Notes on a Quarter-Life Crisis

Notes on a Quarter-Life Crisis

I don’t really believe in predictable life crises. I don’t think there’s an alarm inside us set to go off at a predetermined age and make us go full-on Lester Burnham. But at a certain point, you have to admit that a setback is more than just that. You might have to do some real digging to get yourself out of this hole. A year and a half ago, I had a quarter-life crisis. If you read this step-by-step strategy guide — and with a little luck and determination — you can have one, too.

You think you have things figured out. You held on through almost six months of unemployment, and now you’ve finally got a new gig hawking bullshit nutritional supplements online, but at least you’re getting paid to write. You’re living with someone, and things are IKEA-furniture-perfect. You’re even on the masthead of a literary magazine. The odds may seem insurmountable, but don’t worry — a quarter-life crisis is still doable, even for you.

It really doesn’t matter why my relationship ended, other than I suppose that she initiated it. All breakups are variations on the same theme, and the only people they make sense to are the people who know the details already and don’t need to read about them. I had adopted her life as my own, shaping and whittling myself as needed to fit into her family and her circle of friends. I figured I had nothing left in Boston anymore. I had only stayed there for her — or so went the story — and now that all that was over, it followed that I should just pack up and move back home to Los Angeles, as my parents had been hoping I would since I finished college. I would stay with them for a nanosecond, then get a job in advertising, a dog, a hipster pad in Silver Lake, and laid all the time.

When I was sixteen and learning to drive, my dad more than once had to reach across and jerk the wheel to the left. I had ridden on this canyon road my entire life, but from the driver’s seat, it looked physically impossible for two cars to fit on it side by side. It was like trying to thread a needle with rope, and I edged closer to the right side to get as far away from the other cars as possible.

“Remember, the cars coming the other direction will probably get out of your way,” my dad told me. “The guardrail and the sheer rock face definitely won’t.”

My tendency to hug the right side was emblematic of how I have approached most things in life. I always choose the most certain uncertainty, even if it’s self-destructive. I would rather crash headfirst into an unmoving, ever-constant wall than throw myself into the churling frenzy of potential, unknown outcomes on the other side. Any number of things could have happened if I stayed in Boston — I could be miserable, I could be alone, I could have no choice but to live with insufferable strangers I met online in a shitty apartment somewhere. The expanse of possibilities was overwhelming, but if I moved back home, I knew exactly what I would find there. So I quit my job, entrusted all my possessions to the United States Postal Service, got on a plane, and swerved into the mountainside.

There was no question in my mind that I had made a mistake. I sobbed the first night back at my parents’ house — choking, retching gulps into the pillow that I wouldn’t have been able to stop even if I tried. I had lost one tiny thing that was important to me, and in response had thrown away everything good I had ever known.

I started keeping a journal, but I almost never left the house or did anything. I watched hour after hour of Netflix, because a violent, meth-infused New Mexico felt friendlier than my own life. I slept late and delayed taking a shower as long as I could every day. Constant distraction was what I was after, which usually took the form of making an elaborate cocktail at exactly five o’clock every day. With nothing to actually record, writing in the journal was just periodically lancing a wound to let the toxic buildup drain, keeping it from bursting:

I’m not sure if it’s even worth it to force myself to write here each day. I think it would just be variations of how sad and listless I feel. Even when I’m not actively feeling down, not actually moping and wallowing and all the rest, I am unable to find the motivation or impetus of any kind to do anything productive. It’s as if my pilot light has gone out, and there’s no way to get the fire started, no matter how much gas you give it.

This actually had very little to do with the breakup. That was the catalyst, but when I was occasionally able to hoist myself up out of the shit for a moment and focus on a source of my sadness (I hesitate to call it depression because I was never diagnosed as such), it had much more to do with where I was living. Without even realizing it, I had grown attached to Boston. For a long time, I felt no claim to it, as if at any moment someone could stop me on the street and expose me as an imposter. But now it seemed like home. I knew how things worked and what to expect from people there. Faced with what was looking like a lifetime in L.A., I despaired. I had never been especially fond of Southern California, nor had I ever felt the sense of ownership you should have about your hometown.

