July 5, 2009
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us...
Charles Dickens, ‘A Tale of Two Cities'
Ashita Nayar is hardly a Dickens fan. But as she reads and re-reads these lines, she can't help wondering whether the fabled author had got a peek into her state of mind. At 28, Ashita feels exhausted. Despite a seemingly successful career as an interior designer, and a stable marriage, there is something missing and she can't put a finger on it. “It wasn't supposed to be like this. I feel cheated. There is no contentment, no sense of purpose. At best, it is a luxurious existence,” she rues.
The last couple of years have been beset with a constant clash of priorities—a family holiday in London or a seminar in Delhi; starting a family or taking up a refresher course in Bangalore. “The problem isn't the conflict per se, but that I never seem to know what I am looking for. I want everything, and I am too scared to let go of anything.
“Initially, I thought it was a case of pre menstrual syndrome, only that in my situation it seemed to be pre and post menstrual syndrome! Then one day, in the midst of a quarrel with my husband, I realised that mine was more of a social menopause,” says Ashita.
The perpetual state of confusion about where life is heading, messy relationships, uncertain career growth and fluctuating sense of self worth make Ashita a classic case of the quarter-life crisis (QLC) syndrome. As compared to its mid-life counterpart, QLC is a relatively new term. But it is just as common—if not more—and the repercussions can be serious, considering that the victims have about three-fourths of their life ahead of them.
Simply put, QLC is a term applied to the existential angst that occurs between the growing pains of adolescence and the crisis of approaching middle age. The victims are in their 20s and early 30s. Abby Wilner, co-author of Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties and author of Quarterlifer's Companion, is said to have coined the phrase after she graduated from college, moved back home, and couldn't figure out what to do with her life.
“We are yet to come up with an academically-sound definition and explanation of the phenomenon,” says Dr Jitendra Nagpal, senior consultant psychiatrist at Vidyasagar Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (VIMHANS), Delhi. Over the last six months, he claims to have seen a three-fold increase in the number of patients in their 20s, grappling with depression, anxiety and stress, among other manifestations of QLC.
Slowly but surely, QLC is entering the consciousness of popular culture. “Research on QLC is still in its infancy, but there is no denying its growing prevalence,” says Dr Radhika Bapat, consulting clinical psychologist at Sahyadri Hospitals in Pune. Youngsters often find that academic education has not prepared them to face the challenges of the real world. Typically, it is a state of intellectual and spiritual crisis that strikes young adults and is characterised by a disturbing sense of disillusionment, insecurity, stress, anxiety, uncertainty, isolation, fear of failure and inner turmoil.
Experts agree that there is enough cause for concern. The problems could range from mild depression to psychosomatic ailments such as insomnia, low libido and loss of appetite, chronic fatigue to stress-related problems (what with 25-year-olds going in for angioplasties and bypass surgeries), alcoholism and drug addiction to a general dip in immunity. In the worst-case scenario, the person can suffer from clinical depression and may even become suicidal.
“The problem was perhaps always there, but it was never so alarming,” says Bapat. There has been a paradigm shift in our basic values. “Our previous generation strove for security; it didn't seem to mind the boredom of routine. But today's generation craves for instant gratification and this urgency fuels much of the desperation of QLC. They have been brought up in a culture that inculcates low frustration tolerance behaviour,” she explains.
And, the present socio-economic scenario has only made matters worse. “The illusionary pay packages and swift lay-offs call for a re-look at the parameters of success and contentment, especially among youngsters,” says Nagpal. The transition from a comfortable college campus to an isolated, and often hostile, economic world is disturbing to many QLC victims.
According to a research, Searching for Something, conducted by the UK-based leadership development organisation Common Purpose, some 87 per cent professionals in the age group of 25-35 years seek careers that fulfil their potential at work as well as add purpose to their lives; yet 59 per cent admit their job doesn't fulfil their wider life ambitions. About 57 per cent admitted that they are looking for a new job and more than a quarter hoped to change jobs within the year. Most employers fail to realise that QLC can be the primary cause of losing out on young high-performers.
