Friday, April 7, 2017

Am I Thirty, Flirty, and Thriving Yet?

Come the 8th of April, I will enter my fourth decade on this planet we call Earth. The closer I get to that fateful day, I find myself thinking of the 2004 movie "13 Going on 30". In that thirteen year-old movie (ha), an awkward burgeoning teenager wishes she could be "thirty and flirty and thriving" and through the power of magical realism finds herself in a future thirty year-old self only to find what she wants as a teen isn't all that's cracked up to be. It's never been a movie I particularly enjoyed, but as I get older, the theme of wanting something for your future self and ending up in a place you didn't expect has been especially relevant to my life. What I wanted as a child didn't pan out and what I have now leaves me wondering how I got there and if it's the right place for me.

I guess you could say that as a kid, I too hoped I would be "thirty, flirty, and thriving". And while I didn't quite get what I wanted as a kid, maybe I ended up with something better.

When I was a kid, I had what could be described as both reasonable and absurdly big dreams for the future. I thought I was leading a fairly normal life as a kid with going to school, having some friends I spent time with, doing fun after-school activities and summer camp and the lot (even if I was also in therapy four times a week and had a one-on-one aide in my classes). I thought I would be like everyone I knew where I'd do well enough to go to college, get a job I liked, engage in fun hobbies, and obtain a steady romantic relationship to last me the rest of my life. And at the same time, I thought I would somehow become a big deal. I thought that I'd would make some kind of wide-scale impact where I'd be remembered long after I died. These things feel somehow contradictory, but it made sense to my childhood mind. And despite my notable differences, I never felt like I had a reason not to expect that future. Why couldn't I have a normal yet extraordinary life?

You'd think that the turning point of me realizing that I might not achieve what I wanted upon learning I am autistic when I was thirteen. Despite my mixed reactions on that revelation, I didn't feel like that could possibly affect my life goals. I may have a developmental disability with notable behavioral issues, but I was still largely doing what my peers were doing. No adult ever told me I couldn't expect to lead a life that wasn't drastically different from everyone else. If anything, I was encouraged to pursue that life - my parents allowed me to engage in my interests (particularly theater, dance, singing, and social action), my teachers encouraged me to challenge myself academically, and by high school I had a solid group of friends who supported me. Even some challenges in college, I still managed to study and experience what I wanted and graduate with my Bachelors within the requisite four years. I truly believed autism wasn't going to limit me in any shape or form from getting the future I wanted and, quite frankly, deserved.

The actual turning point was leaving college for the real world. I graduated in May 2009, almost six months after the catastrophic 2008 recession, and entered a nightmarish world of trying to find steady work with massive competition of fellow graduates and a slew of freshly laid-off working folks. While I had some work experience in doing office work for my father's company and summer retail jobs, I realized I was largely not prepared for the working world and with no clue with what to do with my life. (It didn't help that I pursued studying history and theater out of passion without thinking of how to realistically apply them.) I had unexpectedly joined a disenfranchised generation of looking for work that simply wasn't there.

Not helping things was that I had to move back home. I had just begun to figure out living on my own in college and now I suddenly had to go home with no prospects. It felt like I had lost the independence I was building up to find myself living with my parents and relying on them for everything - money, transportation, food, shelter, the works. I regressed into depression and despair, losing every coping strategy I built up through my teen and college years and became combative with my family in a way I never had been before. I thought I had lost everything and nothing was possible anymore.

The one saving grace of those tough times was a year-long internship. A family friend sent my parents a listing for internships with the City of Los Angeles and my parents insisted I apply for any and all of them. Through sheer luck, I scored an interview and a position at the Mayor's office for an education initiative. (I suspect it was because the woman supervising me was prejudiced towards my history degree.) While the work was unpaid and I suffered through two-hour bus rides both to and from the Mayor's office, I found the work fulfilling in a way I hadn't felt before. I was not only productive at my unpaid job, I enjoyed it in a way that my work mattered to others. I wasn't just getting work experience for the sake of it - I was working to meaningfully help others. And I wanted to do that for the rest of my life.

Through the advice of my supervisor, I applied for social work schools to qualify for the macro social action work I wanted to do. Within a year I was accepted into USC's program. My parents agreed to let me move out on account of pursuing a graduate degree (and financially support me until I could find paid work). While I had to adjust my program from a full-time two-year student to a part-time four-year student due to stress, I found a largely supportive faculty to meet my needs and discovered a new passion in working with the developmentally disabled. And through my parents and therapist, I found volunteer work in the meantime that eventually led to my current job where I've been for the last two years.

But where I am right now is not where I thought I'd be. I thought that I'd be more settled - I thought I would have had a career (or at least steady work) for a lot longer, I thought I would have settled into a house as opposed to the apartment I currently own, and I also thought I'd be in a steady relationship as opposed to being single. It's rough to have these expectations and not be able to meet them. And while I know it's worthless to despair over things over what could have been, but I can't help but feel like I somewhat failed myself.  Maybe I've been too influenced by general societal expectations to meet those goals, but they still exist and the pressure to meet them is real. And as someone who strived to be "normal" for most of my life, it feels awful to not have that.

Yet with time I have also begun to come to terms with what I have now and what I've been able to do. There were a lot of things I couldn't have possibly predicted - the economic disaster that hindered my job prospects when I graduated from college, what career I would end up pursuing, and how long it would take to make that career happen. And while I wish I wasn't single, no one realistically knows when and where they'll meet someone to make a life partner. But what I do have isn't too shabby - I'm living on my own, I found a passion to pursue as a career, I have work where I'm supported well, and I'm actually coming to terms with and accepting not being "normal". That's really not that bad in the big scheme of things.

Yeah, I didn't end up where I thought I'd be when I was younger. Real life took me on a slightly different path and that ended up being not that bad. In fact, I feel pretty good about where I'm at because I feel a lot better about my prospects than I was almost ten years ago. And people say that the thirties are generally better, so I may end up having a much better future. Maybe the thirties are indeed when I'll truly be flirty and thriving. I can live with that.

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