In the last year you've probably heard "It gets better" used as a motto to encourage gay teens who've been the victims of bullying. This is not a rebuttal of that, because I am not an asshole. What I do want to do is expand that message to everyone that age, whether you have a bully problem or not.
I figure it's time, as I tend to write about dark and often brutally depressing subjects, like how I was a smoldering drunk for over half of my life and how much my parents sucked at being parents. But I do it for a reason. I figure there are a lot of people in the same situation who feel like they're alone. That's always the worst part about having a shitty life in your teens or 20s, feeling like everyone else in the world has it figured out but you.
So, as a man with a truly shitty past, let me say that it's not just a slogan. It does get better. Specifically ...
I'm not saying you'll be rich when you grow up. I'm saying it's really not about money. It's about freedom.
My girlfriend and I recently broke into the middle class after years of living one paycheck away from homelessness. And when I say "years" I mean all the years from age 15 to age 36. It was never easy, and often was the emotional equivalent of being on the receiving end of a never-ending gang fuck by a herd of Flavor Flavs.
Above, a stray one scouts the wild for its next victim.
But even at the lowest point of that bottomless pit of gold-plated testicles and giant clock necklaces, I wouldn't have traded it for a chance to be 15-years-old again. Why? Because at this stage of your life, you finally have some control over the situation. And when we talk about things getting better, this is at the heart of it.
As a kid, you just have to sit back and take it, not fully understanding why you're living the way you are. You're dependent on your parents' decisions and actions, whether they lead to bankruptcy or a new swimming pool. A lot of that pressure you're feeling in your teens and 20s is really just powerlessness. You feel like instead of driving the car, you're tied up in the trunk.
When you get out on your own, your financial future is yours, and you can steer that bastard where you want it to go. It's not easy, but even when it's hard there is something liberating about the fact that even if you crash our proverbial car through the front window of a liquor store, it was your decision.
And let's be honest, sometimes the liquor store deserves it.
And just to make sure you didn't skip over the "it's not easy" part: If you think "it gets better" means you can sit back and wait for a naked genie to fart cash into your living room, it will not. "It gets better" doesn't mean life lets up, it means you no longer have to submit to it. Not like when you're a kid, when your parents can divorce without your consent or make you change schools or make you get a stupid haircut. When you're an adult, you can get pissed and swing back.
Please, don't wait as long as I did to learn that lesson. My entire adolescent life was spent in poverty because my parents gave up and just accepted that life was a spiked enema, and they just had to bend over and take it. They made no effort to improve their situation, and so that's the lesson my siblings and I took with us when we got out on our own. "There is no escaping your financial fate."
I didn't push back until I was forced to. After 14 years of working an incredibly insufficient, shitty job, my back finally said, "Fuck this," and I was physically unable to do it anymore. I had nothing to go to. No backup plan. No savings. No family to turn to. And then I realized that I did in fact have skills that people would pay me to perform.
When I wasn't writing, I was putting in applications all over town. In the next town. In towns 30 minutes away. I applied to places online. When there was no gas in the truck, I walked to put in more applications. I swung harder. There are some days that I write for 16 straight hours, knowing that everything I just typed will be deleted and replaced with a completely different idea, or rejected outright. And that's OK because the success or failure is mine, not somebody else's. You can't put a price on that.
There's a human trait that can sometimes be incredibly beneficial to growth, while at the same time devastating to morale. And that's the desire to have something right fucking here, right goddamn now. If you point that urgency toward something like getting a better job or a promotion, it can be a powerful tool. That urgency is what made all human civilization possible.
It's not so hot when you're lonely and want a companion -- especially when you're young and watching all of your friends joining the boob buffet and you're still alone every weekend. I've seen over and over in my life, people (including myself) who sink into depression because they don't feel that they're ever going to find love. So they look, and look, and look. Depending on who you are, you'll try bars, grocery stores, libraries, online dating services, friends of your mother. Then you latch onto the very first person who pays you any attention, even if they're not right for you. Because, shit, what if nobody else ever comes along?
Sure, you'll do. Close enough.
