Watching my older siblings struggle through their teenage years, I knew it wouldn’t be all roses. But nothing could’ve prepared me for the horror of my own teen years. Shame held a death grip on my throat choking back the words to express how it felt. This is the first time in decades that I’ve dared to admit the depth of the agony of my teen years, exacerbated by a highly dysfunctional family.
Maybe your teen is like me. Afraid of everything, most of all, of expressing their fears. Maybe they felt like I did.
Honestly, I sometimes wish I’d been exposed to pornography in my teen years so this poignant agony wouldn’t have haunted me for so many years. With no frame of reference, as puberty wrought its inevitable physical changes, I began to suspect that something was wrong with me. Watching other girls seemingly comfortable wearing revealing swimwear, I became convinced that something was definitely wrong with me or, at the very least, they must’ve hit the unhirsute genetic jackpot.
It was a fear that lingered and haunted me longer than I care to admit, and was only dispelled when my (also abused) husband’s porn use exposed me to the high-def view of other women’s genitals. Apparently, we’re all pretty similar down under, hirsutism and everything. It was belatedly very reassuring.
Nowdays, teens are diagnosed with anxiety and given medications to cope. But in the yesteryear of my own teenage years, you suffered in silence. The one time I worked up the courage to tell my mum how fear filled my every waking moment, her ‘help’ was to yell, yell and then yell some more.
My teen years were wrought with anxiety so paralysing, I could hardly walk. Don’t laugh. I mean that literally. Whenever possible, I split off from the rest of my friends in school so my gait could return to normal. My terror of walking in a group was second only to my pathological fear that someone had stuck something to my back – anything from a booger to a ‘Kick me’ sign. Every visit to the WC involved a lot of whirling in front of the glass, not from vanity, but from this paranoia.
Nowhere was my teen anxiety at more fever pitch than at meal times. My swallow reflex simply fled. I chewed and chewed…and chewed and chewed and chewed but couldn’t swallow. The only hope for ingesting nutrition was to take great gulps of milk and wash the food down as a slurry. I could swallow liquids but not solids. Mealtimes at school were torturous.
If I even suspected a boy might like me, eating became all but impossible. It wasn’t an eating disorder. I was simply too nervous to swallow solid food. Nerves triumphed over reflexes. Sometimes even breathing was difficult.
Something about being a teenager convinces you that at a genetic level, you are flawed. You are not normal. Everyone else in school is more or less regular, but not you. Oh no! Not your personality, not your body and especially not your face. You may look like Cinderella or Prince Charming but the reflection in the glass staring miserably back at you looks more like a Picasso.
This conviction that I was fundamentally flawed at the molecular level continued for years.
Social skills were not something Ma and Da modelled for us kids. Awkward and antisocial we saw every day but the skill of polite chit-chat…not so much. I was nearly grown when I stumbled on the concept of fake-it-til-you-make-it. My mistake was assuming that confidence and conversation were genuine. Quite by chance I learnt how to relate to others as the person I wanted to be and gradually grew into her.
It would be wonderful to conclude with a hearty recipe for a pain-free puberty and easy transition from childhood to adulthood, but my own experiences don’t bode well for such optimism. Being a teenager sucks.
I am, however, convinced that the teen years don’t have to be quite as horrific as mine were. As exasperating as you may find your teen, Parents, please remember the unspoken agony of your teenage years, pain your child may silently be suffering. Yelling will only amplify the pain and the shame, exacerbating the problem.
Make yourself a safe person to talk to. Normalize their pain; don’t shame them for it. Don’t assume the worst about them. A little empathy, a little humility goes a long way.