Dear 12-year-old Alice,

Hey, how are you?

I know that you’ve just started year 8, so the anxiety you’re feeling about how seating plans will affect your position in the class’s social hierarchy is being slightly eased by the fact that you’re no longer the lamest kids in the school.

What you won’t realise, yet, is that your successors are bolshy little tykes who will continue to challenge your authority until sixth form, when they take over the upper sixth sofas within seconds. Deal with it. By the time you’re my age (27 – I use the word “tykes” now), you’ll be actively hanging out with people three years younger than you and enjoying it, too.

I’m not here to tell you about your future or what homework you can totally get away with not doing (most of it, but you won’t properly take advantage of your nerdy reputation for at least a decade, soz).

Instead, I am travelling through time to tell you that, even though you hate PE, games, physical exertion, the social kudos that come with being good at hockey and the fact you just aren’t very good at sport, you will come to love it in 10 years. I know. Unbelievable, yet true.

This is because when you do exercise properly, your body releases endorphins. They’re a chemical substance released by your pituitary gland (that’s the same one in control of your hormones, which I know are giving you hell right now) that primarily exist to stop pain and induce euphoria – “a state of intense excitement and happiness”. Sounds pretty great right?

We both know that no PE class or hockey game has resulted in an endorphin rush. This is because 25 minutes of half-arsed jogging around with a stick barely raises your heart rate. Add in the fact that the changing rooms remain a hornet’s nest of underwear and boob-growth inspection (this is one of the many weird school things that never happens in adult life, promise), and you’re unlikely to ever experience a ‘runner’s high’.

But there’s a reason why all the cool girls love hockey and netball so much, and it’s not just because they’re really good at it. If you keep active enough for more than 20 minutes, that horrible ‘wall of pain’ your teacher keeps telling you about actually does disappear and instead you’re filled with the gleeful satisfaction of using your body properly.

Do you remember when you were younger and used to cycle around the cul-de-sac we lived on, really fast? Or roller skated to the end of the village? Or made up vigorous dance routines to Hey! Mickey and practiced them every afternoon for a week? They were doubly fun because of endorphins, because you got puffed out enough to encourage your body to release euphoric chemicals.

I know you will struggle to understand this, but I actively pay money to do an hour of exercise twice a week at lunchtime these days. I’ve been doing that for five years. I cycle several miles every day, too, even though there’s a 10-minute train I could take instead.

You know, even when I went on holiday with my friends (one of them is Anna Morris – yeah! From 8S! You become really good mates, hang out with her more) we actively did yoga for fun, in 36 degree heat. This is because exercise makes grown-up me feel happy and strong, rather than pathetic and miserable, which is how you feel after Games.

Please realise that you shouldn’t write off doing exercise because you’re not the best in the class at netball. You’re actually fiendishly competitive so it’s probably for the best that team sports aren’t your thing. Yoga hadn’t really hit the Home Counties by 2001 so you can’t do much with that, but get out on your bike more – I promise you will feel less angry and less scared after cycling properly for an hour.

It will be difficult at first. You’ll get out of breath and your mouth might taste like metal, but don’t give up.

Just slow down, maybe eat a Kitkat (exercising isn’t about losing weight or getting in shape, by the way – you, like all the girls in your year, look far more wonderful than you realise and don’t need to change, even though you will be made to feel like you should) and take a little break. Keep going. Push your bike up that hill if you fancy, one day you’ll cycle up there (I still push my bike up hills, I’m not trying to prove anything), and then you get to ride down really fast and it’s terrifying and fun all at once.

Dance. You’re not bad at it, and it is so much fun. Find music to dance to – check out David Bowie and those Kiss compilations you think you’re too cool to listen to, and throw your body around until you’re exhausted. It feels amazing. I still do it now.

Learn to listen to your body. I know it sounds as confusing and uncomfortable as progressive jazz music right now, but if you use it to do physical things that you find fun, you will feel it growing stronger. You will understand how to make your body work at a time when it feels like it is doing everything to conspire against you.

