On being 21

Some people have their growing pains during their teen years. Angst, confusion, feeling lost and unsure in a world that you realize is much larger than you had been led to believe. New experiences that shape our identities. New knowledge that shapes our beliefs. Feeling scared, alone, and emotional.

She had her growing pains in her twenties. Up until that point she had been protected, supported, partly because of privilege. It wasn’t until she moved away and her perspectives were expanded at university that she realized how sheltered her life had been. She realized that unlike many of her peers, she had not had to experience pain, racism, poverty, divorce, mental illness, or death. There was never any particular circumstance which called for the expression of emotion and thus she had little experience in feeling emotion, and none in expressing it.

But then, she moved away and suddenly learnt about the world. This was her coming of age, her growing up. She learnt to think critically and unlike what she had been led to believe, adults did not have everything sorted out. They themselves did not hold all the answers and did not know for sure how best to manage a government or a relationship. The world and its problems were stripped bare. There was no more magic. In short, she experienced a grand disillusionment.

There were no more easy answers or set courses of action. She had not previously understood the autonomy of the human experience. There was too much choice – there were so many ways of living that she could choose; so many paths she could take.

Nothing was for certain, and stripped of her supportive family environment, she was forced into an independent way of life. Suddenly, all decisions were on her; she was solely responsible for her future. It was exciting, but also terrifying and utterly exhausting. To this, most adults will no doubt say – Get used to it! Suck it up! But being so sheltered and supported and then suddenly being told of make a life was a lot for her, perhaps too much too suddenly. She was starting from scratch and had no passion, purpose, or partner. She had never felt so alone, both because she had no friends, but also because, as she realized, the world was so large.

And as for emotion, she realized that she was someone who felt things very deeply, but through repression and lack of occasion, had never felt like she did then. The loneliness was like a fog that she couldn’t escape and it pervaded all activities of her life.

There was just too much uncertainty. She had no anchor in the world (like I said before, no particular pursuit and no partner), no control. So unconsciously, she began to regain a sense of control through her eating. She controlled – and restricted. Rules were set in place. Food was the reliable variable in her life; she could control it so absolutely. She found great comfort in the structure of her food routines in her otherwise unstructured life.

The eating disorder was also a way to cope with her new-found feelings; it was a distraction from the loneliness, sadness, and uncertainty. And of course, it further isolated her. Relationships were messy, she learnt; they could not be controlled (furthermore, she had not really learnt how to build them in the first place), so they were put aside.

An eating disorder begins so innocently; she was almost completely aware of beginning it; the rational side of her knew exactly what was going on. But like a snowball, the disordered part of the brain grows stronger every time it is listened to, and before long she was spiraling.

Parental intervention and therapy managed to stop that crisis. She learnt so much and hopefully that hurdle has been cleared for good. A very ugly growing pain, but from which she came out so much more resilient, self-aware, and self-accepting.

She is still just as lonely and still doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life. On the cusp of youth and adult. This is what it feels like to be young.

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