This piece is part of our Darkest Day series, a collection of stories from people who’ve made it through the worst of their illness and now light the way for others.
It must be possible to spend your early 20s in a way that doesn’t prompt later regret. Knowing what it feels like to be, say, 22, newly graduated from college, and recently moved in with a drop-out junk dealer boyfriend, it’s hard for me to imagine. Some people must have the strength of character, or luck, or some combination, to skip over the throwing-your-life-away-as-soon-as-it becomes-your-own stage of development. I’m curious about them.
When I was 22, I decided to throw my life away with the most unsuitable person I had met to date.
I’ve been thinking recently about this time of my life, cultivating what Joan Didion calls self-respect, or the courage to own one’s mistakes. The courage to own this mistake must mean that I reckon with what I saw in him initially. Well, he was somewhat charming, in a bookish way with a strong Southern Indiana accent. He read a lot and had a big vocabulary. There was a sweetness about him. He was generally friendly. I suppose those are positive traits.
We met when I was 21 and he was 26, in a poetry workshop. It was during an “on period” of his on-again/off-again relationship with our university’s undergraduate program in philosophy. He started up a note-passing flirtation. It began with a joke. Then, he started to compliment the poems I turned in for class. Soon after, he told me I was beautiful. I sensed, in a completely undeveloped way, that he slipped into every gap in my understanding of who I was or what I came from. He was both adoring enough and unacceptable enough to be totally perfect.
He couldn’t be said to be conventionally attractive. My dad allowed himself one critique and that was giving this boyfriend a nickname: “Ichabod.” He did look like old prints of Ichabod Crane — just in modern garb. He was very, very tall and thin with a long curly ponytail that got fuzzier and fuzzier between washings. He had huge blue eyes held wide open by hard contacts. He wore a daily uniform of Levis jeans, blue or black Hanes t-shirts, and Converse sneakers, all procured from thrift stores. He was different than everyone else I knew, even the somewhat far out characters in our liberal college town. I had just learned what bourgeois meant the year before. He definitely wasn’t bourgeois. He’s kind of cute, I guess, I thought. We began dating.
He wouldn’t tell me what he did for money. I was still immersed in my college life, which was a kind of paradise. I got to read endlessly, write papers and poems, act in plays, all in the company of interesting people and in a beautiful setting. But it was about to end. College was supposed to be a preparation. But a preparation for what? I had avoided considering that question.
The early 20s are a tricky psychological time. A beloved friend and roommate graduated, went home to her family, and was quickly diagnosed with schizophrenia. It’s the time when the mind is caught between adolescence and adulthood, and in some cases, when genetic demons are unleashed. Environmentally, there’s outsized pressure to figure out a place in a competitive society. Hiding was an option I hadn’t previously considered. Finding an unemployed, strange-looking, under-the-radar, anti-capitalist, ex-philosophy major boyfriend suddenly seemed like good luck.
I didn’t think of what I was doing as dropping out. I thought maybe he had a way of seeing the world that I just hadn’t been introduced to before. I’m from an industrial town in the middle of farmland. It’s not unusual there to meet old men who are missing fingers from farming or factory accidents. Hard work was one of the highest virtues of my youth. But maybe we’d all been tricked?
It was true that he resembled the character of the fool in every fairy tale about the importance of hard work I’d ever been read. While the dutiful and boring ant put in long hours, he was the lounging grasshopper playing his fiddle. He lounged on his futon mattress on the floor, strumming his guitar, talking about how he pitied people oppressed by a Protestant work ethic. He pitied people who prized American luxuries like cars and new clothes. He pitied people who squirreled money away for retirement when they might die any day.
When I invited myself onto his planet (my lease was up, I had graduated, I didn’t want to move home, it would just be for a few months) I didn’t realize what I was hurling myself toward. I didn’t know that refusing to be a part of the culture we live in, even though that culture may be deeply flawed, is a kind of madness.
He was coy about his work for a while, but finally, maybe when I was moving in, told me what he did for money. He bought and sold junk. He squeaked by in a chosen state of poverty.
We began to slip into the routine of a life together. I went along sometimes on Saturday mornings when he would scout for merchandise. The vintage toys and ceramics and Bakelite bracelets he brought home were stacked in boxes in the kitchen. The whole apartment was grim and I didn’t attempt to rectify it. He didn’t think it was grim. He talked admiringly not just about me, but also about his air conditioner, refrigerator and gross fiberglass shower.
I chopped off my always-long hair. I gained weight. I bought all of the groceries and he paid the rent. I started working at an Irish bar that paid more than the Tibetan restaurant I had been working at. The first night he picked me up. After I said goodbye to my new coworkers, he said, “They’re all alcoholics.” I also began to drink after my shift. And like my co-workers, sometimes during my shift. Before work, I would sit in the backyard, a few books stacked next to me for ballast, and look at my empty notebook and not write.
