Dear 16-Year-Old Ella

Dear 16-Year-Old Me,

First of all, dry your tears and march your sorry self back from the street sign at the top of the street. It may feel like an escape right now and the New York City skyline is always pretty, but for God’s sake it’s nearly midnight, and no matter how far you run away, the hurt is not going to leave you. Besides, it’s your birthday, and you should not be spending it sitting on damp grass while your parents wonder where you are.

Things may suck now, but you haven’t seen nothin’ yet. Your life is about to collapse around you. Everything you’ve become obsessed with and are working towards—Yale, the perfect grades, a million activities, being president of CGI, having a boyfriend—is going to very nearly kill you. Literally. But you are a million times stronger than you think. You’re made of steel and diamonds, and you are going to learn to stop lying to yourself.

But before you discover exactly how strong you are, things are going to feel impossible. You’re going to try to jump out of windows and overdose on pills and cut yourself with razors and gouge a surprising amount of skin out of your left arm (you will see those scars everyday for years and hate yourself for it). You’re going to have panic attacks where you can’t breathe and think you’re going to die. You’ll get slapped with a million labels. They won’t just call you depressed and anxious. Now, there will be bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, anorexia, ADHD, OCD. You’re going to have to leave school and a life that you’re equally in love with and hate to go to an outpatient clinic for close to six months. You will make the choice to leave, and it will be the right one. Trust your gut.

You’re going to learn that everyone has demons and that just because someone looks intimidating, it doesn’t mean that they are. Speak up whenever you can and offer people advice when you’re participating in the groups. Then, listen to what you’re saying and apply it to your own life. Stop being such a hypocrite. And don’t get yourself backed into a corner in the supply closet by that creepy boy. He will say awful things, and you’ll be too scared to yell.

That time your gym teacher told you that you were overweight if you could pinch an inch of skin on your hip is, honestly, one of the most ridiculous things ever. You need to eat more than one cup of yogurt a day, and don’t start pretending it’s a game. The weight that you will lose won’t be pretty. Your ribs are going to stick out, and your arms and legs will get incredibly weak. And if any of the traditional logic about the importance of nutrition doesn’t convince you, listen to this: None of your bras are going to fit anymore, and you will have to go back to wearing the ones you got when you were 14. It will be embarrassing. You will also have to constantly see doctors who will ask you all kind of questions, and your mom will get hyper-involved in your eating and drive you crazy.

You will also have to spend a week in a hospital. Don’t freak out about it, even when they draw your blood in the emergency room and drive you in an ambulance through a snowstorm. Instead, use the week to meet interesting people and collect observations for later writing. When they stick you in that windowless room without heating, a clock, a window, or a chair, do not hyperventilate. They will keep you in there longer. Also, stand up to that cow of a psychiatrist. She will be wrong about everything and unnecessarily cruel. Furthermore, don’t sit there silently when they try to force everyone to watch Sandlot even though one of the girls was once raped while the movie was playing. She will freak out the entire time, they won’t do anything about it, and you will regret not doing something. And wear your prettiest outfits the whole time you’re there, you’ll feel much better when you’re cute.

CGI will be what makes you want to come back to school. Return with all the glory of General MacArthur, but know that senior year is going to be rough. We the People will at first suck monkey balls, but then become your favorite thing ever. You will say stupid things in the process. Apologize for them. Your English teacher and class will make you so happy you want to cry. Trust her when she says good things about you. She will be the first teacher to really, truly like you without any ounce of pity. You will also win awards at Penn Model Congress, thanks to brutal determination and an award at RUMUN, thanks to an amazing teammate. Use this as proof that you are capable and strong.

Your case manager at school will be your hero. Believe everything he says. He will be responsible for your graduation and every good thing that happens in school that year. Thank him profusely and know that even that won’t be able to express your gratitude.

Discover youtube and The Vlogbrothers. John and Hank Green will change your life. You will become an infinitely better thinker and on several occasions put off self-destruction because tomorrow one of their videos is going to be posted, and you don’t want to miss it. Also, find and read as many authors’ blogs as you can. They will give you so many healthy adult role models and get you through nights when the self-loathing feels oppressive and paranoia is on the rise. They are worthy of demi-God status, but don’t forget that they are as human and real as you are.

