Series: Letters to My Younger Self

Bottom line: Don’t be a dick


Dear Natalie,

I just got your letter.

I completely forgot that you had written something for me back in AP bio, and I couldn’t get myself to read it at first. For an entire day, that piece of paper sat languidly on the floor, forgotten. I wanted to forget it. I wanted to forget you.

But I can’t.

I’m you, but I’m 22, in the good ol’ Taylor Swift year. This isn’t too far into the future. I’ll probably write to you again when I’m older — but for now, I’m at least old enough to have learned a couple of life lessons.

One — holy shit, are you cringey. Please understand the difference between what’s normal and what’s overstepping boundaries (please). I really want to tell you to replace your glasses, and stop thinking that red bandanna goes with every outfit too, but seeing those old photos of you serve to humble me…a lot.

Yes, I can legally drink now. I just bought a pack of Mango Cart. I don’t like it.

Yes, i still hate green onions. Haven’t grown out of that yet.

Yes, I got contacts! And then stopped wearing them after like a year. Don’t blame me, they’re uncomfortable, and when you have an 8 a.m. class that you have to drive yourself to, you just can’t be bothered.

Getting to drive around your own car is very freeing, but you’ll spend maybe a year screwing around when you’re 18 before you get your license because driving for the first time is scary as hell. And then you’ll spend more time screwing around before you can ever get over your fear of driving on the freeway (yes, it was mom who put that fear in your head). Everyone will look down on you for that. Fuck what they think.

Yes, your acne does eventually clear up quite a bit — but the bad news is that it’s going to flare up at its worst when you’re 19 and you’re going to get breakout after breakout after breakout. More bad news is that your acne never really goes away because Shark Week still, unfortunately, happens every month (I’m not talking about the one on TV).

And I know, I know, what question is burning in your mind. I’m still single. In fact, I got my heart shattered to pieces, and I’ve managed to pick up the jagged pieces.

I promise you, people actually do think you’re attractive, so don’t lose your head about that. You learn to have a sense of style, and you figure your way around makeup a little bit (Mascara is a game-changer). It’s just that you eventually learn to not give a crap whether people do or do not, because none of that matters if you don’t believe it yourself.

The family eventually gets pet cats, instead of just that lone fish that has somehow survived for years in that tiny tank. Yes, that fish has died, but it lived a long life!

And speaking of death…your grandpa will pass away. I know you thought you’d be ready for it by your 20s. You won’t be. You’ll learn that no one is ever ready for death. You are very well aware it’s about to happen in the months before it actually does, but nevertheless, it’ll hit you like a truck the day it does. You’re going to grieve for a while, and that’s okay. Just know that he lived a long, fulfilling life, and he loved you and everyone else in your family until the very end. One of these days, I might write about the story of his life. All of the trials and tribulations he went through while fleeing to and living in Taiwan should honestly be a book.

You do make some very close friends, but you’re going to lose some too. Just like you will when you’re 17 — whoops, spoiler alert!

And now that we’re on that note, here’s the part you’ll hate the most: I have to tell you that you’re honestly a real piece of shit.

You can act shocked all you like, but the fact that you’re kind of an awful person isn’t really news to you. You know this already, even as an immature, moody 16-year-old. You know this each time you make a digging, underhanded comment at the people you consider your closest friends. You know this each time you see their face fall when you make the quip that was absolutely unasked for. You know this whenever you go way, way out of line, and you know this when your friends call you out for it. They tell you, “Fuck you,” “Why would you say that?” and more, but you just won’t stop yourself. That toxicity is something that seems to be ingrained in you, and your constant anger, frustration, and need to elevate your own self-image by putting others down is something you see as something that will take over your entire life.

But then the people you thought were your closest friends throughout high school will cut you off from their lives. They’ll block you everywhere. And honestly, you completely deserve it. You’ve spent years impeding on their self-image, searching in the depths of others for their flaws, as if their own transgressions are a sign that you’re not as bad as you thought.

They’re not. You’re still a piece of shit. You’ve felt slight pangs of guilt each time you saw their face fall, as if it’s a needle prickling into your skin. But the pain only lasts a second, and you move on with your life. You don’t apologize. That makes you worse. You should apologize.

I know why you’re acting this way. You’ve grown up not reaching expectations, whether they were from your family, your peers, or just yourself. The image that everyone saw you in always felt like the branches of a redwood tree, and you were always far too short to reach them. Because of this, your parents have been making small comments throughout your teenage years that may not be intentionally malicious, but sure to leave a mark nonetheless.

You’re not the STEM major you thought you could be (you’re struggling a lot in pre-calculus, so let’s be real, that was never meant for you), which disappoints you a lot because your mom keeps talking to you about becoming a computer engineer (want to remind you again that you and STEM don’t really work out). You’ve tried, for years, to fight the inevitable. You believed that you could be good at these subjects — even if they have always looked like an alien language to you — as long you worked hard.

