Dear 17-year-old Christopher:
I’ve got some bad news for you. I know you like your long hair, but within 10 years, you’ll have a shaved head. Around your 24th year on this planet, your hairline will start thinning, and by 27, you get tired of trying to hide this hair loss and just shave it all off.
Now, now, it’s okay. Don’t cry. Buck up. I’ve got something to tell you that will make you forget all about your future hair loss.
Your 20s are a write-off. A wasted decade. The only things of value you accomplish during this period are graduating from college and marrying the love of your life. You don’t pull your head out of your ass until you’re 29, and even then, you’re well into your 30s before you start cleaning up all the wreckage you caused.
So male pattern baldness isn’t the worst thing that happens to you—not by a long shot.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Right now, you’re 17 years old and just graduated early from high school (not because of your brilliant academic prowess, mind you. Fact is, you’re a non-Mormon raised in Utah, so you didn’t take seminary, which allowed you to finish all your required curriculum in December of your senior year.) What are you doing with your early freedom? You’re working part-time at Waldenbooks in the Cache Valley Mall and drinking a lot of alcohol.
You’re living the dream! Not a care in the world. Your whole life is ahead of you, and you’ve got big plans.
For one, you’re going to win the Nobel Prize in Literature by the time you’re 25. Ambitious? Yes, it is, but you know it will happen. You’ve wanted to be a writer since reading Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Clean Well-Lighted Place” when you were just 13. What’s truly significant about this is that you’ve discovered since then that all your favorite writers are alcoholic, drug addicts: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Poe, Burroughs, Faulkner, Williams, Selby, Capote, and the list goes on and on. You’ve decided that you’re going to follow in their footsteps. If they can be successful while getting loaded, then so can you. It’s all you want out of life—to be a prolific, loaded writer.
Except there are two major problems with your plan:
1. You’re not writing. You think about writing, you’re coming up with ideas, but you don’t write them down, which is kind of a problem for a writer.
2. You’re about to be called up from the substance-abuse minor leagues to join the majors. You’re going pro! At 17, you really don’t have a clue what it means to be an alcoholic or drug addict, but you’re going to find out real soon, and the harsh reality is going to nearly destroy you.
It’s around this time when you’re 17 that your father sits you down and tells you that alcoholism and drug addiction run in your family. You come from a long line of drunks and addicts. Your concerned father tells you that you need to be careful. He’s worried about your reckless behavior. This is sound advice, advice that you will think about for years to come. Even now, nearly two decades later, you reflect on this conversation. You often wish you would’ve heeded his warning.
But hell, you’re still a teenager and there’s no way you’re an alcoholic or drug addict. You just like to get drunk and high from time to time. Okay, maybe daily. You can stop anytime you want. And furthermore, what would it mean to your career as a drunk and drugged writer if you weren’t getting drunk or drugged? It would be devastating, that’s what. So you just keep on getting loaded and thinking about writing.
So, 17-year-old Christopher, during this period of your life, nothing terribly bad happens and nothing terribly good happens. You just cruise through life getting loaded and doing as little real work as possible. But you think about how your future is going to be fantastic when all your dreams come true.
You might be asking yourself why I’m writing this letter to you at this period of your life when, by all accounts, you really aren’t screwing up too badly. Well, because later in life, you’ll think back to this time and wish you would’ve done things differently.
Firstly, realize that anything in life worth having requires a lot of work. Becoming a published writer is a bitch. It’s freaking hard work. I’ve heard it explained that all writers have a million bad words in them, and it takes getting these words out and on paper before they can produce anything of value. I wholeheartedly believe this. So I wish you would’ve started this endeavor at 17 rather than later in life.
Secondly, I wish you would’ve listened to your father and stopped drinking and getting high.
But here’s the thing, 17-year-old Christopher: I’m writing this letter to you from a point in your future life when things are pretty good. Actually, it’s better than good. It’s great. That may not be the way it looks to you as a teenager. I’m sure you’d determine my life rather boring and mundane. But I’m older and wiser, and you’re just a dumb kid who doesn’t know shit yet.
But let me break it down for you:
A. You have a wonderful, loving wife that stuck with you when you were a lying, stealing drug addict and alcoholic. At 17, when you sit around with friends and describe your perfect woman, I’m here to tell you that Jamie is that woman, and you’re the lucky son-of-a-bitch that she married, which still boggles my mind.
B. You have a wonderful 8-year-old son who is the light of your life and makes you laugh every day.
C. You have a body of published writing, included your debut young adult novel, HERO WORSHIP, that dropped in January 2014 (yes, I am plugging to my 17-year-old self).
D. More importantly, you’ve been sober for more than 11 years.
Have you won the Nobel Prize in Literature? Um, no, and you never will (you write genre fiction for the love of God). But when you reach my age, you’re totally okay with this.
Like I said before, you’re in for a world of hurt. Your addictions are going to make you cross lines you swore you’d never cross. You’re going to lie to the people that love you most. You’re going to make your wife actually think that her life would be better if you’d just OD and die, releasing her from the pain of watching her husband slowly kill himself. At one point, she’s actually going to put a compact mirror under your nose to see if you’re still breathing while you sleep. You’re going to get your dream job and lose it because you couldn’t stop drinking or using. You’re going to spend a Thanksgiving and Christmas alone in a drug and alcoholic treatment facility in Southern California, with nobody particularly believing that you’re going to get sober this time around.
When you finally do get sober, you’re going to work harder than you have in your entire life to stay clean. You’re going to have a series of demoralizing jobs, including disinfecting shoes at a bowling alley (ironically, your next job, which is working at a magazine, is even more demoralizing than the bowling alley. Who would’ve thought it? Not you, that’s for sure).
Here’s the real pisser about this whole exercise: Even if by some miracle the 17-year-old Christopher actually reads this letter, I would, of course, hope you would consider making some serious changes to the game plan. On the other hand, sticking to my scenario has its pluses.
For one thing, I am the sum total of all of my mistakes and self-inflicted misery. I’m writing this letter from a place where I’m comfortable in my own skin, I love my life, and I’m happy. Most likely that won’t happen if you take another route.
As an example, if you follow my route, all that pain you experience in your 20s will definitely fuel your writing. You recently finished a new young adult novel that is a semi-autobiographical account of your experience getting drunk and loaded, and you’re going to think it’s the best thing you’ve ever written.
So, 17-year-old Christopher, you’ve got a shitstorm heading your way, but you’ll get through it and come out the other side a better son, husband, father and writer because of it. If you want to continue to be a first-class fuck-up, go for it! I’m counting on you coming out better on the other side.
Christopher E. Long
Dude, really, I’m going to shoot you straight right now: No bullshit, ditch the hair, the fanny-pack, and the cigarette—all three go out of style soon.
Christopher E. Long’s debut young adult novel, HERO WORSHIP, was published on January 8, 2014 by Flux. He has worked for Marvel Comics, DC Comics, IDW Publishing, Boom! Studios and Image Comics. Christopher’s magazine writing has appeared in Flaunt Magazine, Anthem Magazine, and Lemonade Magazine. His short fiction has appeared in Thuglit, Spinetingler Magazine, and Powder Burn Flash.
He was born in Seattle, Washington, raised in Logan, Utah, and currently lives in Southern California with his wife and son.