my twenties: a review

“People tell you who they are, but we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be.”

This sentiment has been expressed in lots of different ways by lots of different people, but I first heard it from Don Draper, and it has resonated with me ever since. It might embarrass some other English majors to have one of their favorite quotes come from a television show, but this English major slash TV junkie is fine with it.

Listen, my twenties were terrible. And exciting. And then terrible again. And then exciting, but in a really, really terrible way. My friend Helen Jane would say that years 20-30 are everyone’s time to be stupid and crazy, and she’s right, but lord was I ever stupid and crazy.

  • I was in ten different monogamous relationships, three of them with people at least nine years older than myself.
  • I had three nervous breakdowns.
  • I got arrested.
  • I sort of broke up with one person twice.
  • I flirted briefly with alcoholism.
  • For three years, I hardly ever left the house.

I was kind to people who were cruel to me and cruel to people who were kind, and above all, I was unspeakably cruel to myself. I sat around waiting for my life to start, berating myself day and night for waiting for my life to start. I existed in a constant liminal state–between jobs, between relationships, between careers or goals. I convinced myself I wasn’t good enough for anything or anyone.

But mostly, the problem was the dating. I’m the child of parents who are both very straightforward and honest. They don’t manipulate people, they don’t say things they don’t mean, and they’ll own up when they’ve done something wrong. For those and other qualities I’ll always love them, but I went into the world somewhat unprepared for people who lack those qualities. I didn’t listen when people told me who they were, and I paid for it.

So this is what happened. I dated someone whose backpack made a loud CLUNK on the table whenever he came to stay at my house, indicating that he’d brought his gun over again. I dated someone I was afraid of, and the first time we broke up, I took him back because I was afraid of him. I dated someone who’d had a recent stint in a mental hospital, and we got drunk together every night. I dated someone whose son kicked my dog. I dated someone who found my email password and used it. I dated someone who made me change my locks.

The things that happened to me in my twenties make me feel like I’m different from other people. My friend J has dated lots, too. She said once that she has a hard time discussing her relationship issues with her close friend M, because M married someone she met in college and therefore doesn’t understand What It’s Like. And I get that, but I think J was referring to What It’s Like to be really lonely for a long time, and that’s not how I feel different.

I have never had much trouble with loneliness. I’ve always spent lots of time by myself, and can avoid feeling lonely even when single if I maintain some close friendships. The thing I miss most when single is having someone to whom I can tell really boring stories. Some asshole ran a stop sign on my way home from work! I read this article online about blah blah blah today. Tonight for dinner I ate a peanut butter and chocolate syrup sandwich. That sort of thing. But otherwise it’s not a huge problem.

I have a divorced friend who is currently single and looking for the right guy to be with. She gets upset when she talks about it sometimes, and again, I get that. But that particular longing, that “When will I find my someone?” feeling, isn’t one I’ve experienced much. Loneliness looks pretty bad when you’re comparing it to being with someone who is right for you, but compared to being with someone who is wrong for you, it’s fucking cake.

I feel different from other people because I think all that disastrous dating has made me a little, well, callused. Untrusting. And another word I can’t think of. It’s not introverted, because I’m pretty outgoing. It’s something that means that I don’t reach out to people emotionally like I used to, or that I let my inner life take priority over the needs of others. I don’t know if I ever believed in the idea of a Right Person for everyone, but I definitely don’t believe in it now.

I am in a relationship now, and have been for the past four years. He’s a wonderful guy, I love him lots, and I trust him nearly unconditionally. We live together, but we have no current plans to get married. Given everything I’ve been through, getting married feels like pushing my luck.

Soon after I turned 30, the turmoil of my twenties just sort of went away, like a calm after a drama hurricane. Part of that is due to my boyfriend, who is refreshingly easygoing and straightforward (and doesn’t have much of an internet presence, god bless him), but part of it is also due to getting older. Whatever was in me that made me do all the regrettable things I did in my twenties just isn’t there anymore, and I’m glad.

(I hate when people end their blog posts with questions for people to answer in the comments, but, uh, I really want to know if your twenties were as insane as mine.)

14 thoughts on “my twenties: a review

  1. Thank you so much for being inspired to post this today. I have been reading your blog since 2001 and I turn 30 tomorrow. I’ve spend the past 2 weeks examining my experiences in my 20’s (also unmarried with a plethora of disturbing stories and relationships) and comparing them to other people’s, contemplating that we all come out of our 20’s so different and in such different places; some of us knowing ‘What It’s Like’ and others, well, they just don’t. I think you have such a great way of verbalizing your thoughts and I was so happy to see this pop up in my email on the last day of my 20’s. Thank you!

      • yes, thank you alison for being such a strong and articulate voice for those of us that have an affinity for you. I hope you continue.
        I just did 4 years in Arizonas department of corrections for 3 dui’s. I used to post drunkenly on your site under “random reader”. I am sober now

  2. Omg, YES. For me it was from 18 to 28, when I met & married Jason. He is incredibly steady/straightforward & I love that about him. Marriage & kids works for us, but its not for everyone. And as a military wife, I actually do spend quite a bit of time alone & like you, it doesn’t bother me.

    But depression, hospitalizations, credit card debt, partying, crazy dieting, cocktail waitressing at some unsavory places, unhealthy relationships… Yes, I had it all.

