For all the buildup to 25, it’s weird that I barely notice I’m turning 26 this month. It was such a cataclysmic milestone to be able to say I’m in my mid-20s. Now I’m suddenly looking down the barrel of mid- to late-20s. And I’m cool with it.
That doesn’t sound right, does it? I’ve got a quarter of a century under my belt now. The end of my life is ticking ever closer! I am entrenched in the cycle of stress and disaster known as adulthood! I regularly have to deflect questions about whether I’m getting married, what am I waiting for, when am I going to have kids. Shouldn’t all this make me want to scratch somebody’s eyes out?
Invasive personal questions aside, no. A weird thing happened while I was 25. Somehow, I made it up the terrifying mountain of things keeping me from enjoying life. And I don’t mean that in the bullshit #inspiration way where all I had to do was learn to love myself and suddenly all my dreams came true.
I clawed and bled my way up that damn mountain, gave it the finger, and can now enjoy the view as I keep climbing. And sure, now I can love myself for real because I’m not too busy thinking about not falling and dying.
So what was it keeping me from enjoying life since my early 20s?
Graduating from college. Getting a decent job. Slugging through that first high-paying, toxic job that sent me into the worst depression of my life. Struggling to pay medical and grocery bills after losing said job. Working in food service (again) to make ends meet. Watching my friends move away, get awesome jobs, post happy pictures all over social media. Getting a new job that barely covers basic expenses. Rent. Student loans. Car loan. Paying off my credit card. #adulting. Wishing for a vacation I couldn’t afford but desperately needed. Replacing my cracked windshield. Hurtling toward my mid-20s with nothing but debt and a vanishing goal line to show for it.
So, the usual. I hated just about everything about what my life looked like, and I felt powerless.
To be honest, I’m still dealing with most of that stuff. I’d be lying if I said I don’t periodically break down crying and have a panic attack from the stress of trying to figure it all out. But it’s okay. I’m making it get better.
My first step was following a piece of advice I naturally chafe against: “Surround yourself with people you want to be like who make you feel good about yourself.” I don’t like this advice because going out and spending time with people takes money I could spend on my bills. Also because the types of places and events where one typically meets new people are not where I usually go.
So I looked at who surrounded me on social media. People I had one class with but never spent time with socially. People I had been casual friends with, but was now seeing a new side of them I didn’t care for. So many people I got no joy, support, or benefit by being connected to them.
Of course there were plenty of people I still wanted a connection with, but I didn’t want to see them in my feeds all the time. Bless whoever thought of being able to unfollow but stay connected with people.
In the grand scheme of climbing up my miserable mountain, this did very little. It wasn’t even immediate. But eventually, I noticed that social media contributed less to my unhappiness. And cutting down the noise helped me pay more attention to friends I hadn’t talked to in a long time.
I did also meet my significant other around this time, thanks to an app. At the risk of sounding like a total cheeseball, meeting him set off a chain of new experiences.
About a month after we started dating, he took me paddleboarding for the first time. I pretended not to be afraid of drowning and had an amazing, albeit somewhat dangerous, adventure (which I turned into an article for The Combat Edge magazine). We went to a hockey game. I found out I really like hockey.
Then I moved in with him, which helped me have a little more breathing room with my finances. We flew to Colorado. It was my first actual vacation in YEARS, and I spent most of it suffering from altitude sickness. But I also climbed the Incline, saw a handful of state parks, hiked around a canyon, and held an alligator in the middle of a freakin’ desert.
I remember waking up in our hotel one morning and realizing that this was the first time I’d ever felt in control of my life. And I was steering it somewhere awesome.
All the usual bills and responsibilities were still waiting at home, of course. But for once, it didn’t feel like they were completely stopping me from having a life. I couldn’t galavant around Colorado whenever I felt like it, but I had the means to do the things that would make me happy.
I didn’t even realize how far I’d made it up the mountain until two months ago. I finally looked into my free annual credit report (#adulting it up over here), and I discovered my car will be paid off in a year. (For anyone shaking their head at me for not actively tracking that before, I’ve never missed a payment. I was content to keep paying until it was paid off without having to look at another scary big number and having a panic attack.)
Looking a little closer at my situation, I found my medical and grocery bills from my unemployment were also nearly paid off. Just knowing that makes the much longer payoff period of my student loans easier to swallow (I’ve got my eye on you, 2026).
Once again, I felt the power I have over my own life. Somehow, that got me to stop automatically saying I couldn’t afford to do things that would make me happy. Now I actually look to see if I can afford it. And guess what? Therapy to treat my depression and anxiety is affordable. With some creative saving and a lot of patience, a vacation out of the country with my SO is absolutely possible.
Looking ahead to 26, I’m not freaking out at all. I don’t care that I’m getting older or that sometimes I feel like I’m running out of time to do the things I want. I spent most of my 20s afraid that I wouldn’t start living until it was too late to do anything. I’m living now, and hell yes I love myself for it.