There is something oddly powerful about bells. For years, they signalled the beginning and end of school periods, the beginning and end of gaps in time in which all else was put aside for learning. Now, I don’t mean the old, cute ones primary school teachers held in the playground. I’m referring to that mechanical scream of a banshee roaming through the halls of secondary school. As annoying as they were, I cannot help but miss their interruptions. Miss that sense of direction and time control that, whilst under the rule of an authority figure, nevertheless gave me a purpose. A place to be at a specific time. A place where I kept my brain occupied. And the bells were its guardian, providing a musical soundtrack to adolescence.
Reminiscing about one’s teenage years is a rather cinematic task. After all, Hollywood has made a great profit from narrating stories about what being a teenager should be and feel like. Dances, friendships that last lifetimes, makeovers that turn one popular, and social hierarchies to be challenged, usually to the beat of some musical number. Don’t get me wrong, they make incredible sleepover and comfort movies, and catching me singing along to the High School Musical soundtrack isn’t at all unusual. They aren’t, however, realistic, and while that may not have been the point in the first place, I cannot help but think they add on to a rather big issue in our society: the idealisation of teenagehood. It seems to me there is a tendency to speak of this time as otherworldly, as the Platonic Idea of Youth come to unravel amongst mortal humans, with not a scratch of doubt, confusion, ambivalence or excess. Funnily enough, the latter seems a more fitting description of that time.
Logging onto my old Tumblr account, I couldn’t help but smile at the sheer number of fandom posts my profile had. Sherlock, Doctor Who, One Direction… you name it, there’s probably a picture somewhere. As I kept scrolling, the reason why I decided to create an account became apparent. You see, the fangirl aspect of my persona had plenty of outlets in other aspects of my life. I would save up to get posters of my favourite shows and bands, re-watch old episodes, reread books — most of my socialising was based on discussing these characters and worlds — and listen to albums on loop. The real reason became apparent as I stumbled upon a text-based image. It was a gentle reminder to breathe. To inhale and exhale deeply and maybe grab a glass of water. It told me things would be ok in the end. I found myself following the advice, and as I did, a number of memories rolled in. Memories tainted in black. The smell of tear-wet pillows. Cold metal pressed against my skin. The light from my laptop burning my eyes as countless hours went by. No, I didn’t come to Tumblr for fanfics and cute pics. I came to it because it was a platform where my feelings would be echoed. I never really created a post of my own, I never had the courage to. But every night, as I logged onto the site, I could hear these posts screaming at me. So much pain. So much suffering encapsulated by a number of characters, read by a stranger probably on the opposite side of the world.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Tumblr was my first proper exposure to any form of discussion of Mental Health. My disenchantment with the platform came after a conversation with a close friend, realising that some posts on the site had accentuated a romanticization of what they were going through. Hearing my friend talk about “fallen angels coming back home” scared me enough at the age of fifteen to lay off the site for a while. When I logged back in, around six months later, I came across slightly different posts, more in-keeping with the “gentle reminder” one. Not once in all my black tainted memories do I recall a conversation with an adult. That is, until a teacher ended up approaching me in school. The memories after that, I must admit, have a little more light. If there is anything I’d like you to take from this Tumblr experience is that for the greater part of my adolescence Mental Health was something between me and other teens. Adults would simply tell us to “grow up”, “smile more” and “act normal for once”, because we were an embarrassment. And I’d come to see it like that.
Coming into Uni, walking into Welfare talks and bumping into flyers displaying hotlines and support groups made me understand that maybe I was wrong. Sure, with stress, high expectations and my extraordinary difficulties facing any sort of change and need for adaptation to new environments, thoughts and behaviour patterns of those tainted days came back. But this time I didn’t scroll through Tumblr. Discussions of Mental Health no longer relied on aesthetically pleasing black and white images, but were held in serious, yet sensitive, tones. What had seemed like a teenage tragedy, worthy of belonging to one of those Young Adult novels that make it onto the big screen, suddenly became something manageable, an issue to be dealt with, no one at fault. And though the thoughts were back, the behaviour patterns almost the same, the memories of this particular period aren’t tainted black.
Teenagers are often described as idealistic lumps of flesh, guided by their passionate soul, raging hormones with an absolute lack of authority over their own reasonings. As a consequence, our thoughts, opinions and ideas are dismissed with a “you’re too young to understand” or “you haven’t lived enough”. Having your ideas invalidated and dismissed in such a condescending manner seems to me a recurring theme in a teenager’s experience. One need only turn to the media coverage of Greta Thunberg’s most recent speeches at the UN or Donald Trump’s absurd comment on her. The Guardian’s First Dog on the Moons’ latest opinion piece and cartoon “Is she the brainwasher or the brainwashee?” perhaps best depicting the “adolescent problem”: are we merely puppets, occasionally rebelling against the puppeteer’s strings? Or are we puppeteers in the making, ridiculed by this generation of “grown-ups”, shaping the future in which we will ridicule the next generation of “teens”?
Unheard. Misunderstood. Held responsible for every little mistake. Alone. Scarred. Heartbroken. I can see why adolescence is often equated with tragedy. But there is also Laughter. Sleepover talks. First crushes and concerts. Friendships and movie nights filled with smiles. Feeling of empowerment and satisfaction when your effort pays off, and that acceptance letter appears in your inbox. I can see where all the cheesy, musical movies are coming from. In the end, it seems to me that adolescence is whatever the rest of the world makes of it. It is up to the world to regard adolescence as something more than a “transition period”, as more than a moment encapsulated by the ringing of school bells, “the real world” awaiting on the other side.