Thank God I’ve Left My Twenties Behind

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 4.824% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I’m in the planning stages for a novel about kids in their mid- to late-twenties – and I say “kids” because I look back at myself at that age, and I don’t feel like I was really done yet. I mean, I was entrusted to be a grownup, with a car and a salary and an apartment and all the acoutrement, but I still spent most of my days feeling like I was three kids in a trenchcoat.

Worse, every movie I saw was telling me these were the best days of my life – me constantly hammered with stories where people were whooping it up at bars and going on grand adventures, meeting the loves of their lives, settling into a rhythm.

I never had a rhythm in my 20s. I just felt off-kilter the whole time.

And in retrospect, that’s because I had shucked off my teenaged stupidity, given up all that high school bravado where I showed what tribe I belonged to by liking the right bands and nerding out about the right TV shows. I had been a geek in high school, yes, but a more performative one than I’d later become – a teenager who clung to my love of Doctor Who in part because yes, I loved Doctor Who, but also in part because Doctor Who fandom was predictable, if I said the right phrases and wore the right buttons people would automatically accept me and take me seriously and God how I craved that.

I remember thinking that I was so totally rad and unique by being a nerd, and then I’d go recite the same Monty Python skits like they were church call-and-responses.

And by my late twenties, I’d left most of that behind. The nerdery remained, but that desperate need to fit myself into somebody else’s cultural shape had ebbed; I no longer drank Guinness to demonstrate my love of England, I drank it because I’d grown to love the taste.

I should have been free.

I wasn’t.

My twenties were a wandering time, because I had been given freedom but didn’t yet know myself well enough to understand what I needed in life. I had constant strings of relationship failures not because anyone had any ill intent, but because everybody I dated (including me) wasn’t sure who (or what) would be good for them.

We dated sort of as a shrug – why not? – getting together with people who didn’t seem awful, and usually they weren’t, but our boundaries were mushy because we had yet to crystallize those concepts of “What I absolutely require,” so we settled into icky relationships like a low flu, this constant ache of “I don’t know, was it okay for them to do that?”

Sometimes it was. Sometimes we talked ourselves into being okay with stuff we shouldn’t have been.

And we all constantly cycled through interests even though none of them quite satisfied – we all wanted to be bartenders, no, we wanted to take up gardening, we wanted to like foreign movies. These were all genuine interests, but most of them were more borne out of a need to want to have that satisfy us – but I’d take up brewing beer with the epic excitement of this will be what I do always and discover that I hated cleaning the bottles, hated waiting weeks for the beer to ferment, hated having gallons of mediocre beer stashed in the fridge.

And when that didn’t work? I’d retreat, sullenly, to hours of videogames and TV and mediocre sex, going back to numb comforts that were, in retrospect, just killing time. Junk food experiences that didn’t hurt but certainly weren’t doing me any favors. Gearing myself up for the next big push.

What we wanted was to have the experience to understand who we were, and I didn’t have that.

Yet ironically, we did think we knew who we were, because society kept telling us that we did. We’d escaped high school and college, so many of us had settled down with kids and a spouse and a home, we bristled at the implication that we were some clueless high school kid.

Which we weren’t. We’d left so many lives behind – I wasn’t that teenaged metalhead brandishing patches and Doc Martens like a brand, but who was I?

But now we had to map the territory of us, to self-define in a way we could leverage for happiness, and that was a lot harder. Because we weren’t miserable, but we weren’t fulfilled yet either.

I had become my own custodian, and I was a crappy caretaker.

For me, my twenties were mostly about discovering the boundaries of my tolerance. Apartment got too messy? Okay, I need some level of cleanliness in order to function. Relationship got too dramatic? I gotta hold the line when someone presses me this way. Job destroying me? Fine, how do I preserve my sanity? How do I eat, how do I track money, how do I find time for myself in ways that nourish?

I wasn’t done baking yet, and I resented that everyone else seemed to have become a perfect cake.

So yeah. For me, I spent a lot of time bumping around things, discovering my boundaries, shaping a sense of self. I was almost there, but that me at twenty was too nebulous to settle down comfortably into. Thirty worked pretty well, forty’s when I hit my stride.

What’s the most important lesson you learned about yourself in your twenties?

1 Comment

  1. Mark
    Apr 3, 2021

    My twenties were the years in which I was a bit (ok, a lot) too full of myself and in which I was pretty much behaving like an asshole while thinking this was either justified or funny. I’m very happy I wasn’t done growing up, because I wouldn’t have liked myself very much if I was still that person. Still, I took risks that I probably wouldn’t have if I wasn’t so full of myself, so there was some sense in it. But yeah, looking back it was almost like second puberty.

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