Then months or years later, you find yourself lonely again, or worse: in a catastrophically bad relationship that you're afraid to leave. "It's better to be in this shitty hookup than to be alone," you'll tell yourself, knowing on some level that you're full of shit. Eventually you get to the point where you blame yourself. "I'm too fat. Nobody will ever love me." "I have this third arm growing out of my forehead. I have no chance." What is hard to realize from that state of mind is that it's the desperation itself that's screwing you. If you're trying too hard, people can smell that a mile away. That in itself is ass-repellant.
I'm not sure I've ever met someone who went their whole life without a "significant other." But I've met plenty of people whose dates took an abrupt halt when they let slip with, "God, before you came along, I was just close to putting a gun to my temple and- oh, the steak is finally here!"
You have to relax. It turns out some lessons taught by romantic comedies aren't full of shit: Concentrate on taking care of yourself first, because 90 percent of a relationship's success is a matter of maturing into the type of person other people want to be around.
Every rule, of course, has exceptions.
If you're young (in high school or college) you don't even know who you are yet. Those early, failed relationships, or lack of a relationship, do not doom your prospects for romance for the rest of your life. Hell, at this point it wouldn't even matter if you met the love of your life -- you haven't even fully become the person who will eventually have something to offer them. Getting down about success with romance at this point is like giving up on a team in the preseason. In your early 20s, your starting players haven't even come off the bench yet.
But this still applies later in life -- I got divorced after a 10 year marriage, and found myself right back in that same, desperate place, scared of being alone. I didn't find anyone until I decided to stop worrying about that and start worrying about making less of a mess of my life. It makes sense, looking back -- when you're in that desperation mode, you put up fronts, and try to be the person you think the guy or girl wants. And that may work for one night, but when you both settle down, that outer "first impression" shell disappears, and you turn into you. Suddenly, you're "not the person I knew when we first met." And they're right. Because the person they met wasn't you.
Wait, that British accent wasn't real?!
If you get more comfortable with yourself, you stop trying so hard, you get more relaxed and don't feel like you have to work so hard to hide your true self. You don't stop looking for someone, I don't mean that; you just stop hating yourself so hard for not finding them. I know it sounds like a Catch-22, but it's the lack of self-hatred that will make you attractive.
I'm not going to sugar coat this: Adults tell you that high school is the best time you'll ever have because they've forgotten what it was like. They just remember the part where they didn't have to worry about bills, and their hindsight becomes so focused and narrow that it couldn't see the period at the end of this sentence.
The truth is, for many if not most of us, high school is one of the most difficult times you'll ever live through. At that age, you're expected to act like an adult while gaining none of the benefits of adulthood. You are criticized for virtually everything you do by just about every adult in your social and family circle. You're expected to start holding up responsibilities, but under their rules.
"I see you've dressed stupid like I asked. Here's your dollar."
Everything I said above about how you need to be yourself and grow into a fully formed human being before your life can really start? Those teen years don't make it easy. If you look at porn, you have to hide it. If you hang out with friends that your parents don't approve of, you have to cover it up. When you go out, you have to be home by their set schedule. The house is decorated their way. You eat what they cook. You dress to their standards. You lose every argument because "You're only 16, you don't know what you're talking about yet."
"I don't care what they 'taught' you, the moon landing was faked."
And the entire time you're dealing with all of this stress, your body is fucking with you from the inside out, blasting you with hormones and chemicals that you've never experienced in your entire life until right now. You're sexually awkward because you don't have much, if any, experience. If you're not ready for sex, you're made to feel like an outcast, and you're instantly ostracized from certain social groups. It is terrifyingly hard. Some people don't make it through. You fucking will. Why?
Because fuck them, that's why.
In just a few years, you'll be on your own. Maybe you'll go to college or maybe you'll start work right away. Either way, you will, for the first time in your life, be the master of your own domain. You'll come home from a hard day's work and throw your pants on the floor because they're your pants. It's your floor. Your rules. And as you spend the rest of your pantsless day, relaxing on your self-made pantscarpet, there's not a goddamn thing anyone can do about it.