Dear Clementine

Are you struggling to find your place in this world? Read our life advice for a 23-year-old.

Image Credit: Erika Raxworthy

Dear Clementine,

I'm having a pre-birthday break down. I'm going to be 23 the first week of April and I need your advice. I'm stuck the same job I've been at for 3 years, making the same pathetic income with no benefits and no health insurance. I haven't finished college and I'm stuck in the cycle of the working poor. I haven't been to a doctor since I was 16 and for all I know I could be walking around with Cancer for goodness sake. But that's not the half of it.

I was born and raised (or rather, abandoned) in New York City. I have never left this town and I'm feeling extremely depressed. My parents were junkies, my childhood was a mess, so I'm trying to make my adult life picture perfect and it's turning into a suicide note. I want to be better than my parents but tackling poverty in the current moment is incredibly difficult. When you don't have two dimes to rub together, you need to be incredibly crafty, have the most charming personality and I don't have any of those things - only an endless supply of self-pity. I was never taught how to balance a checkbook, how to keep emotions at bay, or anything that a normal parent would teach you - so I'm constantly feeling overwhelmed. I'm sinking into quicksand and some days I want to throw myself in front of a train. I don't make enough money to live here, in my horrible, far off the Hipster path Brooklyn apartment filled with vermin - and I am not making enough money to save anything to leave NYC. I feel trapped, I feel suicidal. I feel like all my childhood dreams have a fierce rival.

I understand comparison is the thief of joy but I can't stop feeling pity for myself that I haven't been like one of my friends that have traveled the world, or even like my out of town friends that have moved to NYC - they walk around this town with such wonder (and mostly with full wallets). I'm only getting older and there's so much confusion in my life.

How can I gain clarity with what seems like dull tools at my disposal? How can I be positive when my whole life has been negative? How can you pull yourself up by the bootstraps when most days you want to give up?

Yours truly,
Requiem for a Dream

Oh, Dreamer. My heart is racing and I'm looking frantically around my office for some sort of something to scoop you out of this sadness and poring over my list of angels in New York and thinking like mad for just one damn safety net that can catch you as you fall…and I don't know how I can fix you. It's one of the dangers of being an advice-offerer: just when I start flying through these what-should-I-dos about bad manners and extramarital affairs and feeling like a horrible mother, a question like yours comes along and steals all the wind from the sky. I seem to have lost my wings. So let's walk through this together, okay?

I'm dizzy with where you've been and where you should be. In my mind, these are two very different locations, and yet you seem utterly stuck in a place where they're one and the same. If you look at your life so far as a road, the first part of your journey has been pretty rough terrain. No directions, no GPS that suggests sweetly to veer right now, no roadside picnics, no goofy Instagram shots of you wearing funny glasses and buying a snow globe and corn dogs in a far-from-everything truck stop, no shortage of flat tires and overheated radiators, and no highway lights or workable wipers to help you see all the turnoffs you're missing. You're driving around in circles, aren't you? No matter which turn you take or how fast you drive away, you're always finding yourself pulling back on empty into your beginning.

First, I want to tell you I'm sorry about that. And second, I want you to pull over, take the keys out of the ignition, get out of that car, and start walking in another direction. I want you to take your time – just a few shaky steps each day toward your new destination until you're able to sprint for it. No matter how dark it gets or how much your legs ache from carrying you away, keep going. You've got to get away from where you are.

No disrespect to New York City, but that is not the easiest town in which to live. There's a reason for the lyric, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere." It's tough. Don't be embarrassed to sing a different tune, like "If I can't make it there, I'll make it somewhere else." Get out of there, kid. You tell me you can't afford to leave, but I say you can't afford to stay.

To me, that feels like it should be goal number one, and I don't suggest this lightly; I am always on the side of staying put and gutting it out. One of my favorite quotes, actually, is from Neil Gaiman: "People who believe they'll be happy if they go and live somewhere else, learn it doesn't work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you." But I've lived all over the world. I've seen poor like you can't even imagine and I've seen hopeless that would take all your hope away. And there are much easier places to be poor and hopeless than New York. It's just the truth. Plus, I honestly don't believe you're the problem here: you're a proven survivor. I think you'd be perfectly happy in a postcard place that didn't cost you your life to live there…where the weather is fine…wish you were here.

Let me tell you a story. A good friend recently found herself smack in the middle of an I-have-no-education-and-no-worthwhile-skills crisis, which coincided horribly with a nasty breakup and no more shared rent. No one knew how to help her; there was just too much wrong to make right. But after living low for what seemed like a very long time, she decided to fight for the life she deserves. First, she moved to a place where she could wear less, spend less, and need less. She found a job she didn't particularly want, and a place to live even smaller than that. Then she mustered up the courage to walk into as many restaurants and salons and random shops as she could, looking for an off-hours opportunity for an apprenticeship, and is now hostessing for no pay at a tiny diner in exchange for line-cook lessons. Your heart would crack open at her updates – not because she's learned how to make biscuits and gravy or a perfectly fried egg sandwich, but because she is learning how to change her course. Her life is finally feeding her.

It's exactly the story I'm hoping you'll write for yourself. Life is so hard, and the way you've been living it – or the way it's been living you – is just not working out. So that suicide note you believe to be your story? Tear it up. Burn it. You can write something better. It's not going to be easy – and, oh my goodness, at times it's going to be unbearable – but I believe in you.

I want you to remember that you're not alone. I guarantee someone has been exactly where you are, and worse off, even. I know this because every time I Google "Does lower back pain on the right mean that I have incurable cancer and is it too late to do anything about that if I'm already feeling pain or is it just a pulled muscle?", someone else has Googled the exact. same. thing. And no one knows how to balance a check book. I know this because I don't know how to balance a checkbook and also I Googled that, too, and there are so many tutorials out there just for people like us. I guess it's just what I do whenever I'm feeling alone or overwhelmed and uncertain about life. I Google it. And I find a million other people who are worrying about every big and small bit of life. Someone's always been exactly where you are. Even lower. That comforts me.

I remember sinking for a period in my early twenties, too, and I remember it hurt a lot and I remember I had no clue how to stop drowning. There were moments I thought of letting the waves swallow me, but always more moments when I thought I should just kick harder. I don't know when or how, but one day I just decided that I was meant for more, and I should be living a flat-out fantastic life. From that moment on, I've spent my life magnetized to happiness. It's my North, South, East, and West. Every so often, I've got to shake my compass a little to find my way again, but it's always worth it.

I feel rotten that I've got no concrete directions to give you. I swear, I would write them for you on every billboard along every highway if I felt like that would get you where you need to be. But you're 23, Dreamer. Although it feels ancient to you, I am here to tell you life starts to really happen right about now. This is the perfect time to begin again. Take risks, change every rule you've followed so far, and ask for what you need even when it makes you blush. You can't do anything about the parents you got or the path you've been traveling so far, but you can do a hell of a lot with the life you were given.


p.s. If you're experiencing feelings of suicide, please call 1-800-273-8255, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We'll be here, sending a multitude of prayers your way.