Ten-Year Anniversary of Adulthood

Image taken at the  Cooper Hewitt Museum .

Image taken at the Cooper Hewitt Museum.

This year I celebrated the ten-year anniversary of my official entry into adulthood. When I was 18 years old, 28 seemed much more than a decade away. Even a decade itself, the very idea of it, was so large, it was ungraspable. At 18, I could just barely remember backwards that far. 28 felt so far into the future as to be simply unfathomable. To me, there were too many steps in between where I was at 18, and where I would be at 28, to form expectations. Time is nebulous, and looking back now, from this previously-unimaginable vantage point, 18 seems shadowy, so far in the past. But also, somehow, clear, like it was just yesterday.

Legally, turning 18 means you’re now an adult. The transition is sudden, instantaneous, and supposedly complete. But that’s not the actual experience many young adults have. Extended adolescence, describing young adults less than eager (or ready) to fully cross the threshold from childhood to adulthood, is now a common term. Emerging adulthood is another term for those aged 18-29, a group of people who consistently describe their experience as feeling “in between”.

It’s a feeling I relate to. Standing here at the edge, at the end of extended adolescence/emerging adulthood and the beginning of unqualified adulthood, no wonder I feel like I’ve returned in some cyclical way to my 18th birthday. For a second time, I’m on the cusp of finally (and suddenly, instantaneously, completely) being a “grown up”.  In reality, I feel like a person with one foot on either side of an invisible line. I’m not quite any one thing: I’m not an adolescent, not a young adult, not an adult adult. This is a faint line I’m straddling, much less obvious than a wall you knock up against, less obstructable than a border with officers and checkpoints. It’s as delicate and ephemeral as a line drawn by finger in the sand right at the shorebreak. It’s transient, yes, but it’s here right now.  

In some ways, leading up to this milestone has felt more like regression than growth. Since life is nonlinear, that makes sense. For every step forward, there has been a setback. There has also been some inertia. Of course, there was growth, struggle, and stagnation in my life before adulthood, too. But before I turned 18, I couldn’t wait to reach adulthood, because I thought that something would switch on and suddenly I would have power. I would be fully in control of my own life. I would be able to make my own decisions about small things that felt so important, such as who to spend time with, what time to come home, when to eat. I would know what I wanted. I would have it all figured out and I would make life happen, rather than just be pulled along by it.

That’s not exactly how it turned out. In the past decade, I’ve felt just as new, inexperienced and  vulnerable as I did before 18. I’ve felt less confident in some ways, at some times, and more self-assured in others. I’ve learned that my parents are flawed people, and that’s ok (I also still roll my eyes at my mom if she says something I consider embarrassing). I now have years of professional experience on my resume and have been my own boss (I also still don’t have the patience to figure out my taxes, so I pay someone else to do them). I subscribe to a community-supported agriculture service and eat organic, local produce daily (I also just bought discounted candy at the chain drugstore across the street, and am eating it in bulk at 11 p.m.).

Many of the things, both big and small, that have happened in the ten years since I turned 18 were my choice, my opportunities, and my hard work. I read books that resonated within the deepest part of my being. I earned an undergraduate degree. I traveled to a few new countries. I partied at concerts and festivals and houses and clubs. I chose a life partner. I got into graduate school. I ate delicious food. I made new friends.

Many other things, both big and small, were completely out of my control. I got food poisoning. I was sexually assaulted and harassed. I lost my phone. I was mugged at knifepoint. I got into stupid fights with people I loved. I had a mouse in my apartment one summer. I fell down a stair and my ankle sprained. I would never have chosen these things to happen, and I wouldn’t choose to experience them again. But they have all gotten me to where I am today, to who I am today, and for that reason, I wouldn’t modify a thing.

Life requires change--it’s a non-negotiable condition--but growth requires effort. Life will continue to happen whether we engage with it or not. I like to imagine my progression so far through life as just that: progress.

Unlike a simple arrow pointing straight in one direction, my advancement from 18 to 28 has been multidirectional and multidimensional. I imagine it as a sphere, forming slowly but certainly from a messy, moving spiral. In and out, up and down, forward and back, often all at once. A spiral advances but also circles backs on itself myriad times. Individual strands shift toward wholeness.

Feeling caught in extended adolescence, approaching 30 while still feeling at times like a teen, means I am spiraling, but not in the usually-ascribed negative sense. This is spiral as cycle. Spiraling here means growing. Expanding and contracting, painful and pleasurable, exciting and boring, culminating in the creation of lasting strength and suppleness. Continuous movement creating a richer picture, a fuller life. I’m still picking up pieces along the way that make me more me.

Age is tricky, because it involves time, which is scientifically-proven to be relative (see: Einstein). Age is just one aspect of identity, but it’s the only one that is guaranteed to change, constantly, for every single one of us, over the courses of our lives. So if age is inherently inconstant and relative, if we can’t pin it down or experience it the same exact way as anyone else, then what is it? And what is it like to be within?

