Well, we’re already at our third installment of What 30 Really Looks Like, a series on TFD where we explore the true implications and emotions of the age — instead of just feeling like it’s a giant wall of expectations and checklists hurtling towards us. If you missed them, you can check out our first two installments here and here. Each one so far has been a candid portrait of a woman at a very particular age, and has taught us here at TFD already (and hopefully you guys at home) that this age does not have to look like any one thing, or be comprised of any particular set of achievements. You can have kids, or not have them, or not even want them. You can be single, married, or “it’s complicated,” as Facebook-circa-2008 would say. You can be happily employed or bouncing between gigs. The age is what we make it.
And this week, we’re exploring what it looks like with Gwen Kansen, a young autistic woman living in Manhattan. With refreshing candor, she explained to us what things look like at 30 for her, and where she hopes to take her life in the years to come.
1. Paint us a picture of your life right now, especially financially. Think things like: Where do you live? What do you do for work? Are you in a romantic relationship? Do you have kids? What is your salary or total income? What do you spend on rent? Do you have debt? Etc. Let us get to know you.
Thirty’s been a good year. I was worried I’d be tired by now, but I did more exciting things this year than I did at 22. My friend and I road-tripped from NYC to Texas. And I sang in concert for the first time since I was a kid.
I live in a 200-square-foot apartment in Manhattan that I found on Craigslist. It’s $1200 including utilities. I don’t have a job right now, so I spend most of my time smoking weed and surfing the web. I’m lucky to have a family that can support me: I live on about $30,000 a year. This won’t last forever though. I’m about to apply for SSDI for autism spectrum disorder. It’s tough to live with, but I could be doing more than I am. And companies are starting to accommodate for us thanks to the autistic self-advocacy movement. I just found a part-time job through one of my friends.
I was in a long-term relationship with a guy from support group. It’s kind of up in the air right now. We talked about having kids. I’m still thinking about it, but there’s a lot to consider.
2. At 20, where did you think you would be at 30? How close or far are you from that person?
I always wanted to move to New York. I was hoping to be a hotshot creative person making a ton of money & working 100-hour weeks. I’m glad that didn’t happen. I’d have had a heart attack. I still have my dreams, but I’m in a totally different headspace now. I can enjoy my hobbies in themselves without them having to lead to a goal.
3. Have you ever had an “ah-ha” moment where you felt “I am an adult now?” If so, what was it that made you feel that way?
I was listening to Rita Ora the other day and she was going on about how she’ll hate herself tomorrow because she got with some ambivalent guy tonight. I remember being like that. Kids get so caught up in passion that their brains don’t have room for anything else. Not just romantic passion. I remember freaking out about how I must be friends with this person or I have to get this job. As an adult, you know life goes on.
Anyway, most of the music on my Spotify is from 1995-2012, back when I could relate to it. I’m making a point to find new music so I don’t feel like an old person.
4. Tell us about your educational background — do you have a degree? If so, to what extent do you feel like you use it? Do you regret any of your educational choices, or feel particularly glad you made any of them?
I have a BA in psychology & journalism from a state school and an associates’ degree in fashion design. I went to a very good j-school for my master’s, but I flunked out. Partly because I was too proud to ask for accommodations and partly because I spent all my time at this hippie dive bar drinking Old Rasputin and playing D&D and reading books. I’d be more successful if I’d finished, but I learned more from that bar than I did in my program. I’m very glad I finished my fashion degree though. I realized about halfway through that I wouldn’t use it, but my parents are happy I finished something.
5. Tell us about your relationships at 30, both romantic and platonic. What are your friendships like? Do you have more friends than at 20, or fewer? Is your romantic life what you thought it would be like? Socially, how active do you find yourself?
I’m still friends with my college crowd. It’s been fun to watch each other evolve. Like my friend was a hardline Republican when he went to Afghanistan and last year he voted for Bernie Sanders. We’ve all changed in different ways, but pretty much everyone is more patient and forgiving. I’m proud of myself that I kept a relationship going for that long. I hadn’t thought about it much in concrete terms, but I figured I wasn’t going to have a real relationship until I was like 40.
My social life has picked up a lot since I moved to the city. There’s so much to do here. I was in an underground party circuit for a while that you guys would probably think is pretty vivid. I still love meeting interesting people, but I should focus more on my career goals now because time feels more finite.
6. In terms of career, what has been the best move or decision you’ve made in your professional life? Which one sticks out as the worst?
My best decision was definitely moving to New York. I’m from this little Rust Belt city where there aren’t a lot of opportunities. Most people leave after school if they can. It was a culture shock though. A lot of people here won’t talk to you unless you can get them something. It took a while to make friends, but I did. And there are opportunities around every corner. Like I found out about that concert through a guy from karaoke league. How many cities have karaoke leagues?
My worst decision was moving back home after grad school. If I’d stayed in town I’d have worked at a bar or halfway house for a while and built more resilience.
7. What’s something you do now that you never would have seen yourself doing in your 20s? (Could be career-related, money, a hobby, personal care, etc.)
I never thought I’d write about autism. I spent most of my twenties trying to ignore it. But I can’t anymore. I love when people tell me I’ve helped them. The more we stand up for ourselves, the more society will hear us and the better things will be for us in the future.
8. What do you want your life to look like at 40? Do you think you’re on track to get there?
I’d like to get some fiction published. I’d also like to be settled in a career (probably part-time), and more emotionally stable. I want to have more people in my life: family and friends. I’ve made some incredible friendships with other people with challenges and we help each other every step of the way.
9. What is the biggest piece of advice you would give anyone in their mid 20s who wants to feel more fulfilled and confident with themselves by 30?
Figure out what you like to do, and then do it. Start that band. Write that blog. Do Americorps if you can afford it. Even if it doesn’t make you any money it becomes part of the fabric of your life and you’ll have a richer one for it. Don’t move back home if you can help it. I know some people have to to pay off debt, but it can easily make you complacent.
Also, if you have any mental health issues, get help now. A lot of us just bumble through life until we’re forced to face why we’re so far behind; why we keep screwing up our relationships, etc. Your late twenties are when it really starts to hit you. I know it sucks to admit you actually NEED help instead of just want it. But trust me: it takes incredible strength to confront yourself. It’s the best thing you’ll ever do.
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