What Teenagers Need to Hear

Right now, you’re starting another year of school. You might be excited. You might be bored already.  You might be both.

You are at a point in your life where you are constantly being told things by Grown People.  You’re sitting in classrooms, going over syllabi and textbooks, getting parking passes and bus assignments, and being Told Things.  Grown People love telling teenagers things.  It’s up there with avocado and taking walks.

I pay taxes now. I own a car. I pay bills and have to serve on juries and have a permanent address now.  From what I’ve been told, this means I am a Grown Person.  As a Grown Person, it is possible that I have Words of Wisdom for the Young Folk.  However, I have also been assured that I am still, how shall we say, hip and with-it.  I know what’s on fleek.

Actually, I don’t. I know what’s on leek*, and that’s almost the same thing, right?

In all of the things that Grown People Tell You, there are a few things missing.  There are a few words that I worry no one is telling you, a few things that you need to hear.   

You matter.  Your thoughts, your feelings, and your opinions matter.  

If you speak your mind, I promise you that at least one person will tell you that you are “too young” to have an opinion. They will tell you that you’ll change your mind once you’ve seen more of the world.  They will do everything they can to belittle you and make you feel like you can’t have an opinion.

Don’t listen to them.

Every time I speak my mind, there’s at least one person who, instead of merely disagreeing with my position, tells me I’m not allowed to have a position. That I’m too young, too female, too liberal.  That I’ll change my mind “once I’ve seen more of life.”

It just makes me louder.

If someone uses your age, your gender, your sexuality, or your experiences to silence you, it means that they’re afraid of what might happen if you were allowed to speak.  Speak anyway.

You won’t always be right, and you won’t always be as eloquent as you’d like to be, but no one ever is.  If you are happy, sing and dance. If you are sad, cry.  If you are angry, scream.  You matter.

When you see injustice, you have the power and the responsibility to fight it.  

Racism. Sexism. Homophobia.  Economic inequality.  It may feel like you can’t make a difference. After all, you can’t vote yet.  You may not have the money or the access to participate in rallies or parades.  Heck, you may not even be able to write to your congressperson.

But you know what you can fight?  You can fight stupid, backwards, harmful ways of thinking.  You can object to racist remarks – it doesn’t matter if the person making them is another student, a teacher, or a family member.  You can object to homophobic remarks.  You can befriend the girl who’s being ostracized because she wasn’t born in the body that matches who she is inside.  You can offer compassion where the world would offer judgment.  Most importantly, you can question.  Instead of simply giving to the homeless, give to the homeless and then ask, “Why are there so many homeless people in our country?”  Befriend the boy in your class who’s just come out and then ask, “Why is this such a big deal?”  Object to the racism you hear every day – because you’ll hear it every day – and then ask, “Why are we still clinging to a history of brutal oppression?”  

It may not seem like much, but here’s what you have to understand: injustice thrives only so long as no one questions its validity.  You are the future!  You can help us to build a better world by actively challenging injustice.  If you’re still doubting the power of questioning, think about this: this year, the highest court in the land ruled to legalize same-sex marriage. Fifty years ago, nobody was even asking why marriage was limited to a man and a woman.  Nobody asked because they accepted that certain kinds of people were less worthy under the law.

And look at us now.

Who you are is never a phase.

When I was 15, I went through a phase in which I dressed like Avril Lavigne.  Upon reflection, it wasn’t the most flattering aesthetic for me, but it was 2003 and that was in vogue, so to speak.  Straightening your hair and wearing four pounds of red eyeshadow because the salesperson at Hot Topic said it was a good idea is a phase.  Exploring who you are – your gender, your sexuality, your spirituality – is not.

You’re not too young to know who you are.  You also don’t have to know exactly who you are right now.  In fact, you might never fit into a box – and that’s okay.  If you want to date a girl, date a girl.  If you want to be a girl, be a girl.  You are a human being, with unlimited potential, and you have every right to develop that potential.  Figure out who you are. Figure out who you love.  Figure out what you believe about your place in the universe.  The world is too full of unhappy people who never looked within themselves because they were frightened of change.  

You are not a “late bloomer.” That’s crap.  

People used to tell me I was a textbook “late bloomer.”  I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 22. I didn’t buy a car until I was 24.  I didn’t date until I was 25.  I never enjoyed parties, didn’t think of myself as a pretty girl, and spent a lot of time pining over boys who never felt the same way.

