Several of my clients were talking about change. Hard to leave college. Hard to make friends. Hard to find a job, live at home and not know what you want to be when you grow-up. They were all young adult women ages 20-30 and they felt they were supposed to know already.
While evidence now shows that our brains aren’t fully formed until the age of 25, (and a two-year lag for boys), we expect a lot of our young adults. The pressure to succeed is more intense than ever: an economy for the rich and famous. Excluding everyone else. So if you’re an average kid from an average town chances are you didn’t get many breaks. At least not yet. To seize your 20’s says Meg Jay (http://www.ted.com/talks/meg_jay_why_30_is_not_the_new_20?language=en) can be extremely empowering. Not the throw-away years but the make-it-or-break-it years. I mean emotionally.
When I finished college I lived for six months in my Grandmother’s apartment in Queens. It was a dark time. First my car was broken into. Then my wallet swiped on the subway. Then a deepening depression. My parents had divorced when I was 15 and I had postponed the grief process until that moment, too busy trying to be a teenager, then a young adult to make time for the loss. I was consumed with boyfriends of a most serious nature. I was popular and good at school and sports. Now after college there was nothing. Without friends or school I had no idea where to go or what to do. Though I had my parents’ support, I felt lost and alone. I had also just broken up with my boyfriend. Or rather, the other way around. Because I graduated a semester early, I lost a critical piece of closure that haunts me to this day. That was the first of my several young adult mistakes. It would be years until I got my bearings again. Only to plunge into yet another stormy relationship that ended poorly, usually involving me thinking the world had ended. At that time, nobody, not even my super emotionally intelligent mom used the words anxiety or depression, even though looking back it was so obvious. I think a bit of prozac might have gone a long way after college. Still.
So when these girls started repeating the same thing in therapy I said, “Why not form a group so we don’t have to repeat ourselves?” I was skeptical because of scheduling, not because of my group skills. I had done groups many times. Groups for refugees navigating the healthcare system in NYC; Groups for MS patients; Groups for parents in court-mandated custody litigation; Online Community Groups and Groups for Leukemia patients and their families all over the US. But this was different because it sprung out of an organic need: the need to connect, belong, socialize and be understood by so many young women, all in it together, though they had never met.
These were all college types, middle-class from mixed ethnic backgrounds. All had found college to be too excessive either academically or alcoholically. All had chosen a slightly different path from nursing school to community college to hard work at a restaurant or bar. None (but one) had found true love yet, and all were struggling financially. The most repeated topic was: he never called me back. The next biggest topics were: how to talk to parents, money, divorce, relationships, sexuality, identity and betrayal. And finally, texting or “talking” to someone who was perfectly capable of sending pictures of his penis but equally incapable of making a time or date to meet. Hook-ups would be no problem. Girls, Guys, hooking-up.
Call me old fashioned but these young women thought it sucked. There was not one among them who wanted anything other than a committed relationship or a “steady” “boyfriend.” But if you’re 25 and emotionally 23, plus struggling to become independent in a bad economy (read: the rich got richer), and he’s 26 and developmentally 24, and, he lacks the frontal lobe executive function called “planning,” what do you think you get? Nothing. That’s right. A text, a sext and a hook-up. No more, no less. Where were the normal guys?!
As time went on, I continued to marvel at how every man they chose (or who chose them) couldn’t pick up the phone. I’m told by my feisty 16 year old that this cannot be true of all men. I am no feminist, but pick up the phone, man! More often it was dwindling “talking” by text and then radio silence. This went for before and after hook-ups, dates, meetings or outings. A brief text, then dead. “He deaded me” is even a thing. It seemed these young men had no obligation to commit to anything, ever. I can imagine them at work telling their bosses, “maybe I’ll hit you up at the meeting later. Or maybe not.” And I’m sure they didn’t get through college by “maybe attending” a class/maybe not. These girls were miserable. Hook ups left you feeling empty. Like Lena Dunham on “Girls,” the Millenium mood was dark grey, cynical, entitled but ultimately lacking any vestige of charm.