Write. Write a lot. Write even when it doesn’t make sense and the words seem to come out all wrong and awkward. People will somehow like it, and it will sometimes be the only thing you like about yourself. That idea about starting a blog: do it and don’t give up, even when you don’t feel like you have anything left to put into it. You will somehow fall into the world of books and authors and publishing, and you will feel at home for the first time in years.

Additionally, do not let yourself be talked into things you don’t want to do. Just because someone tells you you’ll like it in a month, does not mean that you will, and it does not matter how much you think they’re going to be angry or hate you for it. Just don’t do it. It’ll bother you to no end when you’re older, and it will create horrible habits. And don’t take medication you don’t want to simply because adults and doctors recommend it. You will get knocked out, get confused, become manic, and sleep through important things if you don’t start using the word no. It doesn’t matter if someone has a million diplomas from fancy universities in their office or is the leading doctor in a field, they don’t know you best—you, however, do. Even if your parents say they are going to kick you out of the house if you don’t take one more pill, say no. They won’t end up doing it, and you’ll feel better, both physically and mentally.

But most of all, love. Love with everything you have. Devotion and passion and compassion will bring you everything beautiful in the world.

Love your friends and treat them well. They will hold you together when you’re falling apart at the seams. They will become the only reason you don’t kill yourself on multiple occasions. And they will make you happier than anything. Also, trust them, sometimes more than you trust yourself. They are very rarely wrong and will love you back, no matter what happens.

Unconditionally love your family as they try do the best they can to help you. Be nicer to Pippa. She deserves it. Treat your cats as if they were your children. You will discover that they can make any situation infinitely better. Don’t give up hope: Pushkin will eventually become less skittish and one day start sitting on your lap.

Love things and places and people. Just let yourself do it. The world is a million times better when you love it.

And learn to love yourself.

You’re gonna be alright, somehow, and you’re going to live an extraordinary life. I just know it.

Finally, get over yourself and stop wearing those shapeless, shiny soccer shorts when you go swimming. It isn’t a good look.

Love,

Ella

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I decided to write this letter after discovering that an updated version of “Dear Me” will be coming out soon. You can get to the book’s website by clicking here. Basically, the book is a collection of letters to and pictures of various famous people’s 16-year-old selves. It’s beautiful.

Earlier in the day, I had read Laini Taylor’s latest blog post, “Creating Your Life,” which can be found here. She writes about the importance of having the courage and passion to live out your daydreams and not to let them become passive thoughts in your head. And she uses two amazing quotes. The first one is by Mary Oliver, and I have also loved it for a long time.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

And the second is this:

Ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you.

It’s by Hafiz, and so impossibly wonderful. I love it. She even made a picture with the quote on it.

Lovely, no?

Laini Taylor is one of my favorite authors and people, and I would love to be able to live a life like hers. That post was so beautiful and inspiring, I cried. It got me thinking about how I would go about living out my “one wild and precious life,” and writing this letter was a nice reflection on how I’ve gone about that in the past and what I’m doing to live an extraordinary life right now.

About fifteen minutes later, I checked my youtube subscription box and discovered that George Watsky, one of my favorite youtubers, had made a spoken-word poem/letter to his 16-year-old self that he had performed and filmed. It’s wonderful, and you can watch it just below this text.

If you also want to write a letter to your 16-year-old self and make it public, I’d love to read it. Just leave a link in the comments.

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Ella Panics

Among my infinite number of talents, I appear to possess an immense propensity towards panic.

It’s currently past midnight, and I’ve found myself curled in a ball on my bed among many papers and books, utterly frozen in terror. The type of terror that makes me feel like I’m going to throw up or pass out, though hopefully not at the same time because I have no interest in asphyxiating on my vomit and dying à la Jimi Hendrix.

Max has just shown up in my room, and it looks like he might stay the night. The unquestioning love of animals seems to make any emotionally fraught moment exponentially easier to cope with.

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if you’re into that kind of thing.

