Advice: How Do I Make Up For My Lost Years?

A 30 year old feels like they started their life ten years too late. But their grief is the natural byproduct of growth.

Starting with a severe depressive episode in college, and for pretty much the next ten years after, I was in a slump barely getting through each day. I ended up dropping out of school. There were a lot of low points but eventually I started working as an illustrator. Living in a cheap city and having some savings meant I was able to get by without having to try very hard. I just turned 30. A year ago I finally got on an antidepressant and it was like someone had changed the settings on my operating system. It helped enough that I could get a handle on things and have the energy to make a lot of overdue lifestyle changes. Now I’m the healthiest I’ve been in a long time (exercise, eating better, sleep etc.) and it shows. I’m working on bigger projects and earning more than I used to. I hang out more with friends and even have hobbies. The change has been so dramatic I can’t help but feel like I got robbed. I wasted so much time being depressed. My twenties are a blur. I wish I’d gotten help sooner. I wish I’d known how to so I could have avoided spending years feeling like a failure. It took less than a few months for me to feel the difference antidepressants made. And in a year my whole life improved. Now I live with this huge sense of loss and regret. I was a smart kid. I went to a really good school before my depressed ass dropped out. I lost so many opportunities, relationships, and potential to the time I wasted avoiding treatment. Part of me feels like I’ll never be able to make up for it. Like I’ll always be ten years late to my own life. I became a freelancer because illustrating is one of the few things you can still do from bed. I’m good at it and it felt good to do. People like my work. And I love doing it. But it’s also something I only started doing because I couldn’t hold down a more regular job in the past. I keep wondering what I could've done, who I could've been had I gotten better sooner. I know I’ve been lucky. But it weighs on me to know things could’ve been different. How do I make up for lost time? 

You only feel you “lost” something because you keep inventing what you could have done or had. You’re in a time of your life without the darkness of your past and you’re choosing to bring it with you by theorizing the loss of something you never actually had. If you’re referring to potential, embrace all the potential you’ve just created for yourself by getting better. That was the potential you had. And you fulfilled it. In the process you’ve also multiplied the potential your future holds. Is it really fair to write off an entire decade of your life because it deviated from an idea of yourself you’ve just hypothesized?

You could create endless alternate life paths this way while the one you’re in moves without your active participation. This is the time to live deliberately. It doesn’t sound like you’re unhappy with your life. It sounds like you’re in the process of evaluating the time you spent sick and wondering if perhaps you shouldn’t be happy with the life you have now.

I understand it’s been a revelation to treat your depression. Your newly increased functionality is making it hard to accept the way you once lived. It’s heartbreaking to consider how much pain you could have avoided. We don’t talk about ‘beating depression’ the way we talk about beating cancer but you deserve some recognition. You don’t need to make up for “lost time”, you need to give yourself permission to find satisfaction right now.

Growth often feels a little bad before it feels good because it necessitates a grieving period. You’re in one now. When we transform, even for the better, we must grieve the people we once were; their ignorance, their circumstances. You can grieve the painful times, the opportunities, relationships, and experiences you mention. Remember too that you’ve lived beyond them. Don’t dwell. 

The commitment of “in sickness and in health” exists most inviolably between us and ourselves. Your question isn’t actually about time. It's about identity. It sounds like the gains you’ve made inspire a mix of self pity and shame (which are usually twinned). Your depressed self may have been meaningfully different from you who are now, but it was still you. Not a version of you that doesn't count. You aren’t in debt to a promise made in youth that you didn’t make good on. You did what you could when you could. Your life before accommodated your illness and your life now prioritizes your wellness. Who you are isn’t defined by either condition.

What you do for a living doesn’t define you either. As you’re discovering, there is so much more to you and your life. You know how lucky you are to be able to share your talents in a way you love. That is a rare type of success. If the work is satisfying then continue doing it with confidence. Don’t look for a reason to feel insecure if you don’t need to be.

Maybe you might have had a different career at this point. But instead you had the opportunity to discover a unique talent and time to nurture it. By being blocked from some parts of yourself you were able to discover others. Does that sound like time wasted? I don’t believe in forcing people to find silver linings. I believe in finding ways to live as best we can and you’ve done exactly that, both now and before.

Even if you’d reached your 30s with truly nothing positive you could point to, it still wouldn’t have been ‘wasted” time. Things take the time they need and happen when they can. There’s nothing “late” or “early” about the timeline of your life unless you were given a call sheet at birth. You’re young. Right now your twenties feel like a massive part of your life. In a few years they won’t. For all kinds of reasons many people consider their twenties ‘lost’ in one way or another. During that time our brains are still developing, which is why mental illness tends to appear then too. It’s more helpful to consider our twenties a second puberty than it is to expect our lives to be a certain way by then.

There’s a phrase I want to introduce to you, from this:

It’s one of my favorite clips. For those who haven’t seen it, on a British morning show an Italian chef prepares some pasta for the hosts. As they’re all tasting the dish one of the hosts remarks that with a few tweaks to the recipe it would be a different pasta dish. The aghast Italian chef replies, “If my grandmother had wheels she would be a bike.” Whenever you catch yourself wondering what a version of you who made different choices would be doing, just tell yourself if your grandmother had wheels she would be a bike. It perfectly articulates the absurdity of looking at things as what they aren’t instead of what they are.

We all would be different people in different circumstances. And it can be tempting to cope with difficult circumstances by mourning the people we would have been without them. But you cannot organize your days around regret. Despite the ways we’re shaped by trauma, we are more just what trauma leaves behind. There is more to who you are than your struggles with mental illness, even if it is part of your story too. Thanks to your efforts, you have so much life ahead of you. And, unlike many people on the planet, you’re in control of it. Stop looking for yourself in the past, you don’t live there anymore.

The tension you’re burdened by lives between you and your present. For the first time in a long time you have a sense of possibility for your future. Which means the uncertain future suddenly has stakes. That may intimidate you. By analyzing your past you could be attempting to seek grounding on more familiar territory. The present is the time you need to deal with, it’s the only time you can act on. 

I’ve said before I recommend against speaking about time as if it’s something that can be budgeted, that would imply we know how much we have. If there are ways to waste it, surely regret is one of them. Not because we should live our lives in fear of it (which equally allows it to direct your life), but because it postpones acceptance. It pulls you away from the time you still have available.

What do you want for your future? Luxuriate a little in the question. Enjoy wanting a future. The value you’re seeking to recover from your past exists in the life you’re living now. All you owe is continuing to take good care of yourself. And you owe it to the person who succeeded in the only thing they owed you—they survived. 

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