Prior to humblebragging my recent vacation, I’ve been away from this blog for a while. I wish I had a simpler explanation for my absence, like a wealthy but morally unscrupulous man flew me to Dubai for a month or I had the kind of writer’s block that can only be remedied by closing the ol’ laptop and becoming reacquainted with the world that exists outside my imagination, but neither of those justifications are true – especially the first one, and not just because I don’t have a valid passport. I’ve been avoiding blank pages. When you’re a writer, an empty page beckons the same often unflattering reflection we sometimes try to avoid seeing in the mirror. I’ve been afraid of what might come crawling out in my prose when I Swiffered the cobwebs from my mind.

There’s so much I’ve wanted to say, but I couldn’t figure out why it felt so important that I say it, let alone how, when, or if I even should. That eager reluctance has felt like the kind of secret whisper you only hear when you hold a conch shell to your ear: it’s only as real as you want it to be. Since about February I’ve felt numbed by a cocktail of ambition, restlessness, confusion, fear, and acquiescence. It isn’t the result of any specific event but rather the symptoms of what has become my own personal Blue Period; only I’m not sure how the Old Guitarist at the end of the tunnel is going to manifest itself yet. As profoundly lonely as it feels sometimes, I know many of my friends are experiencing the same thing to varying degrees, and being privy to our distressed group messages is what ultimately convinced me that — for better or worse — I needed to face the blank page again.

whackamole2Have you ever heard a cliché or a pathetic stereotype and swore up and down it would never apply to you or be relevant in your life? Maybe you turned into the dreaded bridezilla you swore you’d never be or moved into your parent’s basement even though your métier isn’t instigating arguments on Internet comment threads. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it’s only a matter of time. Life makes arbitrary hypocrites out of us all sooner or later. In my case, I’ve become that twenty-something who freaks out about the future every 32 seconds, questions everything she does, scrutinizes every decision made since high school graduation, alternates between feeling like a failure but also enjoying moderate success, and feels like the notion of “enough” doesn’t exist anymore. Basically, I’m a living episode of Girls but with less nipples and no Jessa.

I’ve heard about the concept of a quarter-life crisis. I laughed at how overdramatic was while glibly Instagramming memes about the struggles of being a functioning adult. The quarter-life crisis was just one of those silly Millennial things that the finger-wagging generations would deem self-indulgent and whiny. Like so many other things in life, I assumed it could be real to some people, but it wouldn’t define my experience. I was Fine – some days even Good – until something changed.

For literary purposes, I’d like to blame it on Vitamin C – not what’s in your OJ – the forgotten singer who sang that graduation song that made you cry for a week in high school. I was in my car listening to the radio and pretending I was filming a music video when that crucial track I lost during the Napster collapse started playing. Hearing songs you haven’t heard in a while feels a lot like running into a college acquaintance in the greeting card aisle in Target: just on the cusp of warm and fuzzy and not entirely unwelcome. I was broodily tapping my finger on the steering wheel until I heard the line,

Where we’re gonna be when we turn 25.

whackamole3This cosmic reminder (it was satellite radio, ba-dum tish) abruptly made me realize that I’ll be 25 this year (in less than a few days now), and it feels like I’m still sitting in the driveway of life waiting for my GPS to get satellite reception and give me directions. In truth, I’ve suffered this solemn birthday looming on the horizon since pinning up the 2015 calendar. I’ve never considered myself the kind of person who measures accomplishments by age or who fears getting older, but my reluctance to celebrate this birthday made me realize that 25 is the first age milestone that we really define for ourselves; all the prior “big” birthdays have their “you’re where you’re supposed to be at this age” templates built in.

At 16, you get your license and start driving your friends to the mall. At 18, you start reminding your parent(s) ad nauseam that you’re an adult now. At 21, you ordered alcohol and flashed your ID like an agent for the Bureau of Future Hangovers. By 25, there aren’t any major milestones left that are specifically tied to your age, aside from the ones your naïve, younger self decided long ago for an obscure third grade project about being a grown up. Perhaps the rental car industry realized this deficit long before me and figured there’s no better way to remedy an existential crisis than granting someone permission to use a rental car.

That renting a car is elevated to milestone status for 25-year-olds should sum up the sorrow of being this age.