He continued to tell me that I was brilliant. I’d wake from a dream and tell him about it and he would say, “Your gorgeous brain, Laura, your incredible brain!” He told me I was beautiful all the time even though I had an awful haircut, only fit into the castoff clothes I had recently found at yard sales, and cried a lot. I didn’t feel beautiful. He often stroked my hair as if I was a beloved pet.
We were both going to be writers. Telling each other our ideas was so satisfying, though, that there wasn’t really a need to put anything out into the world beyond our door. What I didn’t know yet was that being a writer takes discipline, planning, ambition. There was no way we would somehow become writers without doing the work of writing.
At first, I thought I was living a version of a bohemian fantasy. I’d had a class in Modernist literature my junior year and became totally captivated by Djuna Barnes and Mina Loy and H.D. and the creative women moving in and out of Paris and each other’s lives in the 1920’s. This boyfriend was so far out, so inscrutable to my family, so sweet and talkative, I could tell myself it was almost like dating a woman and living in a foreign country, being with him.
I saved my waitressing money for a trip to France. He didn’t save any. About a year after we moved in together he gave up the apartment and we went to Europe for a month. I paid. It was beautiful and interesting, but ultimately meaningless. We came back. I stayed with my parents and he stayed with his. We moved to Indianapolis together, lying on the apartment application about fictitious jobs, though I quickly got one.
The poverty was losing its glamour and righteousness. I began to see that it wasn’t just that he chose this life, it was that he was incapable of anything else. I was starting to have the first glimmers of realization that resisting the world could be right and good if it is an active resistance. But resisting the world by dropping out is a kind of sadness, hurt, anger, and inertia that could maybe best be called depression.
We never fought. I prided myself on that, but now I know how unhealthy it was. One day, when it was dawning on me that I wasn’t in a good situation, I began to cry and couldn’t stop. There was a cold winter rain outside the second-floor windows of our apartment. I don’t know what suddenly dislodged in me, but something I couldn’t articulate had. I went to the kitchen and made ramen, crying. I went down to the basement with quarters and a laundry basket, crying.
We had been in the apartment about a year. I couldn’t tell him what was wrong and I couldn’t stop crying. In the early afternoon he said, “You’re disappointed because I’m not some kind of successful businessman.” About an hour after that I said, “You’re disappointed because I’m not more punk rock. Or any punk rock.” Those weren’t really our problems.
There was only one time that he threatened violence. My mother was on her way to visit us and I was stress cleaning. I’m sure that having my family in to see our life was uncomfortable for him. He knew my mother didn’t approve of our relationship. In the middle of my wild-eyed mopping and straightening I must have asked him to help.
He grabbed my throat, pushed me against the counter and let me know that this cleaning was my thing and not his. I was shaken. I don’t know how I rationalized that episode, but I did. Who knows what would have happened if I ever had asked him for more. Besides praise, he had nothing to give me. He never told me that he loved me, probably because he knew that love and responsibility are intertwined.
It’s impossible not to make mistakes, and accepting them clear-eyed is important. But I still struggle to forgive myself for choosing him. It’s not the worst kind of mistake, after all I only hurt myself. But hurting oneself within a relationship is also a sin. Now I can’t believe I didn’t help that precious young woman. The young woman that I was had an open heart and had gifts to share with the world. And wasted years in listlessness with that fool.
It was imagining someone else in my situation that helped me find my way out. I realized that if I had a sister and she was living this way, I would pity her. And then I would help her.
I applied to graduate schools, but only to schools that were far away. I was accepted into a program in New York, a city that requires too much hard work for him to ever have followed me. And he didn’t.
One thing I hadn’t considered was that I happened to be moving to the world capital of psychotherapy. It certainly helped that embarking on therapy wasn’t considered strange at all when I arrived and was having such a hard time moving on from this relationship. It seemed every writer I met had been in therapy for years, so, actually, why not start now? I thought. I’ve been fortunate to work with several wonderful therapists since who have helped me to see the difference between imagination and delusion. They have helped me understand that wherever I am, I don’t have to stay.
Since remembering this time of my life, a kind of utopian idea came to me. What if every 20-year-old in the United States, as a rite of passage, went into therapy. I know it sounds excessive. But really, what if we all had professional help understanding the psychology and myths of our families and culture before deciding who to make our lives with and how? I’m grateful for the help I’ve had defining my own character and limits. I feel like an evangelist, but I really wish everyone at that tender age could try therapy and find the help that I eventually did.