Most QLC victims share the feeling of being stuck in a bottomless pit of constant yearning for more—in terms of career, relationships, financial and emotional security. You are stuck in a rat race where no matter what you do it isn't good enough because someone else is doing better. “I think my life is in a mess because I don't know where I am heading. Observing others go about their life confidently, conquering one milestone after another only adds to my panic,” says Tarun Joshi, 29, a marketing executive in Mumbai. Contemporaries with better pay packages, stable family lives and physical and mental well-being make Tarun doubt his worthiness. “I don't feel good enough,” he sighs. And the premature greying and balding don't make things any better for the singleton.
“Why is our society so obsessed with marriage? It is almost a sin to be single,” rues Tarun, voicing the opinion of many QLC victims. Rennie D'Souza, a 26-year-old call centre employee in Bangalore, has decided to get married by the end of the year. With many of her friends married, and some even planning to start a family, she is on the verge of panic, afraid she will be left out.
According to Dr Minnu Bhonsle, psychiatrist and relationship consultant at Heart to Heart Marriage Counselling in Mumbai, the fast-food generation looks at everything as a competition, including relationships. “They get initiated into romantic relationships too early to fulfil the need for an arm candy, but often don't have the emotional maturity to sustain them,” she says.
Today's typical youngster is either in a hurry to get hitched or too picky-choosy to get into a meaningful relationship. “Narcissism, fear, anxiety, commitment phobia and low frustration thresholds are the primary cause of concern for most QLC victims,” explains Bhonsle. Pre-marital counselling is becoming increasingly popular. However, that doesn't seem to be helping, as statistics show that most divorces still occur within the first five years of marriage. “The attitude needs to change. It is as if they are preparing in advance for an inevitable break-up,” she says.
Ask any QLC victim and he will tell you about the inevitable stress associated with personal relationships. When Sunit Rai, 25, an IT professional from Noida, married his college sweetheart Priyanka (also an IT professional) last year, he probably expected life to be a bed of roses. However, the pinch of recession played spoilsport in marital bliss. Late-night shifts, together with the increasing pressure at work, have translated into less family time. “On weekdays, we hardly have time to talk to each other, though we try to remedy that on weekends. We actually spent more time together when we weren't married,” say the couple.
QLC often leads to a general feeling of malaise and isolation. Nostalgia comes into play as young professionals yearn for the simplicity of college days. “Back then, we couldn't wait to get out of college and be independent; and now, we wish we could go back in time. I guess it is the classic case of the grass being greener on the other side,” says Sunit.
Married or unmarried, most QLC victims tend to categorise sex as a problem area. “Most want a fulfilling physical relationship, without investing in the emotional aspect, while others think of sex as a chore, without realising that it can be a great stressbuster,” says Dr Prakash Kothari, Mumbai-based sexologist and adviser to the World Association for Sexual Health.
Despite their education, easy internet-accessibility and increasing popularity of ‘f--k buddies' (friends who double up as sexual partners), most people in their 20s are known to harbour innumerable myths and misconceptions about sex and sexuality. “Sexuality is an important aspect of life, and lessons learnt in the first quarter can have a long-lasting effect. Youngsters need to be told that there is more pleasure in travelling than in arriving,” says Kothari.
Counselling is recommended, and so is introspection. QLC is temporary, and may in fact have a positive impact in the way it forces people to analyse themselves, discovering who they really are. Unlike those struggling with their mid-life worries, QLC victims have many years of life before them, which they can enjoy better with the fruits of this exploration. They don't have to wake up at 40 and find themselves in jobs they can barely stand or futile marriages, with their best years behind them.
