Reclaiming my Youth
You know that feeling when you suddenly realise you’re doing a PhD and nearly everyone you know is pregnant? Yeah, me too.
In my early twenties, I saw the sun rising and setting over foreign lands. I saw breathtaking views from atop canyons and waterfalls. I saw people laughing and smiling as their dirty feet ambled down unpaved streets, and the perspective was always my own. For a while, I made this imagination reality – even while completing my degree. I utilised each and every uni-holiday period to explore countries a short plane ride from Australia, and then when I graduated, I went further. After a adventurous year in Central America, living free of responsibilities, I felt like I wanted to use my brain again, so I returned home to write an Honours dissertation “just to see if I could do it”. Turned out I could. I was offered a considerable amount of money to continue, to commit myself to a further 3.5 years, which would raise my total to 7.5 years of full-time study.
“No way,” I said. “I have big plans for my twenties, and they do not involve being tied to my computer in Brisbane.”
Instead, I got a job, saved money and left again, but this trip wasn’t quite what I was expecting; there were a lot less stunning views and nature walks, and a few-too-many hectic Aussies on their first Euro-trip finally finding the world of party drugs. I felt out of place and wondered if the backpacking culture of yore was dead, trampled by a hoard of pinger-popping, beer-skulling young Australians who will do anything to prove how “cooked” they are and how much they don’t-give-a-fuck. When I returned home, destitute and rattled, I found out that the weekly PhD scholarship had started paying into my account even though I had declined the offer. I told myself it was fate. Judith in accounting had fucked up, and it obviously meant that I should take this incredible opportunity (and it really is incredible) on the spot.
Thus it began. Every since that day, no matter what I’m doing, there is a part of my brain that’s only purpose is to repeat the mantra “you should be studying, you should be studying, you should be studying”. Even though I still try to maintain other aspects of my life and relax at times, my mind has a default setting that is constantly preoccupied with my research. I am always so busy that time is passing like I am on autopilot. I can feel myself becoming a serious and somewhat anxious person due to the worry associated with trying to write a 90-thousand-word book. Additionally, this year, more than ever before, I have found myself in conversations with people who are contemplating buying property, or at least referring to the notion that maybe they “should” be. So many friends have had babies, and others are talking about getting pregnant. Without realising, my surroundings are metamorphosing me into an adult. Like, an adult adult, with worries and obligations about work. I can feel the joy I used to experience every morning as I wondered what the day would bring slowly slipping away as I wake up with thoughts crammed in queue waiting to burst into my mind. And I’m only 25.
I have been too busy to reflect on this, however, until last week when a friend said something that made me feel as though my head was being dunked in a bucket of icy water. We were chatting about a trip we would like to do together, and I was hypothesising whether I could do a PhD on the road (probably wouldn’t go down well with my supervisors). The other option was to wait until afterwards.
“When’s afterwards?” she asked. “When I am 28-and-a-half, if everything goes well.” I replied, deadpan.
“That’s a big commitment to make at this age, especially if you want to keep developing a career afterwards, and have kids… you basically have the next 25 years of your life accounted for.”
It all came back to me, in crashing waves, the images of what I wanted for life in my twenties that I hadn’t yet experienced. I wanted to live in another Spanish-speaking country to keep learning the language; I wanted to do a season of snowboarding; I wanted to be swept up in the excitement of spontaneity. Instead, I got swept up in the satisfaction of achievement and the benefits of security.
Don’t get me wrong. I really do want to do my PhD. I love to write and to research, and so far these seem to be my only marketable abilities. I love the idea of being called “Doctor”, and perhaps being an expert in my field. Also, what I am researching is truly important and I am incredibly passionate about it, which is why making the decision to decline for a second time seemed impossible. I have the freedom to work from home (the dream, in relation to work-themed dreams) doing something I really do care about. But have I given enough thought as to whether I need to do it now, or have I just forged forward because the opportunity was handed to me?
Throughout my life, I’ve repeatedly heard the comment, “You don’t have to go everywhere all at once – you have your whole life to travel.” But to me, this isn’t true – not in the way I want to travel anyway. Yes, I will still go overseas when I’m older, but it will never be the in the same way as it is now. I won’t always be as able bodied – I’ll get older and my joints will ache; I’ll be less willing to sleep on the floor in airports, handle 24-hour bus rides or take up an extreme sport. I won’t always be responsible for only myself – I will have children one day, and travelling with kids, although totally doable, is a whole different experience, not to mention more expensive. I won’t always be able to walk out on my life and then pick it back up when I return. The older you get, the more stability you seem to need, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s evidence to why travelling as a young person is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
It’s a big decision to ditch such an incredible learning opportunity, especially when I am being paid, so I haven’t rushed straight out the door to quit just yet. I think I will at least finish this year and then defer for a while to try and revert the crease of concern developing in my brow. I wholeheartedly believe that there is only a certain period of prime travelling years, and I’m not ready for them to be over yet. When people tell me you have the rest of your life to travel, I ask, “But do you?” And when you look around, the answer is usually, “No.”
Cover by Mario Azzi