Catharsis | The Twentysomething Acceleration Effect

Catharsis: noun  ca·thar·sis  \ kə-ˈthär-səs \
1 a : purification or purgation of the emotions (such as pity and fear) primarily through art

b : a purification or purgation that brings about spiritual renewal or release from tension
2 : elimination of a complex by bringing it to consciousness and affording it expression

I’ve always been the person who over-thinks things. The person who is indecisive because of this. The person who worries about whether what she has to say is worthwhile, or whether it’s whiny, or problematic, or just plain self-indulgent. Over-thinking is not a bad thing. But it does lead to a tendency to bottle things up and to let them fester, not expressing them, and thereby not releasing any tension they cause. My “cure” for this is a form of catharsis, my own personal brand of therapy, you might say, and since we live in a digital age it looks like I will be making the utterly foolish decision to put said thoughts onto the Internet instead of telling them to a licensed professional. But I’d like to be honest on this blog and I’d like this blog to be a true and accurate reflection of who I am… and who I am is sometimes self-centred and in dire need of a means of expulsion. So here we are, a new series of blog posts called Catharsis. I don’t know how frequent they will be, I don’t know how worthwhile they will be for anyone else reading them, but I know they will help me. And that’s kind of the point.

People say never compare your chapter 1 to someone else’s chapter 10. I’m paraphrasing completely but in a nutshell, that means that you shouldn’t compare your own life to someone else’s because even if they seem to be at the same point in life, they’re probably not. Their stories might just have a slightly more squished up timeline, their denouement and conclusion might come before yours, and you don’t know this by simply comparing and contrasting.

I used to be a big believer in this idea. I’m not so sold on it any more.

You see, when you hit your twenties something I have dubbed The Twentysomething Acceleration Effect happens. It will happen to some people, it won’t happen to others, and it will create a gap in experience that is difficult to breach. People who you thought to be ‘at the same stage’ in life will suddenly seem to be miles ahead. And it will happen what feels like overnight.

I like to pride myself on my empathy. Thanks to a rich childhood full of books of every type, I’ve lived in fictional worlds alongside characters both alike and unlike myself. This means that I’d like to say I can ‘think myself’ into quite a lot of points of view – I can imaginatively walk quite a few miles in different shoes, all in my head. But, as I get further into my twenties, I’m beginning to be unable to wear those metaphorical shoes because of said Twentysomething Acceleration Effect. For those unaware of the term (and let’s face it, I just came up with it, so why would you know?), I’ll explain…

You will have witnessed, if not knowingly, The Twentysomething Acceleration Effect in action. Symptoms include logging into Facebook and seeing yet another proposal post. It’s scrolling through a friend’s Instagram and seeing a sonogram. It’s hearing a couple of friends talk about house-hunting for their very first house together. It’s witnessing these things whilst you sit alone, with your biggest responsibility being putting up a blog post to maintain your regular posting schedule on your mediocre blog, and your biggest worry in life being whether to have pizza or fajitas for tea tonight.

I can no longer think myself into the headspace of those who, potentially, should be the easiest people to empathise with because I have a shared history with them – my friends. Not even close. Because they are engaged and in the midst of wedding planning, or happily living with their partner, or off travelling in some exotic land, or financial planning so that they can put their earnings into a deposit on a new home in a new city. Meanwhile I am here, typing this, sitting alone in a house I share with a friend in Liverpool. I can’t think myself into any other position anymore because it seems my friends have suddenly held their foot down on the accelerator, and I’m still sat at the traffic lights, confused, and then my car has probably stalled in my haste to catch up with them. They seem to be suddenly on their chapter 10 and I’m still sat here in chapter 1 with no clue where the story is going. Even if their timeline is truncated or about to hit a plot twist, they’re still ‘further through’ their story. Their story hasn’t stalled before it’s even got out of the gates, or past the traffic lights to continue my shoddily constructed metaphor. They’re cruising along, happily, probably unaware that they’ve left some people behind.

I don’t begrudge them this. I would never, ever be jealous enough of my friends for it to become actual resentment. Everyone lives their own lives and at their own pace. Some people hit their rhythm easily, in their twenties, some people don’t excel at life until they hit 50. This is the ‘don’t compare your chapter 1…’ blah blah sentiment.

But, you see, I’m worried… what if I don’t hit my rhythm, what if that car never makes it past the traffic lights at all? What if it is actually broken down and needs shoving to the side of the road so other frustrated motorists don’t start honking at it in frustration to ‘get out of the way, dickhead’?

Those other frustrated motorists, by the way? That’s my metaphor for the people even younger than me that seem to have their shit together way more than I do. They’re the people that have worked so damn hard and are doing so damn well at their chosen career paths and I can only watch in awe as they come up behind me and then shoot past without even seem to break a sweat. They’re the people who are out there saving lives whilst I’m sitting at my 9-5 office job in admittedly a career I wanted, but which isn’t exactly life or death, or doesn’t provide an outwardly obvious contribution to society. They’re the people that are nailing it… and I couldn’t be prouder of them. And yes, I am a little tiny bit jealous because I’m petty, but I don’t even want their stories, I never did, so why can I not stop comparing my chapter to theirs?

