Did I Waste My Teenage Years?

Like many others, quarantine left me with an excessive amount of time for deep and sometimes terrifying self-reflection. This stuck me with one question that continues to beg for an answer I don’t have.  My time as a high schooler is withering to an end, and I’ve found myself perpetually asking, “Did I waste my teenage years?”

I entered high school with strict, self-enforced rules on what I was and wasn’t allowed to do. The rules were as follows: I would never consume illegal substances. I would never go to reckless parties. I would never lie to my parents. When I created these rules, I was watching my high school brother struggle with substance abuse and addiction while he lied constantly about his actions and intentions. Additionally, I was entering a new stage in my pursuit of a professional ballet career. As a result, my middle school disinterest in substances became an obsessive rejection of them for the benefit of my health, my career and my family. This began my identification as a sober and responsible “golden child.”  

I feared being in the presence of any illegal substance and having heard my fair share of middle school and parental lectures, I planned to stay clear of large-group hangouts as I believed substances were almost guaranteed to be present. Because of this, I found it easiest to become antisocial by choice. I busied myself with my ballet career and jam-packed every weekend with studio hours, leaving no option for a social life. Being too busy to socialize felt better than being too terrified to join. 

My lack of a social life and rejection of classic teenage activities introduced to me the idea that I wasn’t living out my high school experience. In attempts to drown out that thought, I justified my actions to myself through my all-consuming dedication to dance. While I am healthy and accomplished thanks to every extra hour I’ve spent in pointe shoes rather than socializing, I have never successfully silenced the voice in my head that knows what I’ve never experienced.

I’ve never smoked. I’ve never vaped. I’ve never drank. I’ve never snuck out of my house. I’ve never felt the energy of a high school party. I’ve never experienced the rush of adrenaline I imagine comes from lying to my parents. But why do these actions define a fulfilling high school experience in my mind? 

After much thought, I’ve attributed it to the portrayal of teens in the media, the ability of my classmates to do what I couldn’t and the social acceptance of teenage irresponsibility. 

More often than not, when I’m watching my age group being portrayed on a screen, I see them use substances and make reckless decisions for the purpose of an entertaining and realistic plot. With this constant representation, it didn’t take long for me to question if this then meant my life was dull. My Saturday nights at the studio would surely be a bore if added to the typical teenage plotline. 

Thanks to the “gift” of social media, I’ve also been made aware that some of my classmates actually live out these film “fantasies” through their blurry party selfies and clumsy drunk videos. From word of mouth, I’ve heard endless stories of hysterical nights brought upon by varying substances. I’m always left standing and listening, never able to relate.

The nail in the coffin for me is the widely accepted ideology that high school is the time to “live life” and “be reckless” when the reality behind these phrases is most commonly “break the law” and “ignore the risks.” Why is there so much emphasis put on irresponsibility? Why have I been made to feel like my commitment to responsibility means I haven’t “lived life”? 

While I would love to have undying pride for my health-conscious and career-driven choices, I’ve never been able to avoid the thought that I’ve wasted my years as a teenager. I have no stories of funny drunk nights and hysterically horrible decisions made with best friends. While I know in the long run I’ve made the best choice for myself, I don’t know the answer to the question “did I waste my teenage years?” and in all honesty, I’m not sure I want the answer.