Have fun. Don’t be scared. Trust that making yourself properly sweaty feels so good that you won’t care how you look or smell (both fine). Buy some better trainers. Try running, but know that we will probably always hate it. Try team sport but know that Vincents are genetically programmed to not understand them. Do yoga. Breathe.

Don’t worry: you’re going to be just fine.

Love,

Alice

@alice_emily

Image: Laura Callaghan 

I think I was seven or eight the day I cried to my mum about just wanting a cake with candles.

I pleaded so much that she brought out the Victoria sponge with raspberry jam that she had just made, stuck a dinner candle on top and lit it. ‘Are you happy now?’ I wiped my eyes and nodded, because for a moment I think I genuinely was. I made a wish like I had seen on TV – probably for Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin to be my boyfriend, yuck – then blew out the candle. I don’t even think it was my actual birthday.

The joy quickly went away though as I looked at the once perfectly good cake now with blobs of wax and a gaping hole in it, and waited for a call from Macaulay that never came. What a letdown. I couldn’t understand what the fuss was about, but I was glad that I finally got an insight into the ritual that seemed to be the norm for everyone else but me.

I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness, a Christian subsect that views many aspects of society as morally corrupt and, cheerily, believe that the world is due to end any minute now. Basically, Witnesses believe that living according to their interpretation of the Bible will mean that once the world ends, they will be rewarded with eternal life. And while it’s not specifically mentioned in the Bible that birthdays are bad, Witnesses don’t celebrate birthdays as they believe they are rooted in pagan origins and therefore a big no-no to God.

As an adult, the reasoning behind JWs not doing birthdays (as well as Christmas, Halloween and other ‘worldly’ practices) makes more sense to me – but as a kid with little understanding of what the point of religion even was, it was mostly just embarrassing and silly. What kind of god hates cake, presents and a cute song? And I constantly felt guilty for being naturally excited about turning a year older.

This isn’t to say the lives of Jehovah’s Witness children all over the world are grim. I still got presents and stuff, just sprinkled throughout the year for no reason at all, and there were always parties for some reason or another. I was pretty lucky in that my mum understood how confusing being part of a world-critical religion but having to, you know, be a part of the world, could be for a kid. A lot of Witness families are much stricter though. I remember one boy in the year below me at my primary school whose parents requested he sit out of the end of Autumn term assemblies so that he didn’t have to sing the Christmas carols. I think the most important thing in my family was that we had a solid foundation and understanding of the faith but weren’t given an excuse to be made to feel like weirdos, especially at an age when that can happen easily enough without even bringing religion into the mix. 

Over the course of my teens, my family gradually stopped being practicing Witnesses. Conveniently, this was also at a time I was increasingly convinced that it was in no way the faith for me. So the first time I had a proper birthday cake with real candles and actual icing, I was 18. This time it felt a little more magical (although that could have been the cocktails). I can’t remember what I wished for but I remember not having that guilty feeling in the pit of my stomach that I was doing something wrong.

I’ve still never had a big party though, I don’t really see the point when I managed my entire childhood without one. Now I see birthdays as a time to reflect on how much I’ve grown over the past year and where I hope the next year will take me, whether that’s spent amongst friends and family or alone. But either way, I’m always happy to catch up on all the cake I missed.

@KirbyAfua

“You have major depression,” the doctor told me, her eyes kind and thoughtful, like a basset hound.

“There are loads of things we can do. We can get you into therapy and put you on some anti-depressants,” she continued. “You will get through this, Lily,” she said, taking hold of my hand and squeezing it tightly.

I closed my eyes and cried – not with sadness, but relief. Finally, an answer. There was something wrong with me, even the doctor said so. This wasn’t me being melodramatic, this wasn’t me being ridiculous, this wasn’t just how growing up felt. This was a real, medical problem. There were things that could be done.

