The Terrible Twenties. Or: What Happens When I Don’t Get Enough Sleep
The author, terribly two, and definitely in need of a nap.
At 27, I’ve now listened to enough young parents bemoan their toddlers’ antics to know that nothing makes someone crankier than teething, potty training, and repeating your first words over and over again like a trained monkey for your folks, who are pretty sure that they’ve created a genius.
However, at 27, I’ve also gone through enough of my 20’s to know that nothing makes me crankier than mid-week hangovers, watching friends accept awards on national television that I would kill to have but am nowhere near close to acquiring, having no underwear left and no time to do laundry, lack of available street parking, and dealing with people who don’t respond to text messages. I, along with so many of my friends, find myself in the throes of the second most frustrating and temper-tantrum inducing time of my life: the terrible 20’s.
I’ve spent 27 years learning how to articulately communicate my wants and needs. Largely, I’ve succeeded in my efforts, having kept the screaming fights of, “I hate you and you don’t understand my pain” with my parents to a bare minimum. But these days, when I try to find a way to explain why I am so on edge, so incapacitated by a stagnancy that is no one’s fault but my own, and so sleepy all at the same time, I can’t seem to come up with the appropriate words. I do nothing but exhaust myself with my exhaustion.
Several weeks ago, I pulled my first all-nighter since college. Around 10pm the following day, having not slept for close to 36 hours, I hit my wall, started slamming objects around, and was promptly put to bed. I lay there for a long time, headphones in my ears, listening to the saddest music I could find on my iPad, reveling in what an – apparently – average and insubstantial mess my life was. My parents are probably disappointed in me and wish I’d visit more. My room is a mess because I’m not home enough and when I am home I don’t have the energy to put my damn clothes away. I haven’t written anything of substance in the past three months and I’m still an assistant and do I really have what it takes and blah blah blah and all of a sudden I found myself sobbing.
The thing is, the bed I was sent to wasn’t my own, and so when the person whom I was sharing it with came in to check on me, I suppressed my sobs and squeezed my eyes shut, feigning sleep. At which point he turned the lights off, shut the door, and went back to his meeting.
For some reason, this infuriated me. It infuriated me that he’d turned the lights off. It infuriated me that he was still in a meeting that was supposed to be over an hour ago. It infuriated me that I allowed myself to be put to bed, instead of just going home to my own. It infuriated me that these reasons weren’t really the reasons I was infuriated, but I had no idea how to drag myself out of this funk of my late 20’s. I was infuriated that I was now in my late 20’s. It truly became a domino effect of fury and futility.
I threw off the covers, wiped the tears from my eyes, muttered curses under my breath, and flicked the lights back on. Those five steps from the bed to the switch left my adrenaline pumping, and when I returned to the mattress my heart was pounding so loudly I could no longer sit and wallow in my self-pity. I was fully clothed. I could still go home. Or I could put on one of the t-shirts strewn around the floor (it also infuriated me that I tolerated his mess), brush my teeth, and go to bed. As I resigned myself to the second option, the object of my infuriation walked through the door, happy to see me, and ready to go to bed himself.
What he hadn’t expected to find was someone who had completely lost her ability to communicate, someone who, normally level-headed, articulate, and overly willing-to-please, was now head butting him, gripping her toothpaste with explosive agitation, and spitting out half-formed, incoherent insults and whines. At that point, I was so riled up – and so riled up that I was riled up – that there was nothing he could do except grab me and hold me and, when I resisted, sigh and say, “Just hug me, jerk.”
I knew at that point that I would cave, that I had no real reason to be angry with him, that in fact, he was taking care of me (and tolerating me) in the best and only ways he knew how. Nonetheless, my well-developed stubbornness dictated that I remain obstinate for a good twenty minutes before finally grinding my forehead into a pillow while muttering, “I’m sorry, I’m just really tired.”
I’m tired a lot, and I use that as an excuse – for why I’m not writing, exercising, picking up after myself, getting my eyebrows threaded every four to five weeks, as I should. Fatigue is my justification for not responding to friends, for snapping at my family, for forgetting things at work, for picking fights about nothing, just because I want attention and reassurance. Even though I may insist otherwise, the truth is that I’m reverting back to basic infant tendencies; sometimes, all I want and need is for someone to care enough to put me to bed.
I like to think that, just as a toddler is terrible because she’s going through major developmental changes, so am I. Body, mind, and soul, I’m changing and growing on a daily basis. The first time around, someone fed me and sheltered me and wiped my ass for me. But now I have to wipe my own ass. And pay the bills. Not to mention do the grocery shopping. Finding the time and the wherewithal to do all the basic things and still be awake enough for everything else is a perilous juggling act – on a tightwire, naked, with wind gusts of up to eighty miles per hour.
When I hit the wall with my very hard head this time around, I had someone around who understood that my hysterics weren’t about him; someone who later, after I’d calmed down and after he made sure I wasn’t carrying a concealed weapon, even suggested that my behavior wasn’t just tolerable…it was endearing (endearing, I imagine, only in very small, rare doses). It was a comfort to know that even if he didn’t totally understand why I was a acting like someone with a bad case of diaper rash, I hadn’t driven him away (yet).
I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’m a soldier, but sometimes I do feel as though being in my twenties is like going through a protracted war, which makes me identify with the narrator of my favorite story of all time: “For Esme With Love and Squalor,” by J.D. Salinger. He’s a veteran of World War II, a guy who’s really gotten kicked around. He meets and begins a correspondence with a young girl named Esme, who takes pity on his sad and tired form one night at a coffee shop in Devon, England. As with most of Salinger’s last lines, I understand this one on a visceral, emotional level, as opposed to an intellectual one. Which is why I’ll always remember it. The story concludes with a letter that our hero, Sargeant X, has written for Esme on the eve of her wedding, six years later. Esme gave Sargeant X hope. She gave him her father’s old wristwatch. She took interest in him, and, in return, he wrote her a letter full of love and squalor, as she requested. The last line is beautiful and true, and something we all should remember: “You take a really sleepy man, Esme, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac-with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.”