Becoming an Adult After Breaking the Law

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That’s the theme shared by these two readers. The first was in his early 40s when this happened:

I became an adult in December 2009, when I was stopped for a minor speeding infraction with a friend of mine after a night of drinking. Having no license, I decided in a moment of bluster to take off rather than take the ticket. I went on a 1.2 mile “high-speed” chase at 56 mph through downtown Brattleboro, Vermont.

But I quickly decided that I was out of my mind and pulled into the restaurant where I managed, parking my vehicle. Since I didn’t want to get my new clothes all nasty on the ground, I got up rather than stay down on the ground, as per the officer’s directions—and was summarily tased, twice.

Four years of Christian college, $60,000 a year job, a homeowner for 13 years, $25,000 lawyer’s fees … all of it disappeared that moment. I spent five years in prison. That’s when I knew I became an adult: the day I walked into prison.

The other reader, Brandon, also got into major trouble with alcohol:

I became an adult when I no longer trusted my own infallibility and survived.

I graduated top 10 in my high school, was accepted to a prestigious university, graduated top 10 in my undergrad class, and top 10 in my class in Officer Candidate School for the Marine Corps. Despite the warnings, the brushes with arrogance, I still felt that I couldn’t fail.

I have no story of cowardice or bravery under fire, where I saved myself and failed others or vice versa. My fall was precipitated by the number one source of problems in the U.S. armed forces: alcohol. I made a decision, thoroughly inebriated yet fully cognizant of the consequences, assured in my belief that my luck, my skills, my élan, and my infallibility would see me through.

When I awoke, I was arrested and charged with a felony. My career in the military was over—and potentially any civilian career as well, if I spent time in prison. Yet my luck had not completely deserted me: All charges were dropped when I fell on my sword and resigned my commission. I left the service three short months later, still shocked and disbelieving the sudden, violently necessity of a life after the Corps.

It’s been six years since that night, and not a day passes without the bitterness, the frustration with my younger self, the anguish at opportunities lost. But I never curse my luck. My fallible nature had been lurking just out of sight, and instead of ensuring that it never emerged, I tempted it—doggedly, arrogantly convinced that I was greater.

Now I drift, searching for something else for my entire life to be about. I have a small business that I’m excited to launch in 2016, I am otherwise relatively successful, nearly debt free, usually sober, and most importantly, I love and am loved. But my élan is gone.

Hemingway famously wrote, “The world breaks everyone, and those it cannot break, it kills.” As embarrassing as it is to admit, I broke myself at 24.