Do you remember the strength of your teenage feelings?
Do you remember the way they reverberated along your spine, one thousand volts of pure emotion strong enough to take your breath away?
My teenage self was convinced their intensity might split me in two. My small frame was an insubstantial casing, threatening to crack and fail at any moment. Some days I felt the buzz of electricity in my throat and in between my fingertips, and I wondered how I might remain alive.
My feelings were a force outside of my control, changing like the tide. I would crest on a euphoric wave and then my shipwreck heart would crash and ruin.
Each twenty-four hour period was either the best or worst of days. No high was ever comparable and no low was so commonplace as to be empathised with by any other person. I met the words, “I understand” with disdain. I couldn’t comprehend how anybody else might experience the same pain, excruciating as it was, or have the capacity for such strong emotions. I dragged my feelings on my back wherever I went, and I nailed myself to them.
I remember the first time my heart broke and I felt I might never breathe again. In my ignorance of failed relationships I had loved with an earnest intensity, pouring my feelings into somebody I hoped would cherish them forever. No poetry or cautionary tale can prepare a teenage heart for the agony of its first fracture.
For days I wandered through life a listless shell, fluctuating between hopelessness and searing anger. Never has the word ‘yearning’ been more appropriate than when referring to a young heart’s lost love. I yearned, and I hated it. I hated him for ruining my life. I hated my own capacity for such feelings. Most of all, I hated the injustice of it all. I hated the imbalance produced by such an experience: the indignity of an uneven break. One party burdened with more agony than they can muster whilst the other walks away unscathed.
Though I decried love, no sooner than I had patched myself up I fell again and again with the same intensity. I fell in reciprocal love after trips to the cinema and tentative kisses. I became wedded to my Nokia, grinning foolishly at attempts at romance crafted into 160 characters. I had dinner with parents, feeling older than my years as I stumbled through polite small talk. Mostly though, I fell in unrequited love.
The popular boy in my class who had never once looked my way – a terrible choice on paper but who was, I assumed, inexplicably charming. The cashier at the bookshop, with the sweeping fringe. The boy whose eye caught mine across the throng of a mosh pit, who held my hand for two sweaty hours then disappeared somewhere by the merch stand.
Spurred on by sudden and powerful emotion, my imagination ran wild. In it, I lived out temporary fantasy lives with the objects of my affections. Some lasted for mere hours whilst others were novellas of love, meandering through week after week gathering nuance. Over dinner, I would imagine a hand laced with mine under the table. I envisaged introducing him (“my boyfriend”, I would beam) to my parents and friends, always to rapturous acceptance. As I lay in bed on those nights when everything seemed dark, my imagined romances kept me company.
My love was equal parts compulsion and comfort. I relished the thrill of emotion as it stretched itself to capacity inside me, spilling over to brighten my eyes and colour my cheeks. I could hardly comprehend that anything else could be more worthy of my attention. I allowed love to blind me, proffering my hand to its guidance.
I also felt an unerring love for my friends: a platonic love, but one with no lesser intensity or commitment. My best friend and I kept a shared diary that we would each take home for two days at a time, then exchange furtively under a desk before classes began. Both the diary’s contents and its existence were top secret, and guarding such a secret only brought us closer together.
It was a vessel for the myriad feelings a teenager can experience in a day; our heartbreaks and triumphs nestled on the same page as gripes about coursework or scratching our favourite CD. Each night we wrote until our hands cramped in an effort to get it all down on a page. I was intensely private, but sharing a diary with my best friend never once left me feeling exposed. I loved her so much that I wanted her to know my every thought, as though my experiences weren’t whole until they belonged to us both.
When we turned sixteen, our paths diverged. She decided to leave school to attend the college in our town. Seeing one another was no longer a daily occurrence we took for granted. Any updates between classes were delivered not by her singsong voice but via a hasty text message, if at all. It was the end of an era and I was bereft.
My immature brain felt in this an acute rejection. At sixteen, I was so wrapped up in my own self I couldn’t appreciate the valid reasons for which she had moved on. I saw only myself, and how her leaving had hurt me. I rolled my eyes as she talked about her new boyfriend and sat tight-lipped through tales of her new friends. After an evening of being aloof with the one person I loved most in the world, I would go home and mope. Within yet another fantasy life I had imagined our paths forever intertwined, but now she had ruined it.
I am no longer in my teens, yet I still love deeply and with a fervent intensity – I hope that never changes. I might have become more discerning with my whole heart, but I still fall in fickle lust with almost-strangers without quite understanding why. Having decided that her moving on was not cause to sabotage our connection, my best friend is still the platonic love of my life. I hope that, too, remains the same.
I had wanted to end by drawing a contrast but then, driving home the other night after some small upset, I realised there is no big distinction between then and now. I am equipped with greater level-headedness, yes, but beneath I am the same. I am still unerringly teenage in my pain.
The worst of my discomfort, disappointment, disgust belong to the girl I was a decade ago. They are a shot of emotion strong enough to challenge anything that has ever taught me to be palatable. Rationally, I understand that my experiences are not unique or incomparable; however, when I am hurting I still cannot grasp how anybody could feel the intricacies of pain in quite the same way. Logic can tell me otherwise, but in that moment I am the sole proprietor of every negative feeling there ever was.
In pain we are irrational teenagers, all open wounds and pouty lips. We are the centre of the universe for as long as our emotional insult endures, if only in our own heads. We still want to scream and run and sob until we’re boneless. Often, the only difference between our younger and present selves is a modicum of self-control and a dash more empathy.
My emotions are ever-present but more reserved; like children at the dinner table, they have learned to behave in public as long as they sit under a watchful eye. I try to observe as they come and go, acknowledging their impermanence rather than becoming enmeshed in their stories. I have to check myself when I find that I am dwelling on an illogical rejection, or imagining a slight.
These things don’t happen with a gracious ease. I still raise my voice when I shouldn’t. My default reaction to the mere hint of confrontation is to leap clumsily to my own defense or to shut down entirely. More than once this year I have driven with tears blurring the road in front of me, sobbing in my car like some cliché romcom protagonist.
To be human is a messy affair. Love is not the neat, linear path we may have been taught to believe in. It is an overgrown hedge maze with thorns and dead ends, prone to leaving us lost and frustrated. Pain can be transformative, but it can also bring out the worst of us. My least agreeable self is she who reacts to any sort of pain, be it heartbreak, horror, or humiliation. Perhaps I thought I would outgrow this side of my humanity; that with age my emotions would become less chaotic and more easily quelled. Perhaps to some extent I was right – but I still remember the strength of my teenage feelings, because sometimes, I feel them just the same.