herald

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Why we never lose teen angst

ADULTS feel so removed from their insecure young selves, but inside we're all still as vulnerable as we ever were

Most of us look back on our teenage years with a mix of horror and vague alienation. How we could have possibly imagined that greasy hair and BO were socially acceptable; what on earth we were thinking when we spoke to our poor parents the way we did; and why we couldn't have been a little more amenable when it came to doing simple tasks such as cleaning our bedrooms once in a while.

Indeed, we see our teenage selves as entirely different people. We can't believe we were ever so angst-ridden and, although we're ever-so-slightly proud of the wild things we did that our parents knew absolutely nothing about, at the same time we're so divorced from those experiences, we fool ourselves into thinking (or at least we're hoping against hope) our own teenage children aren't doing the same or worse.

A section of my new novel, Knowing Me Knowing You, is set in Sligo in 1983, the exact place and time I was plummeting to the depths of my own adolescent angst. Overnight I had turned from the attention-seeking life of my family's party into a boy who hardly ever came out of his room, except to sneak out for a chain-smoke and a bottle of my father's homemade wine, purloined from the garden shed and consumed on the side of the railway tracks that ran behind our house.

I went from being the apple of my mother's eye, to a brat who derided and challenged her every utterance, and on one occasion was thrown out of the house for slapping her back after, at the very end of her rope, she slapped me. (I holed up in my best girlfriend's house, arms folded, eyes narrowed and bottom lip out, for a week.)

At the root of my withdrawal and bad behaviour was the fact that I was being severely bullied at school because I had been identified as gay.

Myself and another boy, who equally loved and adored Abba, had been singled out from day one of secondary school. Although we enjoyed each other's company, having much girlie stuff in common in a world where football was the dominant force, we weren't friends. I didn't dare associate with him because I was worried that people might think we were together in the Biblical sense.

I've told the story of my teens to plenty of people, but I haven't really examined the way I felt about myself back then, and how it affected the way I reacted to the people around me. And what I discovered while writing is that although my life has changed immeasurably and on the outside I've evolved into a very different person, on the inside very little has altered.

Although I might say I don't, I still care deeply about what people think of me. I'm still angst-ridden over things I might have said or done, or what might be coming down the line, or about whether someone likes me or not. I might have learned to put a mask on it, but I'm still socially awkward in new situations. When someone criticises or questions me, I might not lash out like I did at 14, but I still sulk and harbour the grudge. Sometimes my mother, who I love and adore, still drives me nuts.

We never really change. The blueprint for who we are as adults is there at birth and although our environments may shape us, the personality traits we have as children stay intact to our dying days. Show me a little boy of four who goes quiet when confronted by new people, and I'll show you a man who is always in the kitchen at parties. Show me a six-year-old girl who cries when she loses a game and I'll so show you a woman who is competitive to her core.

Although childhood is not without its highs and lows, the complicated and often conflicting emotions that arrive with adolescence form the bedrock of how we will act and react as adults.

Towards the end of writing my new book, my adult characters, who all loved and adored Abba in Sligo circa 1983, just as I did, are poles apart from the rebellious, contrary, self-obsessed kids they were at 15. Yet, 30 years on, their hearts are still as vulnerable to the slings and arrows of life as they were back then.

They just try to cope in different ways. They try to find more acceptable faces to present to society, but underneath the grown-up masks they wear, they're still dealing with challenges in the same adolescent ways.

 

Survival

As we grow up, hopefully we find our places in the world. We learn how to navigate the choppy waters of relationships and how to manage our fears in the face of an unknowable future. We learn to surround our vulnerable hearts with a protective shell. As much as it's about growing up, this is about survival.

When something goes wrong and I get all angsty, I remember the days when, curled up in the foetal position on my bed, I thought nothing would ever change and I would always be a spotty, gangly, ugly outcast. Then I tell that teenage boy that it gets better.

And, you know what? In understanding I'm still a teenager at heart, I'm letting that part of myself go.

Knowing Me Knowing You by Brian Finnegan is published by Hachette Ireland on May 1

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