Dear 18-year-old me,
I know your secret. At the age of 14, you fell for a boy in an internet chat room, and decided to apply for university in another country just to meet him.
The barriers were eye-watering. You lived in Hong Kong, he lived in Britain. You were religious, he was atheist. Culturally, no common ground. But he was the first person to make you feel seen, heard, and understood, and that meant so much. (Years later, you’ll find out that you’re both autistic, which is why you connected so intensely.)
Your parents would’ve flipped, so you didn’t tell them. But even without knowing about the boy, they were dead against you going to the UK, because they’d already planned your future. You were expected to apply for specific universities in the States and live with religious American relatives, who would make sure you went to church every Sunday and lived a safe, narrow existence.
You’d always been a good girl, who did as she was told and tried to make her family happy. Not this time. It wasn’t just about the boy. It was about wanting to make choices, take control, to venture outside the small box everyone had always put you in.
So you rebelled, quietly and methodically.
You sabotaged the American college applications to ensure those institutions would turn you down. Unsurprisingly, only British universities replied.
You persuaded teachers to write recommendations for you, which they did in secret against your parents’ wishes.
When the Leeds offer came through, you told your mom it was unconditional (it wasn’t) because she wouldn’t consider it otherwise, and then kept your fingers crossed for the necessary exam grades to come in.
You snagged a partial scholarship to cover half your fees, then picked up a summer tutoring job to pay for a student visa and university supplies.
By the end of August, your parents were furious, but also out of reasons, or other options. They had to let you go, because you didn’t have any other offers. 18 years old and it was the biggest rebellion of your life, and you were proud to have pulled it off.
It’s now the night before you leave.
You should be celebrating.
Instead, you’re terrified. Because tomorrow, you’ll board a plane to a foreign country, having burned all other bridges and damaged family ties, to meet a broken boy at the other end of a computer screen. Objectively, you know this whole thing is absurd. It feels like you’ve staked your entire future on a pipe dream, and you desperately crave reassurance that everything will all be okay.
I can’t give that to you. Truth is, none of your big dreams work out the way you hope. The jobs you want, you don’t get. The ones you do get, you struggle to hold down. Immigration woes keep you in limbo for years. You lose your religion and find nothing to replace it with. Special Needs parenting hits like an express train at 5AM. There’s never any money; you live perpetually on the breadline.
Oh, and that relationship you gambled everything on? Yeah, it falls apart. Sorry. Things start out fine, but ultimately you are two undiagnosed autistic teens with a host of emotional baggage and mental health issues, and the chemistry is toxic.
For fifteen years, you burn your whole damn heart up trying to make it work, because you’re stubborn and proud and have foolishly invested all your self-worth into a romantic ideal that doesn’t exist. You will question every decision or action which brought you to those moments. You will feel, despairingly, like you took the wrong path.
And that’s okay.
In those difficult moments, you will learn who you are and what you’re made of. And that ‘wrong’ path will also lead you to being a writer, lead you to a new partner, lead you to foggy hills and lonely dales and sacred islands.
These are the myriad experiences which will shape you as an adult, as a mother, as an author. You will grow to love this country as you build a life here.
So run towards the future with open arms, and go get your heart broken. Know that you’re allowed to try, even if you fail; that you’re allowed to make mistakes, even when it hurts. That you’re allowed to love, even if it doesn’t last.
Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be worthwhile.