My twenties were a series of tragedies punctuated by a near-fatal catastrophe – a stomach-turning roller coaster with a steep drop at the end.
Fresh out of college at age 22, I was finally out of the house and into the real world. I had a good job, a great girl and a charmingly dingy apartment in a forever-up-and-coming section of Brooklyn. I was well on my way to full adulthood.
And then I started losing my eyesight.
What followed was a two-year parade of optometrists, ophthalmologists, neuro-ophthalmologists and neurologists ordering blood work, visual field tests, CT Scans, MRIs, ERGs (electroretinographies) and even a spinal tap. While my peers were advancing in their careers and making plans for the future, I was stumping doctors with seven-syllable titles and facing the prospect of potentially going blind.
And then, as suddenly and inexplicably as my eyesight had started deteriorating, it stopped getting worse. It tapered off at about 20/50 corrected – bad, but not debilitating.
Perhaps a more emotionally mature 25-year-old could have emerged from this sort of elongated, potentially life-ruining health scare mentally intact – at least enough to make the transition back into concerning himself with the usual day-to-day concerns. I tried to shake it off and rededicate myself to my career, my (somehow still) girlfriend, my present blessings and future prospects.
I just couldn’t. Over the next two years a depressive fog fell over me, an anxious, joyless and increasingly sleepless spell that culminated in a nervous breakdown and hospitalization for exhaustion. On admission at the ER, I had lost 35 pounds in six months, and hadn’t slept in eight full days.
Four months later – and despite me looking like a skeleton in a tuxedo – my (unbelievably still) girlfriend and I got married. If I couldn’t grow myself into adulthood, I would marry myself into it.
My wife hadn’t gotten married; she had adopted a 28-year-old manchild. The arguments came early and often – spats made irreconcilable by the fact that only one of two participants was really an adult. The first year of marriage was increasingly loud.
The next three were an alcoholic blur. Social drinking begat drinking to calm my nerves, which begat drinking to curb insomnia, which begat drinking to distract myself from my failing marriage. In three sharply spiraling years I became, in no particular order, a liar, a thief, an (even more insufferable) jerk, unemployed, institutionalized for precisely 28 days, suicidal, deeply in debt and nearly divorced.
Delayed by a Decade
My adult life effectively began on October 10, 2011. The previous night, I had sideswiped a taxi in the Holland Tunnel and, after speeding off, the NYPD intervened. Beer cans littered my car. I blew a .18 – more than twice the legal limit – earning myself an overnight stay in jail. I was 32 years old.
To borrow a frequently espoused alcoholic platitude, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
But don’t worry – this isn’t another cookie-cutter recovery story. In fact, it’s not a recovery story at all, because my life leading up to October 10, 2011, wasn’t worth reclaiming. Simply put, I had never grown up, and was now faced with the prospect of quitting both alcohol and adolescence. The former has been far easier: I haven’t had a drink in nearly four years.
What I have had is a perpetual stream of raw (read: non-sedated) emotions, sound advice, challenges and camaraderie that, together, have taught life lessons that should have been learned a solid decade ago. A vital aspect of adulthood is living in truth, and I had – somewhat understandably, in hindsight – parted ways with reality somewhere between graduating college and going partially blind.
The truth did, and often still does, hurt. And the sad facts weren’t just the threat of losing another newly-landed job to alcoholism, or a (completely inexplicably still) wife exhausted with worry, or a family whose faith in me had been reduced to near-zero. Those are tangibles, and tangibles usually can be repaired through positive, persistent action.
The toughest truth was me. The truth was that I was less mature at 32 than most men in their early 20s. The truth was that I completely lacked the emotional, experiential and interpersonal skills necessary to be a loving husband, a responsible coworker, a reliable family member or friend… because the truth was that instead of moving toward manhood I had run away from it. And the truth was that I absolutely hated myself for those truths.
In your 20s, following the fine examples of others into manhood is, I can only assume, a rewarding, albeit necessarily humbling, rite of passage. Doing so in your 30s after having pissed away your 20s is, by contrast, demeaning and remedial. Every dose of manhood I absorbed – primarily through my AA sponsor and other men with longstanding sobriety – brought with it a side-effect of regret. I pretty much forfeited a full decade of the prime of my life, and I am only now beginning to forgive myself for that hardest of truths.
There are, however, upsides to my late-blooming manhood. For starters, my marriage is not only repaired but renewed, because the dynamic – two adults, where before there was only one – has shifted so dramatically. The result is a freakish sort of freshness: though together for 17 years, and married for eight, we are just now getting to really know each other. Fortunately – and luck definitely plays into this, at least a little – each of us is discovering that we chose a highly suitable life partner bound by a mix of shared values and dovetailing interests. It’s been said that a healthy marriage needs to stay fresh; our union has achieved this sense of novelty largely through my four-year delay in truly joining it.
The other big-ticket tangible, my career, has been similarly satisfying. I’ve held my current executive position for slightly longer than I’ve been sober. So considering my aforementioned manhood birthday, I’ve literally grown up here.
The result has been proof positive that a boy can’t be sent to do a man’s job. Men are responsible while boys are unreliable, and collected where boys panic. Men are diplomatic rather than divisive. Men’s don’t gossip. Men learn from mistakes, whereas boys often repeat them. My growth from a seemingly perpetual novice to a disciplined, polished professional is among my starkest, most gratifying transformations thus far.
But again, these are tangibles. The biggest blessings from coming to manhood late have been internal. Most important has been an unflinching dedication to moving forward with life rather than ruing or running away from it.
I suppose it’s normal – it must be, I see it in my same-aged friends – for men approaching middle age to feel a bit cornered by manhood’s mounting responsibilities. Partying, womanizing and the relative ease of entry-level employment have given way to wives, children and demanding management positions. They have a lot to be happy for, but part of them yearns for a youthful freedom that has been incrementally revoked.
Not only do I mourn no such past, I have the entirely opposite perspective. It’s no exaggeration that I could have died in my 20s; it was a decade-long gauntlet, one from which I emerged – bloodied but, with a lot of help from others, still upright – with a healthy fear of ever back-sliding into such a pit. As a result, not only are the challenges of a decidedly more normal, mundane life far less daunting, they are also more inviting. I’ll take boring in a heartbeat, thank you very much.
Where I am now is somewhere between stronger for not being killed and too scared straight to look behind me. It is where I imagine many late-blooming men find themselves, a weird blend of the wicked and the wonderful. We have nowhere left to run, and lost time to make up. For a man, the only place to run is forward.
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