Everything I Learned When I Was 24

Abo Ngalonkulu
Abo Ngalonkulu

Dear 24,

You’ve thrown me through a whirlpool, and we’ve only just met 4 months ago. We rushed into love. I believe that. Our crème de la crème, honeymoon of a phase, was merely ten days after we met, after my birthday, exactly 12pm midnight on New Years. Alcohol was involved, specifically bubbly (Prosecco, my damned weakness) and so I can’t say that my sentiments were genuine. But I loved you, 24, too soon.

And, it’s not entirely your fault. I was a kid, only 23, but I inevitably came to terms with you. I was excited—don’t get me wrong—but our puppy love has ended. And shit just got real.

The beginning of the New Year sparked traditional millennial-type goals of getting in shape, finding an “adult job” and worrying less about the concerns of other people, and instead focusing on me, my new 24-year-old self. And things have happened thus far in our relationship that I love and hate you for. But, it has made me who I am today.

At 12 years old, 12 years ago, I imagined myself a young professional; tall, beautiful, living in a metropolitan city, working odd-jobs on the side while pursuing my true passion in writing, acting and therapy; maybe combining the three and working as a narrative therapist (this idea, I don’t deny it, was definitely sparked and molded to fit my own dream from the movie Coyote Ugly (2000) But I still believe it to be true today.

Obviously, there are some things at 12 years old that you think-up and can’t change. Genetics, for instance, will forever keep me short, 5’2’’, and always under the shoulder when standing back-to-back with other people, measuring my height to theirs. So, I wasn’t too surprised that at 24 I was not the giraffe of my friend group.

But as far as living in a metropolitan city and working endless odd-jobs to finance expensive San Franciscan living such as rent, bills, more bills, writing classes, and occasional happy hour’s with friends to keep from being a hermit, I can say that while I am no longer head-over-heals for you, 24, I understand you more. And, I think we’ve found our happy medium.

I found myself in the beginning of the year working out every morning, eating only meat and avoiding bread, dairy, even lentils as the fad diet “paleo” suggested, working over 45 hours a week, volunteering with organizations that provide a small stipend, and buying overly expensive under eye cream to avoid “bags” from not sleeping and for fear of appearing older. I will make 24 my bitch, I thought to myself. 24 will not be a bad year.

I toasted to a good 12 months on New Years, and for several weeks after that dedicated myself to unrealistic, time-consuming ideals of who I would shape myself to be, unaware that I was actually taking away from who I am naturally becoming.

The honeymoon phase with you, 24, was undoubtedly a fun and interesting experience. I woke up early to exercise; meal prepped for the day to last me throughout my double-shift and went out to bars in the Mission with friends for birthdays, engagement parties and late-night yoga. It was one thing after the other, and I seemed to never get tired. But I loved the rush of having a full and constantly busy schedule. Looking at my calendar day-to-day, I felt that having no free time meant that I was building myself up to be a person with an adequate life resume. I was hitting every angle of progress. Working as a counselor during the day, cocktail waitressing at a restaurant at night to make quick money, taking writing classes on the weekend, and volunteering in my spare time seemed to fulfill every aspect of my life.

But then I crashed. And 24 hit me hard.

Like the first big fight with a lover who you found no fault in, 24 sucker-punched me in the stomach and I felt a panic attack that not only sucked the breath out of me, but also instilled a great sense of fear for the future. If 24 deceived me like this, how would 25 be? And 26? Would my mid-twenties inevitably be filled with increasing bouts of anxiety and stress?

In early March, I sat on the toilet at work, pretending to use the restroom (but, obviously, on my phone), reading on Facebook about a friend who was applying to Grad School to pursue creative writing after publishing her first book, and another friend who recently became a therapist, and another friend who just got back from South America on a Full Bright scholarship. What was everyone doing with their time? What were they doing with their 24?

I paused my scrolling through the Facebook feed and reality-checked myself. How pathetic, I thought. And looked around the blue-tiled bathroom as I sat on the cold toilet. The toilet paper needs to be replaced and there’s lint all over my black uniform. Meanwhile, Barbara Jean has published a book and Sarah Myers is a therapist; two things I want most.

I walked out of the restroom, sullen and confused. I ate a piece of Focaccia bread, paleo diet failed. And then all seemed to go downhill from there.

For two weeks I woke up past noon, too tired to do anything except reach across my bedside table and look through Instagram of all the happening and seemingly successful things my cohort of 24-year-olds were up to. Some posed next to friends at the beach, commenting “Finally a day off from the madness.” Others posted pictures of coffee mugs at a café with a book beside them, “reading and brushing up on my favorite author, while I work on my own art.” “Favorite.” There seemed to be meaning in everything people were doing. I sank lower and lower under the covers until I eventually fell asleep beneath the weight of three feather-downed pillows and woke to my cat scratching my foot for food. I fed her and went back to sleep.

24, you failed me. Or so I thought.

One morning while at work a client walked into the office and stated that he was leaving today and that he would like us to make sure he has all the medications he needs. The residential program I work at is voluntary, so of course we can’t force anyone to stay in our program if they don’t want to. All we can do is talk with them, convince them to stay, as it a benefit to their mental health and stability. Much of the clients I work with have a mental illness or substance issue they are working through, and so they come to our program to stabilize.

“Why don’t you just stay until your discharge date, so that you have more time to stabilize and think things through?” I asked.

“Because I’m rotting away here, I could be out in the sun and doing things other people are doing. I’m in here rotting”, the client countered. I know the feeling, I thought to myself.

Trying to convince him further, I realized I should use some of the same advice I was giving him with myself.

“Everyone will be doing anything and everything they want to do. The important thing is to make sure you are doing what you need to do. Perspectives and circumstance differs based on each individual person.” I said, talking to him and sort of talking to myself.

“Do you feel like you are in the right place, right now, working on you?”

The client ended up leaving that night. And so did I. I ended up leaving that night tossing that question around in my head.

Am I doing what I feel I need to be doing? No? Kind of?

If I think back to my 12-year-old self and my goal of being the writer and/or therapist that I want to be, I’d say no. I am spreading myself so thin across so many different activities that I can’t focus on what I like to do. And I am not giving myself the credit of doing all that I can do at the moment to pursue those things.

But, I do know this: I am doing all I can to be my best 24. I will go through periods of sporadic (and sometimes unnecessary) confusion, and that’s okay. I will feel free and like I am on the right path, and then with a flip of a coin, feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. And, that’s okay, too. 24 is not so bad; I can be in the sun, or writing a book, or acting, or trying to be a therapist, but right now I am sitting at an office desk ranting to Microsoft word about you, 24, and this is okay. 24 and I will be okay. TC mark

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