But the best thought of all was: maybe I won’t always have to feel this way. And for the first time in a really long time, I felt the clouds in my brain shift, just a little, and I could see a glimpse of another life. A life where I was happy.

Strangely, I had never really noticed I was happy – until I wasn’t. It’s so easy to take happiness for granted because a lot of the time, happiness is nothing more than a gentle hum in your chest, or being able to fall asleep the moment your head hits your pillow. Happiness can be smiling to yourself on the train, or going a whole day without thinking a single negative thing about yourself. These were luxuries that I took for granted, because I had no idea how it would feel when they went away.

I didn’t know that the gentle hum in my chest could be replaced with a tightness that made it hard to breathe, that there would be nights where I lay awake, convinced I was utterly worthless as a person. That my smile would be buried somewhere at the back of my throat or that I would begin to hate the very essence of who I was.

* *  *  *  *  *  *

One of my mentors once told me: “You’ll never get anything if you don’t ask for it.” Over the years I’ve repeated this advice to myself in a million different situations, and each time, it has let me tap into a deep reserve of bravery that I didn’t know I had. It was this advice that I drew upon last time I had a depressive episode. I knew that help was mine for the taking and that all I had to do was ask.

But, of course, the asking is the most difficult part. Vocalising that you think something is going wrong with the inner workings of your brain is incredibly hard. Forcing the words, “I need help,” or “I think I’m depressed,” or “can you please take me to the doctor,” up your throat and out of your mouth can feel as impossible as breathing under water.

It was for that exact reason that I ignored my depression for a long time. I had my first depressive episode when I was fifteen, and at the time it was so tightly woven into my anorexia that it was almost impossible to work out where one ended and the other began. The side effects of anorexia were obvious in my baggy clothes and the sunken shadows under my eyes. But depression hides inside your brain, revealing itself only to you, like the invisible friend you had as a child.

I suppose the real reason I ignored it was simply because being a teenager is confusing. Your body has morphed into one you don’t recognise and spots are erupting like volcanoes on your face and your moods change with the wind. Hadn’t my teachers and parents and textbooks explained every change in my life with a one single word: hormones? Hadn’t every book I’d ever read, every song I’d ever listened to, every movie I’d ever watched, warned me that growing up was meant to be hard? That teenagers are meant to be full of angst and to feel like no one understands them? And so, I told myself, maybe that’s all this was.

And after all, what did I have to be depressed about? Me, with my loving family and my nice house and my top grades. Me, with my loyal friends and my supportive parents? There were people in the world who were starving. People who were homeless. People who had lost parents or siblings. People who had lives that I couldn’t comprehend in my privileged bubble.

But none of these things stopped the neurotransmitters in my brain screwing up. None of these things ever have or ever will be enough to stop mental illness. Anxiety has never looked at someone and gone, “Gee, you know what? They have a really sweet family, so I’ll just leave this one be.” Depression doesn’t give two hoots if you make Head Girl or the hockey team. OCD doesn’t decide to skip someone because their parents are rich. I know these things now – but at the time, the fact that I had every opportunity in the world and was still depressed only seemed to prove to me that I was a terrible person.

For a long time, I believed that my mental illness made me weaker than other people. I would watch my friends swing between happiness and sadness with ease. I would wonder why I couldn’t be more like them. Instead, sadness seemed to cling to me like an ex who just won’t take the hint.

But it turned out that my brain just needed a little more help that other people’s. The same way you need to throw a kite into the air a little, in order for it to take flight. With the right medication and the right therapist, I was able to claw back parts of my life that had withered with neglect. And you can too.

It’s like Dumbledore said (kind of):

“Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

Once you ask for help. Once you confess your worries to a parent. Once you say the words aloud to a doctor. Once you confide in a teacher. Once you let the words out into the world, things can start getting better.

To all of you out there struggling silently with depression, I promise you one thing: it doesn’t have to be this hard.