Do you remember that moment in AP biology when you got a 100% on a quiz? You felt like you had just conquered the world. It was too bad that you had completely guessed on it, though. Your teacher called on you to answer a question, maybe because she thought you were cheating, maybe because she actually believed you knew the answer. You immediately sat up further from the chair you were slumped in because ugh, AP bio is boring, and you searched and searched your brain for some nugget of information that wasn’t there. You gave some random answer. Of course, it was wrong. She called on someone else and they gave the right one.

You slumped back into your chair, and the thought that you were a fraud filled your head for the next hour until it felt as if it would burst. You felt ashamed when you didn’t fulfill those expectations — and maybe everyone in that classroom finally realized what a fraud you were.

You’ve had days when you were shaking with fear, wondering if you truly were destined to become a failure. You’ve had moments when you threw a calculator away from you and dug your nails into your scalp, because you couldn’t decipher the alien language that was math — even though so many others made it seem so easy.

And then there’s your parents. You’ve had conversations with your parents about your future, and you can just hear the disdain they have about you choosing to go to community college. They’re disappointed. Your dad yelled at you in the car that you weren’t trying because you gave a definite “no” to his suggestion that you try being a nurse, like your brother. That feeling didn’t leave you. At 21, it hasn’t left me.

And then there was the parent-teacher conference. You weren’t doing well in math — big surprise. Your dad called you lazy because you weren’t doing homework (depression is, unfortunately, a thing) in front of your teacher, and you wanted nothing more than to have something swallow you up as you tried to resist the temptation of the tears that wanted to humiliate you.

These aren’t just comments. They’re entire attacks on your character that happen almost every week. You always ask yourself every day, will Mom and Dad say something hurtful again? Your brain whispers to you that you’re worthless, utterly stupid, and you will never, ever, amount to anything.

You’re 5’7″ now. But you feel so much smaller.

You’ve internalized this “tough love” you’ve always gotten from your parents, made it seem like you say these things because you want your friends to improve themselves. And I know that tough love has gone beyond words in many cases. It’s, on occasion, gotten physical too.

I’ll spare the details because it hurts too much to think about them now.

“I am worthless,” you think. “But maybe others have it worse than me.” And so, that’s where it is; that’s the core of your cruelty.

To you, making snide comments makes it feel as if you aren’t that bad of a student, because others have worse grades, deal with more problems, and are even more of a mess than you are. It makes you feel better, but only for a fleeting moment. You’re just so utterly desperate for validation, since it’s not going to come from your parents, and so you think you’ll get it from yourself if you undercut those around you. The feeling goes away as quickly as you made your little comment. But remember that feeling doesn’t go away for the ones you fling them at.

“So you’re still failing math, right?”

You didn’t need to say that.

“Then don’t become a teacher if that’s so hard for you.”

How is that supposed to help?

“I don’t know, I thought you just did okay.”

Seriously, just please, stop it, Natalie.

These aren’t exact quotes. These aren’t even a good chunk of them, either. Five years later, I can’t entirely remember what cruel and hurtful comments you made, or even how many. The memories look like the blurs you see when you take your glasses off. I can make out the outline and determine that they were awful, but the details aren’t there. Perhaps that’s a self-defense mechanism. Maybe I’m trying to forget you. Maybe I just want to leave you behind, in the past, where I think you belong.

But I can’t leave you behind. I understand that you’re a piece of me and my past, and I wouldn’t be the way I am now if I hadn’t gotten slapped in the face with reality because of how you are.

You’re awful, yes, but you’re human and unavoidably flawed, and that doesn’t make you any less of a whole person. I just wish you’d understand that. If you did, maybe you’d stop searching for your insecurities in others. All you’ve been doing is ripping those same traits out of them, throwing them in their rawest form onto the ground for you to mock. Can you please remember your friends, who somehow have tolerated with your shit for so long, are growing teenagers like you? It gets to them, just like it gets to you.

To be honest, I probably shouldn’t be telling you that you’re a piece of shit and that I really want to forget you. Your mental health is already fragile enough as is, and hearing that from someone who has never had your back in the past (yourself), but whose validation you so desperately wanted (again, yourself) has to hurt.

But I need to tell you that relishing in others’ flaws, as if they hide yours, helps absolutely no one. It doesn’t help your friends, and it surely doesn’t help you. I’m here to tell you that I do have your back — that’s why I’m writing this in the first place. I want you to truly embody the kind person you choose to show to certain people (holy shit, stop worrying about popularity because you won’t see about 70% of them again), and I want you to just believe in yourself a little bit more. Nowadays, I doubt anyone speaks about me in passing conversation with any positivity in their tone.

Please, take this advice from 21-year-old you, who is still struggling to remember it at times: trauma doesn’t give you a justifiable excuse to be a dick.

Your problems are your own, and you should not take it out on those who are innocent, who have never contributed to your own insecurities. Please unlearn your toxic behaviors, because you already are very aware what they are. It’s not too late to shut those thoughts out, as difficult as it is. After all, you know better than anyone what it’s like to have the pointed bullets in a heavily-concealed gun labeled “advice” shot at you.

Please don’t be the one who pulls the trigger too.

and i saw the last note in your letter. “P.S. Love yourself, ok? Please, for me.”

i’m working on it.

With all my love,