From time to time, well-meaning adults would see that I was unhappy about these perceived failings and would tell me that “my time would come.”  I spent a lot of time waiting for “my time” to come, and as a result, I never learned to love myself the way I was.  When I became an adult, I realized that “your time will come” is something that adults say when they don’t know how to deal with a teenager’s unhappiness.  They always mean to be reassuring, but it comes across as patronizing.  Life’s a party, and your invitation’s still in the mail. Once you become somebody else, life will be better. 

Let me tell you one thing: you’re not a late bloomer.  A “late bloomer” is just someone whose life doesn’t look like the All-American All-Star stereotype.  You are you. Your life might not look like your parents’ lives did when they were your age.  That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, or that your life isn’t worth anything until you “bloom.”  Human beings are in a constant state of flux – you’ll never be finished growing or evolving.  But I promise you that you’ll be the same person when you get older.  A little less spotty, maybe, and you might weigh more, but you won’t lose your sense of humor, your geeky interests, or your shyness.  You shouldn’t have to.

My life is different now than it was.  I have a car and a job and a boyfriend.  That being said, I’m still the same person I always have been, and my life is neither easier nor harder than it was when I was a teenager. I’m still geeky. I still spend a lot of time on Tumblr.  I still hate parties.  The only difference is that I’m no longer apologizing for the person I’m not.

Abusive relationships are real – and they’re not always romantic.

Adults spend a lot of time telling teenagers that their romances and friendships are just temporary.  The phrase “you’ll get over it” gets used a lot.  But your relationships mean as much to you all as they do to adults, and you deserve to be treated well in both sexual and platonic relationships.

If you have a boyfriend, girlfriend, or friend-friend who uses you, that’s a problem.  If they try to manipulate you using money, sex, or threat of violence, that’s a problem.  If they try to control who you see, what you read, where you go, or what you do, that’s a problem.  If they make you feel guilty on purpose, pick fights with you, belittle you, or call you names, that’s a problem.  If they know your insecurities and hit below the belt, that’s a problem.  If they tell you that you’re making it all up, that’s a problem.  If you ever feel that you’re “not allowed” to be sad, angry, or happy, that’s a problem.

It’s not just boyfriends and girlfriends who can abuse you.  You should never feel afraid or miserable when you’re in the presence of a friend.  If you feel this way, talk to someone.  If your parents don’t listen, find a teacher.  If you can’t find a teacher, find a counselor.  Find a pastor.

We’re all terrified of “being alone.”  I promise you that it’s better to be by yourself than with an abusive person.

Your teachers, parents, coaches – they’re all people too.  

I’ve got two big points here – prepare to have your mind blown.  First of all: people are often wrong.  Parents, teachers, coaches, presidents, popes – nobody is perfect.  You make mistakes.  They make mistakes.  You don’t have to accept their authority without caveat.  Be uppity, be passionate, and be idealistic.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t listen to your elders.  They’ve got a lot to offer, and yeah, you do need to listen to them and respect them.  That’s the key term there: respect.  There’s a huge difference between blind obedience and respect.  Blind obedience is suffocating, but fragile, and it rarely builds strong relationships.  Respect your parents and respect your teachers and respect your coaches, but don’t be shattered when you find out that they fart, and lie, and pick their noses, and forward stupid email chains.  You do the same things now. You’ll do the same things when you’re older.

My second point: be kind to them.  They’re people.  You might think that because you’re young, what you say has no effect on the people in power.  You might think that when you get mad, it doesn’t matter what you do.  That’s not true.  Your words can hurt as much as they can help.  Yes, your math teacher might not be able to explain things in a way that you understand.  Yes, she might be snappish. Sure, you wouldn’t hang out with her if you had the choice. But she’s also a human being with feelings.  So don’t be a jerk.

You deserve to be healthy.

I write about mental health issues because I know what it’s like to be your age and mentally ill. Young people are particularly susceptible to mental illness.  Your brains are growing, you’ve got new hormones coming in and messing everything up, you’re under stress, and you’re expected to accomplish incredible feats in four years.

Many of you are struggling to live with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or other mental illnesses.  I know what you are going through, because I was there.  Every morning was a fight against the panic and the fear that lived in my gut, and just the act of going to school was a triumph.  Some days, I didn’t have the energy for that fight.  You need to know that what you’re going through is real.  It is real, and it is in your body, and it’s happening to you.  You didn’t make it happen. It’s not your fault.  And you are a champion.

You deserve to be healthy – to be mentally whole.  Being mentally whole doesn’t mean you’re happy all the time, but it means you feel real.  You feel in control of your mind and body. It means that you have access to the help that you need to heal.  If you feel that your emotions are out of control, find someone to talk to. If you feel disconnected from yourself, or if you feel like you’re in a fishtank, find someone to talk to. If you struggle to wade through sensory stimuli (people talking, bright lights, the chaos of school), find someone to talk to.  School counselors are great resources if you can’t talk to your parents.

