Twenty Something

Director ···· Ricky Lam
Medium ···· Photo
Published ···· December 2018 - December/January 2019
Models ···· Jia, Hawa, Tiffany, Ariana, Parisa, and Myself

“My eyes opened as I peered around my dimly lit room. Checking my phone, I realize that I’ve woken up ten minutes before the alarm. My body clock has naturally adjusted to 6:30 am – this is my fucking nightmare.
Mom was waiting outside to drive me to the station. I quickly grab a dress shirt from the hangars, knowing that I’ve already worn it this past week. It had already reeked of sweat stains from the periods of walking in the 95 degree heat. Ba noi (grandma) was already awake and cooking up the food for today. Usually I would’ve said goodbye, but ever since I started working, I felt like there was something mentally blocking me from being kind. It felt wrong to pretend that I was okay. I was so angry and tired, but I knew everyone else didn’t deserve that same pain. I stepped inside the car and slammed the doors, attempting to drift myself back to sleep before the worst arrived once again.

The metro sluggishly moved with a delay every three minutes. Looking at the time, there was no way to make it to work before 8:30 am – I quickly texted my boss that I would be two or three minutes late hoping to avoid being lectured about being punctual for government officials. The train stopped at Foggy Bottom and I proceeded to move towards the exit. The station was right next to the George Washington University campus so I got to walk past college students every day. All of them looked the same age as me, if not older. It was weird to see how different their lives were compared to me. On the outside I looked like a somewhat better dressed student that evidently was quickly walking towards a government bureau. For the first time in a while, I missed how simple everything was back when my future wasn’t on the line.”

Midway through 2019 I wanted to document the existential dread I felt after my internship ended in 2018. A part of me felt solace that this feeling I felt inside of me was common – that other people are in a similar situation like me. Another part of me felt uncontrolled rage that this was an apparent norm. And the last part of me felt pain over the decisions I made that led up to this eventual point. There was no clear enemy I could label – all I could see was my own failure.

Everyone explains that the twenties is about exploring oneself in the adult lens. Whether that’s your career, personal life, or even romantic, this was the time to figure yourself out. Time really was the issue for me at the moment, and even now I still struggle with accepting its existence. Listening to SZA’s “Twenty Something” wasn’t faring much better. The idea of control was merely something to keep your sanity in check, real or fake. Without it, there are moments where it feels like you’re bracing yourself for impact with no way to stop the car from crashing 100 MPH into another.

There was a moment near the end of 2019 that I decided to stop writing about my struggles and ditch publishing the magazine altogether. Even now, I pause every so often to recollect my thoughts and figure out how to properly say how I felt during that specific period. Even now, I feel those instances from time to time and try to remind myself that time itself was something I can entirely control. It hurts to think about it and sadness overwhelms me when I write about it – this’ll probably be the last time I want to retell this story. I have just never been left so battered and defeated all because of how I handled my job hunt.
“To you, that never knew me.

Two months ago, I chose to live for you. I laid still and stared at what would be the ceiling if the darkness wasn’t in the way. I imagined what it would’ve felt like without the faint swelling of my chest as I took in a breath or the nerves circulating throughout my body to tell me that I’m lying comfortably in bed. Without the sudden weight that rises up to my head, queuing up the tear ducts to do its job. Is this what it would’ve felt like?

I reached for my phone and proceeded to see what everyone was doing, blocking out the possible ways for me to escape my prison. Stories of people enjoying their time out with friends, getting into their dream careers, having a sense of purpose. It was what I yearned and always thought I never had. None of them knew about my pain. Not all of it. Was putting up a front worth it in the end? I didn’t have an answer.

I thought about if I was erased from the timeline. Would I be right in saying that I wouldn’t be remembered? Or did I have it all wrong? I wondered if this would be the last time before I could get an answer. I wanted to keep going because I love you too much. Constantly manifesting and changing in my mind, I pray that I’m finally able to reach you. I wanted to write this so you could finally understand why I’m spiraling into this empty abyss. Don’t worry, I’m trying to stop my baggage from pushing me down even if it’s harder than expected. Talking with you just keeps me hopeful. I hope you believe in me too. This is the story of how I tried to find control.”

“I’ve just felt so unloved.”

From the first ghosting I faced with my internship, I began to question what exactly went wrong that made them change their mind about me. Since then, I watered my personality down to something that was more palatable. I guess that was my first mistake and looking back, I realized that filtering myself made it harder to figure out how to properly answer the initial “tell me about yourself” question. My personality became only about the work I used to do. Other than that I was just an empty shell. I remained without a job for more than a solid year. With every door constantly being shut, my willingness to try again was dwindling. Eventually I caved on my family’s offer to work at the Department of State (DOS). It was in a completely different field from what I studied, favoring more IT work that restricted my freedom during the work process. With no one giving me the time of day, I caved and thought maybe some good would come out of it and I’d actually enjoy staying busy.