My period catches me off guard every month.

Maybe it’s because I’m one of the unlucky ones whose ovaries are super irregular and love holding surprise parties for my underwear, or maybe – maybe – it’s because, after 14 years of having them, I’ve never actually bothered to track my flow. Who knows.

But as a result, I have chapter upon chapter of period stories under my metaphorical belt (a belt that is, fingers crossed, not looped through a pair of white jeans).

Here’s every badly-timed period I’ve ever had – so that next time you’re creating a makeshift sanitary towel out of plasters and first aid tape (see 2016: Up a Volcano) you can know you are not alone, my fabulously fertile friends. You are not alone.

2002: Winnie the Period Pain

Everyone’s first badly timed period is their first period. There’s just no way of knowing. For me it was on a family holiday aged 12, wearing a pair of Eeyore pyjamas (read the whole story here). Infinity pools still trigger flashbacks but I’ve not held it against A A Milne.

2003: Plump It

School netball match. I’d pulled a pre-match Art Attack in the changing room toilets and fashioned a sanitary towel out of a combination of loo roll and that blue paper you use to dry your hands (TIP: the blue paper is more absorbent but toilet paper is softer, so wrap the blue stuff in the white stuff to get the best of both worlds).

A combination of big knickers and the jumping necessary in the role of Goal Keeper meant my patchwork sanner slipped out of my shorts mid-game. Luckily no one cares about the GK so the episode went unnoticed. I tucked the fugitive into my Reebok Classics before escaping back to the changing room to riffle through the rest of the team’s school bags for a solution.

Within 10 minutes I was back on court wearing my first ever non-applicator tampon, having treated myself to a generous layer of the Wing Attack’s plumping lip gloss. Needless to say I felt like a sassy super hero on a secret mission, and in a way I was, you guys.

2004: Hoodie heroes

White combat trousers. Thorpe Park. Here’s a fact; taking a ride on the aptly named Tidal Wave does not help wash away red crotch stains (a friend’s hoodie tied round the waist hid the evidence in the end).

2005: My Oracle

Day date with an older boy. I didn’t want to buy tampons in front of him – I was 15, incredibly nervous and on my first ever date – so I headed straight to the toilets at The Oracle shopping centre in Reading. The whole situation would have been totally manageable, had this period not coincided with the six months where I thought wearing leggings made knickers redundant.

The tampon machine was broken, so I solicited strangers and ended up meeting an amazing woman who gave me an entire pack of Regular flows, a spritz of her Chanel No.5 and the most empowering feminist speech I’d ever heard. I went to bed that night with a ruined pair of H&M leggings in my bin, having not had a regretful snog with the older boy. It was actually a really good day.

2006: The Treaty of Versailles

I was sitting my History GCSE exam. You’re not meant to stop your classmates mid-essay to ask for a quick show of hands on who’s got a spare tamp in their pencil case, so I felt lucky that my friend’s mum was invigilating and understood the panic in my eyes.

She escorted me to the canteen where a sensational group of dinner ladies offered a selection of sanitary options for me to choose from. They should go down in history for being so cool and sweet. I was predicted a C and got a B, but it felt like I defied more than just my history teacher that day.

2008: Red Light

I was 18 and got my period at the exact same time that I drove too fast on an icy bend and crashed my first car at a ring road junction in Basingstoke.

I remember staring at the hood, which now resembled a ball of crumpled up paper, and while the snow fell and Jamie T sang about his brand new bass guitar, I felt the familiar first clump of my disused womb wall slipping into my knickers. I wasn’t sure if the back ache was whiplash or period pain, but I did know that the kind man named Dave who helped me drive out of the way of oncoming traffic and into a nearby carpark would not be able to shed any light on it.

He bought me fish and chips and a can of Rio while I waited for the AA van and secretly stuffed wads of napkins into my parka pocket, before pleading with the chippie owner to let me use his family toilet. I cried on the loo with my knickers round my ankles before stealing two paracetamol from his medicine cabinet.