Of course, L.A. defies familiarity. Some cities lend themselves well to being gotten to know. But that infinite-headed hydra can hardly be thought of as resembling a single, cohesive city in any way but jurisdictionally. Without much effort at all, like liquid quickly filling every corner of an oddly shaped container, I had managed to become comfortable in la almendra — the central area of Madrid bordered by the M-30 and so named because of the vaguely almond-like shape that the highway traced — when I studied abroad there. And over the course of five years, I had assembled the discrete neighborhoods of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville like puzzle pieces, and I was confident that I could quickly orient myself if I were dropped anywhere in the vicinity.

But L.A. defies familiarity. You can learn your way around your little parcel of it, the collection of neighborhoods it has kindly offered up for you, but as soon as you feel like you might be getting comfortable, the city rotates around you like an orrery, and you suddenly find yourself staring down the barrel of a totally unfamiliar street where the sun seems to rise in the north and not so much set as extinguish itself without warning.

For whatever reason, I identified with Boston more than I ever had with L.A. I had begun to construct a life there, and although I initially built it using my ex as the primary structural support, over time I had unconsciously reinforced all the ancillary joists and beams so that even when she was removed, it could still stand. I didn’t realize this until it was too late, however. The way my proprietary brand of social anxiety has tended to manifest itself is that I’ve always assumed that I like other people more than they like me. But there’s nothing like the possibility of never seeing people again to encourage some honest reaffirming of personal connections. In the weeks before I left, I was more surprised than I should have been to discover that people actually cared that I was leaving. I had envisioned my world in Boston simply closing up over the hole I would leave, quickly healing without a scar. Instead, I was told I would be missed. I was told to come back. I was told — in a jubilant text message from my friend M. on the night the Red Sox won the World Series — that I had family there. This didn’t help my despondency, since it was just further evidence that I had been an idiot to think the only thing to do was move away. Initially, this resulted in a total stagnation: I couldn’t look for a job in L.A. because I was afraid of getting roped in and held fast by the city. That reluctance eventually hardened and crystallized into a firm determination to move back to Boston as soon as I could.

Everybody lies to themselves. Everybody denies themselves something, whether it’s a slice of cake after dinner or true happiness (which sometimes are one and the same). In my case, I had denied myself emotions. I could always come up with a reason why I wasn’t entitled to experience whatever it was I happened to be feeling. If I was stressed by work and needed a break so badly I thought I might die otherwise, I would look at everyone else in the office and say to myself, “See, they’re handling it just fine, and they have even more work than you do. You’re not allowed to feel stressed or overwhelmed.” When my soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend’s grandmother — an impossibly wonderful woman — died just before I left Boston, I didn’t give myself permission to feel grief of any kind, because I thought my girlfriend and her family had much more right than I did to mourn.

I lied to everybody when I moved, because I was embarrassed by what I was doing. Normal people don’t handle breakups like this, I thought. Smiling, I told my co-workers and even most of my friends that I was simply moving on to the next chapter in my life, going west in search of a bright, exciting future. I thought it was convincing, but I may have only been fooling myself.

Once I was back in L.A., my relative emotional inexperience made my depressive state utterly terrifying. I had never encountered such despair and such profound distaste for everything around me. It was the strongest emotion I ever remembered feeling in my life, and no matter how many reasons I came up with why I shouldn’t feel this way, I couldn’t pull myself out of it. I didn’t even want to be happy; I just wanted to go back to gliding across the surface of everything without ever having to dive in. Feeling nothing would have been immeasurably better than feeling this.

I had always been intrigued by the idea of therapy, passively curious to see what it was like and what it could do for me. At this point, though, professional help felt like an absolute necessity. Even in retrospect, I don’t think it’s too private to admit that. It’s absurd to expect people to handle everything life throws at them on their own. Even the handiest DIYers will call a plumber when there’s a jet of water screaming out from under the sink.

I was referred to Dr. F. by a friend of my mother’s. On the phone before our first meeting, she asked me if I would characterize what I was going through as a “crisis.” I had never thought about it that way, but I said yes.

