Every year since turning 19, I write a letter to myself on my birthday. As I prepared to write my 24th birthday letter this past week, I found myself flipping back to the beginning of my journal, whose first entry is dated June 12, 2015– two years before I began my birthday letter-writing tradition.
24 sounds like a big ass number, I kept telling everyone in the months and days leading up to my birthday. It’s an age where I feel like I can no longer hide behind a careless air of naivete, of being a “fresh-faced, newly-minted college grad” to excuse me from the harsher consequences of life. My age, when mentioned alongside my accomplishments, will no longer evoke reactions of amazement at how beyond my years I am, how wise, how impressive for someone so young!
And yet, as I turned back the pages to read the musings of my 17 year old self, I realized something that I’d always felt but never knew how to put into words, but I’ll try to here– and it’s that I feel younger now at 24 than I did at 17, 16, or even 15. This is what I wrote, at age 17, in my first-ever journal entry:
Sometimes, I end up lying awake and wondering if my younger self would be proud of who I became, and the answer is usually no. The fact that my younger self wouldn’t be proud of current me scares me a lot…There is probably nothing more terrifying to me than waking up one day when it’s too late and regretting all the years I can’t have back.
In just those few sentences I recognized a theme so consistently woven throughout all my journal entries from high school, clouding over my experience of all those years– and it was fear. I was afraid of not being loved, of not being enough, for myself and the people around me. I was afraid of what my future looked like because I couldn’t picture one where I wasn’t afraid all the time. I was afraid that what people thought of me were a reflection of the worst thoughts I had of myself. I recognize now that there’s a lot of places this fear came from, but in these journal entries I never even speculate on the sources of this fear, or try to confront them, not even in the secrecy of my own thoughts. Instead I took to blaming myself for the ways this fear manifested.
I think the most obvious indicator was the way it affected how I made friends– or didn’t, in my case. Whenever I hear other people talk about their high school experiences, or watch TV shows and movies about high school, it’s like watching or hearing about someone tell me about a trip they went on, to a place that’s similar to somewhere I may have gone, but I’ll never actually know for certain what it was like. I know that in high school, people form close-knit bonds with people they meet in their classes. They join clubs or sports teams and meet people who then ask them to hang out after school or sit with them at lunch.
I floated through my classes, had brief exchanges with other students in the 40 minutes we sat in the same classroom, noncommittally joined clubs that I thought would look good on my college applications, I took the train home, I did my homework, I woke up the next morning and did the exact same thing, but I just could not figure out how everyone else who seemed to be doing the same thing as me were also making friends.
Before high school, I never thought of myself as someone with social anxiety– I’m naturally soft-spoken and reserved, but I never had trouble making friends. I would tell myself that I just didn’t go to school with anyone worth making friends with, that this was fine and normal, but in the 20 minutes it took to walk from the subway stop to my house I knew it wasn’t. I knew that any other high school girl my age should still be at the 2 Bros near school, laughing with the friends she made in AP something. Admitting this to myself further exacerbated my feelings of shame, like knowing there was something wrong with me that I had to hide. And so I hid and hid until I was sure that no one else would be able to see the parts of myself I disliked so much.
At 17, I should have been feeling limitless. I should have had the bright-eyed guilelessness of someone who thought that nothing could hurt her and that nothing mattered all that much. But instead I internalized the fear that made the world seem like a scary, unaccepting place. I wasn’t even two decades through my life and already I was already mourning the time that was slipping away. A lot of memories from that time are lost to me because of this– I remember the feelings of loneliness and sadness and little else. Specific details are few and far between, because it seemed like one day would just melt into the next with no indication that anything could change.
My friends make fun of me because I love one particular song by a certain EDM duo who give off distinctly frat boy vibes. In response I tell them, “it’s not a song, it’s a feeling.” When that song dominated the airwaves, it was the summer of 2016, the year I graduated high school and started my first year of college. It was a year where I felt like maybe I could begin again. I entered a school full of eager NYU freshmen, some even more lost than I was.
For the first time, I had hope for myself and for the future. Nobody had to know about those years I spent alone, anxious, and depressed. All I had to do was smile and say hi. As I found myself making friends, learning new things, and finally going to therapy, I rested in the idea that the years I had ahead of me could make up for the past. I could learn to forgive myself for the years I spent hating who I was. It was all going to be okay. And through it all was the constant refrain, a comforting mantra– we ain’t never getting older.
All this to say, 24 is a big ass number and I am definitely getting older. The letter I write to myself on my birthday is usually addressed to me in the present– what I want to accomplish, the experiences I want to have, plans for the year ahead. But this year I want to write a letter to my past self too. I want her to know that some of her best years are still ahead, and that a lot of things really don’t matter all that much. I want her to know that all the music she can’t relate to yet about being young and dumb and carefree will one day make sense to her, even if she’s a bit older when it finally does. It’s okay to listen to those songs and not feel the urge to relive your youth, but rather to rewrite it into a happier version.
I want her to know that her outer world is a reflection of her inner world, and that one day it won’t be so sad and dark. And most of all, I want her to know that even though she can’t hide behind 24, she won’t want to hide as much as she did at 17. In my head, there are all these things I want to say to her as I walk up behind her at the train platform, where she waits to go home every day, and tap her on the shoulder. And even though she doesn’t smile at first when she turns to me, I know she knows who I am.