Aging Gracefully (or Not): The teen years

Aging Gracefully (or Not): The teen years

Natalie Gelman

At certain stages of our lives, we feel unlike our peers. We imagine that everyone else is happier and more connected than we are.

I loved elementary school in Detroit. My school went through eighth grade. I did well, loved my teachers, and felt comfortable with friends. I did not feel I was one of the most popular kids, but I was accepted. I did not like Valentine’s Day in elementary school because I got very few cards from my classmates. (Years later I discovered that this was so common an experience that teachers were either not allowing cards to be brought to school or were telling the students that they had to bring one for each person in the class.)

My parents decided to send me to a high school that was outside my community. In Detroit, one typically attended the public school closed to her or his home. But a new high school had opened in my area, and I would have been in the first class to attend all four years. There were not many Jewish families in my community, and my parents believed I would be one of a significant minority. My brother had gone to Mumford High School and liked it, so they wrote to the school district and got the okay for me to go there, too.

High school was four difficult years for me. Unlike most of the students I knew I took buses to school, and I felt poorer, friendless and less intelligent than my peers. Most days were a struggle. I never shared my feelings with anyone, even my two girlfriends. I was very self-judgmental.

Years later, I learned that the sense of feeling emotionally low, sometimes depressed, and anxiety were classic experiences of adolescence. While taking psychology courses in college and doing my student teaching in a high school, I learned that the feelings of inferiority were very common and not expressed. Adolescents feel caught between childhood and adulthood, want to be independent at times and dependent at other times.

Parents and teachers maintained control and there was the challenge to dance around their limits. There was pressure to do well enough in school to graduate or to be admitted to the desired college, and pressure to look good and be popular.

In college, peoples' feelings begin to change.

One person I saw in my career as a psychologist stands out for me. I was called by a parent who wanted her high school senior daughter to see me. The young woman was very depressed, and her parents were very worried about her. The mother said the girl wanted to talk to meet alone and she supported that request. I agreed to do so as the girl was 18 years old.

I entered the waiting room and saw a beautiful woman wearing a cheerleading outfit. She came into my office and told me that she wanted me to listen initially before asking questions. While crying, she said she was an honors student, had been accepted to the university of her choice, and her boyfriend was the captain of the football team. She was a cheerleader for her high school. She had no experiences with trauma or abuse.

She said she knew she was attractive and that she had everything her peers dreamed of. She had loving parents who provided her the time she wanted to talk to them about how she was feeling, who said they would do anything to support her. "There is nothing wrong with my life, and that is what scares me," she said. "I do not have an explanation for being so scared and sad. That is my fear. What inadequacy do I have that I have not been able to look at?”

We talked about classic feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, depression and lack of control while in high school. As I spoke, her body relaxed in her chair as she realized she was not atypical. The feelings she was having fit her age.

She was totally relieved. I asked her if I could use her story in the future and she agreed. That was 20 years ago, and her story has served many adolescents well.

Last year I attended my 50th high school reunion. A man with a microphone approached me and four other women who were near me. He asked if the five of us would answer a question. A photographer videotaped as we spoke.

“How did you feel when you were in high school?” he asked. I was the first to respond. I said, “Sad and inadequate.” The other women said, “Ditto.”

I had not been alone in high school though, at the time, I thought I was.

Natalie Gelman can be contacted at drnataliegelman@gmail.com; her website is http://www.drnataliegelman.com/.