In Which Ella Does a Little Filing

Alright folks, get out your filing cabinets. We’ve got some documents to put away.

To be filed under Not Helping Anorexia:

  • Looking at Fashion Show Photographs
  • Looking at Vogue
  • Skipping Dinner and Lunch and Not Exactly Eating Breakfast

To be filed under Disappointments That Probably Don’t Warrant Crying:

  • Burnt Chocolate Croissants
  • Missing a John Green Live Show
  • The London Calling Record Skipping Three Times
And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if you’re into that kind of thing.

In Which Ella Has to Take the SAT

Guess what’s happening tomorrow.

I’m taking the SAT.

Guess how happy this makes me.

Not at all.

On the upside, I’m going to a book signing tomorrow evening for Laini Taylor and her new book, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which I reviewed here.

And now I’m off to do some more panicking.

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if you’re into that kind of thing.

In Which Ella Goes to the Doctor

It is a well known fact that I do not like doctors. And by doctors, I mean the type of doctors who do strep tests and poke your stomach and tell you that the reason you feel miserable is that you have a virus and they’re sorry but you’re just going to have to wait it out because they can’t give you medicine to make the fever and vomiting stop because antibiotics don’t work like that. You know, those magical life-saving people who scare me.

I had to go to the doctor today. It was not a fun experience. I cried so much and had enough of a freak-out that I have to go back on Saturday to get my vaccinations. Yes, vaccinations with an s. Plural. I then went into hiding in my bedroom for the rest of the day and only emerged for dinner and to read aloud the last words of famous people to my parents*.

Saturday is going to require very large amounts of Xanax.

In other news, novel writing is going quite well.

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if you’re into that kind of thing.

*I am absolutely fascinated by last words, something that I will elaborate on in a future post.

It’s Cold In the House Tonight

It’s cold in the house tonight. I’m wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, and I still find myself twisting my hands, trying to warm up my fingers. My nails, which have gotten a little too long again, are lightly scratching my skin, making the hand-wringing a tad uncomfortable, but I can’t write if I tuck them under my legs. So I let my fingers become a little stiff and keep tapping away at the keys, pausing every few sentences to rub them together again.

I can’t help but think back to sophomore year and those winter nights when I would stay up until three or later in the morning, doing my homework. I’d line up small tumbler glasses on my desk, filled with ice and various flavors of Vitamin Water, and every time I felt my eyes drooping, I’d grab one and chug it, letting the cold, sugary liquid jerk me back from lethargy. My cheeks would flush from the cold and exhaustion, and I would cry and cry and cry. Because I was fifteen and too young for this stress. There were too many classes and too many activities and too many people to disappoint and too much sadness.

Sometimes, I’d sneak out of the house at one, two, three a.m., walk up the hill to the street sign, sit with my back against the freezing metal pole, bury my head between my knees, and try not to think for ten minutes. But pajamas, even when paired with a ski jacket, are not enough for thirty degrees or lower, and I’d be driven back to the house with a runny nose and a mind that was racing as much as it had been when I had left. Frequently, I’d think about just sitting down on the floor of my bedroom and screaming at the top of my lungs, but every time I’d open my mouth, a whisper of a scream would come out, and I’d feel as silly as Pushkin’s hisses, which are more air than menace.

As I sat at my desk, I was freezing and burning all at once, and my head would pound. Yet I managed to keep it together through those nights. The work got done. I got my A’s. My extracurriculars were Ivy worthy. It looked like I’d be able to go to Yale. And somehow, I was weirdly happy despite the cold and the stress.

But I’m eighteen now, and sophomore me, as perfect as she was, has long been abandoned. The cold now just means that it’s another lonely night where I feel empty and oddly poetic. But there isn’t anyone to share it with. No one to message paragraphs of essays for critique, and no one to gripe about homework to. It’s just me, the cats, and my laptop.

I like my quiet, but cold nights like these are supposed to be spent communicating with people, saying things that you would never say if it were light out and your toes weren’t beginning to go numb. The magic of the darkness, the way you feel more anonymous and safe to let your guard down a little, is lost without anyone to share it with. I love those conversations when you suddenly get to actually know someone, not just their pretty exterior, but the things that scare and upset them, and discover your shared demons. I haven’t had one of those talks in ages.

