As my 20th birthday creeps around the corner, I’m grappling with a lingering feeling of whiplash. Time has been racing by and I’m short of breath trying to keep up. It feels as if it was just yesterday that I was celebrating my 18th birthday in my basement with my friends back home. But the clock doesn’t slow down for anyone. Even though the days feel painfully slow, time passes by quickly when you’re living through a global pandemic. This has also meant downing more hard-to-swallow pills than I had accounted for. Nevertheless, in approaching this threshold into a new chapter of my life, I’ve had time to reflect on the past and the future, as daunting as it seems. The growing pains have not been easy, but they’re a rite of passage through any significant life transition.
For me, growing up is realizing that most of the time, life isn’t going to be like the movies. It’s so easy for me to get caught up in the overly romanticized depictions of adolescence that saturate the media. Spending a lot of time engaging with such media while growing up had me wondering when I was going to finally have my quintessential coming-of-age moment — something akin to the iconic tunnel scene from “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” where Emma Watson gracefully stands up in the trunk of a moving pick-up truck under the city lights of the Fort Pitt Tunnel, or the scene in “Lady Bird” where Lucas Hedges and Saoirse Ronan are joyously running through a vineyard. There was a point at which I had to realize that, in most aspects, my experiences won’t be the same as the main characters in my favorite movies. A lot of the time, life feels less like the idyllic, rose-tinted, peaceful drive scenes of an A24 film and much more like an experimental film: shaky, unpredictable and confounding. Still, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and last spring made that very clear to me.
In March 2020, my friends and I were trying on our graduation gowns and planning for what was supposed to be the quintessential prom night. By the next month, these milestones were taken from us in the blink of an eye, leaving us all feeling cheated by the world.
Fortunately, at the end of our school year, I got the chance to end my own pity party. On our graduation day, rather than tuning into an unceremonious virtual commencement ceremony, I spoke at a local Black Lives Matter vigil during the peak of national protests. I got to speak about local social injustices in our hometown and organize with community members to plan future initiatives to promote racial equity. Even though my senior year didn’t conclude how I expected it to, I got to be a part of something bigger than myself last summer. Since then, I’ve found much more long-lasting joy in letting go of unrealistic expectations for how my life is “supposed” to look. I now appreciate any time spent with loved ones more than ever, whether we’re riding the train on an adventure through the city or just laying around binge-watching “Gossip Girl.”
Growing up is coming to terms with the fact that not all of my closest friendships will last forever. Whether we drift apart naturally or harshly cut off all contact, some friendships are just bound to end. After such an abrupt ending to my high school experience, this was made even more clear to me. I’ve had unfortunate falling-outs with people I once considered to be my ride-or-dies. This is just a testament to the truth that at such a time in my life, when everybody is moving in different directions, relationships can be very impermanent. Even people that I’ve held close to my heart can be gone as quickly as they came. While this was one of the hardest pills to swallow, I’ve learned the importance of appreciating moments with the people around me for as long as I can and not spending too much time grieving faded friendships.
Growing up is also realizing that I don’t always have to act grown. I don’t think I’ll ever fully grow out of my youth. And that’s okay. Though it isn’t always easy when scrolling through the latest news headlines, I’d hate to ever reach a point at which I’ve become entirely jaded by the world. Still, I think being able to silence my inner cynic at times is a necessity to maintain some peace of mind. For a while, I thought that one day I’d wake up and all at once be launched into adulthood. I figured that when the clock struck midnight on my 18th birthday, I would instantly be a grown-up. Yet 18 felt the same as 17, except with the ability to vote and finally own my own Costco card.
Even now as I’m reaching 20, I don’t feel too far removed from who I was two years ago. My friends and I still like to send each other stupid memes and make funny TikToks. Now, I just have to schedule time every now and then to file my taxes or tweak my resumé for a job application. The transition is much more gradual than I thought it would be. It’s as if I’m indefinitely teetering on the line between childhood and adulthood. Maybe I’ll be balancing on this line for a while, but I’m slowly beginning to find comfort in this “in-between” phase, especially with the knowledge that my peers feel the same way. I surely don’t have everything figured out yet, but really, who does?
Navigating this turbulent crossroad between adolescence and adulthood is anything but easy. It has been full of winding roads, sharp turns and dead ends. But I wouldn’t want the ride to be any other way. I’m surrounded by friends and family that I love very deeply, and I am better equipped now than ever to handle any curveball thrown my way. Usually, my birthdays are a bittersweet time for me. While it’s a time for celebration, it also means an increasing load of responsibility and having to confront my fears of the future. But this time around, I’m trying to face my 20th solar return with confidence that all things will work themselves out for the better. Cheers to growing older, in all of its perplexing glory.
MiC Columnist Udoka Nwansi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.