What the Mentally Ill 20-Somethings Do
The insecurity hits when I least expect it.
I knew it would take me a while to adjust to post-grad life. I spent 20 years in school, eight of which were online. I didn’t have the social life people associate with college students living on campus. My life consisted of studying, more studying, and the occasional game of Dungeons & Dragons.
Post-grad life as a counselor-in-training is pretty cut and dry. Once you have your degree, you work for four years under the supervision of a full-fledged practitioner. Then, you have to pass your state’s licensing exam. Then, and only then, are you considered a therapist.
So, I started grad school with the understanding that the next decade or so of my life would belong to my profession. Some people can go from student to licensed practitioner in a little over five years, but with SMA, my body isn’t built for the nine-to-five, Monday through Friday life. I knew I’d have to take things slowly.
I had a plan. My brain likes plans, likes adhering to them. A decade is a long time, but I was going places. That was all I really cared about.
Then, things changed. My decision not to become a therapist wreaked havoc on my 10-year, 100-step plan. I was going to graduate in a little over a year; I no longer had to prepare for internships or licensure exams. I was more or less a free agent — and that terrified me.
I’m generally a self-aware person. It didn’t take me long to realize that graduating without a plan would kick my anxiety into overdrive. My mental health hinges on my level of productivity, so I approached post-grad life with a single-minded focus.
I needed to keep myself busy.
Then, 2020 happened, and the world went to hell in a handbasket.
I knew that post-grad life would be difficult. I knew I would feel insecure, aimless, uncertain, all the adjectives you associate with mentally ill 20-somethings. But I never could’ve anticipated how lost I’d feel, how thoroughly unmoored.
My dad tells me that I have enough on my plate. I don’t work full time — I don’t even work part time — but living with a chronic illness like SMA is no walk in the park. I’m not just “sick,” I’m in pain. I’m juggling everything from medical appointments to caregiving and treatments. I have a finite amount of energy, most of which goes to staying alive. What little I have left goes to things I love, like writing.
My dad tells me — in not so many words — to practice self-compassion. And he’s right. It’s not easy being a sick person in a healthy world. I want big things for myself, but there’s no point in letting my ambition run me into the ground.
Still, it’s hard. We grow up with these visions of adulthood — a partner, kids, a house in the suburbs with a dog and a vaguely competitive neighbor. We’re expected to chase the full-time job, the lifelong career, the formulaic education that ends with benefits and a pension. We’re taught that life isn’t life unless it looks like [insert stereotype here]. But life looks different for everyone.
Every day, I watch from the sidelines as people go about their lives. Meanwhile, I surf the internet. I write my book. I schedule appointments and wonder, idly, if my headaches are symptomatic of something else. I beat myself up, because I feel lazy, useless, a waste of space. When I tell this to my dad, he kisses my hair. Holds me tight. Reminds me, as he does once a month, that my life is hard. I have enough to worry about — I don’t need to pick up self-flagellation as a hobby.
Sometimes he gets through to me, sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes I write columns like these as a reminder — to myself, yes, but also to you. I look to my friends, who are wiser than me, who see our never-ending loop of biological needs as evidence that mundanity is important. I look to the poets, who are also wiser than me, who write about a “cherishing so deep” that they’re left speechless.
I am grateful for their wisdom. Just as I am grateful for this brief moment of mundanity.
It is life. And it is blessed.
“For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking, / I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those / wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve, / I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.” — Marie Howe, “What the Living Do”
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