Dear 10-year-old Me,
I’m writing this on a whim. As I was walking home from work this evening, I started thinking about you and how you have no idea what’s in store for you as you move through life. You’ve got a tough one ahead of you — at least these first 43 years. So I decided to tell you about some of what’s coming your way so you can make better decisions that might make things a bit easier for you. Not easy, mind you, just easier.
First off, don’t worry. You’ll have a pretty good life. It’ll be painful and difficult but that’s how life is for everyone. You won’t have any regrets. Sure, you’ll make decisions that you wouldn’t repeat, but that’s not the same as having regrets. As you get older, the difference between the two becomes clearer.
A few years ago, a man at school told you that you were a gifted child. Pretend that you didn’t hear that. There’s nothing great about being labeled extra smart. If anything, it’s a curse because it means that you think about everything all the time and find the world wanting. Mom and Dad will expect great things from you and will push you to succeed. They mean well, but they don’t understand that the flip side of being gifted is the demon of mental illness.
I don’t mean to scare you, but you’ll suffer from depression your whole life. It’s not a constant; it comes and goes with no rhyme or reason. Remember when you were a toddler and you used to lie between the twin beds in your bedroom and hide your face with your bee? You did that because you felt bad. As you get older, there will be many other times when you feel bad but you won’t have a bee, so you’ll turn to a whole bunch of other things to get through the dark times — books, Little Juan frozen burritos, long bike rides, pornography, pot, Peter Gabriel, writing, alcohol, and sex with strangers in parks and public toilets. None of these will work because the bad feelings are caused by your brain chemistry. There’s nothing you can really do to erase the long shadows when they come. Now that you know this, try sticking with books, bike rides, and writing. These may not work any better than the other things, but at least they’re good for you.
In three years, you’ll try to kill yourself. It’ll be the first of two suicide attempts. You won’t tell anyone about the first time, but your decision to swallow most of the contents of a bottle of Tylenol will mess up your stomach. For years afterward, every time you feel hungry, you’ll suffer intense abdominal pain. It will be your stupid secret. And to think that you’ll do it just because you learn you are failing world literature. You couldn’t make it through Don Quixote. So what? Listen, there’s no 13-year-old anywhere in the world who can make it through that damn book. Fuck Cervantes. You’ll do an extra credit assignment and Ms. Purcell will end up giving you a D. You won’t fail after all but you’ll still have the stomach pains.
And get this: you’ll end up better off than Ms. Purcell. How do I know this? When you reach your twenties, an invention called the Internet will come along. It’s hard to explain, but it’s sort of a combination of the library, TV, directory assistance, and Atari. The older you get, the more popular it’ll become. You’ll start to use it in ridiculous ways, as humans are prone to do when new technologies become commonplace. One night, you’ll be at home alone and drunk on vodka tonics and you’ll remember Ms. Purcell. You’ll look for her on the Internet and you’ll find a short news article reporting on how she was arrested for stealing meat from a Vons supermarket. Because of this, she will lose her job as an English teacher. Poor Ms. Purcell.
Your second attempt will come at 16 and it will be scarier because you’ll end up at Santa Ana Psych for two days of observation. In the mauve-painted day room of the hospital, you’ll meet sad kids whose problems are way worse than yours. A delusional Mexican girl will scream at you while she scratches her cheeks raw, her face inches from yours. A strange, pale boy will ask you to help him make a Ouija board from scraps of wide-ruled notebook paper and you’ll use it to summon spirits in your dormitory room until a scary nurse comes in and yells at you, threatening to extend your internment. You’ll draw stupid pictures in art therapy to work through your pain—what a waste of time. Just don’t swallow the pills that night when you want to die because the aftermath will be the worst thing to ever happen to you. Do you know what dry heaves are? It’s what happens after they give you Ipecac in the emergency room to vomit the poison. You puke up everything in the first hour but your stomach keeps contracting for three hours more. You’re left achy, exhausted, and compliant.
Most importantly, don’t try to kill yourself that second time because when Mom and Dad find out, it will break their hearts.
Don’t study German. I know you chose to take German classes on Saturdays to get out of playing on the youth soccer league, but German will be of no use to you. Not to be mean, but you suck at math and will never become an engineer. Since engineers are the only people who have any real use for learning German, just don’t. And forget about French too. You’ll end up studying it for four years as your language elective because all of your friends picked it. It’s not that friends aren’t important, but you should really take Spanish. Don’t ask me why, just do it. You’ll thank me later.
By the way, you have Attention Deficit Disorder. This means that it’s practically impossible for you to focus on things that don’t interest you. You won’t be diagnosed until you’re 36 years old. I’m not going to lie to you, the late diagnosis sucks. By the time you learn of your condition, you will have messed up lots of relationships and ruined your credit rating. You’ll feel bad that your friends have gone on to do way more amazing things than you have. The problem is, ADD isn’t really a thing in 1981 and it won’t become a commonly discussed neurological condition until years after you lose all interest in school and your grades plummet. You’re going to suffer a lot at school because remember: you’re gifted! Everyone will still expect great things from you but no one understands that you can’t make it happen. All of your report cards will include notes stating “Does not turn in assigned homework” and “Not reaching full potential.” ADD means that your brain is always on overdrive like a hot rod revving its engine and making lots of smoke. It’s impossible for you to harness this energy when you need to and your mind races around crazy until it stops and you just space out. I know, it’s weird. Even now, most people don’t understand it.
