A letter to eighteen-year-old me, on her birthday

By Christie Wilcox | July 2, 2013 8:00 am

In a decade, you will find yourself unable to fall asleep, having just turned twenty-eight. You’re still young, and you know that, but the number will seem big. Nearly a third of your life, even if you live as long as your great-grandma did. As you toss and turn, the decade beween eighteen and twenty-eight will roll around in your head. It will grow larger and larger, snowballing into something intangibly huge. You’ll remember how, a decade before that when you were only eight, your lifelong dream and desire was to be sixteen. Sixteen, like Kelly Kapowski in Saved By The Bell, because when you were eight, sixteen seemed like the distant future. At eight you believed that sixteen was when you’d reach some life peak, and you’d be driving around in some cute car with a cute boy wearing cute clothes, and that all of that cute was life at its best. You’ll be a little embarrassed by how silly you must have sounded when you told everyone at Concord Academy about this childish fantasy in your senior chapel that you gave only months away from your 18th birthday. High school was very different from what your younger self envisioned, and at eighteen, you feel like you are wise beyond your years. Oh how you, eighteen-year-old me, thought eight-year-old me was so sweet and naive.

Oh, eighteen-year-old me, you’re still so sweet and naive.

You’ll find yourself at twenty-eight wondering just what you would say to your eighteen-year-old self, if all of this tossing and turning suddenly caused an anomaly in the space-time continuum, and you were sucked back a decade to when that angsty girl sat in her bed, thinking about how in a few short months, she’d be going to college.

That girl had everything planned out. She knew where she was going, and she knew just how she would get there. She was going to double major in physics and marine science at Eckerd College, graduate top of her class, and go on to study marine mammal acoustics at the University of Hawaii. By twenty-eight, she would be a world-class scientist, on the cutting edge of technology—a vision of the future, you’ll come to realize, every bit as cute as the one you had when you were eight.

You might be disappointed in some ways, eighteen-year-old me, if you knew how things played out. You will go to Eckerd, and you will major in marine science, but you’ll quickly be turned off by upper level physics classes and drop it. You won’t find dolphins as cool as you once did. By your sophomore year of college, you’ll feel lost and confused. You’ll take every science class you can, desperately trying to find a path to follow. You won’t get straight As. You’ll think about a finance minor, then quickly decide against it. You’ll volunteer, intern, and literally put your blood, sweat and tears into finding where you belong. You’ll grow tired of trying so hard and still feeling out of place. You’ll feel like you have no idea what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, or what will come of it all. You’ll try and find yourself in any way that you can, and you’ll do unbelievably stupid things over and over, feeling more and more lost every step of the way. You’ll crack more than once. You’ll get to a point where you honestly consider just dropping out of college, moving somewhere where no one knows who you are, and starting over.

But, as your twenty-eight-year old self can attest, you won’t.

Though it will often feel like you’re drained of everything you have, deep down somewhere inside, your passion will still be guiding you. You’ll fight through it. You’ll get that B.S. in marine science with a minor in chemistry. You’ll walk across that stage in your black robe, even though no one is there to see you do it. When you walk out from under that tent, you won’t be headed to Hawaii. You won’t feel secure and resolved. You’ll be in a temporary job that will get cut only a month after you start it. You’ll apply frantically for any job you can. You’ll meet a teller at the movie theater that will tell you he is a recent Eckerd alum, too—in marine science! What a coincidence!—and you’ll freak out. But just when you think you will have to waitress or work as a secretary, you’ll get a better job than you could ever have hoped for. You’ll get to work in a lab, a brand spanking new lab, and you’ll finally feel like you can breathe again.

The next two years of your life will be comfortable. You’ll have steady employment, live up to your potential, and rediscover your passion for lab work. You’ll enjoy wearing a lab coat every day, and feel immense pride in the experiments you conduct. But no job is perfect, and you’ll get bored waiting for cells to grow or gels to run. When your college friend gushes to you about this new thing called ‘blogging’ that she’s doing for a class in grad school, you’ll try it out. You’ll stumble at first, and you’ll be terrible at it. You won’t have the slightest clue what you’re doing. But then, you’ll get more into it, get to know other bloggers and learn from them, and you’ll take to the medium. You’ll find it deeply satisfying. You’ll write, and you’ll write, and you’ll write even more. You’ll get excited when a post gets 50 views. You’ll get ecstatic when the first one gets over 100. Over time, you’ll start to develop a voice and a viewpoint. You’ll have readers, and you won’t want to disappoint them. When your feed hits five hundred subscribers, your twenty-two year old ego will swell, and you’ll think you’ve really gotten somewhere. You’ll want to stay there forever. You’ll consider pharmacy school, just so you can make a lot of money and keep writing without moving out of your awesome house with your awesome boyfriend and your awesome dog, awesome cat and awesome turtle. You’ll feel like you’ve crossed some finish line, and the rest is just celebration.

