How To Grow Up Without Losing Who You Are

As I get older, many people have confessed to me that they feel a certain anxiety about what it means to mature. They’re the kind of conversations that usually happen late at night on a sidewalk, or after a few glasses of beer. This friend, or that coworker, will struggle in so many words to explain that despite leading a full life, despite the relief of being over her “angsty teenage years,” there is a vague sadness, a shapeless worry that creeps in the corners of her mind. It’s as though, in accepting the norms of adulthood, they are losing some integral part of themselves. The more fiery part. The part that could quit one’s job at a moment’s notice and run away with the love of your life. Feelings of success are tainted by images of the Corporate Zombie or Empty Housewife, enhanced by films like American Beauty and Fight Club.

I had one of these moments the other day. I heard this song that was completely overplayed when I was a teenager. It was one of those nostalgia-inducing tracks you listened to so much at the time that you almost can’t listen to it now, so steeped as it is in the hazy romanticism of a lost time. It unearthed all of these dusty feelings, like exposed buried treasure in a downpour of rain. I could almost smell the inside of my best friend’s old car, like sugary perfume and coffee and smoke. Could almost feel the painful joy of thinking we were free, for the first time, to drive away, and do things we’d never tell our mothers about.

betsy car

It made me think about the difference between then and now, and my potentially lost ability to be so intensely affected by music. Because during the time that that song was in my life, I was also “intensely affected” by everything: thirty-second conversations I had with crushes, long nights out with my best friend, the weekend that resulted in a nasty fight. It seemed, for some swath of time that flooded over childhood and eventually melted into whatever life is now, that everything was either traumatizing or euphoric, that every moment came with this urgent need to be discussed, felt, seen, tasted, tried. Those things people say, like “you’re only young once,” and “nothing feels like your first love” bled into everything we did, imbuing it with special meaning. Every small thing was approached with the sanctity of communion, because it was the first, the first, the first. It was like you could feel that you were in the first half of the “film of your life,” always just one scene away from that pivotal moment where “everything would happen.” 

They always said, “this too shall pass,” and it did. I don’t know when, or how, exactly, but at some point, the fever of youth subsided. Or maybe it diffused, into bigger causes. My story became part of bigger stories–one in which I am not always the main character, and one which is not filtered through a lens of softly glowing light. With the fading drama came less self-consciousness, less existential fear. I no longer feel the daily need to go home, crawl under the covers, and play “In Rainbows” on repeat.

And yet, the funny, almost twisted thing is that, no matter how happy and fulfilled I feel now, I sometimes miss those emo times. There’s that Gotye lyric, “you can be addicted to a certain kind of sadness.” I almost want to relive the time I felt at absolute rock bottom, just so I can go through the deliverance of rising out of it again. But I won’t. Momentous mistakes are like touching a hot stove. You couldn’t do it again if you wanted. Once the lesson is learned, the joy of making the mistake is lost forever.

There’s this beautiful Joni Mitchell line in “Both Sides Now” –

“But now old friends, they’re acting strange,
They shake their heads,
They tell me I’ve changed,
But something’s lost and something’s gained in living every day.”

Slaying and burying our youth evokes the strangest sort of grief. And yet no age will ever be fully lost to us because it will live inside of us forever, like Russian nesting dolls of identity. I’m still affected by moving music. It’s just no longer because I fancy it the soundtrack to some melodrama in which I’m both writer and actor, tragic hero and undiscovered love interest. As for the 16 year-old emo kid with no real freedom, and the 20 year-old party girl with too much, they will live inside of me, reminding me where I’ve come from. They’ll inform my opinions, and color my perceptions, but they’ll never again be given their time behind the wheel. That role is for my current self—a self that will someday be yet another memory I look back on with conflicted nostalgia. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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