She was a short East Coast intellectual-type, hoisted up on bright red, wedge-heeled Chuck Taylors that matched her geometric glasses. Her office had a vaguely Asian decor and looked out over the length of Wilshire Boulevard all the way to the ocean. Our evening sessions were punctuated by the sudden and brief electrification of the sky, illuminating the windows of an oceanside building in the distance so that it looked like the sun setting through the Parthenon.

I felt the need to perform for her, in a way — to demonstrate my eloquence and intellect. Our sessions were more like two colleagues discussing an unrelated case rather than doctor and patient. This was safe and familiar territory for me. I could think my way through emotions like an anthropologist studying human behavior, even though actually experiencing them was a different story. She pressed me repeatedly, though, asking me stereotypically how this or that made me feel. It took a long time for me to allow even a hint of emotion to seep out, and when I finally did, it was mostly anger and frustration.

Therapy forced me to think critically and observe everything I did and said. In some ways, it started to feel like literary analysis. I identified certain details, then collected more and more examples until I saw clear patterns emerging, themes reverberating through my life. There was a dissonance (and around that time I was incapable of saying that word without demonstratively tapping my knuckles together) between what I wanted for myself and the obligation I felt to my parents. They were never all that thrilled with the idea of me living in Boston, which is why moving back to L.A. had felt like the right thing to do. But I was having a hard time reconciling that sense of filial duty with my desire to live my own life and make my own decisions. It felt like I was reneging on a promise or not holding up my end of a bargain by wanting to live on the other side of the country.

Parents are always larger than life. Every child has to contend with two things: the parents — themselves and per se — and the construct of them that we build up over time in our own heads. Every time we are spoken to by them, there are really two voices, one real and one a distorted echo originating from within us. When I finally did start hashing this out with them, they couldn’t comprehend some of the ideas and conceptions — both imagined and inferred — that I ascribed to them. Words from a parent’s lips have a way of rooting themselves deep in the mind, and then growing unchecked into something far exceeding the original intention. I really did wonder if wanting to return to Boston made me an awful person. What truly loving son would even want to move so far from his family, let alone actually go through with it?

The more I continued to dig inside my brain, the more conflicts and dissonances (tap, tap) I started to find. These misconceptions had been there my entire life, never totally acknowledged, and now they had finally grown massive and present enough that they were bulging through the surface. My unconscious (or subconscious or sort-of-conscious) had become distended — hence the sudden crash of emotion, the pit of sadness I was still mired in. Just identifying this was a tremendous relief. The dissonance (tap, tap) could be resolved, could be balanced out, and I could even feel it beginning to equalize itself simply from having a spotlight shined on it.

This is all mental health is, or at least what it is for me: balancing the unique, warped sense of reality we each hold onto with the notion of reality generally agreed upon by the rest of the world. The process felt like the unknotting of a mass of fiercely snarled string inside me, gradually slackening into a looser and looser tangle, strands finally slipping freely here and there.

One consequence of this experience was that I spent a lot of time writing. In addition to the journal that I kept fairly regularly, I nearly tripled my publication credits. They were all thinkpieces — ephemeral, easily digestible micro-essays on trendy topics like introversion vs. extroversion, binge-watching television, the Amtrak writers’ residency, and how cool the pope was. I didn’t write much fiction strictly speaking, but all these pieces formed a sort of collective narrative, the creation of a world in which I was successful, productive, and well-adjusted. On paper and online, I was anything but sad and listless. I was racking up Twitter followers and getting acknowledgement that my work was landing somewhere. “It’s refreshing to read someone who can actually write worth a damn,” read an email from J., an editor who published one of my essays.

I say I didn’t write much fiction strictly speaking, but I did write 52,000 words of a novel — a mostly unusable but cathartic exercise in wish-fulfillment narrated by a millennial writer living in Boston in the summer of 2013. Writing it was a chance to inhabit that world of could’ve-beens and walk those streets again in my mind, envisioning life if I had stayed. The plot was anxious, neurotic, and wholly derivative.

