Everything I know about life, love and loss at 23

I’ve recently concluded that my least favourite question to be asked these days is, “What are you doing next?” This includes any variant of the question, such as the plans I must have for more education, a career and relationships.

I’ve started to answer these seemingly harmless queries with the same biting, sarcastic phrase: “That’s a great question.” I’ll follow this up with a joke about my not-so-secret fantasy to spend the foreseeable future sipping red wine at sunset in the foothills of Tuscany before coughing up plans for law school, a PhD and an aspiring career to somehow leave this world better than I found it (that last part is true).

With so much of my life ahead of me, it doesn’t escape me that I could do almost anything next. It’s only a four-letter word, but its meaning is anything but finite. It refers to deciding what to make for lunch in an hour as well as how many children I want one day – I’m thinking three.

I could pursue a full-time job and start my career. I could wander out to the striped green hammock in my backyard and nap in the sun until my skin flushes and burns. I could walk my dog or, more accurately, let her walk me. I could get in my car, drive to Cleveland, fall stupidly in love with a handsome electrician from a good family and not return. I could crack open my third Diet Coke of the day. I could sign up for LSAT prep. I could finally go to therapy. I could text the boy I can’t call my ex and say all the things I wanted to when I held my tongue last April. I could find a comfy spot on the floor and listen to Gracie Abrams until the sun goes down.

Or I could do absolutely nothing.

I realize knowing this should be comforting or even freeing, but for me, not having a plan is like teetering on the verge of a purgatory of purposelessness. I just completed a graduate degree, yet I have this near-crippling voice in my head that scolds me every day: you should be spending all your spare time searching for a full-time job. It’s time to climb the ladder. You’re not doing enough. What’s wrong with you? Don’t you want to be successful?

It feels almost shameful to admit, but as I watch friends and colleagues dig their heels in and get down to work, I realize my prospective career is not my priority. Because this whole career and money thing will work itself out in the end, right? I find myself far more perturbed by love, or in my case, the apparent absence of it. Don’t worry. I’m already rolling my eyes.

I am 23 years old, and I have never been in love. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve read Dolly Alderton’s memoir “Everything I Know About Love” three times and revere her reflection that she learned everything she knows about love from her long-term female friendships like scripture. I have the privilege of experiencing those rare long-term female friendships: a girl from preschool, one from the before-and-after school program in the first grade, one that sat across from me on the first day of middle school, her best friend that would eventually become one of mine and one from a blurry ski-trip to Mont Tremblant in my junior year.

To say I have loved and been loved by these women for most of my life feels simplistic, given they’ve made me who I am today – a total cliché, I know.

I am not blind to the people who love me, yet it always felt like I was missing out on something. I won’t point fingers or dismiss it as a sign of the times, but considering I have never been in love, the amount of time I’ve spent heartbroken is astounding. I’ll take the blame for some of that.

I have always let my emotions become all-consuming. It’s like the feeling of your heart plummeting into your stomach and the phantom weight settling on your chest is indisputable empirical evidence. I hold it up as proof: we never dated, but look at this ache. It must have meant something. It must have been worth it.

Over the past year, I’ve spent more time than I care to admit stuck on another “almost.”

All my friends believed that boy sucked the air out of the room, but to me, being around him felt like coming up for air. His fingers sourced my delusion, twisting through my hair, tracing the contours of my collarbones. I vindicated his indifference and saw real potential.

I know there are other men out there, probably kinder, certainly more mature, but I have the sound of our laughter at 3 a.m. and the scent of his body wash seared into my memory. I think we still exist somewhere in the past, drifting off to sleep in a dark room, sharing a single pillow, tracing the contours of a map poorly taped to the wall. I still don’t know how to put that down. I never wanted to.

With that, I’ve decided I hate the word “heartbroken” because how can someone you never dated break your heart?How dare anyone attach that word to the downfall of anything less than a committed relationship.

Real life is rarely that simple. You don’t always get tidy endings, clean getaways, closure and mature communication. Sometimes, heartbreak is choking out broken sentences, sobbing at 3 a.m. because he showed up uninvited to your friend’s birthday party five months after you last saw him, and the mere sight of him made you weak in the knees. It’s being left to wonder whether he even remembers all the moments you’ve tried so long to forget.

If being together is a prerequisite for heartbreak, then for the first time, I’m at a loss for words.

As I write this from my childhood bedroom, I find myself retreating in search of solace and guidance in the past.

I am nostalgic to a fault, never prepared for change, always returning to the David Foster Wallace quote, “Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it.”

In all honesty, I’m not sure I’ve ever truly let go of anything or anyone. I never throw away birthday cards, even from people I no longer know. I fill boxes in my closet with crafts from kindergarten, notes silently passed in the fourth period, seashells from far-off places I can’t remember the names of and anything else I’ve deemed sentimental enough to keep.

Now, new friends have moved away to different cities, old ones have returned home, and I find myself gripping the pages of our elementary school yearbook like it’s the Holy Bible. My childhood smiles up at me, and I wonder what they would think of us now. Would they be proud?

I flood the spaces of my mind with memories in an attempt to self-soothe, but the dreaded next-ness of it all is overwhelming. I don’t want to grow up. I don’t want to move on. I don’t want to figure out what’s next. I don’t want to fail. I don’t want to disappoint.

A few weeks ago, I reunited with those elementary school friends. We sat around a table and bridged decade-long gaps in each other’s timelines. Some of us are still in school. Others are working, travelling, lost, found or falling in love – falling in love with each other.

All I could think to myself was, this is rare, oh God, this is so rare. We’re all different now. We’ve all grown up. That boy I “dated” in Grade 8, the one I once thought put the stars in the sky, he’s a mechanic now. The indomitable class clown is an electrical engineer, and his best friend is on Bay Street.

A lot has changed, but thank God some things remained the same.

In those brief moments, we reminisced and rehashed old stories from graduation trips to false emigrations to New York City. I looked at the people around me and became certain of one thing: even if we never find ourselves here again, all existing no more than 10 minutes apart, our younger selves would be proud of us.

A few days ago, a friend (whose unapologetic intellect never fails to impress) offered a piece of timeless advice: aging is a privilege denied to many.

While I’d never claim that a single piece of perspective is a catchall remedy to the fears, anxiety and uncertainty associated with young adulthood, it’s a place to start.

“Next” is a privilege that’s coming, whether we like it or not. It may be messy, chaotic and unpredictable – void of tidy endings, clean getaways, closure and mature communication. “Next” demands introspection and cultivates unanticipated growth. While I have no ultimate antidote to offer for the ails of age, I am sure of one thing: there is a comfort to be found in the privilege of “next” and its infinite potential. When it comes, surround yourself with the people that love you. They will help you dampen the chaos.

About the author

Miriam Hanson

Miriam is a writer for Youth Mind. She is a graduate student at Western University studying political science and international relations. She has written for Women Quest with the Ontario Learning Development Foundation (OLDF), Sidebar with the Diversified Dispute Resolution Institute of Canada, and Feminism Unfiltered. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her planning her next trip itinerary. She’s happy to be back writing with the OLDF team this summer!

Miriam is a writer for Youth Mind. She is a graduate student at Western University studying political science and international relations. She has written for Women Quest with the Ontario Learning Development Foundation (OLDF), Sidebar with the Diversified Dispute Resolution Institute of Canada, and Feminism Unfiltered. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her planning her next trip itinerary. She’s happy to be back writing with the OLDF team this summer!

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