It starts becoming clear in your mid-20s that your life truly belongs to you now. The conjectural standard of measurement we’ve been using all along to quantify our progress is gone, like we’ve been exiled to a new country where our old achievements have no value, so we’re wandering around with potential in our pockets trying to re-establish our worth in the world. And because we’re simultaneously tech-savvy, pop culture-minded, and seeking affirmation all at the same time, we raise the bar for ourselves even higher than it was set when we proclaimed in elementary school that by 25 we’d boast a net worth of 32 million dollars, have a full zoo in our backyard, and eat candy for breakfast before we die of old age.

We combine our most damaging perceived inadequacies with what we see on social media to construct this elaborate Place where we should be in our lives, and its criteria for entry are so specific and conflicting it’s no wonder we can’t sleep. We need to be engaged but also married and maybe have a child already but we should also enjoy being young responsibly and we should definitely have a nice place to live of our own but only if we can afford it but we also can’t have any debt and we obviously need to be in a great career that won’t tip the scales of the work/life balance too aggressively but we also should be entrepreneurial and chasing our dreams and being bosses and having meaningful hobbies and maybe eating clean but also maybe eating fries and watching Netflix and going to bars and maybe drinking craft beers but also being very mature and having an adult wardrobe and definitely having nice things like maybe a reliable car and money for frequent vacations. It’s chaos, and on some level I think we all know that, but that doesn’t make it feel any less real or urgent.

I wish there was one supreme analogy that perfectly articulated how it feels to waver between self-doubt and conviction, but it’s so mutable and nuanced that it feels a little bit different every day, like a virus red rovering its way through your strongest defenses. By no means am I the arbiter of all quarter-life crises sufferers, but I generally dither between two outlooks.

When walking in downtown Chicago the skyscrapers cast long shadows that stretch across the street and sidewalk, but in between there are lapses of glorious sunlight, the kind that makes you smile and squint like when you think you see an old friend from far away. There are days, moments, seconds when it feels like I’m walking in those shadows with the foreboding architecture swallowing me whole with its stony shade. Those are the spells when the checked items on my to-do list seem too few and the straws I’m grasping at are too many. But then there are the sunlight moments when I’m soaked with the golden glow of possibility and the warmth only pride can kindle. This feeling of shade and sunlight goes in and out as unpredictably as a shaky hand tuning an old radio.

whackamole4Other days it feels like a non-stop game of Whack-A-Mole. The realization that there’s a hair growing on my chin pops up and I barely beat it back down in time to squash the awareness that my career isn’t progressing the way I expected and so I hammer that into submission just in time to remember something I did wrong in 2009 that could have possibly changed my life but probably wouldn’t have but possibly could have and then something reminds me of that chin hair and work and what about starting a family???? And then it’s calm for a minute, and just when I’m on the cusp of accepting the moles like someone whose insurance doesn’t cover dermatology, the formidable retirement mole pokes out reminding me that I’ll probably be a financial burden on the kids I don’t even have yet along with my then aging mother, and so I pick my hammer back up and go to town on those nagging moles Thor style.

I’ve got nearly 25 years and two solid analogies here, and still no real lesson I can impart on how to live with this feeling or how to make it go away. I’ve given myself too many unsuccessful pep talks, and I’ve been the benefactor of many, “You’re being too hard on yourself”s, but I know the economy of talk when it comes to this subject. You want results. A foolproof plan. A marvelous sign that you’re doing the right things. And yet you know that doesn’t exist, and not just because someone’s hiding life’s treasure map from you, it’s because the ink hasn’t dried.

I know I’m a jerk for making you read all this without coming up with a better ending, but how could I possibly wrap everything up neatly when it isn’t over yet? All I can do is tell you what I’ve chosen to believe, and you can decide if it’s worth its salt in idealism or naiveté. Maybe that desperate searching feeling – whether it hits you at 25 or 55 – is just the plate tectonics of your life shifting around before you know what they’re going to create. There might be some fault lines and uncharted territory as a result, but maybe your circumstances, choices, and mistakes have all banded together to create a new adventure for you. It might be scary at first to be careening off in a new direction without a compass, but maybe it’s all going to end up all right somehow, and not just because that’s what people say to explain the horrible uncertainty of being an adult, but because you have a history of ending up all right.

Keep going. Keep working. Keep keeping.

