You Need Help: What Should You Do With Your One Wild and Precious Life?

Q:

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?

A:

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.


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Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

Heather has written 681 articles for us.

62 Comments

  1. “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. ”

    Holy fucking shit, I needed to hear this.

  2. I mean, this was gorgeous advice before Heather used the phrase “queer time,” and included “Wild Gesse”! I just want to say, as a 34 year old queerbo who is still asking all kinds of questions about how to live, it is so true that you are not on some schedule and that you are way ahead of the game around self knowledge! Savor the not knowing as potential, try to reframe it as all these experiences you have stretched out ahead of you, opportunity instead of terrifying unknown. I say this to myself too because while I have a few more things in place, maybe, I still look around and wonder what the hell is happening and what comes next. And that’s ok.

  3. I needed this so badly.

    I had to leave my desk at work because I was tearing up. Every day I read something on this site that makes me so very grateful for its existence. Thank you, once again.

  4. This is beautiful, and although I did not write the question, I feel this was advice was written for me. I’ve dealt with a lot of mental health stuff in my late teens/early 20s, and I’m in a place where my basic functioning is not an ordeal. I have a full time job with benefits, and I have my theatre (even if I’m not making any money from it), and I have a (generally) beautiful life that I want to share with someone. I’ve gone from wanting a girlfriend out of loneliness to wanting a partner to share my life with. I want to have a family, and I want to continue to grow as a human being. Thanks Heather, and thanks person who asked the question. <3

  5. Thank you thank you thank you. This is perfect.

    When I was having a really hard time a few years ago, I couldn’t really do the emotional energy of keeping a journal, so I just wrote down quotes that spoke to me. I thought it was sort of a silly waste of time at the time, especially because so many of them were just from the internet, but I found it earlier this year and it was still so much of what I needed to hear. Also, a shocking (but also not-shocking) amount of the quotes were things from your Pretty Little Liars recaps, Heather. Just little tidbits of wisdom about life, feminism, trauma, and healing taken from among jokes about Tippi the Bird and face masks on face masks. Anyway, you’re great, this is great, I might resurrect my quotes notebook for some/all of this advice.

  6. thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you. oh my god, thank you.

    thank you for the permission to move slowly, to trust myself and most of all, for stopping time. time seems to be moving so quickly and i feel like my life is disappearing. when you say “Queer time moves differently than regular time; we’re on our own schedule; we exist outside the rigidity of the patriarchal space-time continuum.” it makes me feel like i can stop noticing the way my face is changing, or the way the world is moving forward without me. you made me realize i don’t need to move with that world, and that is a breath of fresh air.

    i want to be the geese flying home in the clean, blue air. you helped me feel like i could today.

  7. I’m so glad I saw this post this morning, I feel like I can relate so well to all of these questions.
    I’m turning 28 this weekend and my past few months have been a whirlwind. I quit my job of 4 years, moved away from the city I’d been in since I started college, took a 2 month cross country road trip, finally started coming out to my close friends, and now I’m moving across the country in January. And it’s all happened in less than a year. So much of this time was spent trying to figure myself out and try to decide what I wanted my life to look like, and it just made me feel overwhelmed by the options of what to do for a job, where to move, how to be out, etc. I’m trying to take one step at a time, and now that I at least have the “where to live” question settled it’s a little better.
    I loved your point Heather about queer time moving differently. It’s definitely something I needed to hear. I feel like I’ve been essentially rebooting my life this year and when I compare myself to my straight friends that are all getting engaged or in a serious relationship, with no intentions of ever moving from their current area or changing jobs, I feel so behind. But now thinking about how much I’ve learned about myself this year and how excited I am for a new city and to start embracing my queer identity, maybe I’m not so behind after all.
    So thank you Heather and thank you whoever sent in this question!

  8. Amazing advice.

    As a 40-something queer, I can say that back in 20s I felt simythings. Decades later, I wish I’d given myself time to find things out- rather than figure them out. It’s a fine line, I know. What I’m trying to get at– is the same thing Heather is saying– there’s no rush.

    And when you’re older, I doubt you’ll regret time spent exploring and growing rather than being “certified.”