But guess what? Just knowing you have it kind of makes things easier. You’ll find coping mechanisms and take comfort in routines. You’re way more creative than most other people because random thoughts rule your mind. You see relationships between things where none exist. On a good day, people will notice and they’ll tell you how funny and talented you are. Enjoy these days. Because the rest of the time you’ll cause trouble for yourself and people will think that you say and do weird things. Think about how Mom and Dad tease you and refer to your observations as “Toddisms.” They think you speak in non sequiturs because they can’t see the thought processes in your head. They don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but it’s okay to feel sad and angry when they do.
After you’re diagnosed, you will try medication. I guess it works, but it’s weird. It’ll feel unnatural to live in the moment because never before will you have experienced this way of life. I’m not going to lie, sex on meds is pretty great, but it’s also freaky because you’re so used to being an outside observer looking down on yourself. I feel sort of strange talking to you about sex because you’re only ten. But you already know what sex is because you’ve read Mom’s copy of Our Bodies, Our Selves about a dozen times already, right?
Here’s something else I want you to know: you’re gay. You already have an inkling, I’m sure. It’s not like you watch Magnum P.I. and Simon & Simon for the plot twists. Anyway, you’ll put two and two together when you’re 14 and you won’t feel bad about it. Why should you? There’s nothing wrong with being gay, so just roll with it. Of course, you’ll receive a whole ’nother message from society. Most people will think there’s something wrong with you and some people will try to hurt you. You’ll get called a faggot and you’ll feel scared when you see stories on KNBC news about guys like you being beaten to death on the street. But keep your head up. You’ll be fine. Mom and Dad will have your back. And, believe it or not, in 30 years, same-sex marriage will even be legal in California and a bunch of other states. I know, it sounds crazy, but trust me — things are going to get a lot better for gays and lesbians in your lifetime.
A couple of months before you tell Mom and Dad, you’ll ride your bike to a gay youth group meeting. It’ll be scary because the walls of the community center will be covered with posters warning you about a new disease called AIDS and how if you have sex you can die. Don’t worry, you won’t get AIDS. But you’ll make friends with guys who do. Almost all of them will die and it’ll be weird to know so many dead guys while you’re still a teenager. They’ll be blamed for their own deaths and lots of people will say they deserved it. Just ignore what these cold-blooded people say.
The gay youth group is going to be weird because the other boys you meet will be older and poorer than you. They’ll call you a “twink” and they’ll call each other “girl” and they’ll enjoy saying mean things to one another. Some will have sold their bodies for sex on Santa Monica Boulevard. This will make you uncomfortable. Don’t worry, you don’t have to become their friend. Stick around long enough for your first kiss and move on. Yeah, you’ll have your first kiss—with a boy from youth group who looks just like Dave Gahan from Depeche Mode and whose mouth tastes of clove cigarettes. He will kiss you behind a heavy curtain and it will be better than you ever could’ve imagined.
You’ll also meet Darrin, your first boyfriend. He’ll be a good first boyfriend — perfectly harmless but kind of dumb. He’ll drive you around in his Chevy El Camino listening to Poison and Motley Crüe. He’ll teach you to play racquetball and will take you to Mt. Baldy to shoot aluminum cans with a shotgun. It’ll seem weird how he grows marijuana in his closet. It’s even weirder that he sells it to his parents. When you’re 15, you’ll lose your virginity to him on a school night in your own bed while Dad is asleep in his chair just outside your bedroom door. Compared to other people’s first sexual experience, it’ll be okay. It won’t be enough to make you want to stay with Darrin though. You’ll break up with him after a few months and he’ll start to cry while standing in your living room. Watching him cry will make you feel guilty, but breaking up with him is the right decision. Many years later, you’ll look for him on the Internet and you’ll learn that he is now a registered sex offender. He’s not good boyfriend material.
Instead of wasting your time on boyfriends, spend more time with Dad. He’s a wonderful father, but a troubled man. It’s even more difficult for him to communicate than it is for you, so step up and ask to spend time with him whenever you can, even if that means playing golf with him when it’s 100 degrees outside. You don’t know this yet, but Dad’s an alcoholic. You won’t notice until after you move away from home. Mom and Dad will move to Napa, which is a terrible place for an alcoholic to live. Once he’s up to a bottle of zin a night, he’ll walk out on Mom and demand a divorce. I’m sorry to have to tell you. I know, you thought they’d be together forever. Me too. When it happens, don’t pick sides but be there for Mom especially. And don’t hold in your feelings. I tried to act like it was no big deal, but honestly, ever since the divorce, holidays have kind of sucked.
