Nobody Told Me This About Spending My Youth in London

I liked it when things got messy, I often joked.

Messy is like when I imagined the beginning scene of a novella — Birds chirping in the early morning, two hours of sleep, eyes opened to the aftermath of a long night of wild fun on the bedroom’s floor. Her dress. His work shirt. Her 4-inch heels. His belt. Her toys. His toys. A long rope. A stray of leftover food. Stained pillows and bathrobes. Maybe pills. I don’t know — Ask my imagination.

For a while, in my mind, London carried this subtext which was incredibly thrilling and out of my league. I acted out some of it. I wrote about some of it. I kept in my heart lots of it for my own guilty pleasure. All in all, I took all that was exclusively offered to me, someone like me, someone made up of all the puzzling identity pieces that didn’t seem to fit together at times.

Though, I didn’t always think and know of London this way, not even creatively. Not hotel bars. Not Old-fashioned. Not lounge music. Not power sex. Not money. Not fancy. Not untouchably irresistible.

I didn’t know since when I had changed, or you could say, matured up and seen myself as a grown woman who would nonchalantly have this sort of thinking, living through this sort of reality. In fact, I felt so grown that I stopped worrying my thickly framed glasses would make me look like a third grade. I felt grown from the inside. I just couldn’t pinpoint how it happened.

I guess character changes are never clear-cut. You only realise it when you look back to who you used to be and suddenly feel like a foreigner in your own body. It’s like you’re the same, but so different. It’s subtle but so startling.

The most startling thing was probably the fact that for 99% of the time, I felt okay about this, and the other 1% I was just not sure if it was okay to be so okay. Perhaps it was also a thing about adulthood. You grow and change and just never feel prepared enough for the new you, mentally and physically. It’s a kind of loss that one could never properly grieve.

That said, looking back, I don’t think I had changed all that much. The gap between my core and all the different layers I put on just got bigger and bigger, so big that sometimes I forgot what my core looked like.

I knew my values remained the same. I just did myself a disservice by portraying a self which often misrepresented these values — always too little, too much, too up, too down, but never just true. This ultimately led to the wrong type of crowd, wrong type of validation, wrong type of relationships, wrong type of life, and a lonely, miserable me.

The aftermath wasn’t just “wild fun”. It was endless nights of crying and feeling stuck, deep pain and hollow darkness, of realising achingly I was selling myself short. I figured “wild fun” if any was just a way for me to distract myself from a reality in which I no longer felt alive.

I liked it messy because, without the mess, I would have to face my lone existence, my empty, unfulfilling life, and the fact that, really, nobody gave a shit.

Growing through adolescence alone wasn’t easy. Being my own parent wasn’t easy. Dealing with the lessons I wasn’t prepared to learn wasn’t easy. Especially while in a foreign land.

For sure, I was independent; I liked to look edgy and throw bold words around but, really, I’d never set out to be alone. I wanted people to care. In fact, I had never stopped dreaming about a one-and-only kind of love, for this one person who would decidedly choose me, for this deep, indescribable bond that would transcend time and space.

My heart wasn’t tough as advertised — it was soft, stupidly loyal and sometimes soapy like a wet sponge.

Many times, I questioned whether London was the right place for me. I felt frustrated about not being able to live the life I had envisioned and touch other souls like how I wished mine would be touched. I didn’t even know if “soul” was even a word I should use anymore.

When I went back to Vietnam to visit my family a few weeks ago, it immediately hit me that the low-key isolated vibe I carried around my neck like a dog collar was simply the manifestation of the London way of life. It was a thing about London. It was a London-created problem that could only be solved by leaving London. But while I was still here, the only thing I could do was change my mindset.

As I flipped my thinking and forced myself to be positive like I always do, I found hope in the fact that there were so many things I didn’t know. I was only in my mid-twenties. I was all on my own. Everything — what’s good, what’s bad — was merely a big, fat guess. A long, painful, confusing trial and error process in which I was my own lab rat.

I thought I had arrived at the other side with enough wisdom to level up to the land of calmness and patience but I wasn’t. I was too arrogant. I thought I was jaded but I didn’t know shit. What if I had been wrong all along — about myself, about life, about happiness, about people, about what I really wanted and needed, about what I really had?

In retrospect, for the most part, my life wasn’t even “messy”. I didn’t have it all together but calling it “messy” would be overdone.

I had never made a mess out of the truly important stuff — my job, my family, my friends, my health. I was sensible and responsible and diligent and focused. I might freak out occasionally due to my anxiety but I was no longer scared. I might have little idea how to healthily communicate my interests but I no longer ran away. I held things together. I kept people around. I stopped forcing myself to be someone I was not. I started loving the world I built for myself a little more.

I suspect I might’ve been too hard on myself.

“Messy” London wasn’t all that bad. Surely it wasn’t her fault that over the year I’d put my energy in the wrong place. It wasn’t her fault that I didn’t know how to judge a character and people’s real interest in me.

She had given me everything she could for the youth I had repeatedly misspent. She had sorted me a life which ten years ago I could have never imagined possible.

She had served on my plate the experiences that would help me grow, widen my horizon, hoping I would explore and appreciate the opportunities offered to me without holding so tightly on the baggage that should now be irrelevant.

She didn’t try to get anything from me. She didn’t take away my dreams. She opened a door to me, and it was up to me what I was going to do with it. I realised it was me who was uncomfortable with the idea of being happy and so I constantly focused on the negative and ignored all the positive.

I rushed and I rushed. I tried to clean up my mess but I didn’t understand there wasn’t really a mess. It was just how life should be right now, slowly evolving in the background. If only I could trust the process — I could just sit back and enjoy what it had to offer, I would see the abundance of goodness overflowing into my life.

In the end, I suppose it’s all about perspective. My “mess” wasn’t bad. My “mess” was fun and privileged and unique to my identity. My “mess” wasn’t to hide my loneliness — well, maybe sometimes it did. It was to teach me how to be okay and I knew slowly I would.

I stopped calling my experiences “messy” because there was nothing messy about reciprocal, respectful adult relationships, about new adventures and letting life unfold in its own time, about learning how to be comfortable with myself.

There was nothing messy about roaming my twenties freely and really just trying to have more of the good times only people like me could appreciate. Yes, people like me.

In a way, there was no mess, there was just happy business — my own happy business.

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