  9. THANK YOU HONESTLY. I needed this. I especially needed this because…well, my life was going the way I wanted it to go for the most part (despite not coping well AT ALL with mental illness) aaaaaand then the rest of my body decided to give up the goat. And it shouldn’t have been surprising because I had been such a walking immunological timebomb that we used to joke that our last dog went and got herself a rare autoimmune disease (and like when I say rare I mean rare; a researcher into the canine form of her disease had never heard of a dog of her breed having it before) because she needed to really FIT IN with the family. But it’s really derailed my plans…because I am no longer capable of doing the things I wanted, and I’m left with this combination of “I have too many choices” and “I have no options” seemingly at the same time, and it’s also like when you can’t think of a word but your brain gets stuck on a word you know is wrong, and here’s my brain stuck on a version of the life that isn’t possible anymore–and most of the time it’s not like I’m bitter or anything, it’s just frustrating that my brain is just STUCK with that vision of the future like a skipping CD and it can’t move on to a future that is possible and that gets a little frustrating because…yeah, having a long-term goal beyond my next doctor’s appointment to move forward towards would be nice.

    It’s just nice to have that reminder that I don’t need to Figure It Out right now (even if some people think that’s both that easy to do and what I should do right now).

    • I can really relate to this. My autoimmune disease makes planning or envisioning the future so overwhelming. The part you said about getting stuck on a version of life that’s not possible anymore… me completely.

  10. Heather please stop writing things that make me cry. (Not really).
    I feel like I am floundering at the moment and I don’t know if I want a relationship. I need to process how a feel about an old long term relationship/civil partnership that ended a few years ago, ending a shorter relationship recently has made me question everything and I feel like I have regressed but I think I am being too hard on myself to have all the answers.

  11. This is so, so perfect. And so true. I can vouch for the straight people time thing; I’m married to a guy and pregnant with my second kid, which I prioritized because I wanted another kid and am getting older and straight people time is a real true thing (even though I am not straight, I’m living the life in a lot of ways).

    You are young. I’m well over 10 years older and honestly I am young. I know people who came out in their 40s and are having a great time. There’s so much life to be lived.

  12. I heard the phrase “queer time” for the first time at A-Camp 3 years ago. I had just finished college, had exactly zero romantic experience of any kind, was pretty depressed, and overwhelmed by the uncertainty of my life. A panelist said something along the lines of what Heather wrote here said, “You’re allowed to take the time you need.” And I decided to trust that, even though I mostly believed that it was far too late for me to ever experience a romantic relationship or true happiness. I was too far behind in gaining relationship experience, so no one would ever love me and I would have to pick up a love of cats if I didn’t want to die completely alone. And now, 3 years later, I’m sitting at my desk at work crying because I have a stable job I enjoy, a girlfriend I love more than anything, and I’m living life that I was sure was impossible not long ago. I’m picturing a future for myself that I could never see before.

    It’s never, ever too late. You can take the time you need. There’s a beautiful life out there waiting just for you, even if you can’t see it yet.

  13. My name is Heather too and I owe a debt of gratitude to whoever posed the question. It’s like I could had written it myself.

    The response itself is poetic and beautiful and resonates with me so much. Also is it weird that a Mary Oliver book I ordered just happened to arrive today?!

    Here’s to the seekers, the killing of clocks and of course, the Heathers 🙂

  14. Oh, I love this, and I so needed this. Today is my 29th birthday and I’m knee-deep in finals for my first semester of law school. Most of my classmates are 24-25 and it’s so hard sometimes to remember that I’m not falling behind in my life just because most of my classmates were in high school when I graduated from college. I’ve been single for a few years, without much queer community IRL, and sometimes that makes me feel like I’m falling behind too. It helps to be reminded that there’s no flashing clock hanging above my head. I’m figuring out who I want to be, and how I want to be, and I’m taking my own sweet queer time to do it.

  15. Thanks for this Heather. And thanks for everyone in the comments. I needed to read all of this more than I knew.

    Was too sick for 6 years after high school to hold a job or do anything pretty much. Had to drop out of TAFE (a type of further education). Missed out on a lot of things people in there early 20s experience. I’ve never had a girlfriend. Never been on a date. I’m 27 now and I have been stressing out that maybe it was too late for me.

    So I definitely needed this. Thank you Heather.

