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Dear Teenage Annika...

No one ever forgets their teenage years--no matter how much we want to. Mine were, surprisingly, some of the happiest times of my life, though that's with the benefit of hindsight. The drama back then could have eclipsed shows like One Tree Hill, which I watched religiously (ahem. And maybe still do).

I remember my first crush (who I'm still buddies with and luckily, can laugh with about it now). Prom had a lead-up that was a bit dramatic (as high school relationships can be...insert the story about one best friend stealing the other's boyfriend and all hell breaking loose) but it was an amazing day with my still-best friend and I getting our hair done together, renting A Cinderella Story from the video store (this is probably aging me...) and ordering pizza. Then we went to Taco Bell in our dresses for a fancy dinner.

And that time my parents went to Las Vegas with my brother on a family trip visiting relatives and I used work as a reason to be left behind. Cue the late nights with lots of snacks (and surprisingly, no alcohol! Who says all teens are wild?) and with half the basketball team in my house.

People always say your twenties are your discovery decade. Your thirties, the one where you finally grow comfortable with yourself and accept the way you are. And your forties are sometimes the happiest time in your life because you're so settled.

Last week, I was messaging with a girl in the community I grew up in. Now, a college senior, I've known her since she was a toddler and her growth is one that still catches me by surprise. She was stressed and said my writing helped her--which led to a conversation about how she was doing. She mentioned the anxiety of impending graduation and I told her we'd all been there and I knew she'd be okay.

The thing is...we've all been there but it's still the first time for the person in question. And our stories of when we were young don't take their nervousness away as they face their obstacles. How many of us really listened to our parents and adults who did, in fact, usually know better when we were going through our own teenage years?

Nevertheless, if I got to meet my teenage self now...there are so many things I'd tell her.

1) Your body is perfect. Back then, I worried so much about my weight and how the other girls looked--but I was 125 lbs, and funnily enough, when I look at my track and field team photographs now, I am no chubbier or skinnier than anyone else. And as someone who gained a lot of weight in college and after, I wish I had more confidence back then. I would tell the girl in the photographs that I'd kill to be in that shape now, and that she should own her skin exactly the way it was.

2) For the love of God, your parents are not people who know nothing. They will eventually become your best friends, your rocks, and the two people you call for every small decision because they are always right. While you're at it, listen when Mom tells you to become a journalist.

3) Discipline yourself. While you become a professional dancer, a track athlete, and begin to show the inkling you'll become a writer...these things happen accidentally and as they should. But a little discipline would push you over the edge.

As I look back now, those are the top three things I'd tell myself...but I'm also a firm believer that things happen the way they should. Those years of diary-writing were the baby steps in learning to describe drama prior to becoming a professional writer just eight years later. The missteps on the way to medical school (like learning I did not, in fact, want to be a doctor) were precisely what led to a career path I never saw coming as a teacher. All those times holding babies at parties and wishing I could work with them all day were quiet indicators of the future. And the body confidence? Well, as much as I still struggle with it now, my personality became far more empathetic, compassionate and bubbly as compensation--things I wouldn't take back for anything.

At the end of the day, we can't change the past and while sometimes I wish my career had been more linear or I'd been more decisive about what I wanted to do, the jagged and winding road often leads to unexpected destinations, ones that yield more reward than anything else. So why write this post?

I've finished my second master's degree and I'm on the verge of turning in a few manuscripts...professionally, that means balancing multiple deadlines and impending careers (with a pivot thrown in, going from education back to healthcare). Inevitably, when writing cover letters, it means looking back on the paths you've traveled and sorting out what mattered. And going back, for me, always leads to my senior year of high school. That is over a decade of "been there, done that" experiences. The triumphal shout of goals we've met. The occasional regret. The "I wonder how that would have turned out," for the paths not taken.

And the realization that without the random turns, the backwards movement, the leaps ahead and even the momentary regret, we wouldn't be standing where we are. If I had chosen journalism as a major, for example, perhaps I would be writing for a magazine or newspaper by now--but would the writing as a day job sapped me of the energy to write my books? If I had gone to medical school, would I have been able to find the time to blog, connect with strangers and find an agent? If I never became a teacher...would I want to be a mother as badly as I do now?

Happiness might be a choice--but so is regret. Looking back is never a bad thing--it serves as a reminder of how far you've come. But the notion that checking in the rearview every two minutes to see where the missed road leads deprives you of facing forward and paying attention to where you are and all the help it took, the sacrifices you made, and the achievements you unlocked to get there. Getting over regrets takes forgiveness (most of the time, of yourself), perspective and recognizing how you still have roads to choose in the future that can change where you are now. And as I move forward in my career and in this new phase, it's one thing I remind myself of constantly, to look back with pride and note the incredible experiences that have made me who I am now, prepped for whatever comes my way.

My favorite quote, one that is apt to close this blog post, is one that sits on my desk at my parents' house. "Your journey has molded you for the greater good, and it was exactly what it needed to be. Don't think that you've lost time. It took each and every situation you have encountered to bring you to the now. And now is right on time."