2012: Here comes the cramp

While being a bridesmaid, right in the middle of the ceremony. If anyone finds an abandoned pair of Spanx in the loo at a country house in Berkshire, they’re mine.

2012: Ovaries on tour 2k12

In a sweaty Passport Control queue full of lads-on-tour types at Malaga airport. Trapped, tampon-less and rejecting the advances of a boy with ‘BONERSAURUS REX’ printed on his baby pink polo shirt. 2012 was a bad year for my white knicker collection.

2014: Off the record

In the middle of a phone call in which I was interviewing a ‘TV personality’. Tried to disguise the sudden bathroom echo in my voice as I masterfully inserted a tampon whilst juggling my phone, a USB cable and a dictaphone. Deserved a pay rise, to be honest.

2016: Up a Volcano

I thought my badly-timed period days were behind me until this summer’s episode, which finds me at the top of a volcano in Guatemala in rainy season. Anything is possible when you come on your period unexpectedly and manage to get creative with a packet of plasters and first aid tape. I made a promise there and then with my confused Guatemalan guide, Silvio, as my witness that I will start carrying tampons on me at all times.

I will, I swear.

Image: Getty

I was nine when I started my first period. Nine.

I was so young I was still making up dance routines in the playground and absent-mindedly picking my nose in public, but then one day the puberty gods decided I would be plucked from my innocent childhood and made to menstruate.

It was a weekend. I was sat on the upstairs loo while my mum hung out washing on the landing. I wiped after doing my business and there it was on the tissue: blood.

It wasn’t bright red like the normal blood I’d seen when I’d fallen over and grazed my knees. This was darker and definitely not wee, so it had to be my period. I pulled up my knickers, flushed the chain and walked out of the bathroom. “Mum, I think I’ve started my period,” I announced.

My mum did what any normal mum would do when a nine-year-old announces she’s bleeding from her vagina: she freaked out. Dropping the bed sheet she was folding, she hopped from one foot to another, spluttering, “OK… um… right… OK… um”. I shrugged, walked past coolly and reassured: “It’s alright, mum. I know what to do.”

I was too young to have had sex education at school, but luckily my mum had been spotting signs that my period was on the hormonal horizon. While she may have been useless on the day (bless her), she’d been super organised beforehand and prepared me for aunt Flo’s imminent arrival.

She later told me she’d noticed a white discharge appearing in my knickers when she did the washing, which is a sure sign your first period is about to start. (BTW: regular discharge is totally normal and part of a woman’s monthly cycle. It’s not gross and is nothing to be ashamed of. Find out more about it here.)

So when my period came, my mum had already given me “the talk”. She had put sanitary towels in my knicker drawer and performed an extremely detailed demonstration of how to stick a white-winged sanitary pad into the gusset of my age 9-10 knickers.

By the time I went back to school on Monday, I was a period pro. I skipped into the school playground with a packet of Always tucked away inside my backpack and that was that. The world kept turning and nothing really changed.

After a phone call from my mum, the school made a few changes to accommodate the “more mature” girls in my class (which is code for “those with boobs”). We got changed in the toilets for PE instead of the classroom, we could go to the loo in the middle of a lesson and we knew where the secret stash of sanitary products were.

People feel sorry for me for having “grown up so fast”, but in reality I was remarkably unfazed by the arrival of aunt Flo.

Puberty is a slow and steady experience for girls, unlike boys who seem to sprout overnight and get reaaaaally deeeeeep vooooooices all of a sudden. So I was used to “growing up”. I had boobs – not budding nipples but actual breasts that needed a bra – and had discovered my first pubes a year before.

Maybe I was too young to feel that shame and embarrassment that a lot of girls feel when they start their period. I was more interested in cartoons than how I looked, what boys thought of me or what was happening to my body. If anything I’m happy that I started so young, it meant that when my friends started I was a dab hand and could help them out.

