Turning 20, With Concerns Beyond Number

By Sophia Choukas-Bradley
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, December 4, 2006

When I was a teenager, one of my biggest fears was never talked about by my parents or teachers or friends. It was the fear of writing the first five words of this paragraph -- "when I was a teenager."

No one warns you that you might develop a fear of turning 20.

As a child, my birthday was my favorite day of the year and I would count the days leading up to it with joyful anticipation. Once I hit the age of 11, that special day took on new meaning: It not only brought presents and attention from family and friends, but it also brought me closer to new privileges -- dating, driving, staying out late.

Teenage birthdays bring a special thrill. At Sweet Sixteen you can get your driver's license. At 17 you are able to see R-rated movies. At 18 you can vote, legally declare independence from your parents, sign forms on your own, buy cigarettes.

Then comes 20. You aren't really an adult yet, but after seven long years, suddenly you are no longer a teenager either. You are in your -- yikes -- 20s.

When I was 18, my boyfriend turned 20. I never understood why he got so upset every time I said, "It's so awesome that you're turning 20!" He'd say, "Stop it. How can I be 20?" Here was a responsible and mature student who was about to spend his summer in China. What more could you ask for on your 20th birthday?

Then I panicked the day I turned 19 3/4 . Suddenly I had just three months left to be a teenager and so many things I had never learned how to do. I wasn't ready to be 20.

Sure, I'd accomplished a lot. I was at Brown University and had big plans for my future -- work hard in all my courses, teach after college, then go to grad school in psychology, start a clinical practice, and write and write and write about it. Many people enter their 20s having no long-term goals. I had plenty.

But I was about to turn 20, and I still didn't know how to change a tire or start a fire. I could barely cook or sew. I understood very little about government and politics. I didn't know how to straighten my hair or put on eyeliner. I didn't know CPR. I couldn't imagine raising a child.

As I watch friend after friend approach the big two-oh, I realize this is a widespread fear. All we want is to turn 21 until we realize we're about to lose our teenage years.

One of my 18-year-old friends started preparing early. Her first step toward acceptance was changing the name of the dreaded year to "twenteen." That way it doesn't seem quite so scary.

My 20th birthday came and went, and once I'd made it past the big day, I realized that nothing was different at all. I was still a college student who was financially dependent on her parents. I was still a minor when it came to alcohol. No one's expectations for me had changed.

Perhaps a fear of turning 20 seems incomprehensible to those who already have passed this milestone, but is it any different from the dread of each decade shift thereafter? The 30th, 40th and 50th birthdays are widely acknowledged as potential sources of anxiety and depression. When we enter a new decade, we feel that we are leaving an era, and we are reminded of the opportunities we have lost along the way, and of the moments we will never relive. The changes aren't tangible but the feelings they bring are real.

What worried me most about turning 20 was that it would mark my failure to fulfill my No. 1 goal thus far -- publishing a piece of my writing while I was still a child or teenager, in something other than a school publication. As my birthday drew near, I recalled all of my unfinished writing projects -- the parenting-book-written-by-a-child I began in fourth grade, the short novel I wrote in seventh grade about middle schoolers who shoplifted, the detailed journal I kept from sixth grade on with a dream of one day sharing my experiences with the world. As I remembered these childhood undertakings, I was filled with a sense of sadness at my lost opportunities, shame that I had not fulfilled my dream, and desperation that I had yet to produce a brilliant piece of writing that would make people read what I had to say and think, "Wow, she's only 19?"

Then, this past summer, everything changed. For six weeks I worked as a counselor at a residential treatment program for children and adolescents with serious emotional disturbances. Some of the kids were 7 years old, but others were 19, even 20. Some of the counselors were as young as I was, but others were in their late 20s or 30s. At first I felt like an impostor, a twenteen-year-old wearing a staff name tag that somehow placed me in the category of "adult."

I quickly realized the magnitude of my responsibilities. As a caretaker and therapist for a group of 11 adolescent girls, I helped them get dressed and ready in the morning, engaged them in athletic and artistic activities and in group therapy, talked with them about their home lives, helped them with schoolwork and took care of their basic needs. As I challenged the girls to think about the ways they viewed themselves and the choices they faced, my view of my own life began to shift.

One afternoon I spent time outside with a girl who had become restless during geometry class. We sat on a picnic table and I taught her about rays, line segments and angles using the ridges and corners of the table. As I explained the difference between a line and a line segment, she looked up at me and said, "How old are you -- 28?" I smiled. There was no escaping the fact that I was an adult in their eyes, no different from the older staff. And slowly I became an adult in my own eyes as well.

I still don't know how to change a tire or start a fire, but in the months since I turned 20, I've grown in ways I never anticipated. After spending the summer learning firsthand about the challenges so many young people face, my battle with the big two-oh doesn't seem so significant. Publishing a piece of my writing no longer seems like the biggest deal in the world, either. Still, I'm pleased to be only 20 and to know you're reading what I have to say, even if I can't celebrate with a glass of wine.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company