On August 18, 2020, I received a medical profession’s advice to “Research Quarter Life Crisis (multiple websites and books).” This was hilarious at the time, because not only was I going through something definitely more complex than that (in two days I would be diagnosed as a type of bipolar), but because the subject was not at all new to me.
In fact, I spent a good portion of the summer obsessed with the musical Pippin, thanks to rediscovering it through a podcast and promotion for a new London production. The show has always haunted me (one word: fire), but unlike when I first saw the Broadway revival touring production as a freshman in college (and two years later as my university theatre’s production), I no longer characterized it as a meta-theatrical commentary of the Hero’s Journey. Yes, it is that, but it is also something I knew all to well: the post-college search for meaning, for a purpose, that leads to meandering, quitting new things out of fear of becoming trapped in them, and either settling for something ordinary or, uh…burnout. It’s Quarter Life Crisis: The Musical. (There are definitely similarities between this process and a manic/hypomanic episode, too.)
I’ve been trying to write about this weird year in my life since it started, whether for just myself, friends, or a wider public as my writing has shifted from fiction to primarily creative nonfiction essays and poetry. All the while, I’ve stopped and started projects, trying to find my voice while worrying it was changing forever. I’ve documented what I can, hoping one day I will come back to my camera roll and scraps of writing and make sense of it. Part of the reason I had to pause my fiction writing anyway was my lack of perspective; I was going through the same things my young characters were, and I didn’t know how to guide them.
Then I realized: this process is worthy in itself. It is probably near-universal as we grow into adulthood, and acutely highlighted now with the pandemic upending everything we’ve once relied on. So, finally, I found a project I could stick with because it wasn’t based on my voice as some sort of unchanging authority. And here it is.
This won’t simply be personal essays or a weekly diary, however. I will connect back to research, history, other writing. I want to really study this period, grasping onto any foothold to find. And your comments will also be valuable throughout. My goal is to publish at least every other week, but I’m going to avoid putting extra pressure on myself (a topic worthy of itself).
“Quarter Life Crisis” is something of a pop psychology phenomenon, following on from the more well-known midlife crisis, but a clinical psychologist does describe it as “a period of insecurity, doubt and disappointment surrounding your career, relationships and financial situation.” Which…mood.
One thing we do know is the brain isn’t fully finished developing until you’re 25, which is also the age when you’ve ideally got your life all figured out: a career, a family, all that life stuff that comes after education in the great (heteronormative) American Dream. The incongruity between what one should have and what one does have is itself a problem, but making major decisions when your brain is still settling? That’s just a recipe for disaster.
I studied adolescent psychology for my planned career as a middle school English teacher, which I lasted about seven months in, almost three of those spent on medical leave or remote learning (once due to a COVID-related shutdown, and then again due to snow). Teaching 7th graders just 10 years younger than me, I found myself generationally closer to them than my colleagues (many of whom could be my parents, and indeed often functioned as such). The pandemic highlighted the junior high crisis: a lack of motivation, identity crisis, lashing out at the world…and it wasn’t that different from what I was going through living on my own for the first time. I struggled because I couldn’t convince them what I had failed to believe myself: that the tests this year were important (or we should be taking them at all), that “doing work” was the main goal (as opposed to learning), and so on…in the middle of a pandemic, it all felt absurd.
I wanted to hone in on the much harder feat of building a community where they listened to and cared about each other, creating as few traumas as possible. But that posed its own challenges in the post-2020 election landscape. The sense of alienation, disillusionment, hopelessness, and detachment among vulnerable young people was palpable. (I started to listen to Phoebe Bridgers and her various collaborations at this time, which is not a coincidence.)
As someone who has wanted to be a writer since I was five, every time I see someone who is successful before they’re 25, I’m jealous. But that jealousy has become muted. These are people who face enormous pressure to repeat success when they are still growing and changing. Why else do you think they quit? Stumble? Have mental health breaks? Totally change their musical style?
I’m glad I didn’t finish writing a novel and get it published before I was ready to talk about the very personal things inside. It’s still there, waiting for me. In the meantime, I have this.