Periods aren’t always easy, of course: sometimes you leak blood onto bed sheets or your pants (which is really easy to wash with cold water), the pain can be excruciating (hot water bottles are your friend) and it makes swimming awkward (you can still go, just wear a tampon and change it when you get out – you don’t want a wet string dripping in your undies).

I’d recommend using a period tracker app to log pain, flow and moods, so you know what is normal for your body. That way if you are worried or notice anything unusual speak to an adult you trust. The most powerful thing you can do for your health as a woman is get to know yourself.

But for the most part, you, like the other half of the population who menstruate, will be just fine. And if a nine-year-old can do it, I’m sure you can too.

@Brogan_Driscoll

The first day of high school, I came home and cried. Not a little bit of blink and you’ll miss it eye leakage, but the sobbing, can’t breathe, wonder if you’ll ever be able to stop sort of crying.

I loved my primary school. I had a close group of friends who were my entire world. But we were split up and spread out like confetti across a few different schools in the area.

The school I joined had a primary school, so half of the year already knew each other. They eyed us newbies with the sort of scepticism I’m 100% sure I would have done if I was in their position. Would we ‘steal’ their friends? Would we be smarter than them? Would we mess up the social hierarchy that they’d carefully established since they were five?

The answer to all of those questions was unanimous: yes, yes, we would.

I didn’t make a single friend that first day, aside from with the year 10 girl who was assigned to mentor me and fourteen other girls, and as I explained to my concerned mother, she didn’t really count because the school had told her to be nice to us.

The thing is, I didn’t really know how to make friends. Most of my existing friendships had been formed in the sandpit, when my definition of a friend was a person who would share their sandwich with you when you left your lunch at home.

(Side note, this is still probably the most accurate definition of friendship I’ve ever had).

I did find friends eventually; the will-answer-their-phone-in-middle-of-the-night, will-cancel-a-date-with-their-crush-of-five-years-if-you-need-them, will-tell-you-if-your-dress-is-too-tight-(but in a gentle way) sort of friends.

Here are my tips for making the forever-til-the-day-I-die sort of friends:

1. Be yourself. I know, I know. This sounds like the sort of trope your granny trots out whenever you make the mistake of confiding in her, but in all honesty, she has a point. If you pretend to be someone else to make people like you, you’ll end up being friends with people you don’t really have all that much in common with. It might take a bit longer to find your people, but trust me, they’re out there somewhere.

2. Making new friends is hard. There is literally no exception to this rule. Everyone worries if they’re talking too much. Or if they’re being too clingy. Or that if your friendship group was to hold a spin-off of The X Factor, where someone had to be voted out, you would be the one sent home. You’re not alone. Everyone around you feels like this too. Hang in there.

3. Be nice. In my experience, girls often do this thing where they bond by bitching about other girls. The enemy of your enemy is your friend etc. It’s all very Animal Planet and completely unnecessary. I know it’s tempting, but try and resist the urge to take this shortcut, these friendships can sometimes turn toxic and become more trouble than they’re worth.

4. Find the girl who has the biggest smile. She will be your salvation through high school. She’ll teach you the rules to sports, which will come in handy when you try and flirt with boys a few years later. She’ll stay on the phone and patiently explain the answers to your maths homework. And you’ll get the chance to be a good friend back; you’ll be the person she texts when she gets her first period and you’ll duck out of class take your jumper to the bathroom stall so she can tie it around her waist.

5. If you get really stuck for an opener, come up with a quirky fact about yourself. I learnt this tactic off a friend of mine who stuck her hand out when she met me and said, “Hi, I’m Alana, and I’m ambi-dexterous,” which is pretty much the best opening line in the history of the world.

I promise you’ll find your tribe, even if it doesn’t seem like it right now. The people who laugh at all your jokes and will help you when you’re struggling with a particularly nasty geography assignment. They’re out there, and they’re looking for you too.

Image: Emma Block