How am I supposed to move on and like build a life or whatever when I never really thought I would? I spent so long dealing with a variety of mental health shit, but now that I’m mostly better I have absolutely no idea where i’m supposed to go from here. like, you mean I’m not supposed to throw all my energy into self destructing and burning down everything that could be good at every minor inconvenience?? can’t relate. i’m in my mid twenties and i’ve never been in a real relationship with anyone, let alone a girl, and i have no idea what i’m doing or even what i even want, in large part because i never envisioned a future where i wasn’t actively self-sabotaging. i know it’s ridiculous, and i’m glad i’m not in that place anymore, but at least i had a sense of mission then. now i just have…the rest of my life? and no idea how to approach that?
This is a series of great questions, friend. The fact that you’re able to ask these things — the fact that you’re able to say, “I dove into my mental health stuff, pinpointing and addressing the reasons I’ve been self-sabotaging” — is a rare and wonderful gift you’ve given yourself. Most people never do that hard and painful work, so take a minute to appreciate the fact that you did. You deserve to stand still and enjoy some deep breaths and be proud of yourself. Usually humans figure out what they want to do and then find themselves in a crisis about who they are. You’ve done it the opposite way, and I think you’re going to discover what a good decision that was.
These questions are also great because a lot of queer people feel this thing you’re describing, this sense of being unmoored or aimless or overwhelmed with the prospect of living adult lives we — unlike our cis, straight peers — never imagined. Because our community struggles with higher rates of depression than the general population; because we haven’t historically had role models in books and TV shows and movies to show us the way; because political parties and religions have consistently scapegoated us and tried to take away our civil rights by distorting or erasing our stories; because we didn’t have a chance to test out our futures playing make-believe as kids or a chance to talk out our futures with our parents or pals or guidance counselors, for fear of seeming weird or because we didn’t even know queer adulthood could exist.
What you’re feeling is perfectly normal, is what I’m saying.
Now your choices are seemingly infinite and you don’t know what to do. That’s normal, too! Have you ever watched Top Chef (or any cooking show)? Give ’em a challenge like “Make a dessert with this lemon, bok choy, blue cheese, and shoelaces,” or “Craft a soup based on an Emily Dickinson poem” and in 30 minutes they put together a dish that has the judges in raptures. But turn these world class chefs loose in the kitchen and tell them to cook anything they want, and they go berserk. They bake inedible Rösti and then cry into the camera about how they’ve never even eaten a potato, or they try using liquid nitrogen to cook spaghetti, or they forget to turn on the oven. There’s science behind that. Psychologists call it “overchoice” and it means the more options we have available to us the more stressed out we get because we’re incapable of processing all the potential risks and outcomes from an endless cacophony of possibilities. The anxiety caused by overchoice is even more debilitating when we perceive a time limit on our decisions. (Really, I one time saw a James Beard Award-winning chef serve Padma Lakshmi a raw egg cracked into a bowl.)
I sense from your question, in which you mention your age as a barrier to planning your future, that you’re feeling that time crunch. I have good news: You’re doing that to yourself! There’s actually no cosmic clock counting down the time you have left to meet a girl, fall in love, and commit your lives to each other. The minutes aren’t melting away for you to choose a career or a college or a city to live in. That’s some straight people nonsense. You’re only in your mid-20s and you’ve already discovered the major source of your internal strife and you’re already dealing with it. You’re actually way ahead of the game. So tell that tick-tocking in the back of your mind to cut it out; it’s an imaginary sound.
Now. The fact that you’ve already done so much work on yourself probably means you know a lot about who you are and what brings you joy and what makes you feel miserable inside. Using those parameters you can start narrowing down your choices. If you know you don’t like root vegetables, don’t make gingered carrots to serve to the judges, for example. Do you need lots of sunshine and nature to feel sustained in your soul? Well, you’re not moving to London. Do you need to be surrounded by people in an office all day to feel sane? Well, you’re not becoming a freelance artist. What do you like to do? What do you not like to do? What are you good at? What do you want to be better at? What makes you happy? Really, truly, incandescently happy? The truth is, the world is not your oyster. The possibilities in front of you aren’t endless. And that’s a good thing! You just need to tell yourself the things you already know and then take one step toward those things, and then one more step, and then another. You don’t have to sit down in front of your Passion Planner today and mind-map a plan to orbit Saturn. If you want to orbit Saturn, take one step toward getting better at math and science.
And the same goes for dating. One step at a time. Figure out how you want to meet girls, figure out the kind of girls you want to meet. Maybe apps are a good choice for you: casual encounters without much emotional labor. Or maybe you’d rather look for someone in-person, say at an Autostraddle meet-up or a political rally or an event at a bookstore. Or something in between. Maybe you want to seek out an online space where people are enjoying each other’s company around a TV show or hobby or activism, and then just take it from there. Talking to people is so much easier when you already have a shared interest or core value in common. Yes, there are endless ways to meet girls in the world, but you know you and you know which of those ways best fits your life.
Sometimes it helps to hear another person’s story and so I will tell you mine: A couple of weeks ago I was walking downstairs and stopped short. My partner was sitting there, cute as kittens in her winter pajamas, playing a video game on the PlayStation we bought each other two Christmases ago, in a gorgeous vintage armchair we picked out together, in the living room of the beautiful new house we just moved into. Cat on the couch, cinnamon rolls in the oven. I was taking a break from my dream job here at Autostraddle to eat a late breakfast. The reason I stopped short is it took me by surprise, the realization that I never planned for any of this. I didn’t figure out I was gay until my mid-20s, didn’t have my first real girlfriend until later than that, and didn’t publish my first piece of writing — a blog post about The Golden Girls I wrote for an entire seventeen dollars — until I was 29. By the time I came out I thought it was too late for me, that the chance to have anything I actually really wanted had passed me by, that the world had moved on without me while I was crunching numbers in a cubicle and trying to disentangle myself from a confusing and toxic relationship. I was so wrong. Queer time moves differently than regular time; we’re on our own schedule; we exist outside the rigidity of the patriarchal space-time continuum. I just kept taking the smallest steps toward what I wanted and ten years later I’m exactly where I want to be with the person I’ll spend the rest of my life with.
Questions like these always call for Mary Oliver, and for you (like for me) I think it should be “Wild Geese.”
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.