Before I started social distancing, I was shopping online for Transatlantic cruises. I was staying at my grandmother’s house in D.C. for awhile, and wasn’t paying rent.
A trip across the sea seemed like something I could blow my money on.
“Do it,” my grandmother said, encouragingly. Regaling me with stories of trips she and her sister took across Europe during their 20s, right before she married my grandfather, she insisted this was an essential experience.
I had just turned 25, and something like this seemed long-overdue. “It’s good for girls your age to travel.”
As I watched the coronavirus spread across Europe, and then to the United States, I started to realize that travel wouldn’t be in my future. Not for a couple months, at least.
Then, I caught a virus that seemed a lot like COVID-19, but I wasn’t sick enough to get a test to confirm, though the illness was painful enough to strike fear inside of me. Regardless of what the government said, I thought, coughing and clutching my aching stomach, I wouldn’t be going anywhere for several months, and maybe even a few years.
Everyone tells you that your 20s are this magically beautiful and tragic time. It’s when you try new things—new jobs, new loves, new friends, new cities—and sometimes fail at them, but eventually, you find where you’re supposed to be. Even if it’s back where you started.
But now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, so many people aren’t able to discover that about themselves. It’s hard to focus on trying to achieve certain goals, or having wonderful life experiences, when unfathomable numbers of the dead are being announced every day.
Every day since this crisis started, pieces of what I thought my life would look like have been floating away. I thought I’d be travelling up and down the coast to see my friends in New York and Boston. I thought I’d be going to concerts, and letting cute guys buy me drinks. I thought I’d be speaking at universities and going on reporting trips. I thought I’d be cozily nestled in a corner booth of a coffee shop somewhere, working on my first book.
But none of that is going to happen, not for a very long time. COVID-19 has stolen my 20s. Or at least, my idea of them.
Long before COVID-19, other traumas snatched away at my 20s. My mother’s abuse, followed by her cutting me off financially and refusing to let me see my father or my siblings, upended my life and sense of self. I endured two sexual assaults during college that destabilized my academic and social life, keeping me from going on study abroad programs or forging close relationships, or getting good grades. And I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which began the quick and easy work of ravaging my fragile brain.
As if through a veil, I watched as my friends, family, and boyfriends all met the challenge of their 20s with a fierceness. Through mist, I would see them having fun, loving their lives. I would try to reach through the veil, try to grasp at them, to feel what they felt, to go where they went. But I couldn’t.
My 20s were spent in constant turmoil.
Then, after I started healing from a suicide attempt in November while living in Denver, I felt a freedom descend upon me. For the first time in my life, I had an ideal combination of good fortune when it came to my mental health. The right medicines, the right therapists. Closure with my mother. Money to burn. No monsters peeking out of the closet.
Finally, I felt I might experience my 20s the way I thought all “normal” people in my social groups did. I felt that true happiness might be waiting for me.
In Denver, I would sometimes walk around my neighbourhood, looking at the magnificent beauty surrounding me, and I’d sob, feeling that maybe there was something beyond these mountains that would take away this despair that had haunted me for so long. I’d trace my fingers across a map, praying the names of places where I thought salvation was. New York, London, Chicago, Toronto. Big, cold cities. Cities where it seemed glamourous 20-somethings congregated to worship at the altar of youth and professional ambition.
When I went back East, to D.C. and New York on some weekends, I went to the work meetings and the brunches and the basketball games and the dinners and the plays and the day trips. They were welcome distractions, convincing me that I had managed to put together something resembling a happy life.
And then, the coronavirus whispered through the air, clung to hands, lay dormant on surfaces. It killed many who came in contact with it, while our government did— and still does—next to nothing. There are more than 90,000 people dead now, people whose lives were stolen by a virus, by government neglect.
When I first entered self-isolation, the constant stories of death left me in turmoil and fear. But so did the sense that something critical had been stolen from me, the opportunity to experience my youth as I had longed. The chance to heal from my trauma, to be happy. I was losing time, along with all the dreams I had for my future. And if some of the worst climate projections come to pass, crises like these would continue to follow me.
I despaired, and at a few points, considered taking my own life again.
But then, I realized that I wasn’t really mourning those lovely things, things that COVID-19 has shown me can all be taken away in an instant. Beneath them, I was seeking the lasting things.
I missed my career in journalism, which is tanking along with the budgets of news publications. But I realized that I got into this to help women like me, women who are mentally ill and have been abused. So, I started working towards something I’ve wanted for so long—becoming a midwife—but never did because I was scared of failure.
I longed for brunches, but realized that I was missing human connection. So I started to work on my friendships with more intentionality and depth than ever before. I wanted to travel because I wanted to feel awe, so I’m planning on going on long drives with my dad, just to marvel at nature. I revisited my dreams of living in a big city, so I’ve started mapping out a life for myself in New York or Chicago that would be my own.
My biggest realization was that I wanted to be happy because I wanted to be alive, and to live well. And so in the midst of this global crisis, I turned my head away from what I thought my 20s would be defined by and towards what it will be: Survival.
There’s nothing wrong with the things I was chasing, and I hope to one day have them back in my life. Travel. Date. Work. Rinse. Repeat. But the truth is, they were a mirage without substance. I don’t need them to be happy, because as it turns out, a constant state of happiness isn’t what I’m after. We all deserve those fleeting and delicious moments. But I’m looking for peace. Peace in my life, peace in my mind, peace in my soul. And I think I got it.
Due to COVID-19 and the ever-increasing dangers of the climate crisis, the idea of what I thought my 20s would like is dead. My life will instead be spent in survival mode. I’ll be trying to survive viruses, serving my communities, fighting a corrupt government, and preparing for natural disasters.
It should devastate me, but it doesn’t. It brings me peace. I feel strong, and somewhat ready.
Follow Nylah on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on VICE CA.