The topics were savory at first but soon catapulted into deeper territory. We had loves and losses, sex and abortion, “day drinking” and bondage. But none was more ultimately empty than just being dumped with no explanation. While the guy trotted off to his next exploit, these young women were left holding the bag, wondering in the absence of any language what the hell they did wrong. Beating themselves to a pulp for an answer made for crippling self-esteem issues, distraction from school/work and a conclusion that never-ending failure would be the norm. Their friends getting married on facebook, what other conclusion was there? My job was to support the process (key in social work oriented therapy), inject cbt-type strategies such as thought restructuring or decreasing negative self-talk, and acceptance such as “be here now” and dbt relaxation into what is, without judgment. Also of course I could provide my own life lessons on loss, maturity, patience and resilience. (God knows I had ample material).
The best gift I was able to give as a therapist to young adult women was freedom from anxiety.
Concepts I employed consisted of:
anxiety won’t kill you.
whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
you have a choice whether or not to be anxious.
the things you worry about rarely happen. (other things happen)
you cannot control everything.
stuff always comes up.
you can handle it by tolerating it.
revving up doesn’t make you accomplish more; it makes you careless.
worry is a waste of time (do you want your surgeon to be worried?)
worry eats up mental space better used for more productive hobbies.
panic attacks are not heart attacks.
no one ever died from a panic attack.
we have outgrown fight or flight but our brains haven’t.
anxiety is like a bad habit.
anxiety will pass.
What I found as their therapist was that these women longed for meaning while the men they encountered wanted anything but.
I also heard that men’s binge drinking on campus, date rape/sexual assault and frat-sickening hazing behavior was at an all-time high. Paying all that money and piling up debt and then to come out with a degree in alcoholism was just sad to me. Nothing too new, but sad nonetheless. Colleges seemed to be wracked with scandal and suicide. (See Dartmouth and Stony Brook in recent articles). So I joined the board of directors of my old College Counseling program to see if I could make a difference.
When young women drink to excess they get taken advantage of however mature they appear. When young men drink too much they often become aggressive and destructive. Men on campus drink on average of 9 beers per week. (Female students tend to consume 4 drinks per week versus male students, who drink more than double the amount at 9 drinks a week. Persons become at-risk drinkers, or those most likely to become alcoholic, when the number of drinks per week climb. In at-risk women, the number of drinks per week is 7 per week; for men the number is 14). I felt bad that with so little self-esteem they could permit themselves to tolerate really abusive situations. However, when as a therapist you let go of trying to “fix,” of course good things come your way. Back to the books and Yalom and process to realize it was enough that the other group members told them “stop!” We care about you. You are worth it.
Using Group Work Principles - Process
I wanted to rush to go deeper; I wasn’t satisfied but they were. They kept it casual until one more emotional evening triggered the next. I made sure everyone got a turn to vent. When I tried to structure, they resisted. Like all successful groups, they began to govern themselves. We made a rule of confidentiality of course but did not restrict social media and outside socializing. In some circles, this could be considered risky or even wrong. However, why would I want to restrict them if these were the only friends they might have on earth right now.
Group Composition -
Morgan was a pretty and shapely young lady who had experienced it all in high school and was now looking for something deeper from life. She had a string of low-life boyfriends, none of whom could follow through on anything. She couldn’t understand the repetition of this pattern until she was forced to confront what she wanted; not what he wanted. Reminded that her father left when she was young, she realized she was only searching for him, not something better… Ultimately she found greater confidence and could stand alone.
Larissa was bright and lively, having just broken off with a very serious college relationship. Lost and confused she wondered what was next. With all the pressure she endured in her young life from succeeding in top schools to watching her parent’s divorce and change values, she ended up re-evaluating her own ideas of commitment and deciding it was she who wasn’t quite ready… She ended up finding a mature boyfriend who treated her right.
Jayne was the oldest member, newlywed but estranged from her family due to their radically conservative ideas about life, religion, and family values. Jayne discovered through group that while she was an “outsider” she could find comfort in her new group family. Her goal was to stop beating herself up for leaving the old family and accept her new direction, as painful as that might be… She found peace in being a free-thinker, unlike her family of origin.
