When you’re sick from a young age you miss out on a lot of things. Major milestones like learning to drive, prom, and high school graduation take a backseat to your illness. They either pass unnoticed or with a quiet pang of longing—an acknowledgement of all that your illness has taken from you. (By the time I dropped out of high school, I had a record 140 absences per class–one of my few impressive accomplishments from those unproductive years.) You also miss out on many formative experiences–things that occur naturally in the lives of your peers. Normal socialization is no easy feat when you’re in residential treatment or unable to leave the house. While people around you are discussing homework, extracurriculars, and dating, the only topics at your disposal are psychological symptoms, treatment protocols, and other cheery small-talk fodder sure to enliven any conversation. Winning lines like, “No, I didn’t get a chance to do the chemistry homework–I was pretty busy washing my hands until they bled. Cute top, though!” are guaranteed to make you the hit of the party.
Dating isn’t even in the realm of possibility. “I’d love to grab coffee on Friday, but I’ve checked my calendar and I have plans to not get out of bed that day. Saturday looks busy, too. Well, if I’m still alive next year we should definitely give this a shot! I’d feel a real connection, if that were an emotion I was capable of.” Always a turn on. And nothing sets the mood like staring vacantly into the distance in an existential torpor, or weeping softly into the carpet pile as you lie motionless on the floor. In fact, I think whispering, “My life has no meaning and I want to die,” into your partner’s ear is one of Cosmo’s 36 tips for hot, depressive sex. (Now there’s an issue I would read!)
It can be uncomfortable to navigate the minefield of social interactions as a late bloomer. There will be basic things you’re expected to know–to be comfortable with or adept at–that are brand-spanking new to you, and not everyone will be patient or accepting. It’s a position ripe for embarrassment. But there’s an upside to all of this. For one thing, embarrassing situations make for great anecdotes. Slowly, that repertoire of stories that had your audience reaching for the Prozac is replaced by tales of hilarity and charming misadventure. More importantly, and this one is truly something to be thankful for, delving into the world of dating at a later age means you’ve already had time to grow as a person, independent of the influence of a partner. You’re more secure in your identity and your desires, more confident and less malleable. You’ve had the necessary time to get to know yourself before approaching the absurd exercise in futility that is attempting to know someone else. (I kid, I kid. Sort of.)
I’ve dealt with a number of situations that left me thinking, Man, I’m glad I faced this as an adult and not the wide-eyed, harebrained teenager I was. I know adolescence is a time for making mistakes and learning from them for the sake of personal growth. And I do regret missing out on such formative adventures in terrible decision making (people tend to be less accepting of these mistakes as an adult). But I’m also incredibly grateful that I’ve been able to tackle some of life’s inevitable blunders with a far more level-head than I had at sixteen. (My head wasn’t just off-balance at sixteen–it was so far askew it achieved a full 180 degree rotation, exorcist-style.)
That’s not to say I haven’t made my fair share of mistakes or handled things poorly at every stage in life. (I am human, after all, despite my zippy, new pod-person brain.) There are all the mistakes that go along with being mentally ill and filled with an angst that burns with the power of a thousand suns, and I’m sure I’ve subsequently made up for all the more universal ones I missed out on as a teenager. But, as an adult (I laugh a little every time I use that term, but let’s go with it) I’ve found myself better able to keep my balance and assess these predicaments with greater reason and compassion, without losing my head nearly so much in the process.
I’ve been on a number of dates that I might not have handled so adeptly in my youth. Once, I agreed to go out with a coworker who, halfway through our first date, casually mentioned his girlfriend, his fiancee, and their various partners–a situation I had not been made aware of prior to that evening. Once I sussed out the arrangement, I thanked him for his time and went on my merry way. Because, while I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with polyamory or any other form of consensual relationship, I can barely fathom being in a relationship with one person, let alone an entire love-hexagon. I mean, I once bailed on the end of a perfectly acceptable date because we took a stroll by the lakefront and I noticed that the water was wondrously smooth (seriously, I have never seen grade-A glass like this on Lake Michigan), and I just had to get out there for a paddle. What was I supposed to do, waste those perfect conditions for someone I barely knew? I only had one board and, to be fair, Lake Michigan and I have been together longer than I’ve ever been with any person. (I swear, I’m not a total monster. The date was already winding down and I would have headed home if I hadn’t gone out on the water–the night was ending either way.) This is all to say that, rather than acquiescing to circumstances that weren’t right for me for the sake of someone else’s comfort, something I would likely have done in my youth (I’ve often struggled with a propensity to be overly-diplomatic), I was able to tactfully disengage, acknowledging that these were no-fault situations—my desires simply lay elsewhere. (Paddling–I just wanted to paddle. Is that so wrong?)
Despite all this talk of dating, it’s not something I attempt all that often (though, I’m sure you already gathered that from the brilliant display of anti-social tendencies referenced above), and I find that my focus now lies almost exclusively with my imminent return to school. There are definite pitfalls to attending school later in life–the age gap being chief among them–but this is the area in which I’m most grateful to be a late-bloomer. Higher education would have been completely wasted on me at eighteen. Sure, I hadn’t discovered ketamine treatment yet and wrested my brain back from the forces of evil. And as a high school dropout who had a penchant for strolling out of the room mid-class and not stopping until I hit home, as well as refusing to turn in work I felt was sub-standard (assignments I attempted in the midst of depressive episodes—so, you know, all of them), I likely wouldn’t have been accepted anywhere. But it’s more than that. Taking the time to figure out what I want from life rather than hopping on the conveyor belt and hoping it worked itself out along the way before I’d wasted four years and all of that precious, precious ketamine money (It’s not covered by insurance, folks! How bullshit is that?) is one of the greatest fortunes of my life. I don’t know if this was a decision I made consciously so much as something I lucked into as someone who needed a metric fuck-ton of time to get her act together—but boy am I glad it worked out this way. I’m now approaching school with an eagerness to learn and to shape that knowledge into a sustainable, life-enriching career that I would never have been capable of at eighteen. I guess what I’m saying is this: There’s all this talk of the journey being more important than the destination, and I truly believe it is, but there’s something to be said for showing up to your destination with a full set of luggage and all the necessary paperwork, instead of, say, rolling up in a haze of spliff behind the wheel of some busted down car you borrowed from your friend’s roommate’s uncle with only a vague idea of where you are and what you’re doing there. (Okay, I guess that sounds pretty fun, too. Rock on, you crazy kids.)