These are not my best years (the dark side of our teens and twenties)

This post was originally written for Post Grad Survival Guide.

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Most of the reasons people give for why your teenage years and twenties are the best part of life, in conversation and in the million Thought Catalog articles about this written by wealthy college kids who party every night, are based on idiotic, limiting beliefs that we continue to perpetuate.

If your entire conception of ‘fun’ revolves around binge drinking and galavanting around clubs, attempting to, as Jay McInerney put it, launch an attack on the citadel of good times, then discovering that you’re no longer able to do that and function at work the next day does indeed mean you’re too old to have fun. If you’ve expanded your awareness of what you enjoy, then you’re never too old to have fun. Fun is subjective.

If you believe that settling down to have kids is compulsory then yes, getting older means losing your total freedom. If you believe that the whole purpose of dating is to find your ‘soulmate’ and stay with them forever then yes, your teenage years and twenties may be your only time to date casually. If you understand that soulmates don’t exist, relationships are always evolving, and we can’t demand forever from someone, then that’s not true.

If you believe that smooth skin and thick, non-grey hair are the only indicators of beauty, a belief perpetuated by the same people trying to sell useless cures then yes, getting older makes you less attractive. Except, there is nothing intrinsically bad or wrong about the visible signs of ageing and the fact we believe that is disgusting, toxic bullshit. Do we stop loving our dogs when their muzzles grey, or our cats when they start losing their teeth? Of course not. Yet we get so hung up on extending the same courtesy to ourselves and each other.

If your entire identity revolves around being young then yes, getting old is hard. If you’ve diversified your identity to include things like, ya know, being a nice person and doing good work, then it’s just another step.

If you believe it’s possible to be too old to change your direction in life, quit a job, move to a new country, gain or lose your religion, date without intending to marry, learn a new skill, feel undecided, have a crisis, have an epiphany, travel, make friends or change your mind, then the problem is that belief. Not your age.

***

Anne Karpf writes in How To Age:

‘…what history shows us is that attitudes towards old people can and have changed…there’s nothing immutable or natural about them. The more we learn about the historical origins of ageism, the easier it is not to take it personally.’

The idea that your teenage years and twenties are the best part of life is a recent one. It’s also not universal — many cultures value maturity over youth.

And:

‘…all those former ages aren’t eviscerated by age but are enfolded inside them, like the rings in a tree trunk.

The realization that, as we age, we don’t have to be evicted from our predilections and passions, interests, and senses- indeed from our bodies whatever physical limitations we might experience; that we aren’t catapulted into a homogeneous category called old from which all traces of our prior identity have been expunged; that the zest for life can survive the inevitable curtailments and bereavements we suffer along the way — all this surely makes ageing a much less terrifying business.’

***

People say that this is the time to ‘figure yourself out’ or ‘discover who you are’or ‘get to know yourself.’

Except, our selves are not a puzzle to be solved. We’re always changing. Every minute of our lives.

There is nothing to figure out. There is no secret, buried identity to excavate.

If we believe that’s true — that we have a defined, fixed self that we just need to ‘find’ — then we end up limiting ourselves. You don’t discover what you want in life when you’re young. You discover what you want at that point in time, which will inevitably change.

When I was 10, all I wanted was to grow up to be a farmer and have a friendly black bull, a Dartmoor pony, a white horse, a lot of quails (they’re cooler than chickens), goats, an amicable ewe, a tame pet deer (my mum had one when she was a kid), and many, many dogs. When I was 12 I wanted to be Tavi Gevinson. When I was 13 I wanted to travel back in time and be the girl who nearly died mailing herself to The Beatles. When I was 15 I just wanted to be Joan Jett (my Tumblr handle was amijoanyett.) At 16 I wanted to be a journalist. These days I quite like what I do: a mixture of long-form essays, ghostwriting, content marketing, research projects, and managing platforms. One day, I would still like to have that farm. Who knows.

Our selves are fluid. We’re always figuring something else out.

 Me at 16, in full angst mode.

Me at 16, in full angst mode.

These are not my best years.

If I’m lucky enough to live beyond my twenties, I hope I never look back on now wistfully. I hope I will see this as a stage, instead of pining after it.

Maybe my case is different to the norm. Because I’ve mostly missed out on the good parts of being young. I don’t feel 21. I don’t particularly act it.

There were a few times this summer when I’d be on the train returning from my old office at 3am on a Sunday, pointlessly working overtime on projects that would get scrapped 9 times out of 10, and I’d watch the hordes of drunk passengers around my age laughing together, and cry on the walk home. Or the times when I was 19 and I’d call my best friend from the office before that at 10pm on a Friday because I hadn’t properly spoken to anyone for a week or more, and hear her getting ready to go out and wish I were doing the same.

At university I lived in damp, rat infested student accommodation with mould so thick you’d wake up to find it on your pillow. I never went out drinking once, because I was always too wrapped up in whatever I was writing.

At 19 I lived alone in a flat so small you could see every part of it from the door, with no kitchen, no shower, plaster falling off the walls, and a landlady who would let herself in and mess with stuff whenever she liked, without telling me. The electricity would cut out for days. So would the plumbing. It felt like an adventure at first. I’d sit on the wall outside and watch drug deals going down, or sex workers picking up clients. Then it got scary. And lonely.

At 20 I lived in a considerably better apartment by the beach, where the roof leaked when it rained, one neighbour had tear drop tattoos and was running a meth lab, and the other used to stand in the street waving her baby around and screaming that she was going to kill him. It was lonely.

Now that I’m 21…well, I’ll tell that story when I’m 22.

Throughout all that time I was intermittently depressed, frequently ill from exhaustion, painfully lonely, incessantly scared, and things got very dark a few times. I wouldn’t want to relive a minute of it. I didn’t want to be living it at the time.

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But I’m not alone in this. The people whose twenties and teens are a riotous, joyous rampage are the exception, not the rule. There’s no evidence that these are the happiest times. Research generally indicates that people get happier as they age.

The people I know in their forties, fifties, sixties and beyond appear considerably happier, more confident, more settled, and more self assured than those in their teens and twenties.

For a start, there are numerous social and biological reasons why being a teenager, or in your twenties, is unpleasant. Your brain and body are developing, becoming foreign objects you don’t quite understand. You’re forced to contend with new and uncomfortable aspects of your physical self. Your moods and emotions are ever-shifting and seemingly out of control.

This is the time when we typically start getting into relationships, unsupervised socialising, driving, drinking, drugs, smoking, travelling without family and the like. And if we don’t, we probably spend a lot of time feeling abnormal and somehow broken because of that.

The access to these new things creates whole spiralling other problems: addictions and dependencies, physical effects, breakups, injuries, pregnancies, getting lost. This is the time when, on top of everything else, we’re expected to make decisions that will have an outsized impact on the rest of our lives, despite the fact we’ve probably never been allowed to make any sort of big decision before.

***

Yes, the struggle is what makes us. Yes, life is meant to be hard. Yes, I don’t know what it’s like to get old.

‘Being grown up’, Susan Neiman writes in Why Grow Up?, ‘is widely accepted to be a matter of renouncing your hopes and dreams, accepting the limits of the reality you are given, and resigning yourself to a life that will be less adventurous, worthwhile and significant than you supposed when you began it.’ My point here is that this is a twisted perspective.

There is no best time in our lives. The pop culture image, the Instagram image of what it means to be young is not reality. Most people, like myself, spend their twenties thrashing around trying to stay afloat, not having a wild time.

To live is to age. What we do with that fact is up to us.