Ask Mumbai-based software engineer Smriti Dalvi, who mustered enough courage three years ago to quit a well-paying job as COO of an IT company and start a retail flower business. “I had reached a point where my job offered me no challenges. It was comfortable, but not what I really wanted. Putting in that resignation letter was the biggest challenge of my life,” says Smriti, 35.
The gamble paid off. Smriti recently won the Recognition for Women Entrepreneurs 2008 award by the Mariwala Foundation. With six retail outlets in Mumbai, a customer care centre, sound e-commerce platform and a customer base of more than 15,000 people, if you think Smriti is content, you are wrong. “I am happy, but not content. There is so much more to do,” she says.
The conflict between what you have and what you want can be a life-long one, but towards the end of the first quarter of life it can assume more intricate significance. To acknowledge this conflict is to accept adult life. “The failure to acknowledge this is the primary cause of increasing cases of suicide attempts among youngsters in their 20s,” says Dr Sudhir Hebbar, consultant psychiatrist at Apollo Hospitals, Bangalore.
Experts agree that while teenage experiences are hormone-driven and generally tumultuous, adulthood is more private and subtle. The transition is not a cakewalk. Everybody has to make that difficult journey, which may not be identical. The difference, though, is of degree, not kind. It is, indeed, the best of times and the worst of times.
Some names have been changed.
Timely emotional audit helps
I still do not know why I was rejected by a hospital for a job in my rocking 20s, though I had the best resume, and my friend—who had
applied reluctantly—was chosen. That propelled me to do better and make a million forays in my field. A close friend and a teacher helped me enlarge my vision to see many opportunities. So I tell young adults, career trajectories can be unpredictable. Have a mirror to reflect in the form of friends or teachers. And during such times “solitude is a good place to visit and a bad place to stay”.
Today as salary/job cuts are happening everywhere, the stress can be rather unnerving. I recently told a young IIM grad, “Do not live in your visiting card, you may have to just change the address and the designation sometimes.”
Sachin Tendulkar has had many ducks and silenced all his critics with his perseverance and dedication. He converted the stones hurled at him into milestones and rose from the dust many times.
Close friends and peers climbing the ladder while you struggle to find your calling, can be hassling. But hang in there; it is a flat world and there are a million opportunities. No need to stick to your sworn profession. Take risks and enjoy a vada pav, when the pizzas look expensive.
‘Mood lifters' help. These are the joyous activities which one has developed over the years. A run, jog or a dance helps break the cycle of poor emotional arousal. But remember that a drink when down can be the road to hell!
The mind may go for a toss, deadlines may be missed and appraisals screwed. I always ask young adults to pen down how they feel during normal days. An emotional audit is a good self guide during such troubled times. Acknowledging one's feelings and experiencing it fully helps move on with life.
During the ‘hot' quarter be wild, but remember that it is easy to have a boyfriend or girlfriend but not as easy to have good friends. Invest in friendships and remember that intimacy is a responsible experience. And when there are accidents seek help from a counsellor. Sometimes the mind may be fractured with emotional paralysis known commonly as clinical depression. Here a friendly neighbourhood shrink is better than an astrologer!
The writer is a Mumbai-based psychiatrist.
Majority of muscle twitches are isolated occurrences, not repeated actions. Surface electromyography (EMG) is believed to be the most effective way to detect muscle twitches.
The spleen is the largest filter of blood and the largest secondary immune organ. It controls the amount of blood cells in circulation and protects the body from infections. Ten per cent people have an extra spleen.
Fingernails grow at the rate of 3mm per month while toenails grow at 1mm per month. Light trauma, like playing a piano or typing on a computer keyboard, stimulates nail growth.
The overall incidence of dizziness is about 10 per cent in the general population. Vertigo accounts for nearly 50 per cent of all dizziness complaints. In children, dizziness is often the result of inner ear infections.
Sweating is the body's natural mechanism to cool itself. Excessive sweating affects 2-3 per cent of the general population. It often runs in families and usually manifests by adolescence.