In the final installment of this multi-part series, Compass asked clinicians to reflect upon their youth and write letters to their younger selves. We hope you find some inspiring or helpful tidbits of information as you head into the fall.
Dear 15-year-old self,
It’s me, your middle-aged self, writing to you from many years into the future. So much has changed between then and now. We’ve had an African American President and a female Vice President. We’ve had a terrorist attack, a pandemic, and lots of tough politics. Oh, and the Cubs finally won the World Series. The good news is you made it out of adolescence in one piece, and I know it wasn’t easy. I think back on all of our struggles during the high school years and have some pieces of advice for you.
First, our school struggles. You’ll be surprised to hear that after high school, you not only graduated college but went on to earn not one but two graduate degrees. You will grow to love school and love learning. Your struggles with motivation and attention fell by the wayside once you found value in your education. Values are a great way to find direction when you are feeling lost or like you are doing things on autopilot.
I know there have been many times you were told, “you aren’t working to your fullest potential.” Sadly, your parents and teachers were correct. Your fullest potential is quite impressive, and you will find it eventually.
I also want to talk to you about loss. I know you have just experienced our parents’ separation and that it has turned our world upside down. I remember this being the first time you experienced some very intense and very “adult” emotions. Those were some very challenging experiences, and I know you weren’t sure what to do with them. I know your default will be to stuff those feelings down deep and appear “strong” for your mom and siblings. I know you will want to step in and take on the role of parent to your siblings as your mom struggles with her own loss.
My advice to you is to practice some acceptance. Make some space for your feelings. Notice them and take note of what these feelings might be trying to tell you. Stuffing those feelings down will only create more problems for you down the road. There are a couple of adults in your life that are there for you and will be a huge support to you as you figure out what it means to be the oldest child in a single-parent home with five siblings. They will eventually inspire you to build a career as a helper. Use their support. Continue to be a teenager and don’t take things too seriously. Your family will weather the storm and be fine. Be sure to practice some good self-care and allow yourself some time to be you.
Speaking of being you, it's time to address the elephant in the room- your identity. I know you have known since a very young age that you are “different.” You are just now starting to put a label on your difference: you are gay. It’s probably shocking to read those letters, but by now, you know it to be true. I know you have been focusing a tremendous amount of time and energy trying to look and act “straight” in hopes of flying under the radar. I also know you continue to engage in some type of bargaining with the universe to make you straight. I know how afraid you are, how much shame you carry, and how badly you wish for reality to be different.
There is a saying in the 21st century created for young people like you that says, “It Gets Better.” The struggles you experience at 15 related to your sexual orientation are temporary. There will be a time, not too far in the future, where you will embrace your identity, where you will have fulfilling relationships, and where you will be embraced for who you are by those who love you. Please, please, please, be kind to yourself and work to withhold judgment. Know that there are allies in your world who will stand up for you as you are for who you are. There are also a fair number of people in the late 1980s who won’t.
Here’s what I can tell you about surviving high school as a closeted gay teen:
First, remember that just as much as you fear your peers are scrutinizing your every action, all the other teens around you fear the same thing. It is part of the teen experience (it's actually called the imaginary audience). For the most part, every adolescent is so worried about how others might be judging them that they don’t have the bandwidth to scrutinize others in the way that you fear. With this in mind, take some chances. Be true to yourself. Don’t feel constrained by gender stereotypes. Enjoy being a theater kid! Dance when the music moves you. Share your feelings; it is not a sign of weakness.
Secondly, the rejection and ostracizing that you fear never actually happens. There are a few people who respond poorly to your “coming out,” but your idea of what will happen is far, far worse than how your coming out actually plays out. Your catastrophic thinking about coming out actually holds you back from becoming your best self. When the time feels right, step towards your fears in pursuit of living true to yourself.
Lastly, you are not alone. You will learn as you continue your journey that there are many, many others around you experiencing the same struggles and on the same journey of self-discovery. There are also more allies around you than you are aware. I know it wasn’t always easy or possible to stand up as an ally and advocate for others when you were struggling. I think you will be proud to know that at some point, you were able to take the risk to stand up for others, and it was absolutely worth it.
Joe Serio, LCPC, Chief Clinical Officer
Chief Clinical Quality Officer