Before I turned 18, I might as well have not existed.
My teenaged years were a stale, stagnant fog. I was a stringed puppet, a shell of the raw, confident aura teenagers possess. I was puppeteered by my parents, and with glee-I knew no better but to impress them dutifully. My days were filled with homework and housework, and my brain echoed the virtues and expectations of my parents. I dug my nose in book after book, firstly for pleasure (I was an avid reader-aren’t all writers?), and secondly to perform well in school.
And perform well I did.
There were 3 high schools in my small town-a catholic one, which was written off by most of the town unless you were catholic, and 2 public schools. One was known for its successful sports teams and athletics, and the other was known for creating academic geniuses who could name all the capital cities of every country by memory and solve complex math problems without a calculator. Considering I couldn’t climb a flight of stairs without becoming winded, you can correctly assume which high school I went to.
I was always smart and studious, reliable, and responsible. Not a sugary cooler or soggy joint or a late-night house party could lead me astray. My entire existence revolved around school and doing well in it.
And do well I did.
I got above average grades-I remember a highlight of my high school years was receiving a 97 as the final mark in an introductory philosophy class. Teachers praised me-I had an English teacher take me aside after class to tell me how skilled of a public speaker I was. My parents praised my hard work ethic and the culminating grade to show for it-they had a system of money given for the amount of As on a report card, and I’d laugh all the way to the bank most semesters.
But surely there was more to life than this?
As I inched closer to graduating, I felt this profound loss of a true teenage experience. I felt bored, exhausted with my existence, pitying myself and my lame life. I had no sense of self outside pleasing my parents, outside of good grades and a clean track record. I couldn’t make mistakes or bad decisions. I couldn’t trip up or not know the answer. I couldn’t make a mess or burn bridges. All I knew was successful, tangible output.
I fell flat on my ass after high school. I started and quit 2 separate undergraduate programs, failing emotionally in the first one and academically in the second one.
The first time around, I began pursuing a degree my parents pushed (I had yet to learn my lesson about chronic parent-pleasing). It was guaranteed secure, high income, and hey, who doesn’t want that, I guess?
As it turns out, pursuing something I couldn’t have cared less about took its toll on me, and I evidently became depressed. Days blurred into weeks, weeks into months, and I didn’t want to be awake for any of them. I did most assignments rotting away in my bed and didn’t bother studying for most tests and exams. One night, I had gone to bed with the surefire hopes of not waking up and had one of the most violent-snotty-nose-convulsing-crying-breakdowns of my life. I wasn’t a stranger to hard times and mental roadblocks, but I had never had a suicidal thought until that moment, and that scared me shitless.
I needed change.
The change I needed so desperately as a teenager was finally swelling in as a young adult. I quit the program after the first year, to the dismay of my parents. Their bright little gold star was now a dull participation medal, but it was more important I was alive to wear the medal than not be here at all, so they complied. I decided to work for a year and reapply to the program I wanted right out of high school but was discouraged from.
And that I did.
A year later, I am enrolled in what I think is my dream program. For once, I feel like I am living for myself. I feel like a True Adult, and the pants fit a little big, but I make it work because there’s nothing a belt and a little confidence can’t hide.
Here, though? I was completely pantsed.
I learned the hard way that I am not cut out for university level science courses (I have forever been an English girl). What I thought was pursuing a passion for the sciences and turning over a new leaf was actually a mean and abrasive body check from Life. I failed-yes, Failed with a capital F-half of my first semester (which was a light course load!), and it sent me reeling.
I remember feeling like I aced my economics exam, only to be slapped in the face with a D as my final mark. I knew I struggled with my chemistry tests, but I was still shocked at the big fat F as my final letter grade. I tried my very hardest in calculus and couldn’t get anything over a passing mark the entire semester. Truly, what hurt me the most though, was that I was actually trying this time, and I still couldn’t stay afloat. It was a swimming lesson, and I was in the deep end for the first time.
I tried to pick up the pieces after my first year-I took summer courses, I spoke with academic advisors, adjusted my next semester accordingly-but I could barely tread water in my second year. I was buoyed to what little pride I had left, but after another grueling and humiliating semester, I knew what I had to do. I tossed out my life preserver and let the tide take me.
I quit. Again.
The only thing that used to matter for me was doing well in school, and then suddenly I was incapable of receiving more than a 65 on any given test or assignment. I needed a hard reset, and it was precisely the failing not once, but twice, out of post-secondary school that rebooted me.
This was the first time I truly failed at something. It brought me to some of the lowest points in my mind. Grazing the gravel at rock bottom rattled me in a way I don’t think anything else could have. It was the exact equal and opposite reaction I needed to my teenaged years. I needed to fail, and more specifically, I needed to fail academically. I needed to disappoint my parents, academically. I needed a break, academically.
Going from a straight A student to a university dropout was a hard turn to maneuver. Having your entire identity wrapped up in a very fleeting yet integral part of your childhood i.e., school, is not a road I’d suggest taking-it’s smooth and curve free but leads right off a cliff.
Once I brushed the Ds and Fs off my knees, once I openly claimed my title of dropout, once I finally decided to Just Fucking Live, I found myself. Existence is precious, profound, intense-it’s holding a newborn baby, it’s crying yourself into a deep slumber, it’s an ice cream cone on a summer day. I may not have gotten a teenagerhood, but you’re sure as hell I’m cashing in every Adult experience I can.
I have not been in school since.