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The 20s are an action-packed decade. We have to cover a lot of ground.
We graduate from university and launch ourselves into the wider, more hectic world of employment and career and full-frontal adult responsibility. Sometimes, instead, we drop out and make pointed street art. We sometimes get married and start a family. Or, we definitely aren't anywhere near getting married and starting a family, and we write eloquently about that.
We are supposed to figure out who we are. But when the people I'd invited over to celebrate my 27th birthday with me (over Chinese takeaway and chocolate cake, of course) started talking about what they'd learned in their 20s, the conversation kept coming back to friendship.
In my early 20s, when I moved to New York City, I felt like I was changing costumes constantly. The scene would switch and I'd have to rush to throw on the right look, the right role. I was in graduate school, trying to sound smart, collected, focused, and then I was at a bar, trying to be fun and carefree, and then I was getting coffee with the brilliant girl from my Fundamentals of Theory class, desperately trying to hold my own in a fast-paced conversation about feminism, and then I was meeting up with the artistic girl from orientation, and she wanted to write a song with me.
I didn't know where I'd be in a few years. I wasn't sure I wanted to be where I was at the moment. My future felt like it was yawning open at my feet, and I sometimes wanted to just hide in my ill-lit studio apartment, where the dirt in the cracks between floorboards had been collecting for more than 100 years.
In my early 20s, I was scared. Looking back, I know I didn't actually feel scared all the time. I felt cocky and overwhelmed and dismal and full of potential, in turns, but my relationships were sort of grasping – frantic, needy. My fear was reflected in my friendships. I wanted to be cool enough to find and keep cool friends. I wanted to be funny and larger-than-life and fantastic, with an adhesive personality, so that people would stick to me when we touched. I was trying too hard. The faint, cloying smell of helplessness and insecurity probably wafted off me when I left a room. I wasn't yet sure what I wanted, where I belonged, and so I needed people to ground and anchor me, to hold me in place, otherwise I might drift away.
When you're scared, when you aren't sure of yourself, you sometimes ask everything of other people. You sometimes need them to make you complete, to make you make sense.
In my early 20s, I was in danger of falling over when other people pulled away from me, because I'd been leaning on them so hard, all the while trying to look cool and nonchalant. All the while trying to crack clever jokes and adopt an untouchable air of worldly cynicism.
When I finished grad school and started my career, I was fragile and defensive and determined, and I was threatened by everyone else's success. My friendships felt dangerous, because I was jealous all the time, even as I fought to stay calm and look like I had things together. I had nothing together. I was crying on my couch all night because I felt like a failure, because things were not supposed to turn out this way, because I had seemed so promising, and now I seemed so bad at everything.
Friends left me, my boyfriend broke up with me, telling me that he needed to be with someone who "had their life together". It seemed possible that I would never make any money. I imagined the shameful return to my parents' home. I was always on-edge.
But gradually, something began to shift. My career began to make more sense, to become more regular, and I began to like myself a little more. I felt like the city and I were becoming better acquainted – I could easily orient myself when I stepped off the subway. And I didn't have that queasy sensation of falling behind, in my relationships and in my life. I began to hang out with people just because I liked them, and I began to act similarly around my different friends, because I no longer felt like I was changing costumes, I felt like I knew which clothes to wear, and like my clothes were fitting more comfortably, now that I wasn't agonising over them and buying several sizes too small, just to look sexy.
I am far from finished learning about myself, my little world, and my relationships. As I move into my late 20s, old anxieties crop up in unusual places, and sometimes I catch myself being awkward or weird and feel that familiar flush of humiliation, like I'm just not cutting it in front of other people. But I also feel like it's a lot easier to be dorky and uncool around my friends, and thank god for that, because I think that's what makes friendships deeper.
On my 27th birthday, when we ended up talking about friendship in our 20s, my friends were all saying the same things. They felt less needy, less pressure to fit in. They were learning to say "no" when they didn't really want to go out; they were giving themselves permission to be "boring" sometimes, to just stay in and read in the evening, to stop performing so much for other people, to be awkward and vulnerable.
We were being vulnerable, just talking about these things. I think that's the biggest change that's occurred during my 20s: my ability to be truly, honestly vulnerable in my relationships. Maybe that's the thing that keeps changing in our relationships over the course of our lives. Maybe we try less and less to change our costumes to attract, entertain, impress, and hold on to other people.
These days, I sometimes get the reassuring sense, just for a moment, that I will always be able to find friends to share my life with. It isn't that I don't love and cherish the ones I have. I just feel less needily dependent on my friendships. I don't need them to anchor me in the way I used to. Instead, slowly but surely, I am becoming my own anchor.