  16. “… tell that tick-tocking in the back of your mind to cut it out; it’s an imaginary sound.”

    Queer time moves differently than regular time; we’re on our own schedule; we exist outside the rigidity of the patriarchal space-time continuum.

    This is this advice I didn’t even know I needed to hear. Thank you, Heather.

  17. I’m taking the last week of the year off and trying to plan fun things to do by myself in New York while everyone is still away with family. I have been so embarrassed about the idea of going out alone but like who cares?? And just today I was thinking about how I will literally never have a teen romance because I am 24 and so that never happened in my one life and I’ll never know how that feels or how a lot of things feel and how I’m “behind” and I felt all those narrowing choices and it made me feel alone and weird.

    So, thanks for the reminder to breathe.

  18. You know when you feel a low-level need to cry all day and then something tips you over the edge in to fully sobbing because the world is unjust but beautiful and happens to contain geese?
    That is every Heather Hogan piece, but especially this one. Especially today. Thanks Heather.

  19. This is exactly what I needed right now because I just realised that the only things stopping me from deferring study and taking a year to work on myself are 1. my nosy disapproving parents and 2. the knowledge that that would make me at least 29 when I’m done, and that’s scary because it’s almost 30 and I don’t know what the hell happened to my 20s (battling really really hard against my mental illness and trying to survive poor and unemployed because of it, is what happened). But I don’t want to have kids so there’s no biological deadline on getting my shit together financially. So, I dunno, I’m just not used to thinking more than a year ahead, and my only framework for doing so is that outdated heteronormative one that I don’t need, but I’m too aware that I’m failing at it hard and still have a weird guilt about that.

  20. Oh, Heather. This question and this answer cracked open something inside of me that I hadn’t realised I was feeling.

    I’m moving from New Zealand to England in just over a week and I never thought my depression would let me do that. It’s actually been a really hard week for me and I realised that I’ve been focused so much on just getting over there that I have no idea where to start once I’m actually there (from an emotional perspective, I have some of the practical stuff sorted).

    Thank you once again for your words and the hope you bring. You are a true light in this world, and I know I’ll be reading your words for as long as you write them.

  21. Reading your words feels like drinking lemonade on a brutally hot day. My girlfriend broke up with me this week, and the new life I was really looking forward to vanished. Now I’m stuck in my same apartment with the same job and the Clock of Life started ticking very loudly in my head again. Hopefully in 2018 I’ll find someone to pick out a vintage armchair with.

  22. ‘Do you need lots of sunshine and nature to feel sustained in your soul? Well, you’re not moving to London.’

    *weeps bitterly while shivering at her desk and glancing at the dark night that descended at 3.30pm*

  23. That Mary Oliver poem was part of the materials in a mindfulness course I did and it is amazing, it broke open my soul. That line you quote at the end “Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves” was a revelation to me.

    This is wonderful advice. Baby steps are OK!

  24. Dear anonymous question writer, dear Heather Hogan and dearest Mary Oliver,

    You three just succeeded in making me cry. Like “bawling my eyes out, watching youtube videos of soldiers coming home to their pets” cry. It was all kinds of cathartic but also a bit terrifying. So thank you…? Yes, definitely. Thank you!

  25. … And it’s Heather to the rescue !

    This advice is so on point. It’s helping me trust my instincts and not be paralyzed by the fear of the unknown.

    My very-very-long-term relationship ended a year ago and I’ve been trying to regroup.

    Because I’m surrounded by straight paradigms, I was beginning to believe that there was no point in rebooting my life because, hey, I’m 57, and isn’t that old?

    But I’ve been realizing that deep inside, I feel like a hatchling. Now I know why. Queer Time ! I’m discovering who I am all over again. It’s a rebirth, and the best part : I don’t have to follow any rules, I don’t have to “fit”. I can be a new me ! Scary as h*ll but so exciting. Thanks Heather and all of the Straddlers.

  26. Heather, why is everything you write so perfect?!

    I’ve been feeling this intense pressure to figure my life out NOW because suddenly I’m 26 and there isn’t enough time in the world to do everything I want-ahh-panic, panic, panic.

    So thank you. That poem was also perfect.

    And now I’m crying on my couch and can’t find any tissues. Darn.

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