While you’re embracing that mantra in a profoundly graceful way, I’ll be over here getting embarrassingly sweaty from clobbering metaphorical moles.

19 thoughts on “How A Quarter-Life Crisis Feels A Lot Like Whack-A-Mole

  1. Oh, I’m so very with you on the avoiding the blank page because who knows what’s going to come out bit. It’s been months since I’ve posted, and I’m halfway through a post along similar lines but I’ve been avoiding the drafts folder since I started it… 25 was awesome for me but 30 is being less than kind, everyone gets it differently as you say… blasted plate tectonics. Kudos to you for getting it out there!

    1. Thanks! And I hope you finish your post soon. It will feel like a weight has been lifted to get it out of your system/out of your drafts.

  2. I think you’ve already whacked a pretty satisfying mole (so to speak) with even writing this. It’s rather profound and utterly true. It’s amazing when you’re a few years younger and think you won’t end up stuck somewhere, and then you do – and then you spend time wallowing in it before taking a step back to realize that you’re still doing a pretty awesome thing for your age even if it’s not “the dream”. I need to and want to start writing again, personally, and reading this helped me to think about it more. I’ve been away for awhile too, and it doesn’t help to leave all the words inside. I am turning 26 this month (which feels somewhat worse than 25, oddly enough) but ultimately I guess we’ve got to remember that in the grand scheme of things, we really are still rather young and we have plenty of things left to do. There’s time. 🙂

  3. Just keep breathing. You’re doing fine.

    For what it’s worth, and knowing that Your Mileage May Vary, for myself I remember very clearly when all that stuff first hit me, right after graduating from college and realizing that, from that point forward, whether or not I managed to make a good show of anything was all on me. I had bouts of it in my 20s that were particularly intense and hard to struggle through, and again more recently in my 40s (that cliche about the midlife crisis is embarrassingly true – but I take comfort in knowing that it really is pretty universal, and I’m not the only one floundering around). But if I’m going to be truly honest about this, I’ve never really stopped going through what you’re going through. I feel like the essential nature of life is that we’re all struggling to get a sense of things, and periodically we do and it’s all fantastic – but inevitably, things change, and we have a whole new everything to figure out all over again. So I think the trick isn’t to get through this. The trick is to learn how to be (relatively) comfortable living in the middle of all those feelings, and to learn how to roll with them, learn what you can from them, and let the rest go. And I think it takes most of us most of our lives to figure this out.

    The point here is that you’re doing fine. This will probably not be the last time you have to deal with this – if you’re challenging yourself, it won’t be. Take comfort in the fact that in muddling through, you are learning how to muddle through. The great thing about being in a place of huge uncertainty is that it’s also a place where you have a wealth of options and choices, and anything is possible. It’s a blessing, albeit a difficult one, if you look at it that way.

    Keep on keeping on. And thanks for sharing this post. It helps all of us to know we’re not alone in this stuff. 🙂

  4. You just nailed what it feels like to be 25. Something I’ve been struggling to articulate to the people closest to me. Like crippling opportunity?

  5. This right here is perfect. All the chaos and confusion of becoming a full-fledged adult, with all it’s adulty pressures summed up in one analogy filled post.
    Now excuse me, it’s been 32 seconds since I last panicked about my entire existence! haha

  6. So funny and so true. My mid life crisis waited until I was 30 to crack me over the head. Don’t know whether that made mine easier or harder (I’d say harder because, technically, you’re five years closer to inevitable death and decrepitude) but yeah, here’s another “don’t be so hard on yourself”. You’re welcome (don’t hate me).

    1. I think it’s hard no matter when it happens, but probably difficult for different reasons. Now it’s a thing of fear and feeling suffocated by opportunity, but later in life I’m sure it feels more like wanting to grasp hold of things before they get away.

  7. I’m almost 27 and I’ve never felt like this. This could be because I’m still in college. For me, things happened differently. I didn’t get my license until I was 25, and I didn’t go out drinking when I turned 21 (I did it in high school). My timeline is a lot different from most, but I wouldn’t have it any other way because now, I know what kind of person I want to be. I had time to think.

    1. It’s great that you have such a strong sense of who you are and what you want. I’m sure the timeline differs for everyone, but I think for a lot of people who went through the motions in life (high school, college, entry level job, etc.) it seems to really explode in the mid-20s.

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