and starting over. It’s about not apologizing for your beliefs, and accepting that there are always going to be haters. It’s about being okay with not being liked. Because people not liking you isn’t unfair; it’s life.
You will also find that even though people, for the most part, don’t change, circumstances do. And sometimes the people who are responsible for the most hurt will turn out to be the people responsible for the most happiness. If you don’t open yourself up to that possibility, you’ll miss out.
The last thing I’d like to tell you, dearest 17-year-old me, is that you are going to wake up on far too many mornings to count wishing that you could take back what you did/said/acted like the day before. You are going to be embarrassed and ashamed and mortified by some of your actions. Barring your instinct to blame it on someone — anyone — other than yourself (as previously discussed) you will find the only person to blame is you. And, trust me, that is not fun.
The solution for this is also simple: apologize when needed, and move on. You’re not perfect, and the people who truly love and accept you won’t expect you to be. Everything else is just gravy.
With warmest regards,