But still, writing became an excellent defense against the darkness. Even though I wasn’t writing about my immediate experience outside my journal, the further I dug myself out of the pit, the more I started to historicize my life. I was living simultaneously in the present and seeing it retrospectively from some undefined point in the future — from this point right now, basically, the point at which I’m writing this essay. I didn’t know how or when I would get out of my situation, only that I eventually would, and I could imagine the way it would reverberate into the next stage of my life. I could imagine drawing on this time and turning it into something like this piece. I don’t know how I would have gotten through everything without focusing on that future creative release. Writers collect every pile of shit we ever step in so that someday we can sculpt it into a great monument to shit.

Like breakups, the actual details of recovery from a breakdown won’t mean much to anyone who wasn’t involved. Ultimately, these things just take time. In my case, it took eight months — almost to the day. It takes more than one pass to buff a scratch out of a hard surface. You have to go over it many times, and the same is true of smoothing out a self-defeating thought pattern. From the safety of my logical, emotionless bunker, I could easily understand what I needed to do, but it requires more than just comprehension to really internalize something and believe it.

To a certain extent, it was a lack of confidence that had driven me down this path in the first place — a lack of confidence in my own identity, which made me unsure of my ability to make decisions about my life. I had always defined myself in relation to other people. First I was my parents’ son, then I was my girlfriend’s boyfriend, then I went back to being my parents’ son again, all the while looking for other, lesser connections I could hang a piece of my life on. It sounds like absurdly cliched psychobabble, but I had never allowed myself to be just me — not a son, not a boyfriend, not an employee, not a member of some institution. I had subordinated my interests to the interests of the people I clung to, always while convincing myself that that was what I really wanted. The solution to my quarter-life crisis was finally understanding and accepting that I was entitled to agency in my life — something that seems so obvious, but that I had never before allowed myself.

Once I realized this, it was like suddenly discovering that this round thing in front of me could actually turn the car I was driving (to mix metaphors a bit). I started looking for work and making plans to move back to Boston, and there was a sense of white-hot possibility again. I was still driving straight in the same direction I’d been going since I arrived back in L.A., but that was only because I hadn’t yet come to an intersection where I could turn off. Even before I secured a job offer, it started to feel like a foregone conclusion that I would be moving back. From there, things dropped into place like gear teeth. Tickets were booked, a place to crash was arranged, and then I was there. As if nothing had ever happened, I was there — here.

It would be very easy for me to tuck this experience away in some hidden place and never talk about it again. I fell into a rhythm at my new job, found an apartment, and began speeding through a life that bore no obvious scars of what I’d gone through. From the other side, it’s even easier to look at the circumstances of my quarter-life crisis and be ashamed by it, to try and force it into perspective and beat myself up for managing to make such a dramatic mess out of a comparatively privileged and distinctly unfucked situation. But if we want to continue with our literary analysis, that would be just another example of that theme of not feeling entitled to my emotions. All I know is, for whatever reason, I was very sad for a long time — it was the lowest point in my life so far, and just because other people have been much, much lower, that doesn’t make my experience any less significant or painful for me.

There’s still a part of me that wonders whether it’s presumptuous to think my story even merits this many words. But if there’s one thing I learned from my crisis — one takeaway I can impart — it’s how essential it is to hear yourself. We cannot dismiss ourselves, first and foremost. If someone wants to judge me or shame me for not responding differently to the events in my life, I don’t care. Maybe writing all of this really has been just for me, then. But I now believe that nothing can be more valid than our own mental and emotional state. It’s possible to feel empathy for others’ experiences without holding my own life up for comparison and trimming my feelings to match proportionally. That’s why I’m not going to be embarrassed about what I went through, why I don’t feel the need to be cagey or lie outright about how I spent those eight months. If this is the perspective gained from quarter-life crises, then I strongly recommend having one. Get started today.


About the Author

Connor Ferguson's writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Punchnel's, Gargoyle Magazine, Prime Number Magazine, and other publications. He serves as editor of the tumBULLr and lives in Boston. Follow him on Twitter @csferguson.