It’s so tempting to measure your life in decades once you feel like you’ve collected enough of them.
As if there are clean lines between 9 and 10, between 19 and 20, between 29 and 30. And corresponding labels that say, “This is where you’re less of a child.” “This is where you’re more of an adult.” “This is where you realize 40 is next.”
When I was in high school, in the throes of undiagnosed depression, I decided I probably wouldn’t make it to 30. (The only reason 20 was in the picture was because I knew I had to finish college.)
But after that? What comes after college? When housing and meals and your friends aren’t assigned anymore, but you’re not ready to make your own way, what happens? What happens if all you want to do is revert to your high school self and all its desperate, relative ease?
Still, when I thought about the third 10 years, it sounded pretty straightforward to me: Adulthood. Do that.
“Adulthood: Do that” was the command for a period of time the length of which I’d just completed wherein I both started fifth grade and finished my sophomore year of college.
If someone asked me if I wanted to redo that span, just to see if I could fare better — I always feel like I could have fared better — I would say no. Go through puberty and middle school and high school again? That’s a joke, right?
On good days, I buy hard into the philosophy that I am where I am, and every decision I made along the way helped get me there, and as long as I’m not in prison or dead, relatively speaking, I’m probably doing okay.
(I can’t help but think of the people I’ve lost in the last 10 years, the ones who were doing okay, too, until they weren’t.)
I know that sounds very much unlike what the friends I met later in my life must think of me. It sounds optimistic. It is, isn’t it? Or is it resigned apathy?
On bad days, I think back to 16-year-old me IMing my friend about how I go to bed at nine o’clock every night not because I’m tired or because I want to get enough sleep, but because I don’t see the point of being awake anymore.
“sleep is as close as i’m going to get to death,” I write. “i probably won’t make it to 30.”
Not because I wanted to die, but because I assumed by some point in my 20s, I wouldn’t see the point of being alive anymore, and could just slip away.
When there is nothing to look forward to except what you make for yourself, and your depression masks any possibility of forward movement in search of happiness, how do you face that?
I found myself clinging to my 20s instead of living them, each new year bringing dread and impossibility. I did not feel blessed. I did not feel happy. In the paint by numbers of my life, every space was pitch-black. Instead of trying to start with another color, I skipped to the end, when the paints ran together and the sum total of my year was, simply, “bad.”
But I went through the milestones anyway. Graduated college, got engaged, got married, went back to school once I figured out what I really wanted to learn. Each time I hoped one of them would fix me, and each time it did, for a few days, a few weeks, a few months, a few years.
Growth, though, isn’t just measured in the moment something becomes a milestone. I’ve been working the same job since I left school the second time, waiting for some opportunity, some prize for inching closer to the end of my third decade.
Clinging to the idea of living, not living.
The meaning we assign to taking another trip around the sun feels so arbitrary. Even when part of me is jealous that someone who would have been finishing eighth grade when I graduated college has now reached some career milestone (i.e. had something to call a “career”), I never really think, “What if I’d appeared to have had things figured out that early?”
But maybe I did.
I graduated college “on time” despite losing nearly a full semester to severe depression and anxiety. By 21, I was able to walk across the stage at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and pose outside with the Dan Gable statue knowing I’d finished the credit requirements for my degree. And then what?
And then what?
And then the years passed as I wondered “what’s next?” instead of living “what’s next.” I supplemented the milestones with haphazard new goals and failed to meet them and wondered why I still bothered.
And then some big, scary, unprecedented things happened and I thought, This is what I was waiting for? This is what I’m still living to see?
My dad was 30 when he met my mom, 31 when they got married, and 32 when I was born. Three years, bam, bam, bam. (And that’s only if you count by age; this all happened in about a 16-month span.)
What will my next 16 months hold?
My next 16 days?
My next 16 hours?
I had been counting down to this day with the same morose anticipation as any other August 8, as if awaiting my execution. Counting down to the end of my life as I knew it, because I hadn’t prepared for anything more. For half my life, I hadn’t prepared to see this day. And then the gap closed for good, and somehow, I was still here to see it.