Next in a series about the changes people often face in their late twenties.
Annie has been one of my closest friends since college. She lights up my life and is probably tied with my partner for being the person who knows the highest number of mundane details about my day-to-day routine. And that’s saying something, because we live two time zones apart.
JS: Where were you when you turned 28?
AL: I was in Washington, DC working at a nonprofit and living downtown. And I remember having a meltdown on my birthday. [My partner, now husband] Marc and I were supposed to take the day off and that didn’t work out. I was really bummed as I walked to work, so I called our friends Beth and Jean, who were home and lived nearby, and said, “It’s my birthday. I don’t want to go to work.” And they said, “OMG, let’s go to breakfast at Juice Joint! And then we’ll go to the Arboretum and prance around!” Thankfully they were available, but the whole time I was with them, it was hard to be present. I was aware that something was going on that was making me unhappy about my birthday but I couldn’t put my finger on it. On the surface I was having fun with them, and I hadn’t gone to work, which had been my goal. But then I thought, “Maybe I feel guilty about skipping out on work,” so I went into the office.
It turned into a daylong mope session. I spent most of the day staring at my computer and remember almost crying to a friend over lunch. At the time, I didn’t really know why I was so upset. I had never said “$#&@ birthdays” before (except in the context of having to go out to a really expensive restaurant for a friend’s birthday); I had always loved my birthday. I enjoyed receiving presents and eating too much cake. It was a real blow when it wasn’t the “happy” day I had come to expect and I really spent the day caught up on the fact that it was a bad one. I didn’t have the capacity to think about the real reasons behind the meltdown.
Weeks after my birthday I was able to see that I was actually upset about turning 28 because I felt like I hadn’t accomplished enough in the way of work and personal interests. I liked my job but it didn’t feel like I had “made it” or achieved anything meaningful on some levels. I also realized that I had stopped pursuing my interests outside of work.
J: Do you remember what you did that night?
A: I can’t remember. I think Marc and I went out to dinner. I know I eventually felt better, but the day is what I remember. One day I’d like to put together a collection of essays from people in their 20s and 30s called “Adult-Sized Tantrums.” I’ve trademarked it, so don’t even think about stealing the name.
J: Can I ask what else was going on in your life at that time?
A: I felt a little bit stuck. I wanted to break free and do something that was going to stimulate me. I wanted to learn something new, do something new, be somewhere new. I tried to push myself but I just wasn’t doing anything. That was the struggle. Maybe, deep down, I thought something was just going to happen, but we all know that magical thinking doesn’t get you what you want.
I remember having a really good year following my 27th birthday. The previous fall and the end of 2010 were really positive. But as soon as the new year hit, I remember being really effected by the gloomy weather, I got sick, and I just felt like I couldn’t get back to that good place. After my 28th birthday in March, I continued to feel unsatisfied and stuck through April and into May. After that I started to feel better, but I don’t know what changed. I don’t recall a turning point so maybe there wasn’t one and it was about the process.
J: So who or what helped with that process? Or is there any advice you would share with someone who hasn’t been through a period like that and is facing one now?
A: Remember that once you start getting down on yourself about being emotional or not succeeding in the way that you had envisioned, that’s going to keep you down. It’s just going to create a vicious cycle where you’re upset by emotions that are completely normal. And if this is the Saturn transition that’s so tumultuous, you’ve got to acknowledge the tumult but keep moving forward and really stay forward, even when positivity feels ridiculous.
Just try to listen to people if they tell you you’re not alone, using friends, partners, and family to give you boosts of confidence. And do things that make you happy.
J: What were some things that made you happy?
A: Making plans to go out for activities and explore the city, and to go out to eat, and forcing myself to be social. Friends brought me such good energy. I started analyzing my life again. I had felt like there was nothing good about my life; I couldn’t see what was around me. So becoming more aware, being focused on the present, and not being so focused on the past or future: that may have been the key.
I still struggle with this question: “In 24 hours, if I have two really bad hours, does that make it a bad day?” I think old self would say ‘Yes. It was a horrible day.’ My new self would say you have to section things off. It was bad, but it wasn’t a bad day.
J: Do you feel close to those memories, or far from them?
A: I think about that birthday occasionally because I try to avoid letting myself feel like my life is meaningless or unfulfilled. It isn’t and it wasn’t at the time. Life isn’t black and white but sometimes I get caught thinking this way. I think I’ve done a good job of facing my emotions head-on since my 28th birthday because I didn’t repeat the meltdown on my 29th. I feel like I’ve achieved a grown-up gold star.
If I could, I would print this and cover it in dozens of gold stars and put this on Annie’s fridge. Thanks for sharing, friend.
One thing this series is teaching me over and over is that it’s fascinating how much you can learn about very close friends when you take the time and earn the trust to go into “interview mode” with them. Big thanks to everyone who has participated so far.
Photo of Annie and Beth (at the Arboretum on Annie’s birthday) by Jean Leconte.