What happens if you miss a “rite of passage”?

Between the ages of about 15 and 25, I lived an isolated, unusual life. I missed out on just about all of the major social milestones people normally go through at that age. I didn’t move out of my parents’ house. I didn’t have any real friends for most of that time. I didn’t go on dates or have girlfriends. I didn’t travel. I barely even went on nights out. I’m now 43 and I still feel like I can’t escape from the legacy of those wasted years.

And I feel like I never get a straight answer as to what this means. Those things I missed are considered “rites of passage”. People talk about them as important life milestones that mark the transition to adulthood. They go misty eyed as they reminisce about what those times were like for them. They write endless songs, movies, books and other media glorifying that time of life. People bond over these things, even decades after they happened. But then if I mention to someone that I’m upset about having missed out on all that, usually they suddenly start to downplay it. Suddenly it doesn’t matter that I missed out, because all that stuff was no big deal anyway, and what I’m doing now is more important. So which is it? Are they important rites of passage, or are they no big deal? Because they can’t be both.

I did try to make it better, once I realised what a mess I’d got myself in, in fact I spent years trying. But by then it was already too late. Technically I did tick off all those things I listed above, but it wasn’t the same, even though I deluded myself for a while that maybe it could be. An older person hanging out with teens and early twenty somethings, trying to be a part of their peer group, desperate to be included so that they can have some scraps of normal youth before it disappears out of reach forever, isn’t the same as someone who really is that age and is going through that life stage naturally. Much as I wish it was.

When I tell people I’m unhappy about this, they often respond that I should put it behind me as it’s in the past now. The important thing is that I’m happy in my life now. But I’m not happy now. Every day I’m forced to go out and live in a world filled with people who aren’t like me, people who’ve been through the normal life stages and become fully fledged adults, while I stay stuck in whatever hellish limbo this is, unable to ever move on, but having to put on a front and pretend everything’s OK. There are reminders everywhere of what I’ve missed. I see it around me every day but I know I can never have it. It’s torture.

Here’s an example. A couple of weeks ago I unexpectedly went on a night out with people who I know reasonably well but wouldn’t class as close friends. After a few drinks, the conversation turned to reminiscing about university. It always bloody does and that’s the problem. I think what got to me the most was the general tone of the conversation, the way it was presented as “of course, this is what it was like for everyone”. Well, that wasn’t what it was like for me. I wonder what sort of weirdo they would have thought I was if I’d said that instead of keeping quiet like I always do. They’ll know if they read this, I guess.

I know this is largely my own fault. I made choices that resulted in me having an isolated life at a critical time. I should have been braver and faced up to reality sooner and made more of an effort to connect with people. But this feels like a very harsh punishment for a mistake that had no malice behind it and hurt no-one but me. Am I really destined to be an outcast forever? Or is there a way out? I just want another chance. I was young and stupid. Maybe not in the same way other people are, but young and stupid nonetheless. Does it have to end this way?

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