You won’t realize you’re not content until you suddenly do. Then, nothing will feel right. Just like when you turned sixteen and you abruptly realized your dreams needed to grow, you’ll hit twenty-three, and your universe will expand. You’re still at the starting gate, little one.

You won’t stay in Florida. You’ll sell almost everything you own, everything that you collected towards that forever you envisioned. You will give up the house and the dog and the cat and the turtle and even the boyfriend, eventually. You’ll move six thousand miles away with only a handful of boxes.

You see, eighteen-year-old me, you will move to Hawaii. You will pursue that graduate degree you pictured for yourself when you were eighteen, albeit studying a very different species. That won’t be everything, though. You’ll write for Discover, and Scientific American, and Slate, and The New York Times. You’ll fly around the country talking to scientists about things like Twitter and Google Plus that your eighteen-year-old self can’t even fathom, as they haven’t been invented yet.

The point, little one, is that the next decade will be dramatic and dark, exciting and terrifying, deeply rewarding and maddeningly unfulfilling. Even at twenty-eight, you’ll have times where you feel lost, adrift and alone. You’ll realize that though you feel so much wiser than your eighteen-year-old self, you’re probably not nearly as wise as you like to think you are, and you’ll probably still do some unbelievably stupid things in the years ahead.

When you’re twenty-eight, part of you will want to jump back in time. You’ll lie awake as the second day of your twenty-ninth year ticks by, and wonder what you would say to the bright-eyed girl a decade ago. You’ll want to warn her, to prepare her somehow. You’ll want to tell her not to fall for the sweet guy who makes her cheesecake, or stop her from getting in that car on that rainy night at 4 AM so she isn’t going too fast when her left front tire blows. You’ll want to protect her.

But, instead, you will sit up, grab your laptop, and write it all down. You’ll pour yourself onto the page, like you have for the past ten years—ever since you can remember, actually. And as you do, you won’t just think of those awful moments you want to protect her from. You’ll be thinking of all the silly, crazy things that have happened over the past decade. You’ll find the twisted, branching path you’ve taken to get where you are now downright hilarious. You’ll smile. You’ll giggle at yourself. You’ll even laugh out loud, and then quickly stifle it, hoping you haven’t woken the neighbors.

As your eyelids grow heavy and sleep begs you to come back to bed, you won’t be writing a letter to your eighteen-year-old self anymore. You’ll be writing to all the eighteen-year-old girls lying awake, anxious about the years ahead. You’ll want them to know that life doesn’t always go according to plan, and that’s ok. Be ready to work hard, but only because deep down you’re doing what you really want to do. Follow those passions. Trust your gut, even though it will be wrong sometimes. Ok, make that a lot of times. Take the leaps. You will land face first more than once, but you can handle scuffs and scratches and even scars. Just because you feel lost doesn’t mean you actually are. You will find your way eventually, even if you have to blaze the trail yourself.

Eventually, you’ll realize that if your twenty-eight-year old self really could travel back in time, there’s only one thing that she would say to herself at eighteen.

When you’re twenty-eight, you’ll look back on this decade, and you’ll realize just how small it really is.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: select, Top Posts, Uncategorized
  • Shane Wegner

    18 year old me knows of the place 28 year old me works at, but he wouldn’t believe it if you told him.

  • Kristen29

    My 28 year old self needs a letter like this.

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About Christie Wilcox

Christie Wilcox is a science writer and PhD Student at the University of Hawaii, where she studies the protein toxins in venomous fish. She is renowned in the science blogosphere for her delicate balance of contemporary science and scientific perspective seasoned with just the right amount of wit. Her award-winning posts have been featured in The Open Laboratory: The Best Science Writing On Blogs four years running and landed on the pages of major media outlets including The New York Times and Scientific American. To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

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