This Is What No One Tells You About Navigating Pain In Your (20)20s

Like so many of my peers, I’ve had a complicated relationship with my twenties. What has been neatly packaged and commercialized by soapy dramas and hit sitcoms as “your best years” quickly sours into a phrase that haunts you from the moment it’s uttered by your dad’s friend with the patch of thinning hair and gaggle of unruly kids.

You wonder, What grave abyss could lay ahead of these seemingly sacrosanct years, only to realize you aren’t overlooking a precipice but are, in fact, in the thick of it. Am I doing this right? Have I found my “why,” loved enough, “self-helped” enough, cultivated an inner life, a rich enough sense of being? My will to succeed, time, metabolism are all diminishing by the dayhave I squandered some precious capital I will never again have?

As someone quickly nearing the end of her twenties, I’ve had plenty of time to contemplate these particularly useful thoughts while crowded around pizzas on dorm room floors, in teaming subway cars, in airless conference rooms scribbling meeting minutes on interminable calls. On many a night, accompanied by the profound clarity only a glass (or two or three) of red wine and the ethereal sounds of Frank Ocean can imbue, I’ve returned home to the unforgiving walls of my apartment, wondering how to piece together a sense of rightness.

It wasn’t until the end of last year that I found myself with a new love during the holidays. Something struck me as I sampled a dip that had been prepared for us in the living room. A smoky, bright mixture of legumes and feta that was so simple yet delicious enough for me to marvel at the experience of eating the most loathsome vegetable I knew, the green pea.

Somewhere in the wee hours, I attempted an internet search, inanely entering the words “feta,” and “peas” over and over in various combinations with other descriptors, scrolling through articles and photos until, finally, I found it. The smiling chef warmly conferred his sage advice, tossing only garlic and lemon and a few other aromatics into a pan of shimmering olive oil. I could hardly believe my eyes. How could this small faction of minced things possibly transform the intolerable earthiness of the pea into an herby spread of wonderment and delight?

In this case, he wrote, it was the charring that brought out the essential oils of each component. It concentrated the flavor. Whenever he was cooking any sauce or side or main, he knew, prior, that a process—the cooking down, the charring, the browning—was merited. I paused around that passage in my laptop’s blue glow, considering the ways in which the past year had too cooked me down.

I had been tumbling around in the fever dream that ensued after what felt like many years of cooking down until not much was left. Most recently, I had been deposited into a strange new abyss: unemployed in the midst of a pandemic, furloughed from the part-time job I was using to help pay off debts accrued from a prior period of joblessness, recovering from a failed romance, grappling with the dissolution of a sister-friendship. I felt vulnerable, as though all my bruises and cuts had been exposed. All the bad things I had ever feared or imagined happening in my usual worrying way, I’d now lived through.

I felt isolated and alone in a way that felt cruel and unwarranted, like no matter how hard I tried to paddle away from this island of loneliness and personal failure, some wave much larger than me was sure to appear and wash me back onto the desolate shore where I was destined to remain.

For a time, things remained the same. And then they got incrementally better and then infinitely worse. And then something strange began to happen. I would turn back over my shoulder and, every now and again, find a richness and openness to the world outside the confines of my personal misfortune. Pain has a funny way of doing that to you. I found love and grace and goodness in tiny hidden crevices: in sleep, in sound, and in strangers’ hands. Perhaps it had always been there. But for the first time, it felt as though it were able to find its way inside. And though my mind tried to piece together various narratives around ideas of pain and fate and destiny, those didn’t quite seem to fit.

I felt, rather, a sense of deepened empathy and understanding for those in the midst of suffering, whether seemingly larger or smaller than my own. I felt an acceptance of the mechanics of life in all its uncertainty. I felt strange in the company of those whose worst complaints from that year were of the shipping speeds of online purchases. And while I envied their casual indifference, I knew I had something, an inner strength, that felt much more invaluable than the comfort of being perpetually all right. I had something no one would ever take from me. When faced with the decision to give up, I had chosen to stand again and again.

I guess, what I’m trying to get at is, there really is no such thing as the perfect completeness of rock bottom. You can spend a long time waiting for someone or something to catch you or save you from your hurt. But there is no floor, no sweet resting place to await rescue, only the point where you reach down and something inside finds the resolve to pick up the pieces and begin again.

So maybe now I have more flavor, maybe some of the sweetness has been rendered down into a sticky brew. But maybe I have more to say with what once felt like less, my judgments spicier, sharper. I’ve discovered a steeliness within. I’m looking forward to turning another year older, to experiencing the act of living for the strange miracle it is, rather than reducing it to a sum of its parts.

Who’s to say, really? In the end, I’ve chosen myself. And somewhere deep inside, at that illusory bottom, an agreement was made to choose myself again and again. I know now, in a way that cannot be told, only lived—in the face of pain, there is something yet, waiting to be beckoned forth.