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Listen to Your Unicorns

A personal essay on the worries that come with growing out of teenagehood.

By Featured, Literature 121

An illustration of a young girl opening door that is much bigger than her. All around her is a cloud of many unicorns looking at her.

Illustration by Shu Yin (Kitty) Lai.

I turn 20 in about six months. When the rest of my world is quiet, that impending deadline looms on the horizon. I donʼt want to be 20. I know itʼs ridiculous. When I voiced this concern to my aunt one night at dinner, she laughed and promised me my twenties are when life will get good.

I didnʼt know how to explain how I was feeling. But when I got home late that night and changed into fluffy pajamas, a memory came to me. Childhood anxiety in a hotel room in Washington, DC. I was turning ten. My parents were there. We stacked donuts and called it a cake. Everything was unicorn themed. My grandmother had even sent a purple unicorn nightgown for me to wear. By all accounts, it should be a delightful childhood memory. But itʼs all streaked through with the fear of turning ten: I was terrified when I realized I would never again be a single-digit number. That little “one” before the zero was the problem. I felt like I was losing something Iʼd never get back.

That was June of 2013. By the following spring, I wasnʼt going to school anymore. My life became series of doctors appointments, MRIs, blood work, disgusting medication I couldnʼt fully understand, and chronic pain with no answers. My body stopped being reliable. My childhood anxiety of turning ten had come true: I did lose something.

And maybe it was that year that locked me into the gifted-kid category. If I hadnʼt been such an overachiever before I got sick, I wouldʼve had to repeat the 5th grade because of how many days I had missed class. The school administration said it outright. They taught me that academic achievement could make up for an untrustworthy body.

Iʼm in my second year of college at a school with no grades, and I still have to talk myself down from anxiety attacks when I miss class because of my body. I still worry about being good enough, and I question whether Iʼm faking my own pain, nevermind the fact that most weeks, I have to inject medication for pain into the fat just beneath my hip.

When people ask how old I am, I often want to reply “17.” I want to shave two, almost three, years off my age. 17 was a liminal space. I spent the year indoors because of my health, my motherʼs health, and COVID-19. I spent that year reading books, doing online school, and making plans. It was mentally exhausting, fearing the world outside, not knowing just exactly what this pandemic was going to become.

And yet 17 was the last age I ever truly felt comfortable. I was not yet an adult. But I wasnʼt a young child anymore either. College was on the horizon. I was working through my final year in high school and writing essays and poetry I am still proud of.

The night after I turned eighteen, about a month after my high school graduation, I wrote this:

“Twenty four hours into being eighteen, I am not prepared.

 

Novels taught me escapism. Poets gifted me verse. Essays grounded me, even as I fell down Aliceʼs rabbit hole and dreamed of monochrome magic. I have been given the tools to craft my languages.

 

I did not expect to reach eighteen.

 

Mostly, I am tired. Mostly, I am anxious. Legally, I am to control my own medical decisions. But I cannot control these decisions. I cannot control the outcomes or the causes. I can only shuffle cards and read into the meanings. You can only beg your organs to be good so many times. Eventually, they revolt.”

 

As I look back at these words, I canʼt help but wonder if this anxiety was really all that different from the way I felt at ten.

18 was hard. It was full of transitions. I spent most nights in conversation with my body, trying to figure out how I would get through the fall and the spring of my first year at college. 19 has been easier. Iʼm more in control. I know how to handle Chicago now, though Iʼve still feared delving into the Chicago medical system. The worst part about being 19 has been thinking about turning 20.

I donʼt want to leave my childhood behind yet. And I know Iʼm not really going to be that grown. 20 is still a child to most real adults. So maybe Iʼm being ridiculous. But that ten year-old girl in a purple unicorn nightgown stuffing her face with donuts wasnʼt being ridiculous. She knew something was coming.

Sidne K. Gard (BFAW 2025) is a queer writer and artist from New Orleans. They hope to one day understand how to make their own monsters.

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