THE GIRL I USED TO BE

One spring day in 2017, I shuffled through our mail pile to find an issue of Teen Vogue, wrapped neatly in plastic and addressed to me. Yes, Teen Vogue, and I was already in my thirties and a mother to a toddler at the time. I had subscribed to Teen Vogue in college, declaring to friends that it was better than real Vogue (although I’d occasionally buy the original, too, for the perfume samples and glossy, ready-to-decorate-the-wall Chloé ads). The fashion was attainable, the layouts were fun, the models were diverse, and the articles were interesting, unstuffy. But I hadn’t renewed a subscription in at least five years. Its journey back to me felt like a mystery, a good mystery, in the veins of Nancy Drew or The Boxcar Children.

I don’t know why I received that particular issue. Michael guessed maybe I’d bought something online and a free subscription got tacked onto it. Maybe I purposely signed up for the subscription and forgot I did (like the one time I ordered, received, returned, and then ordered the exact same jeans again that didn’t fit). Maybe Teen Vogue dug deep into the old mailing lists to increase readership. Maybe it was just the feeling-all-the-feelings phase of motherhood (medically known as postpartum anxiety) that lingered longer than it should. I was always at the end of the tunnel, waiting for signs of light.

Solange Knowles appeared on the cover in pleated white with her serene face. According to the table of contents, she contributed an article, and I quickly flipped through the slim magazine to find it. It was titled, “A Letter to My Teenage Self.” I scanned the first eight or ten lines with their mix of lowercase and uppercase letters. It flowed and transformed into a ballad of youth, an unapologetic look into its awkward phases, the little and life-changing moments that occur, and the people that you treasure, that you may or may not realize as a teenager. When I reached the end, I read it again. And again. And again. It wasn’t a perfectly composed poem or exciting profile or typical celebrity spread, like Solange’s favorite places to shop in LA. There were too many words that one could relate to and take to heart. Later I would recycle the magazine, saving only those two pages, slightly wrinkled, torn edges and all, in a drawer with my prized half-finished notebooks.

There will be pain, there will be doubt, there will be beauty, there will be the unknown. There will be so many moments of joy and delight that the whole universe will feel painted in hues of amber and wonder. There will be times you are so sad you can’t lift your head and there will be times you are so happy that the sensation of life knocks you down. But most importantly, there will be you.

Solange Knowles, “A Letter to My Teenage Self”

My teenage years were pleasant and unlike stereotypical movies, secret crushes stayed secret, I was an average athlete, and I never fell in love. I excelled in English and bombed Chemistry. Driving a car terrified me and to this day, entering the interstate from the on ramp gives me the same uneasy feeling. My mom gave me more freedom over fashion and bought me a few things from dELiA*s and J.Crew. My style was a mismatch of things: floral dresses and mens button downs pilfered from my parents’ closet, thrifted tops and skirts, denim overalls, and Vans Old School shoes. Junior year I owned a cool brown and purple plaid puffer coat, bought at Burlington Coat Factory, almost exactly like this one, and I thought it was the greatest jacket ever. I loved to write and disguised it; writing wasn’t as cool as playing tennis or taking Art III. I never sat alone at lunch; I had soccer friends, friends in band, AP track friends, and for the first time, older friends. Amelia* introduced me to vintage stores and we saw Weezer together. In four years, I smiled as much as I cried, and the tears often came suddenly, in fits, usually while I was alone.

I was an introvert earnestly trying to be an extrovert. I hid the tears from my family, and if I cried when other people were around at a party or in a restroom, I attributed it to a stomachache, a migraine, an oncoming cold, anything that sounded reasonable. Well into my twenties I found out from a counselor what they really were: panic attacks. Dr. Craig Sawchuk of the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota explains, “In addition to a sometimes-overwhelming feeling of anxiety or fear, a panic attack may also cause physical signs and symptoms, such as a pounding or racing heart; sweating or chills; trembling or shaking; and breathing problems… Signs and symptoms of a panic attack often come on suddenly and peak within minutes. A panic attack may occur as a result of a frightening or stressful situation, or may even occur out of the blue.” Once identified, they didn’t seem as scary or weird or shameful, primarily because adulthood slowly allows you to make peace with yourself.

All of us, at a single time or another, long to be Marty McFly and return to our adolescence and repair the future. It’s the epitome of wishful thinking. What if I had been completely honest with my family and friends back then? Would I have seen a doctor or counselor? Would I have taken medication? Would I have enjoyed social events more? Would I have driven Jenna* to Saturday soccer games instead of her picking me up each weekend? Would I have been brave enough to say “I like you” to my brother’s tennis teammate? Would I have told kids to cut it out when I saw them teasing Brian* who went to writing camp with me? Would I have worn a 1960s robin’s egg blue dress to the dance with swagger? I could fill an entire sheet of paper with these hypothetical check [] yes [] no [] maybe questions. Of course life would have been better, completely different even. But through the gift of time, we receive something Marty couldn’t bring to the present– the experience of living through it and the grace that accompanies it.

Fate delivered Solange’s letter to me (and the girl I used to be). I yearned for a message that things would be okay. Not perfect, okay was enough. And if you need a reminder– no matter if you’re sixteen or twenty-six or thirty-six– you will be okay, too.

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