The last thing I think you need to hear is that you are brave, and you are bright, and you are bold.  You’re not always going to be right, and you’re not always going to be good, and you’re not always going to be the kind of person you need to be.  But you have more power to do good than you realize.  Have a good year, everybody. 

*Garlic butter and a nice lemon zest.

Planned Parenthood and the Privilege of Moral Outrage

And for my next trick – a discussion of lady parts!

Deal with it.

There’s been a lot of recent controversy regarding Planned Parenthood – namely, that carefully-edited video that paints the organization as some kind of Bond Villain whose end goal is to blow up the Moon. Today, Republicans in Congress failed to push forward a bill that would effectively end all Title X funding of Planned Parenthood.  I’d be celebrating more if they weren’t counting on a government shut-down to push their agenda forward anyway.  Never mind the fact that federal money cannot be used to fund any abortion procedure – PP gets 1/3rd of its funding from federal sources, and pretty much all of that goes to providing birth control.  Planned Parenthood does not now, nor has it ever, used federal funding to cover the cost of abortion services.  Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about the real issue here: the attempts at morally justifying an attack on health services for women – overwhelmingly women of color and low-income women.

If you oppose abortion, you should be happy right now! Abortion rates are lower than they have ever been since Roe v. Wade. This trend didn’t start with 2014’s rash of anti-abortion measures, so the Republican leadership cannot claim that particular Merit Badge (it’s shaped like a uterus with a big X over it). Please look at the graphs. It’s been a gradual downward movement as birth control becomes more available.  With the rise of IUD use in America, I imagine that trend will start to veer ever-more-sharply downward in the coming years.

Here’s a little Truth Crouton for you all: women don’t want to have abortions. They don’t.  No woman thinks to herself, “Hey! A free Saturday – let’s squeeze in an abortion between yoga and brunch with the girls!”  It happens because – for one reason or another – a pregnancy is unsustainable.  And if there’s a surefire way to prevent abortions, it’s making sure that unsustainable pregnancies don’t happen.

I talk a lot about privilege, and in this case, I think it’s important that we recognize our own. I am a woman, which means my body is apparently the battlefield upon which the Hunger Games Tributes Republican Presidential hopefuls plan to win their battle. But let’s not kid ourselves here: women like me are more privileged than not. I’m white. I went to college. I have a professional job – and I have insurance. I get my choice of birth control at a very small cost to me. I never have to worry about my safety or my reputation because I live in an affluent suburban area where I have access to safe contraception. You know what else I can get? Pap smears. Gynecological exams. Vaccinations that keep my risk of cervical cancer at an all-time low. I have an OB-GYN, guys. More than that, if an unexpected pregnancy were to happen, it wouldn’t be the end of the world for me. I would not be forced to choose between my livelihood and parenthood.

That’s privilege, everyone. Privilege is not having to worry about issues because they do not directly affect you. Too many women in this country lack what I consider to be basic rights: access to quality health care and reproductive health resources.  Do you know how expensive insurance is? I can tell you that the days of company-sponsored healthcare for workers and their families are fading into the dust of time. I pay for my plan out of pocket; I know that more women in my generation do than don’t, and a terrifyingly large percentage of women have no insurance at all.  How on Earth can women be held solely responsible for birth control and family planning when the odds are so incredibly stacked against them? Planned Parenthood steps in to help.  The program provides screenings, birth control, and, yes, abortions – I’m not going to lie to you and pretend that PP doesn’t. But here’s the thing: Planned Parenthood takes care of a large population in this country that nobody else is willing to take care of.  I don’t see anybody else going to bat for women the way that they do.  And they’re more effective than an entire Quarter Quell of Republican cannon-fodder nominees.  You want to see abortion rates go down? Really go down?  Make them unnecessary. Give women the knowledge and the resources to take care of themselves, and you’ll see healthier families.

And don’t be a dick, please: stop shouting at women who are already making the most difficult decision of their lives. They’re not doing it lightly.   When you condemn a woman for making this decision, when you shout and curse and spit, you are saying, “I cannot imagine what you are going through, but because I am not strong enough to offer empathy, I will take the coward’s road and pile on condemnation.”  Moral outrage is a privilege reserved for those who will never be forced to choose between survival and scruples.  If you want to actually make a difference, then stand with Planned Parenthood and help bring family planning to every woman in America.  If you want to do nothing and then gripe and moan about the “lack of family values” like a colossal pissbaby, then by all means, support the decision to defund.

Go for it.