I Started the Past Decade a 22-Year-Old Mess

I ended 2009 standing in the middle of a loud, liquor-soaked warehouse party in Athens, Georgia, just three weeks after graduating college — during the highest unemployment rate of the entire Great Recession.

I brought an ex-boyfriend as my date for the evening, though, by then, he was just a friend.

We were both in a weird place. His band had recently broken up, and he stopped through town to catch up after spending Christmas with his family.

That summer, I’d broken off a stormy two-year relationship with someone else, followed by an equally tumultuous and ill-advised rebound. And by the time New Year’s Eve rolled around, all my friends had left town for the holidays or moved away.

My ex-boyfriend and I quickly realized whatever sparks we’d once shared were long burnt out. But we decided to spend the evening together anyway, drinking and commiserating about our shared directionlessness and the weird uncertainty of life in your early twenties.

I wore a well-loved black-and-silver Urban Outfitters dress I’d snagged for $8 at a thrift store, a black peacoat I’d owned since high school, and tights filled with tiny runs I’d attempted to repair with clear nail polish. Concerned about the cost of drinks, we knocked back shots of cheap vodka in my miniscule apartment kitchen until we felt sufficiently toasty.

A few years later, Uber and Lyft would land on the scene, nearly eradicating yellow cabs from big cities and funky little college towns alike. But in Athens, Ga., on December 31, 2009, we dialed a string of cab companies until, thirty minutes later, a van already packed full of drunken college kids pulled up outside my building.

At each stop, people would stumble out onto the sidewalk, pull a wad of crumpled bills from their pockets, and painstakingly count out their fare to our exhausted driver.

That night, I drank too much and threw up in a parking lot just minutes after midnight. My ex-boyfriend-friend — a sweet guy who, a few years later, married a pretty girl and became a stepfather — helped me into a cab.

I remember looking out the window on the ride home, wondering whether I’d always feel so alone.

My roommate was still away on her holiday break, and our little apartment was cold, dark, and far too quiet. The cheap Christmas decorations we’d hung before my graduation party now looked more menacing than cheerful, catching the subdued glow of the sodium lamp outside my window.

I fell into bed — a mattress on the floor in the middle of a room surrounded by pilfered band posters, trite prints of Manhattan, and dollar store twinkle lights.

At the end of the last decade, I was fully immersed in the limbo between college and real life, finally coming to terms with the impossibility of starting anew in New York or Chicago like I’d once imagined. My grand notions of seeing the world fizzled in the face of record-high unemployment rates, a mountain of student debt, and a litany of job rejections or canned responses about hiring freezes.

Some of my friends were getting engaged, and a few joined the Peace Corps. But, by early 2010 — when employers simultaneously demanded years of experience but refused to give it — most of my fellow graduates were moving back in with their parents.

I spent most of my days either basking in the exhilaration of being young and alive, or paralyzed with fear of the unknown.

I opted to stay in Athens, working nights at a call center, drinking PBR in sleepy dive bars, and writing album reviews for $10 and a free record. I spent most of my days either basking in the exhilaration of being young and alive, or paralyzed with fear of the unknown.

Of course, there was no way for me to know, in those strange, early hours of 2010, how the decade would unfold.

I didn’t know that, four months later, amid the overstated glitz and neon lights of Vegas, I’d reconnect with an adorable guy I’d kissed at a party three years before. That we’d start a conversation at a hotel bar and never stop talking.

Or that, despite telling myself I was done with relationships and the whole notion of falling in love, being with him felt like coming home. And less than four years later, on a beautiful Appalachian fall day, I’d become his wife.

I didn’t know that, after a few years of barely making ends meet, our careers would take off all at once and we’d move a thousand miles west to start a whole new life.

I didn’t know we’d be ringing in the midpoint of this past decade at a sprawling biergarten in Austin, Texas, our new home, surrounded by old and new friends. Or that’d we’d end the decade in the desert outside Marfa, under the biggest sky I’ve ever seen.

Wallowing in the bleakness of the recession and 10% unemployment rate, I didn’t know that, within the year, I’d land my first content marketing job and a series of paid freelance journalism gigs. Or that, in 2018, I’d start my own business as a writer and strategist, work harder than ever before, and pull in six-figures for the first time in my life.

I didn’t know, but probably could have guessed, that sometimes things would get really shitty, and I’d once again sink into bouts of panic and darkness — but, this time, I’d have a partner who would sit with me, without judgment, and help me work things out.

And I didn’t know that, eventually, a doctor would give those shitty feelings a name, thereby launching years of introspection, therapy, and healing — all of which continue today.

Sitting in my freezing, lonely apartment on January 1, 2010, I didn’t know that, eight months later, I’d adopt a tiny gray kitten and never again come home to a lonely apartment.

Or that, six years later, my husband and I would buy a little house in a quiet, old neighborhood on the Southside of town and spend years fixing it up. That we’d throw a plethora of wild parties, hosting friends who often feel more like family, and roll out air mattresses when those rowdy nights ran a little too late.

I didn’t know these things then, waking up to an obnoxious BlackBerry alarm and a wicked hangover. But I knew that, no matter what happened, I’d spend the next ten years living a lot of life.

Standing on the brink of another new decade, I can safely say life looks different than it did ten years ago today. I started this decade a lost-yet-hopeful 22-year-old kid, but I’m ending it a much more centered and self-assured adult with laugh lines and a mortgage.

I’ve learned you can’t even begin to envision what life has in store, and, sometimes you have to resign yourself to the unknown.

I don’t know what good fortunes and tragedies await in the decade ahead, but I do know that, once again, a new phase of life is preparing to unfold. Bring it.

Freelance writer, editorial strategist, certified nutritionist, mental health advocate, and relentlessly curious human.