One of the blogs I write for is UncommonYA. They have several rotating post topics that bloggers write on, and a few weeks ago it was my turn for the “what I wish I knew as a teen” topic. There are a lot of things I wish I’d known as a teen– a few things about boys, several things about myself, the dramatic unlikelihood of publishing a novel at sixteen– but I decided to go with something a bit more sensitive but definitely more true to my life. Since it’s personal, and because I’m hoping it will be helpful to some of you, I thought I’d post it here on my blog, too.
What I Wish I’d Known As A Teen
I did not have the happiest childhood. It was hard, and I spent a lot of nights crying, having lost something or someone I loved, or watched someone hurt them or me, or having felt for the thousandth time that I was lesser than someone else. Lesser because I hadn’t had the chance to learn to play an instrument or sing, or be in debate or 4H or the Girl Scouts, or have shoes that fit or even access to the internet for a social life. I spent most of my years after I turned eleven working, and I didn’t feel safe, and I wasn’t particularly happy, and I really didn’t have friends. And it felt like it would never change. I couldn’t imagine a future, even as an adult, where this wasn’t the case. I knew, knew, that the way my life was turning out wasn’t under my control.
That left me feeling more powerless than anything else ever will. I was on a ride that was going somewhere I didn’t want to be, and there was no getting off the track. No one was going to walk up to me and give me back my life, my choices, or care enough to change it. That was the life I’d been handed, and it wasn’t going to magically become something different. An object in motion stays in motion, right? I’d tried to change it, but that only made it worse, and I couldn’t handle things getting much worse.
Here’s what I wish I’d known, as that teenage girl: that my life would be mine one day. That day by day, I was getting closer to the point where I could take it back. That the limitations and fear and disadvantages I’d been given could be balanced out, and that it could happen to ME. Not to a friend of a friend or the girl down the block, but to me. That I had choices and rights and resources and opportunities.
I thought I didn’t. I couldn’t see them, I didn’t think they’d make a difference, I figured it could happen to everyone else but not to me. Because I’d tried. I tried until I couldn’t try anymore, and it didn’t work. All those nights and months and years, I simply never imagined a future where I could change my life. I’d been shown otherwise too many times.
If someone had told sixteen-year-old me that I would be a published author, that I would be in a relationship with someone who respected me and cared about what I wanted, that I would do something I was passionate about and have a life full of so many good things and so many people who genuinely cared about me, I wouldn’t have believed it.
I’m telling you this because power, the ability to make your life yours and whether or not you have it, is such a defining thing. The loss and rediscovery of it shows up all over my books. Growing up without it had a huge impact on who I became, and gaining it back changed me in more ways than I can count. The knowledge that you are safe and your siblings are alright. The ability to buy your family Christmas gifts. A choice in what you eat or wear. The confidence and time and ability to make friends.
That can’t help but become a layer in my storytelling. So, when I write, I often end up exploring that loss. It can happen through poverty or poor health or natural disasters or war or discrimination or abuse or any number of ways, and it can change the moment or it can change your life.
What I wish I’d known as a teen, and what I wish every person at a point of change and vulnerability knew, was that your life and identity belongs to you, and you can take it back if someone takes it away. Maybe you’re trying and maybe you just don’t think it’s going to happen, but hang in there. It is possible, and it can happen to you. One day, the opportunity will come. For me, it was college. I’d gotten good grades and I could go to a good college and it changed my life. Maybe your chance will look different. Find your resources, and believe it’s your right to change your life. Work toward it each day, keep trying, and take the opportunity when it comes. It’s worth it; it’s worth it so many times over.
You have value, and the life you live matters, and you can contribute to my life and your family’s life and to the world around you. Keep trying and take the opportunities when they come. And any time you can, give the power back, in whatever amount you can, to the people who’ve had it taken away. It makes a bigger difference than you might ever know.