The secret worst time of your life
Being a teenager sucks. Everyone in the world understands this fact. Some aspects of being a teenager get romanticized - driving, dating, college - but for the most part, it's all shrouded in an overwhelming sense of doom. Adults get this funny look in their eyes as they shake their heads and make comments under their breath like, "I wouldn't go back to junior high if you paid me."
You hear all about the universal teenage rites of passage: acne, growth spurts (or lack thereof), periods, bras, voice changing, body parts with minds of their own, body odor, body hair, even those first sure-to-be awkward sexual encounters. You expect to survive gossip and peer pressure and athletic competition and college decisions. You know you'll face difficult choices when it comes to drugs and alcohol and sex. You know some of your peers will fall prey to these temptations, living their lives with the scars of addiction, abuse or worse. Some won't walk away at all. It's all part of the canon of the teenage years, the ordeal everyone must suffer and survive in order to cross into the glorious world of adulthood where, it would seem, everything finally falls into place and all the hard stuff fades into the past. The urban legend is, if you make it through your teenage years, it's all downhill from there.
Here's the cruel truth, and since no one else will talk about it, I'm going to. Yes, being a teenager sucks. But there's another phase that no one talks about, a phase that's ten times worse, and that's the first half of your twenties. No one warned me, and yet it happened, and it seems to have happened to every other adult I've ever asked about it. For the first two years following my college graduation, and most of the third, I suffered one of the worst bouts of depression and self-destruction of my life. I watched as many of my close friends, my sister, and my brother all went through something similar, always in that same time period, regardless of whether or not they went to college or had jobs or got married or any other factor. There's something about your early twenties, it seems, that's secretly the worst time of your life that no one ever prepares you for. And for some people, it takes most of their twenties to emerge from the scarce-discussed black hole you find yourself immersed in. I'm not saying there aren't going to be other difficult times in life - that would be a lie. I'm saying this is the one no one prepares you for.
If you are a recent college graduate, you've ostensibly just spent several years in the beautiful bubble of fun and first-world problems that is most people's undergraduate experience, only to find yourself plunged directly into the real world. You may not have a job, but if you're lucky enough to find yourself gainfully employed, your job more than likely sucks. You're probably going to have to start paying back your loans soon, and you're pretty sick of living in your parents' basement, separate entry or no separate entry. Half your friends are still at school living the amazing, care-free life you miss and envy and resent all at the same time. One of those people is probably your ex, who dumped you after two years with absolutely no explanation and refuses to return your calls. Many of the friends who aren't still partying it up in college went directly to grad school, bypassing the stress of the real world for at least a few more years, or got cooler, higher-paying jobs than you did. You're caught in between the worlds of youth and adulthood at a time when you were supposed to have everything figured out, and the realization that you don't is both terrifying and crippling, so you spend every single night drunk or high to try to quiet your brain. You're lonelier than you've ever felt in your entire life, and it seems like everyone else - EVERYONE ELSE - is doing better than you are - better job, better relationship. Some of them are even getting married and having babies, and you're still waking up in strangers' beds, not quite sure how you got there.
It sucks, and it comes as a surprise, like being awakened from your dark, cozy bed in the middle of the night with a bucket of freezing cold water dumped directly over your head.
People will get sick of you whining - all those friends whose jobs and relationships and living arrangements all turned out completely great. You can hear it in their voices every time you call to complain, hoping for some accidental insight or at least a dose of empathy; they care, and they're concerned and they wish you well, but there's really nothing more anyone can do. You've officially become a broken record. On the flip side, the adults in your life will never run out of sage wisdom to share, networking contacts to offer, business cards to stack on your dresser. They think you're just not approaching things with enough diligence, that you're slacking off, you're lazy, you lack focus, when what they don't understand is that to take their assistance is like twisting the knife three times in the opposite direction and bleeding out all over the floor, because it means you failed. You really can't get by without help, without your parents' contacts and their basement apartment. And even though you know exactly how emo it it sounds, life feels like a black hole you feel you'll never escape.
You'll have a breakthrough moment one day when all of a sudden, complaining won't be enough. You'll tire of your parents basement enough that it finally seems worth it to drain your bank account on an overpriced rental. You'll find yourself no longer wondering what that ex is up to, why you ended up alone when you thought you'd figured it all out. You'll notice new faces and want to unpack the mysteries behind their eyes. You'll do something at work that gets you noticed, gives you confidence, pushes you to the next level - maybe not up a ladder, but on to something better, more exciting, more rewarding. If you've been stuck in the trenches figuring out what you want from your life, it will start to become clear - slowly, so much more slowly than you'd hoped, but miraculously and without effort, you'll see a future for yourself, and you'll begin to enjoy the process of working for it.
You will emerge, and when you do, as cliche as it is to say and as sick as you are of hearing it, you'll be stronger for it. You'll have come to understand that life is hard, not just when you're a teenager, but always, and there's no telling when hard times are going to come. Usually they come when you're least prepared to deal. But you know now that they will pass, that there's a light at the end of the tunnel, that your skin is thicker than you ever thought possible. You'll close out your twenties coming to terms with your flaws and disappointments, ready to work a little harder at being the person you see in your future, comfortable, at last, in the knowledge that life is both happy and sad, and sometimes, that's enough.