It only left me in a worse state. Coming off of my first internship, the lack of faith from my superiors hindered my spirit while walking in a full suit during the long, hot summers made me begrudge my limbo. My government bureau was located in Foggy Bottom where I’d usually cut through GWU’s campus during my commute. Seeing regular students my age walking around the quad made me yearn for what I used to have. All post-grad really did was leave me questioning my purpose and no mentor was enough to fix my mind that not all hope was lost. My resistance to carrying my hatred for the DOS broke as that negative energy seeped into my personal life. I became more hostile towards my friends and family – there was nowhere else for me to target the pain I felt. I can recall several days where I’d go into my room and lock myself in the bathroom, screaming to the wall and uncontrollably sobbing until I collapsed to the floor. I didn’t understand what I did wrong to put me where I was. I blamed myself for picking a college study that had a lower probability of a full-time job – I was angry at the people who said they believed in me all those years ago.
I grew up in a family that didn’t prioritize mental health – if anything, they saw my pain but said it’s best to suck it up because of the potential opportunities and income it could generate in the IT field. But I clearly knew I did not want to suffer the same fate as them where they sacrificed their dreams to support their family at home. Even then, I hated that I was so stubborn on discovering what else was out there and that it felt like I was abandoning them for the sake of my selfishness. The only people I was properly able to vent to were my friends but even then there was a point where it became emotionally taxing. They would plead for me to seek therapy and I remember making so many excuses to not attend because I wanted to punish myself for everything I potentially inflicted. Everything as crumbling around me and nothing felt good anymore – it was all my fault. Out of volition, translating all this pain and getting back into the artistic headspace was one of the most draining things I ever did.

This photo series was a direct response to the hurt I experienced. The final part in my “A Fantasy Based on Reality” series, I wanted to depict how taxing real life could be and how much it inhibited my ability to dream. From the time I wanted to have a new profile picture for Facebook, but the self-portraits couldn’t mask the pain my eyes exerted. I was tired and weary, ever so lonely with no sign of a path forward. I wanted the extreme close-ups to emphasize on the heartache, and the wide shots to reflect on how much of a nobody I felt in the greater scheme of things. After three months working with the federal government, I reached my breaking point and decided I no longer wanted to be a cog in the machine. My twenty somethings were far from over and I would not waste any more time repeating the same cycle of sadness over and over again.

“There are some nights where I can see glimpses of the abyss. I know my friends hate it when I become fixated on its emptiness and how much I cry or yell about how alone I am. Lately, I’ve stopped hurting them because I no longer cared for the void. As another person I thought would welcome me shut their door, the more complacent I became. I assumed that it’d be a way to move past it all until the fantasy quickly dissipated in my dreams. I can’t even sleep anymore unless there’s a pillow behind me, pretending to be someone that could provide comfort. But I knew I couldn’t let it ruin everything I carefully tried to fix. As the sun shined through my window, I woke up with the illusion still intact, completely unaware of the dust settling on the camera that used to share my dreams.”

“Hey, hope everything’s been going well with you. I just wanted to let you know that I’m back in the job hunt mode again and was wondering what was the status on the position we were talking about? Let me know, thanks!” -September 2018

“Hey, just wanted to see if you got this message or not.” -November 2018

“Hey, hope you had a good holiday break. I just wanted to let you know that I’m still available if you ever need help on anything. Let me know and wish you all the best.” -January 2018

“Did you ever want me?” -February 2018, in my drafts 

I’ve taken so many breaks writing this now only because I have no idea how to conclude this passage. There are a million ways I’ve written this and yet there is no thematic ending. I guess it’s because it hasn’t really ended yet per se. While I haven’t experienced a similar bout of depression since my government days, there are still moments where I question what exactly I want out of my life. It’s true that I don’t need to know that answer now, but not having a rough idea really puts a wrinkle on things. For now, I’m giving myself to time to think things through and still remain as joyful as I can. I won’t prevent myself from having those quiet moments of reflection – sadness can go a long way for growth. A part of me hates when I have to put a positive spin on my time with the DOS during interviews. There’s a specific type of positive toxicity that makes my blood boil and I refuse to partake in it with myself or others. But that period from late 2018 to the end of 2019 did set me forward into reclaiming that lost part of my identity I hid all those years ago. It’s… a process but I’m slowly getting there and remain proactive to get to where I want to be. The best stories leave you something unfinished, forcing you to interpret and think. For we’re all a work-in-progress, just figuring out one thing at a ti