a letter to myself at 18, from the brink of 40

Dear Jessica,

You still go by Jessica. You’ve tried your middle name and an assortment of nicknames because that name doesn’t seem right, does it? But you go by it because it is a very feminine name, those sibilant twin esses and the a at the end like you’re a gendered noun in Spanish or French. You are insistent about it. You are insistent about it because you don’t feel particularly female and that, the world tells you, is wrong. You are wedging yourself as hard as you can into girl, or woman. Eventually you will cram yourself into that box so hard that the entire enterprise breaks apart. I know that seems terrifying. It is terrifying! But also, it is O.K. (You’re intersex. Also trans! I know you have a very different concept of what that means right now because you’ve only met like two other trans people and it’s the ‘90s! But you are and that’s chill. The intersex shit—well, it’s medically complex, and it’ll take you a long while to put it together because the U.S. healthcare system is balls, and also biased against people like you. But hey. You’re a magical mutant. Eventually, you’ll be proud of it. Also, sorry, you don’t like men. I know it’s scary not to date them because you feel like you don’t matter unless a man desires you. But, uh, have you asked yourself about your desires? Because those desires do not say “bisexual.”)

You’re starving yourself. You’ve told everyone that you’ve stopped but you’re still doing it. You’re incredibly ashamed of it. Sometimes you don’t eat anything all day and you do whatever drugs you have around because if you hit the right mixture—downers, usually, they dull the anxiety, but sometimes psychedelics—they not only suppress your appetite but it feels like they’re staunching the blood. You’re bleeding and vomiting everywhere, emotionally. On anyone who will listen. You’re ashamed of all of it. The drugs, the crying, the blurting out of your traumas anywhere that will have them, the weirdness, the wrongness. Oh, kiddo. This is normal for someone who’s gone through the things you’ve gone through. You’ll continue seeking out these situations for a while because they’re what you know. You’ll end up making a lot of mistakes, sometimes over and over again, because you’re terminally bullheaded, like the rest of your family. (P.S. Be careful behind the wheel.)

You will have help to fix things and sometimes you will squander it because you’re so stubborn, because you think you’re ultimately alone. You’re not. There are a lot of people out there who love you. Some of them you know but a lot of them you haven’t met yet. I know you feel completely and utterly unloveable but you’re not. You can be pretty charming in spite of yourself. You have an innate drive to give other people everything you can; this is a good quality, but it will also drain you of energy, because you keep giving while you’re still bleeding. It is O.K. to take some space for yourself. I know it feels selfish to say that. It’s not. This is crucial. You can’t heal anyone else before you’ve patched your own wounds.

You’re going to gain a lot of weight when you get clean and start eating normally again. I know you’re so scared of being fat but it’s not the worst thing in the world at all. This is just your body’s natural state; every body is different. And guess what? Yeah, some people will be shittier to you. But people will still be attracted to you. People will still love you. Some really good people will still think you’re cute. Way better people than you’re crushing on right now, I promise. Anyone who only loves you while you’re self-destructing isn’t worth your time.

You know how you feel like you don’t have a voice? Like nobody’s hearing anything you have to say because you’re too weird and fucked up? Here’s something that’s gonna blow your goddamned mind. You’re going to become valued for your voice. Even though you try and try and try to fit in in every conceivable way you’re just not going to be able to. The great thing about your stubbornness is that you are going to bulldoze a path for yourself. Actually, that’s not quite correct. You’re going to get to the point where you look around you and go “Hey, this world doesn’t fit me and the people I love, and that’s bullshit,” instead of “Hey, this world doesn’t fit me, I’m the problem.” You being you is not the problem! The problem is that we live in a deeply inhumane society. (You know this already! Positive Force! Food Not Bombs, my dude! All those protests! You know it’s unjust!) Anyway, with those trusty community-building skills you’ve already started acquiring, you’re going to find other people who are just as determined as you, and you’re going to work with them. This work has been going for a long time. Again, you already know this. You just have to join the thing already in progress.

You’re going to turn 40 fucking years old. You remember when you graduated high school and you were like “Fuck, I can’t believe I made it to 18?” OVER TWICE THAT. WHAT’S UP. Despite thinking about it constantly you aren’t going to kill yourself. (Again, too stubborn. Also, it would wreck the people close to you. Realizing that will help you realize, again, that you are not actually alone.) 40 years old! You look great! You stopped doing a bunch of unhealthy shit to your body before it prematurely aged you! Lucky you!

You still dress basically the same. Except with better pants because in the future nobody you know wears JNCOs or weird baggy corduroys. The future is dystopian as hell (sorry, that’s not your fault), but at least the pants fit. People are trying to bring back the shitty pants but like, nobody’s biting this time around. WE KNOW THE JNCOS ARE NOT COOL.

You know how you dream of being a writer? How you can’t stop writing? How you’ve talked yourself out of it being a viable profession? Well, it’s not, really — the media landscape is a real nightmare — but somehow this is your job right now (a big part of that is luck). You’re talented, and you kept at it, and you kept writing for yourself. Keep writing show reviews. Keep doing zines. Not just because it’ll get you here, because it’s really rewarding. You’ll meet some of your best lifelong friends this way.

Luck, and determination, and support, and access to necessary resources at the right times. That is what is going to get you out. But honestly, I’m writing to just tell you to hang on. The world isn’t ready for you, but you’re going to make your way in it despite. You’re going to make it here, to the edge of 40, many many years clean, many many years in recovery, with proper mental health treatment. You’re going to know real happiness and fulfillment. You’re going to know love—not just romantic love, but strong and vital friendships. And if you can do it, my dude, there’s the chance that, given similar opportunities, others might be able to. Making those opportunities for others who are different and who have Things to Say, like you, is really important and guess what—you’re going to be able to do that. (By the way, this doesn’t mean you’re finished. At 40, you are still very much a work in progress. Hate to tell you, but there’s no stopping point. You will get to rest a little more often though.)

I know! This is all super corny! I can see the look on your face! You don’t believe me! You’re mad I used this hackneyed narrative device! I get it. But I didn’t know how else to tell you.

I promise, kid. You are going to be O.K.