What I Would've Told My Teenage Self About Dating and Relationships

When I was experiencing so much internal turmoil in middle school, the realm of country music became a place of salvation for me. After a long day at school, I could turn on the radio to either 96.3 KSCS, or 96.7 The Texas Twister, and listen to aching voices singing about their endless woes. These introspective tunes resonated as deeply personal to me: I finally found music that communicated the sadness that filled my soul. One of these songs that fascinated me was Brad Paisley's “Letter to Me”, a song about what he would say if he was capable of writing a letter to his 17-year-old self.

This song reminded me that there was a life beyond my days as a teenager in public school. “You’ve got so much up ahead,” Paisley crooned to his teenage self, “Have no fear, these are nowhere near the best years of your life.” Those words were incredibly reassuring to me and have lasted with me long after I left being 17 years old in the rearview mirror. They’ve proven so enduringly resonant that I’ve often thought as an adult what I would say to my teenage self if I had the opportunity. If I could pull a “Letter to Me”… what would I communicate to teenage Lisa? What important thoughts about dating, relationships, life, and anything else would I say to my younger self in a letter?

For starters, I would divulge to my 17-year-old self the wonderful news that we’re actually a lady. Such a revelation would be simultaneously a shocker to teenage Lisa and also not too much of a surprise. I didn’t know about transgender⁠ people as a larger community full of actual human beings until I got to college. Up to that point, trans people were a punchline on Family Guy and R-rated comedies. I couldn’t have comprehended the idea that I could actually be a woman in real life. On the other hand, I did spend several months as a 14-year-old engaging in a nighttime ritual where, just before going to bed, I prayed to God that I would wake up in the morning as a busty 30-year-old blonde woman living in Los Angeles. I was always thinking of myself in femme⁠ terms and contemplating that “it sure would be fun to be a woman…”, I just didn’t have the language to express those feelings. Writing a letter to my younger self could be a chance for me to impart that language to myself.

Just as important as gender⁠ , though, would be making sure this letter contained reassurances and clarifications about relationships. In high school, particularly when I was 17 or 18, I thought relationships were the only way to be “normal.” This self-hatred I had surrounding my autism had me yearning to be as stereotypically neurotypical as possible, including having a girlfriend. Surely, if was clutching hands with some lady in my school’s hallways that would make me normal! I’d embarrass myself and others by asking girls I had crushes on out⁠ or even to be my girlfriend in incredibly awkward ways. It was just a mess of toxic traits directed towards others and myself. This messy phenomenon would be a very important part about this letter to me.

Also? A reassurance that what’s important as a 17-year-old isn’t going to matter your entire life. That’s a sentiment my dear Uncle Doug communicated to me when I was just 16, but I didn’t quite understand at the time. “Surely,” I thought, “all this relationship⁠ turmoil is massively important…it sure feels that way right now!” Writing words to my younger self, I’d confirm that Uncle Doug was dead on. The world you’re in now is not eternal. So much of what can feel so important here doesn’t matter outside those brick walls. Whenever you begin to define your self-worth by your lack of a relationship, remember young Lisa: this is not how the real world operates.

Of course, it’s one thing to tell someone, even your younger self, that things lingering over their head and mind don’t matter. It’s another to convince them of this truth. To hammer home this idea to my younger self, I’d present to her some challenges she’ll experience as an independent adult that do matter. Difficult times like financial hardships, getting harassed by transphobic jerks, dealing with sudden losses of family members…those are the kinds of enormous things that do matter. They’re challenging things to get through, and yet, here you are. Putting your fingers to a keyboard, inspired by a country song we both like, writing this letter to yourself. You survive those things. You can survive something as temporarily challenging as relationship woes in High School.

Something else I’d reassure my 17-year-old self about is that it’s okay to have crushes. There’s a time, place, and a proper way to express those feelings…but you don’t have to feel ashamed or silly over feeling twitterpated over another human being. That’s a sense of shame I developed in my first years of college as I truly grappled with how awkward and intrusive I’d been to women in my age range in high school. I opted to go wildly in the opposite direction as penance for this behavior by stigmatizing the idea of cutesy romantic⁠ infatuation in my head. With years of additional experiences under my belt, I’d encourage my teenage self that self-improvement shouldn’t come at the expense of our ability to be infatuated with people.

I’d impart to teenage Lisa that we’ve been on dates! As an adult, we’ve been on several dates and even held hands with other women on those outings! As a teenager, there was so much ableism⁠ I’d internalized. I thought I’d never get to do certain things like have a job, move out on my own, or even go on a date because I was autistic. Lo and behold, though, what was unthinkable in 2014 is no longer uncharted territory for 2024 Lisa. In this communication⁠ across time, I’d emphasize to my younger self that, if we could go on an actual date (even bad ones!), imagine what else we could do! We are capable of more than we could’ve imagined while trying to survive high school math courses.

Beyond giving my teenage self some exciting teases of the future, I’d also love to debunk several internalized stigmas in the columns of this “Letter to Me.” Of course, a letter is a finite document. There’s not room for me to address every single neurosis that I suffer from! If I could only push back against one form of self-shame, though, it’d be reassuring myself that the very concept of sex⁠ isn’t innately evil. Years of  quote-unquote sex education assemblies in public schools and horror stories at my church about “loose women” left me trembling at the thought of ever engaging in or even talking about physical intimacy. This isn’t even something I overcame within the first year or two of high school…I still struggle with talking about this subject matter in many public circumstances!

It'd be a lot to overwhelm my 17-year-old with explaining the intricacies of how patriarchy and capitalism inform the sex-negative headspace ingrained into my head. To keep things streamlined, I’d simply say that sex isn’t an apocalyptic entity, nor is it some glorious trophy that makes you better or more valuable as a person. It’s just another part of life. I’d try to normalize this to my younger self to break through the sensationalized rhetoric used around sex that plagued me my entire life. Like so many things in this “Letter to Me,” talking about sex would be an attempt to peel back the layers of anxiety-informed fear I use to approach the wider world.

Most of all, though, what I’d want to emphasize to 17-year-old me is simply that you’re okay. I spent so much of my public school life grappling with inadequacy, self-shame about past transgressions, and wanting to keep a lid on any of my attributes that would look “too autistic/ gay⁠ .” If I could put anything into this letter, I’d simply tell my younger self that who you are is not a problem. Eventually, you’ll get to grow up and wear the outfits you’re always dreaming about on a regular basis! You’ll find the vocabulary and words to describe your gender! You’ll uncover the most amazing friends that will leave your current loneliness a distant memory!

Even before all of those exciting future developments, I’d just tell my teenage self those words I yearn to hear even today: you’re alright. You’re not a mistake. Who knows if hearing that from my future self would’ve suddenly made things better for my 17-year-old navigating the hell that is a high school. But it couldn’t have hurt. Certainly this “Letter to Me” could have provided some words I desperately needed to hear back in the day. Heck, some of those concepts in this letter are still useful reminders for the 2024 incarnation of Lisa Laman! Who knew such personal introspection could be inspired by the lyrics of a Brad Paisley song? Such a feat almost makes up for that one transphobic Paisley song from the mid-2000s….almost.

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  • Lisa Laman

If you’re like me, there are lots of questions that race through your mind when you prepare to go out on a date. Do I look polished enough? Am I going to click with this person? Did we pick the right venue to go out to? And then there’s the one question always gnawing at the back of my skull about my autism: can I be myself?