The best thing about Adolescence is that it eventually ends.
The real life journey that runs from age 13 to 19 starts with a bang. Seemingly overnight, your body is no longer fully under your control. Extra hair, pockets of fat, and pimples have appeared as if by magic. Everything is different. Everything is harder. You’re in for an emotional, seven-year grind.
Everyone is familiar with Adolescence, those years of being a teenager. All the things that make these years memorable are the things that make it horrible. It’s a confusing jumble of new experiences, confusing emotions, and a sudden desire to yell at your mom. What makes Adolescence “the worst” may vary in their specifics from person to person, but for the most part it has to do with the volume and frequency of things that are changing for you. It’s a weird but crucial time. Getting through Adolescence is vital to becoming the best version of yourself.
Even though this experience is mandatory, we feel compelled to review it.
Even if you’re excited to grow up, the in-betweenness of Adolescence is a nightmare. Nothing stays the same, and sometimes it feels like that unsteadiness will last forever. You don’t even feel like your old self. The things you used to like suddenly feel childish. Your hobbies become a waste of time. All those macaroni paintings you gave to your mom? They were bullshit. In the middle of math class you will suddenly remember making them, and you will be ashamed of how proud you were. Your face will glow red, and Matt will turn around and say, “Are you okay dude?” You’re not okay, but how could you possibly explain what you’re feeling? You are sure that no one understands this feeling. This kind of pain is new, you tell yourself, because it is new to your hormone-addled mind. You are sure no one in the world has ever felt like this before.
Adolescence is a vampire, trying to suck the life out of you, and you have to fight and kill it. As it drains you, you’ll be even more convinced that no one understands how you feel. You are in the multi-stage boss fight of being a teenager. When you’ve figured out the attack patterns on your psyche, Adolescence will rise anew, an unholy beast, taking new forms and finding new ways to hurt you. It doesn’t just come from yourself. Adolescence makes the people you thought were your friends into monsters. That is because adolescence introduces a new currency into your life: the idea of being “cool.”
As a child, “cool” is a distant dream. It’s a thing that teenagers are and you are not. You play with dolls? You like wrestling? That’s lame, your teenage acquaintances say. Little do you know that no one really knows what cool is. They just know what it’s not. When you become a teenager, coolness becomes a vitally important social currency, one that determines if you eat lunch with that guy who listens to great records and has a cute freckle under his right eye, or if you eat lunch alone in the bathroom. There is a constant calculus happening under the surface of every action and interaction determining whether or not you are cool, but you’ll never know those calculation’s results. Coolness is invisible, an electric current that marks you as an insider or an outsider. Because everything is changing—your appearance is not even static from one day to the next—the under-the-hood math of what makes things cool will constantly change. Today, having to buy a bra might mortify you. Tomorrow, it’s going braless that makes you a freak. The same kids who beat you up for reading comics will come to school wearing Superman t-shirts. The only thing to do is go along with the herd, even if it doesn’t make sense, because at least then you’re not alone.
Adolescence tempts you to be the worst version of you. You might already know that giving up parts of yourself to be well-liked is uncomfortable, and if you don’t, you’ll learn quickly. Turning a blind eye when a friend gets bullied doesn’t make you feel good, even if you know you will be rewarded with an invite to Johnny’s kegger, even if Johnny’s keggers kind of suck. The beer is mostly foam and the guys get super grope-y. No one is really getting drunk, but they’re pretending to be, and that makes them impossible to talk to. At the time, you think this is better than being alone, when instead you should be wondering if it was worth the cost of watching your old friend Lisa get pelted with spitballs.
The threat of social ostracization is real, and terrifying. In the thick of Adolescence, you have no idea how short your teenage years will be. Having a miserable experience for seven years is absolutely nothing compared to the entire rest of your life. When you’re a teenager, that stretch of time is dilated such that each second feels like it lasts a century, and every moment when you feel like you’re utterly alone, more alone than anyone in the universe, is like being stabbed in the heart. It’s easy to end up being a bully to avoid feeling like no one likes you, but you’ll usually discover that succumbing to peer pressure gives you the same nausea as not having friends.
While in the midst of Adolescence, you may remember the day you turned 13, expecting somehow to be transformed into a more confident, exciting person: the kind of person who went on dates and told their parents to get out of their room; the kind of person who read poetry and had smart things to say about literature. None of that will necessarily happen. For me, something better happened. Every time I got made fun of for the things I liked or who I hung out with, for each romantic rejection, I amassed a skill set of ways to handle my feelings. Years of being challenged pushed me into being a better version of myself.
Being a teenager will occasionally make you long for the pre-teen prequel years. I longed to be that bushy haired 13-year-old again, the one who had enthusiasm for books and video games and anime. Being a teenager sucked that zest for life out of me, and as I emerged out the other side, I wanted it back. I could not have realized that had I not completed Adolesence, even if it meant losing myself for a little while along the way.
Adolescence happens to you whether you like it or not. What you learn about yourself when it’s over will vary. There’s a possibility that you’ll become cruel, want to punish the world like the world punished you. It’s easy to be that way—even if the circumstances of your pain make it seem more intense than it actually is, it’s still real that you felt rejection, were mocked or bullied, felt alone. It may even be that you did go through extraordinary hardship, made even harder because you didn’t have the tools to deal with stress, or loss, or adversity. To live through a lot of small firsts, like first zits and first crushes, while you are dealing with huge firsts, like your first dead friends, is a huge load. It isn’t fair. No matter what, you have to find a way through it. That’s what Adolescence is. It’s finding a way through.
When the credits roll on Adolescence it’s a relief. Not just because holy shit, it’s finally over, but because it’s when you realize that everyone went through what you just went through. All the times you thought you were suffering alone, so did someone else. It’s almost funny to imagine how much easier it all would have been if you’d shared how you felt with each other. Adolescence is nothing more than filling out an elaborate skill tree in a lot of ways, unlocking new forms of emotional maturity. It arms you with the tools you need for the next stage of life. Spoiler alert: what comes after is way better.