The Selfishness of Youth: A Luxury I No Longer Have
When I was a senior in college, I managed to trump my Gen-X status and get a job before I graduated. I worked part-time at an advertising firm until I got my diploma and then started full-time immediately, writing radio and TV ads for small businesses all around the country. It felt like quite a coup.
I was getting paid an actual (supertiny) salary to sit in my own office and craft words on a page. On Fridays the boss would bring in various alcoholic beverages (though I was still underage). When we got a new client, everyone on staff got a crisp $100 bill. My life of overachieving seemed to be paying off. At the time, I liked to think I was living the American Dream. I had done it. All my careful studying and planning had worked just like I wanted it to. I could put one big check mark on my To Do list of life.
The job turned out to be miserable. More than miserable. After two years of harassment, mansplaining, and business trips that included clients either grabbing my knees, yelling at me, or doing both at the same time, I found myself in the emergency room with blood pressure so high they thought I was going to have a stroke at any moment. Rather than discuss my stressful job, the doctor encouraged me to go off my birth control pills and “try to relax.” Always the rule-follower, I did what the doctor said…and promptly found myself pregnant.
Saddled with a horrible job (with “health insurance” that didn’t cover pregnancy), a ridiculous car that could never fit a car seat, and a brand-new, terrified husband, I was, as they say, in the weeds. Suddenly, my rush to grab the American Dream seemed incredibly hasty. Why would I want to graduate and join the rat race and get married and have a baby all before I was 25? WHY? Why the dedication to checking things off my To Do list of life? Why the hurry?
I still don’t know, other than the fact that I was a planner, a rule-follower. I liked to know what was going to happen in my life three steps ahead of where I was at the time. I needed a forecast.
Pregnant and married at 23 was maybe not part of the forecast, but I persevered. It took about eight weeks of nausea and naps in my car, but soon I managed to come to terms with my pregnancy. I tried to forget how terrible my job was. I worked hard to convince my husband that we’d be fine. We’d be the people who had kids early and then retired early. We’d be empty nesters in our forties. It would be amazing.
Then, I miscarried. The revised forecast was shattered. The baby I hadn’t wanted, but convinced myself to love, was gone. The job was even worse. The stress had not let up. My boss decided that instead of writing ads for our clients, his staff was going to write radio ads in support of California’s Proposition 22, an anti-gay marriage prop.
That was when something broke. After spending my life following rules, making plans, always knowing the future, I saw my reflection in my teal iMac and suddenly had no idea why I was in that office. Why was I selling my soul at 23?
I carefully closed my office door and called the first airline that came to mind. I pulled out my emergency credit card and bought a ticket to Hawaii. After a moment, I remembered that I was married and I bought my husband a ticket, too. We did not have money for tickets to Hawaii. We were never going to be able to pay off the debt. But I didn’t care. I wasn’t really thinking. I was in emergency mode. Escape mode. I had lost my plan for the future. I only knew I had to get away. Far, far away. I opened my door, called in the office manager, and quit.
I drove home, with the top down on my ridiculous convertible. Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” came on the radio. I was in the midst of what I can now see as a pretty epic nervous breakdown, and I didn’t give a fuck. I got home and started packing. I informed my husband that I had quit my job and we were going to Hawaii. Bless his heart, he didn’t flip out. He didn’t ask how much the tickets cost (over three thousand dollars). He packed his bag, too.
Ultimately, I stayed in Hawaii for nearly a month. (I stayed with my dad, who gave me a wide berth.) My husband had to get back to work, so I was left to spend my days eating Panda Express, watching Law & Order reruns, and going to the beach. I stared into the distance a lot. I was Cameron at the bottom of the swimming pool.
That month-long freakout was an extravagance we could not afford. It was not in any plan, or any budget. It might have saved my life.
Fifteen years later, I’ve been through worse times, but I’ve lost the reckless young naïveté (the stupidity?) to be able to do anything like that again. I often wonder what would happen if I freaked out now. What if one day I pack a bag, go to the airport, and buy a ticket to the farthest beach I can reach? I don’t have the flexibility to be that selfish anymore. I have three kids now. I realize that you don’t just spring shit like that on your spouse. I’m a grown-up.
It doesn’t mean I don’t think about it, though. I think about it a lot. I think about what that month taught me; I think about the luxury of selfishness young people have, the space to make mistakes, to learn, to grow, to realize how your actions and decisions affect the people you love. I kind of miss youthful selfishness, I miss the freedom to fuck up and then have years to fix it, but I don’t know that I wish for it. Learning that you can’t always have a plan, that you don’t always know what happens next…finding a way to accept that truth…it’s kind of a luxury in and of itself, don’t you think?
You probably don’t need a beach to figure that out. Though some days it sure would be nice.
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