Casey was a gorgeous, hard-driving young woman from a large immigrant family that put her needs last. She spent most of her 20’s with a man that treated her as second-class, reinforcing her self-doubt and resentment of herself and her relationships. Through the group she could use her outspoken anger to channel some changes and personal growth and vow that living alone was better than living in fear… Finally she shed some of her defensive facade to relax into whatever might come.
Deanna was from a strict middle-class family who didn’t understand their daughter’s need to expand her life. They kept her close and allowed little. She spent her college years working in her room and going out with a small circle of friends. She wanted something more but had no idea how to get there. Through the group, the one who was too shy to talk, Deanna found her voice… She decided to meet some new people and expanded her circle immensely.
Robin was a hard working, attractive young adult who found going from college to work a bit of a shock. Suddenly everything was regimented and her freedom was gone. Being an adult was hard work. Saving money and living at home was demanding and exhausting, and her body was adjusting to the new routine. Her old boyfriends became nothing but immature jerks after she passed them by in every way… Eventually she got medical help to become stronger in her daily life.
A newer member, Joy, at first seemed like she couldn’t express herself at all, but soon began to blossom. Painfully shy and stuck after a very pressured college experience, she had no idea what to do next. She felt incredible expectations from her family yet they insisted there were none. Not knowing where to turn, the group gave her a safety net for the profound sense of confusion as to who she was and what she would become, a common trap for 20-somethings… With the group’s support, she achieved the courage to apply to graduate school.
Marina came and left but had a deep impact on the group with her soulful way and seeking something different than college life. She wanted to work and be independent as quickly as possible but her rock-star boyfriend and her random panic attacks kept getting in the way. Soon she found she must put herself first if she was to succeed. After brief therapy and anti-anxiety medication, she was on her way… She only stayed a short while but made a commitment to taking better care of herself.
Bethany was a pretty, old-fashioned young adult who still kept stuffed animals and slept next to her sister. She hated frat boys and beer pong and wanted to find her way through college without randomly hooking-up. Each guy she met was more unreliable than the last. Often they would pursue her and then drop her without explanation. Trying to make sense of it put her into a spiral. She was exasperated… After things calmed down she found it more peaceful to simply be alone.
Jocelyn didn’t stay long in the group. She recently discovered she was bi-sexual and began dating a series of girls whom her parents frowned upon. She also had an extremely debilitating medical problem along with depression about which her parents hardly understood. She was in all this alone at the age of 24… Group forced her out of isolation, the first step.
Therapist’s Point of View-
As the “core group” began to solidify I worried a lot if I was being effective and compulsively tried to “deepen” the conversation. As I began to relax they were able to tell me that they liked the group just the way it was. Just talking, venting and sharing, taking turns. It soon became clear that my need to control and get it right, and my own insecurities still plaguing me after all these years of experience, were beside the point. The group had sustained itself. Nevertheless, the interventions I made were to reinforce the shared group experience, the universal nature of the 20-something experience, and the repetition that anxiety was normative given these conditions. I also increasingly pushed the more reticent members to link up their past with their present, thus gaining insight for the first time. Finally, I was “motherly” in that I could see, from where I sat, that life would ultimately deal them their share of traumas, yet I knew they could withstand it with the appropriate support.
I was in a therapy support group at that age with a strange, worldly character who influenced me greatly at the time. We used to do weekend “marathons” ending with a feast from his Turkish wife. I recall the benefits but also the tragedy years later when I found out that some of us got worse instead of better. Life deals you certain cards. I can only guide and witness and let go. I know I’m a good therapist now not because I’m a nice lady but because the skills of communication are subtle. And becoming more silent in my own mind is essential.
On the last several Tuesdays the women were dwindling down and I thought maybe the group is over. But the following week, we were back to 7 and going around. I do want them to interact more but they seem to feel safe just spewing. They are lively, insightful, dynamic, shy, overwhelmed, scared and lonely, by turns.
I remember those days. Wouldn’t even want them back.
Hook-Up Hell and Other Tales: A Year in the Life of a 20-Something Support Group
Originally Published in Journal "GROUP"
by, Donna C. Moss, MA, LCSW-R