So many times over the last 20 years I have wanted to put my arms around my teenage self and whisper in her ear: It gets better.
You will not be a teenager forever. You will not be alone. You won't always be in pain. You'll stop caring about fitting in -- though, I'm sorry to say, you're never really going to fit in. You'll get used to it; you'll even think of it as an asset someday. And, trust me -- which is to say, trust yourself -- it gets so much better. Hold on. Let the calendar do its work; it gets further away and, importantly, it does get better.
Teen Me turns her tear-stained face towards mine, stares quizzically at my grown up visage and says, "Please, take a swan dive into a shallow concrete tub of Clorox."
How does it get better? She wants to know. What makes it better? And when? Does somebody else make it better, and if so who? Or is it something I do for myself? Some specifics, if you please?
Fair enough, I say, you're never going to respect authority either -- but, it gets better, I promise.
In the last several weeks, with the unrelenting drumbeat of gay teen suicides, I have tried this thought experiment on the teenage Joel Derfner, my best friend, with whom I star in Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys debuting on Sundance Channel December 7:
Sweetest Joel: It gets better. You're going to come out of the closet with gusto. You won't always be depressed. You'll manage your bad brain chemistry, though it will never go away. Like Sarah, you're never going to fit in (sorry!) but you'll learn to celebrate that -- and teach others to as well. You're going to be the gayest man alive. You're going to find the love of your life and marry him. Like, legally, while you're still young enough to look hot in the pictures. You'll have fluffy white dogs and a brownstone in Brooklyn. It gets better.
To which the teenage Joel responds, "Dfgtyu%^&*imlirtgfhuy?" He then returns to his ceaseless sobbing.
"It Gets Better" is a soothing mantra, but also perilously impotent. No work is involved, you can be totally passive and vague while some mysterious "it" with no agency somehow "gets" things marginally better than they are right now which is very, very bad.
Without diminishing the importance of the "It Gets Better" movement or the message of hope intended for teenagers, I fear that "It Gets Better" could be this year's "Yes We Can" -- a bumper sticker -- universal and comforting, but ultimately empty unless supported by action and followed by tangible results.
Make things better, why don't you?
Being closeted and young, bullied by your peers, genetically prone to depression, anxiety or obsession, has never gotten better all by itself. But it can get better with the right inputs: action, energy, time, hope, healing, and professional support. It can also get a terrifying lot worse.
This is the thought that stymies me. There are few people on earth I would wish more happiness upon than Joel Derfner. Not only am I mostly powerless to make it better for imaginary teen Joel, I could not stop it from getting worse for him right now.
There is one thing, however, that the teenage me could have done for teenage Joel -- the very same thing I do for him today. I bake.
Food as a palliative does nothing whatsoever to cure the trauma at hand. Straight teenagers watching gay friends suffer will not make anything better with cookies than they will with a mollifying punch line.
I'm a Midwesterner: I believe in the social importance of food gifts. Joel's a Southerner, hailing from the mannered land where one of the greatest writers with a GBF, Harper Lee, wrote: "Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between."
Cookies will barely make a dent in the pain of your teenage GBF. Puddings will not put the bullies off his scent. Cupcakes won't help him out of the closet. Crumbles, bettys and fools can't bridge a rift with his parents. Like slogans, pies have never talked anyone out of suicide.
But baking is an action. It is something you can do. By baking, you will begin the process of connecting ambition to action, of marrying your hopeful heart to your productive hands. You can try some small activity to make it better -- even though you and your baked goods will, in all likelihood, fail.
As an adult, Joel has rejected my cookies for months on end. Calls went unanswered. Birthday notes, unopened. I could not, no matter my tack, make anything better. At all. But I loved him, so cookies were the least -- and only -- thing I could do.
When things did get better for Joel -- through love and support, through drugs, through time, and an assortment of ambitious and energetically applied resources -- the gesture became meaningful post hoc. I had tried to do something, even though it hadn't worked even one little bit.
That, in the end, is your only hope for helping your teen friend. If it is going to get better, you need to do something right now. Pick a generous activity, an action, follow-up on a good intention -- even a symbolic act is one step beyond a slogan.
Yes you can.
It gets better.
Bake some cookies.
Adapted from a recipe in Gourmet Magazine
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
1 lb bittersweet chocolate, broken into small pieces
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
½ cup sugar
3 large eggs
6 oz chocolate chips
6 oz M&Ms or Reeses Pieces
Preheat oven to 350°F. and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
Sift together in a bowl flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt. Melt butter with the bittersweet chocolate pieces in the microwave, 30 seconds at a time, stirring between each round until smooth.
Stir sugar into the chocolate mixture. Add eggs, 1 at a time, stirring until well mixed, then add in flour mixture until just combined. Chill dough, covered, at least 10 minutes and up to 1 hour.
Drop rounded tablespoon measures of dough about 1‚ inches apart onto baking sheet and stud each cookie chocolate chips and candy.
Bake in middle of oven 10 minutes, or until just set. Cool cookies on sheet on rack 5 minutes and transfer to a rack. Continue baking until the dough is used up. If there is candy or chocolate chips left over, give them to Joel.