Maybe I’ll call George and talk to her for an hour or two. She’ll surely listen to my theories about Billy Collins, and I’ll be able to unload some secrets.

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Ella and the Wrath of the State Capitals

One would think that being unable to remember the capital of Alabama (Montgomery) or Minnesota (Saint Paul) would not cause me enough anxiety to put a serious damper on my day, but it did.

I am normally very pleased with my ability to recall American and European geography–it’s one of the few things that makes me feel really good about myself. So when I can’t perform up to standards, I panic. My internal dialogue usually ends up going something like this:

“Capital of Minnesota. What is it? You know you know this. Why can I only spout facts about the state and its neighbors that have nothing to do with the capital right now?”

I start shaking my legs, my breathing begins to speed up, and I can hear the too-fast pounding of my heart.

“OH. MY. GOD. I am an idiot, a utter and complete idiot. How do I not know this? You couldn’t remember the location of Kosovo earlier, and you only pretend to understand economics. Your grammar stinks. You even stopped one page into the decision fatigue article in The New York Times, and you clicked on an article about anti-bacterial soap instead of reading about Libya. You don’t even care anymore. You’re one of those people who just pretends to be smart.”

And so it goes until I finally Google the answer and move onto the next state, only to repeat the process when I hit Alabama twenty states later. My freak-out over what country was between Lithuania and Poland was, in retrospect, entirely comical; and my reaction to discovering that it was, in fact, just part of Russia was even more so. I should have been able to figure out it easily, seeing how I know that it is the location of Kaliningrad, an obviously Russian city.

I feel that this is a very appropriate time for me to dramatically sigh and ironically complain about just how difficult my life is.

Ella’s Fabulous Triumph

Today, I celebrate a great achievement. I went into the city to the art mueseum that had this summer’s most popular fashion exhibit and didn’t even feel the beginnings of a freak out.

We were jammed in the exhibit, shoulder to shoulder, and some morbidly obese man kept ramming his wheelchair into my legs in an attempt to push through the crowd, pushing me into whoever was next to me, and I didn’t even bat an eye. I just shifted my weight so that every time his foot rest hit my boot, I didn’t budge and politely told him that he was hurting me.

I ate an entire lunch without any prompting, and I rode in several glass elevators and walked down a bunch of escalators and stairs. I even didn’t feel a tinge of anxiety when a cab driver tried to pull away from the curb with my younger cousin halfway out of the car and me standing on the sidewalk.

And I also did this all on an hour and a half of sleep.

I’m a bit delirious right now, but I’m proud, really, really proud.

In Which Ella Reads The New York Times A LOT

Since most of my classes at are school aren’t meeting anymore, I spend a lot of the day in the library doing homework and projects. So whenever I get anxious, I take a five minute break to distract myself and to do some deep breathing. It’s a very effective method, but it has some drawbacks. You see, I have been systematically maxing out the number of free New York Times articles you read a month on the computers.

As of right now, you can’t access the paper on Computers One, Three, and Five*, and by the end of the week, Computer Two will be out of commission as well. Now, I know that this is the sort of thing that I should feel guilty about. I mean, anyone who gets on those computers and tries to do legitimate research for a class will be straight out of luck. But I kind of makes me proud. I always say that The New York Times is my favorite things ever, and now more than ever, I have quite a bit of proof.

On a completely unrelated note, I have been biting the heads off of gummy bears for the last ten minutes, so as to put them out of their misery before my molars crush them to bits. I like to think that this means that I am being humane, but it’s really just because it makes me a tiny bit powerful. A psychologist would have a field day with that tidbit of information.

*To be clear: I have not read 60 articles. Whenever anyone accesses the paper on that computer, the website counts it.

Small Victories

Whenever I feel like my challenges are innumerable and have no will left in me to fight, I need to remember that this too will pass. Today was pretty rough, but I didn’t have a panic attack on the bathroom floor like I did every night in February, and I didn’t spend all week in bed à la December and January.