If nothing else, I’ve learned that reaching adulthood isn’t a milestone that has a definite, instantaneous, graspable beginning and end. By nature, it cannot. Despite what the legal system might claim, you don’t go to sleep a 17-year-old teen and wake up an 18-year-old adult. Similarly, I won’t soon go to sleep a 29-year-old emergent adult/extended adolescent and wake up a 30-year-old adult.

Just like with other identity factors, labeling a thing both empowers and limits it. Adolescence is a clinical word, a serious one, used rarely by those it names and often by those it is no longer inhabited by. Adolescence sounds sterile. Youth sounds more personal, even romantic, or perhaps accusatory. Either way, both words describe both a people and a period, at once confining to a specific range, and adding to the indefinability, the nebulousness inherent in an[y] age group. We need to name things to give them power (we cannot talk about what we have no words for) but the inherent danger of delineating something is the loss of nuance, of gray area, of possibility. Am I a twenty-something? An extended adolescent? An emergent adult? An adult? Does it matter? I am really asking! I’m not sure what the answer is, or whether it matters.

What I do know is that many of the things that have happened to me or that I have done in the decade between 18 and 28 could have happened when I was any age, really. The emergence of my adulthood wasn’t a necessary precondition. Plenty of children and elderly people (as well as adults and teens) are complex, confused, loved, abused, awarded, and on and on.

What else I know is that, paradoxically, none of the things that have happened to me, or that I have accomplished, could have occured for me at any other time. While life is nonlinear, some things need traction to progress. Development takes time. Repetition allows things to build, evolve, and process. Experiences can lead to trauma and setback but also to growth and ultimately, wisdom.

Many people don’t reckon with their own issues until much later in life, but I confronted them head-on (with a professional’s help, as well as meditation and journaling) after a severe bout of depression at age 19. The stereotype is students having their feminist awakening in college, but I didn’t read the feminist theorists and writers who would invigorate and inspire me until five years after I graduated college. Plenty of my friends got tattoos when they were teenagers, but I got my first in my twenties, when I finally read something so personally profound that I needed to have a visual reminder of it on me at all times. Plenty of children grow up reading superhero comic books, but it took until my twenties, seeing Wonder Woman on the big screen, for it to dawn on me: I can be strong, too. I can fight for what I believe in. Plenty of toddlers start martial arts before they start grade school, but I signed up for taekwondo in my twenties (yes, it was the week after I watched Wonder Woman). I went alone to my first class, terrified and self-conscious, but determined. I could not have done it a moment sooner, nor could I wait another second.   

When I was a kid, it felt like everything was out of my control, and being an adult seemed like a superpower. Adults could make their own choices, something I craved intensely. They could decide what to wear, what to eat, what to do, who to see. They seemed to defy the laws of nature, like when they drank coffee to wake up in the morning, or stayed up through the night on New Year’s Eve (despite my best effort, a glass of ice next to my bed to douse myself with if I felt sleep coming on, midnight eluded me for many years).

In the weeks before my 28th birthday, a melancholy thought struck: Janis Joplin, a hero to me during my teen years, had died at age 27. I saw my 28th birthday approaching and thought, She didn’t get to make it this far. To realize that I was about to live past the age of death of someone I never knew, but had loved deeply just the same, made me wholly sad, and unspeakably grateful. As I’ve aged, the simplest but most important thing I’ve learned is how much is outside of our control, even as adults: the past, the laws of physics, accidents, surprises, other people. This is the delight and tragedy and absurd experience that is life.

I’ve also learned that adults do have a special power, but it requires active participation. To harness it means not backing down when life comes up to meet you. Accepting the good with the bad with the just ok. It comes down to being authentic, to becoming who one is. Once you become you, you are unstoppable. It’s an amazing superpower, and one that you actually don’t need to become an adult to acquire; it just takes a different amount of time for every person to arrive.

Standing here at 28, stronger, more flexible, wiser, and still inexperienced in many ways, I can look forward to the next decade with slightly more knowledge than when I was 18, looking ten years ahead to 28. A decade now seems more tangible, more realistic; I can now easily imagine time slipping by in that increment. But late-thirties still seems so foreign to me that I really can’t imagine what it will be like. Time is still slippery that way, ungraspable to some extent, in both directions. I have more information now, even looking back in time, but I no longer inhabit those ages, so I’m observing from a distance. My current state colors how I see the past, present, and future, and that will change again as I continue. My vantagepoint will always be this kaleidoscopic view of shifting subjectivity. The scary part looking forward is the future’s inherent uncertainty, but the wonderful thing is that there is so much room for possibility when you advance without rigid expectations.

I know enough now to know that of course I can’t possibly know what will happen in the next ten years. The one thing I’m certain of is that the spiral of my life has circled back in on itself, and is ready to expand again. It will not stop; there is no end (until THE end, and even then, how can we be sure?). The certainty of labeling myself a child, an adolescent, or an adult, doesn’t matter to me as much, anymore. What really matters is being alive and engaged with this life that I have the privilege to experience. What matters is participation. Being a person. Just being me.