Please spend more time with your brother. Get to know him. I know, I know — it’s lame that he’s so into baseball, but put some effort into learning about the game so you can forge a connection. Sports are stupid, but knowing about them will make it easier to start conversations in bars and at the office when you’re older. Don’t follow my stubborn footsteps and think that you’re too smart to do this. As your brother grows older, he’ll get really into music and mountain bike racing, which are easier to talk about. He’s a good guy, but he’ll never go out of his way to really get to know you. Take charge and become friends with him. I didn’t do that when I had the chance and now we live in different countries and hardly ever talk. Today, I don’t even feel like I have a brother. It’s almost like he could die and nothing would change. Isn’t that sad? So work hard to develop a strong relationship with him now — before it’s too late.
Get to know Nana and Papa while they’re still alive. I know, they’re not the nicest people. They may be racist and homophobic alcoholics, but they’re still your grandparents. Later, when you are a writer, you’ll regret not knowing their stories so you can use them in your work.
Work harder to make and keep friends. As awesome as it is to hang out by yourself in the library, it’s also cool to have friends. In the future, something on the Internet called Facebook will help you rebuild burned bridges, but it’s not a cure-all. So make friends now. The hours you’re spending at the library pouring over population and crime statistics is wasted time. And what’s with the intense interest in statistics anyway? Are you on the autism spectrum? Ask Mom and Dad to have that checked out now so you don’t have to pay for the psychological evaluation as an adult.
I’m sorry if this letter is kind of a bummer. It is, isn’t it? It’s just that there’s so much I want to tell you and I wanted to get the heavy stuff out of the way first. Rest assured that in your life, you’ll also do a lot of fun and cool things. Perhaps that’s the upside of having ADD—you will fearlessly pursue new experiences everywhere you go. Believe it or not, you’re going to be on TV three times and you’ll get to meet Joan Rivers. She is nice and funny in real life. You’ll interview the members of one of your favorite bands, Barenaked Ladies. You’ll give a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa after you and your boyfriend challenge Canada’s marriage laws and, 12 years later, same-sex marriage will become legal throughout the country. You’ll work as a teacher and you’ll reach out to troubled kids like you and they’ll feel better because you listen to them talk about their lives. You’ll deliver the graduation speech at the school where you teach and you’ll receive a standing ovation, which will make you feel like a rock star. You’ll move to Mexico City and buy an apartment that comes with an odd little room on the roof that you’ll convert into a writing studio way cooler than your current bedroom with its Huey Lewis and the News posters. You’ll take a writing class with your creative hero, Lynda Barry, and she’ll tell you that you are a good writer—you will ride that adrenaline rush for years.
Your life will be filled with other small, perfect moments that you will never forget, like speeding down Chicago’s lakefront path on your brand-new bike, watching the waves crash onto Oak Street Beach. You’ll swim in the Gulf of California with sea lion pups all around you. You’ll ride your bike all the way from Seattle to Victoria BC, island-hopping and watching orcas as they leap across Puget Sound. You’ll spend a misty morning wandering among the surreal beauty of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery and you will be the only person there in the silent company of the dead.
Here are a few more things I’d like you to keep in mind.
Don’t worry about your weight or how you dress. You look fine as you are and the photos that you’ll take over the years are your proof.
Don’t get hung up on your ethnic identity. Even though Mom wants you to identify as Mexican, face the facts: you’re not. You’re a mutt. Some of your ancestors came from Mexico, but that doesn’t make you Mexican—just confused. Forget about your roots and stay away from the MEChA meeting where those asshole wannabes will tell you that you’re “not Mexican enough” for their college club. Do learn Spanish, but understand that you are an American. Your tribe is the people who love and respect you for who you are and that has nothing to do with your DNA. And please, avoid the Dickies phase entirely.
Learn how to play a musical instrument. Next year, you’ll start piano lessons with that Phyllis lady. She will stain the piano bench with her menstrual blood. Don’t let this put you off playing music for the rest of your life. Maybe the piano’s not the right instrument for you. Try the violin or the cello.
Don’t stop singing and dancing. You’ll discover that these things bring you joy as a teenager, but you’ll stop doing them as an adult because you think you’re not good enough. Don’t let perfectionism call the shots. No one actually cares if you’re a goofy dancer or can’t carry a note. Once you start attending your friends’ weddings, this will become obvious.
Buy the taxidermied armadillo when you come across it at that Mexican street market.
Keep making fantasy maps. At your age, it feels like an embarrassing hobby best kept private, but trust me on this. Maps will become hugely important for everybody once computers become popular and everyone uses digital maps. If you pay better attention in your college GIS classes, you could end up getting a cool day job making maps to fund your life as a writer.
When you’re 22 years old and stay at that youth hostel in Rotterdam, make a pass at that Irish guy Eamonn. He is cute and charming. It’s embarrassing to be the only gay guy in the history of the world to travel to Holland and not get laid.
Tell your friends and your family that you love them. I know, it’s hard. It feels weird to say. But start now so that it won’t be so difficult when you get to be my age.
And don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re a great kid and you’ve got great things ahead of you. Be kind to yourself. You’re gonna make it through life just fine.
With much love,