I think it’s indicative of our entire society. We live in a world where there are some aspects that define your life – your career, your hobbies, your likes and dislikes, your nearest and dearest. At a very basic level, these are the things that define you. And society makes the assumption, and perpetuates the assumption, that if you are excelling in one of these aspects, the others must suffer. You’ve heard the narrative countless times, you just might not have realise just how much it’s sold to us.

Stay with me on this one. In The Devil Wears Prada Miranda Priestly is at the top of her game – she’s the Editor in Chief of Runway Magazine, a ball-busting badass who takes no prisoners and is respected (and feared) for her chilly demeanor. But, of course, it’s not enough to just present her as such, and she can’t have it all balanced and happy – she must be deficient in one of these aforementioned life aspects. So it’s her marriage then, her marriage is on the verge of collapse because she is such a work-driven woman. She can’t have both, one must be in tatters. The protagonist, Andy, goes on that same journey. “Let me know when your whole life goes up in smoke. Means it’s time for a promotion” she is told by older and wiser characters. Let me know when your boyfriend is pissed off at you, when you barely have time to eat anymore, when your family haven’t heard from you in months. That means promotion. You can’t have it all, so choose.

And the flipside isn’t much nicer. I’ve had a very precise type of flippant comment made by family members on countless occasions. They mean it nicely, there’s no malice there. There’s an idea that if you’re a single woman (I’ve never heard this applied to men but, please, men do correct me if I’m wrong!) and you’re not dating, you must be putting your career first. You must be electively choosing to be single, sacrificing that potential aspect of your personal life in favour of focusing on your work life. It’s nice that this is painted as a “smart thing” like “oh she’s never really bothered about boys, she’s much more focused on her school work”. When you’re young, it’s not meant as an insult, in fact it’s practically a compliment. A ‘good on you for keeping your head in the game and not getting distracted by pretty boys’. It’s a strange compliment and, to be honest, it’s completely demeaning to anyone who just happened to find themselves in a loving relationship at a young age as well as doing well at school. But again, it’s part of that life aspect narrative – you can’t surely have both. And those that do have both? They’re the outliers, the ones to be jealous of, because they have it all, and you certainly don’t.

But do you know what? It’s all bullshit. I am not electively choosing to be single or to not date because I want to focus on my career. That gives me waaaay more credit than is actually due. I’m just single and alone because I am. There’s no forward planning or cunning involved in that decision. In fact there was no decision made by me. I’m just… here. If anything it’s inaction that’s caused this. I’m just sat here idling in my car, minding my own business. I didn’t realise the traffic lights had changed, I was probably too busy staring out of the window mindlessly or singing along to musical theatre soundtracks.

Maybe that’s the thing then – maybe my friends who are on their chapter 10 have done something. They’ve put their foot on that accelerator. They’ve picked up their metaphorical pens and started writing their narrative down. They’ve not stalled at the ‘once upon a time there lived a girl’. They’re actively choosing and writing their own stories. They might not have a plan, they might be more of a pantser, but they’re writing, and society will always applaud and reward them for this because as human beings we crave those narratives, we love stories, and we find nothing more fulfilling than a beginning-middle-end logical trajectory. Ambiguous endings or unfinished business are not satisfying, we would like defined stages of life, chapters if you will, and we’d like to progress from chapter 1 to chapter 30 in a calm and efficient manner. You will be rewarded if you play along. You will be judged and/or ostracised if you don’t.

Then comes that sinking feeling. Maybe there’s something wrong with you. If everyone else has worked out how to drive, why haven’t you? It doesn’t seem difficult, you just make sure you hit the right pedal (remember, clutch-brake-accelerator) and try to find that biting point when you shift gears. But putting the theory into practice? Turns out it’s much more difficult than you ever thought. But those who have mastered it, those who are killing it, will likely have forgotten what it’s like. They can’t really offer words of wisdom because they can’t remember not knowing how to drive, it’s just something they do now, without thinking, it’s become part of their rhythm.

All of this is an extremely convoluted thought process that actually stemmed from a discussion of contemporary young-adult fiction on the UKYAChat Twitter chat ran by the lovely Lucy the Reader. Quite a few of us found ourselves well past the ‘teen reader’ label and calling out (loudly and frustratedly) for fiction that spoke to this stage in life we found ourselves at.

What it comes down to is that I want more YA about actual “young adults”. YA about people who are past their teenage years. YA about people who are in that limbo stage between being an adolescent and being a fully-fledged, card-carrying “adult”, whatever that means… and boy oh boy is that a whole other discussion.

New Adult, for me, is such a disappointment because it has, for the most part, become synonymous with romance. It’s basically YA after dark, because it’s intended for a slightly older audience and therefore it’s not only kosher now to have erotic scenes, it’s presumably what this slightly older audience care about. Well, I’m here to say that I don’t want erotica or romance in my stories about twentysomethings because honestly…? That’s so far from my own experience that it’s laughable. Seriously, you would pee yourself laughing. I wish I had YA/NA about real twentysomethings, about the concerns of not knowing what the hell we’re doing in life when everyone around us seems to have it all figured out. I want stories about those people susceptible to the Twentysomething Acceleration Effect, either as participants or as witnesses – I’m not fussy, either will do!

Because if I had that in fiction? Maybe I would be able to empathise again with my friends, with my family, with strangers who I share nothing in common besides my age group. I would feel less alone. I would understand the narrative. Maybe, buoyed by fiction, I would even be able to pick up my own pen. But one thing is for sure: I would be able to empathise again.

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