    Erica & I once talked about how glad we were that smart phones, YouTube, etc weren’t around when we were in our early 20s. Because, boy, were we dumb was the conclusion we came to.

  3. “And another word I can’t think of. It’s not introverted, because I’m pretty outgoing. It’s something that means that I don’t reach out to people emotionally like I used to, or that I let my inner life take priority over the needs of others.”

    “Reserved” would probably do well here for the word you want.

    My twenties were nothing like yours. But then I’ve been thinking for the past couple years that in some sense, I’m just now, in my early forties, living through my twenties. Actually meeting new people, having unexpected and unplanned flings, not simply pining after unreachable people but actually having some kind of relationship that involves love and affection and bad choices and broken hearts. My advantage here is that I do know better, I do have perspective I wouldn’t have had in my twenties, so I can manage it better. My disadvantage is that it’s not any easier for coming twenty years late, and some aspects of being a foolish reckless twentysomething are much less tolerable when one is actually a forty something. (Hmm, autocorrect underlines “twentysomething” as a spelling error but automatically adds a space to “forty something”.)

    I think your experience in your twenties is quite common in the abstract (though of course unique to you in the specifics), and likewise that it’s common for things to improve once you get into your thirties. I know that one aspect of the twenties we shared is the waiting around for things to begin, and castigating oneself for the waiting, and not feeling good enough for anyone or anything. It wasn’t until I was 28 that I finally started making some of the sensible right moves to start a career I actually wanted, and once I stumbled into that my life improved greatly. Generally speaking my thirties started out already notably better than my twenties and just improved from there up until the last couple years, and when that started declining, it was as much due to the changing circumstances of the world (economy) as my own faults. And even as that slump happened in some areas, others, such as my social and dating life, improved.

    My forties so far could be better, but they could be a lot worse. And even if some of what I’m going through now is what I should’ve done in my twenties, I think I’m still better off to be facing that now, when I’m clearly better prepared than I was back then.

  4. Your early-mid twenties are supposed to be shitty, I think, like a kind of post-graduate hell following adolescence. Possibly it has something to do with myelination and other brain changes.

  5. In my adolescence I spent a lot of time fantasizing about what my 20s were going to be like. I thought it would be like advertising told me.

    Most of that pain in my 20s was from the difference from what I expected and the actual experience. Rejection, being broke and being ashamed of myself were the order of the day which led to some really stupid decisions.

    Thanks so much for sharing, lady.

  6. I love this and I’m so glad you wrote it. I woke my spouse up to read aloud to him the bit about:

    ” The thing I miss most when single is having someone to whom I can tell really boring stories. Some asshole ran a stop sign on my way home from work! I read this article online about blah blah blah today. Tonight for dinner I ate a peanut butter and chocolate syrup sandwich. That sort of thing. But otherwise it’s not a huge problem.”

    I still have a little over 2 years to go of my twenties. I think of my twenties as being “post-high school” since I was 19 when I graduated. I spent 5 years supporting a deadbeat parent, then went away to grad school. I spent so much time sobbing, being miserable, and feeling suicidal over having once again a close family member betray me after such a rough childhood. Then I sucked it up and went to grad school where I met my spouse. It still feels dream-like to be married and I wake up ever so often and think to myself, “WTF is going on, when will I wake up? Where did he come from?”

    I’ve only dated three people and I made this big leap into marriage less than two years after dating. I know the pivotal moment of when it happened though — during the worst moment of my life when someone I love more dearly than my own life and more than the combined worth of everyone else was killed. Through my own tears, I look up and he’s sobbing. He didn’t have to, but he was brought down to his knees with me while I wailed to a God that didn’t listen.

    In summary, I hope my thirties are better. I’m now in control of my life as much as anyone can be who is dependent on working for a living.

  7. You know, I confess to not really understanding what you meant about talking about the small stuff that happens to you on a daily basis, until I kind of broke up with a woman recently. Now I find myself possessed of all of these interesting Internet links and YouTube videos and Tumblr animated gifts, but I have no one to send them to, and I realize how empty my life is.

  8. I don’t know that my 20s sucked. But I know I made several really stupid decisions that affected me for a long time. And I know spent way too much time feeling like I wasn’t good enough or feeling like I wasn’t ______ enough for “insert good thing here” to happen to me. Then I turned 30 and my friends all got together and ate sushi with me and then they had me unwrap a blender they had all pitched in to buy me and I realized at that moment, that I wasn’t enjoying the life I was living. And I still need to be reminded of that now, but that realization really helped make me realize that I WAS lucky to have friends who would rather spend time eating sushi with me than doing anything else. I’m lucky and every time I start to feel sorry for myself, I try to think about all of the reasons I’m lucky. It helps keep some of the emotional vortex that I experienced frequently in my 20s at bay.

  9. My 20’s were definitely a little bit wild, as Karen eluded to earlier. I am SO glad I didn’t grow up posting it all to FB. I’m lucky that I made it through all the stupid stuff I did without any major, long-lasting issues (that I know of).

    I think everyone has to go through that kind of time to figure out who they are and what they want out of life. I have a girlfriend who got married at 20 years old then divorced in her late 20’s. Now she’s in her 30’s doing some of the same stuff I did in my 20’s. It’s just her time to figure it out.

  10. I liked my 20s. I miss them, I think. But all eras of my life after mid-college feel sort of the same. I don’t even know what year it is.

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