Letter to my 17-Year-Old Self

Hands typing on a laptop. Braille display visible to the right.

September 2020

Dear 17-year-old Áine,

It’s fair to say 2012 has been quite the year. It saw you race in the London Paralympics, finish off year 13 exams with top marks, and get accepted into Auckland Uni to do a Music conjoint, just like you wanted. At least, that’s the version trotted out lovingly by Mum and Dad when family friends come over. And hey, it’s entirely true, don’t forget that.

But who are we kidding, when you weren’t busy being busy, you spend 2011 and 2012 being a sleep-deprived, miserable, anxious hermit.

Three or four days a week, you set your alarm at 4:27am so you would be at the pool by quarter past five. Next came an entire day of year 12 or 13, when not interrupted by swim training in the middle of the day at least, and hopefully an hour and a half of flute practice if you could fit it in. You spent heaps of time studying alone because of your timetable and access needs.

When during breaks you dared wander into the couch, bag, jumper and human chaos otherwise known as the school common room, you heard other students chatting in close-knit groups. Certainly no one was rude to you; in fact those who said hi were sometimes so polite you felt like a teacher instead of a student and for the life of you you didn’t know how to fix that. Also, on two separate occasions when you were sitting alone at lunch and getting on okay with your own company, teachers came to ask you why you were sitting alone and you did not know what to tell them and this made you want to cry.

There was also that person you unfortunately had to be around quite regularly (we’ll call her Claire), the one who every now and again was friendly and understanding, usually proactively ignored you and sometimes outright bullied you. Who knows, Claire might have been struggling desperately herself—but when she was in that mood, she knew how to make you feel every version of inept. Dogged by her words, you felt inept at getting around as a blind person, inept as an athlete, inept in one of your proudest achievements.

It didn’t help that as 2012 wore on and the Paralympics loomed, things weren’t going so well in the pool either–a situation you were desperate to turn around, even as those closest to you arrived at the conclusion a lack of effort on your part must be to blame. Sometimes, you half-heartedly tried to stick up for yourself. Sometimes you lost yourself in books to hide. Occasionally, you cried. Mostly, you kept busy. Very busy.

In August 2011 apparently out of the blue, you also encountered a new species of flute performance nerves, which had a particularly obstructive way of finding their way into your every alone moment. There they were, when you were meant to be prepping for a Maths test or smiling at an awards ceremony or even talking to good friends. From the girl who came top of the country in music exam scores in 2010 to getting 61% the next year, you were—and still are–distracted all the time. All you want is for the anxiety to go away, forever.

Before we proceed any further, can I, yours truly from 2020, stop and congratulate you for surviving 2011 and 2012? Not that proud parents party version, although those achievements were hard-won too, but *this* version that I’ve just spelled out for you which I know you’re not interested in talking about any more than necessary? I know you’re not a fan of self-directed congratulations and that you will routinely deflect them by referencing your privilege (loving very supportive family, private school, high performance athlete status etc.). All true. Still, you yourself played a central role. So props to you for not exploding into smithereens under the pressure.

Now, here’s the part you’re actually interested in: the future [drum-roll please].

Before reading on, you have to promise me you won’t go fiddling with time travel, so I’m going to avoid giving you specifics on a few truly catastrophic world events to ensure you don’t have those existential moral dilemmas to reckon with. On a more personal scale, here’s what I’ll tell you.

Having decided to stop swimming after London, you savour your new-found freedom to travel by having a wonderful month in Salamanca, Spain studying translation. Beware you’ll find your teacher’s accents almost completely incomprehensible for the first week but that’ll fade, promise.

In other news, performance anxiety of some form will have some kind of hold on you for all bar the last few months of your music degree, I’m afraid. Soon though, you’ll take an obligatory Musicians Health paper, which will lead you to read about other people’s experiences of this, and you will feel a lot less alone. In the lead-up to your final recital, you will figure out that you’ve spent so much time trying to not worry that you haven’t really been thinking about how, exactly, you would like to perform, never mind being focused in the present moment. These realisations are a turning point and will help immensely in improving your self-confidence.

Over the next years, you will tumble down some deep, deep rabbit holes to do with climate justice campaigning, long-form journalism and Green politics. Note that high school was extremely lacking in preparation for the majority of this, especially the existential dilemma of how precisely you want to contribute to making the world a bit less shit. I’m sorry to say that at 25 and despite spending six years at university, this question remains unresolved, though there are some promising leads. For instance, you’re warming up to the idea that your writing might among other things help other people to feel more seen and less alone. That’s why I’m also sending this letter, written to *you* in the first instance, out into the big wide world.

Another thing, even when ostensibly prepared with some campaigning skills, you find out the hard way that some systems which are supposedly meant to empower disabled people can have the opposite effect if you work inside them. This will become very distressing. You will discover that this is a frustratingly common experience, out of which you will gradually get talking and make some of your closest disabled friends. This will strengthen what I think will be a life-long drive to help build disabled communities of thriving, non-stigmatised, valued humans.

By the way, you’re going to spend time living not just in Spain but also in France, Sweden and Norway. Everywhere you go, you will meet generous, caring people who will help you feel very welcome and who will also introduce you to irresistible pastries and delicious vege food and all flavour of cheeses and creamy hot chocolates.

Yes, that was the light interlude paragraph. Come 2020, a public health pandemic of devastating proportions will very sadly show just how poorly equipped most of the world was for one of those. I can’t give you details because doing so would oblige you to rearrange your whole life to warn the world about it and then precipitously lose hope while you realise most of the people with enough power to quash it aren’t listening. But I’ll tell you that in your case, you will get sick for longer than you’ve ever been from this particular virus and you will be forced to reckon with the fundamental role of energy production (in everything… chewing and swallowing, for example) and all kinds of embodied aspects of disability you never gave thought to before. Indirectly, it’s also the reason you’re getting this letter because I would probably not have paused long enough to reflect and send it otherwise. (Before you complain about bad news, you didn’t seriously want me to feed you a slanted “everything now gets better forever” narrative, did you?)

That said, your self-confidence, which spent most of 2011 and 2012 in dire straits even though you haven’t thought about it like that yet, genuinely does improve, a lot. Note that it still needs ongoing, persistent prompts to stay that way. Treasure the friendships which remind you you have value when telling that to yourself feels abstract and futile.


25-year-old Áine


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