For some reason, much more so than my 30th, this seems like a turning point, a milestone. The year I turned 30 was a momentous, grown-up year – we were stuck in mortgage-application hell trying to buy our house, my first business idea was failing while John’s shiny new one was booming, we lost Sili (the first of our cats to go, snatched from us prematurely by cancer) and around us, nearly all of our couple friends were expelling small humans from their loins. But still… even with all that going on, I didn’t feel much different in myself to how I’d felt five, maybe even ten years earlier. This year though…
Ain’t nothing but a number
For the first time, I feel old.
I remember my mum and dad being around this age – they were adults with two kids and a mortgage with 1980’s interest rates, not an immature, whimsical narcissist who has time to write an ambling treatise on ageing on a Thursday afternoon but still, I remember them at the age I am now.
When we got our new pride of cats last year, we realised that if they live to the same age as the last ones, they’ll be with us until we’re pushing 50. Fifty!
In my teens, I watched films featuring characters in their twenties – I was ten years younger than them then; I’m ten years older now but they haven’t aged a day. Fuckers.
Decades and fractions of centuries
I’m starting to measure the time since events in multiple decades. I remember at 25/26 thinking “cor, it’s a DECADE since I left school, a DECADE since I started going out to clubs, a DECADE since I met my teenage buddies”. Well you know what, past-Louisa, it’s nearly TWO DECADES since that sort of thing now. (Of course, these are just arbitrary things I’ve picked out to illustrate my point but I’ve picked them for a reason: I could say it’s more than three decades since I had a swan on my coat peg at nursery, but who cares, I was a little child then but all of the things I’ve mentioned above, happened when I was bordering on adulthood, when I was already some version of “me”.)
High school left such a (largely negative) imprint on my brain that I still dream about it – I had a dream about being in a maths class there just last night – but it’s been FOUR times as long since I left as I actually spent there. It’s been a fifth of a century since I left school. A fifth of a CENTURY.
My relationship with John isn’t quite in multiple decades or meaningful fractions of centuries yet – we’ve been together about 12 years – but I first met him in early 1998 when I was 18. Towards the end of 2015, he’ll have been in my life for longer than he hasn’t been – and I’ve already crossed that barrier with some of the teenage buddies mentioned above.
And of course, projecting forwards, I’m likely to live (at least) another 35 years – I probably haven’t crossed that halfway line yet but at some point in the not too distant future I will.
Things we did and didn’t do
The biggest cliché thing about getting older is a regret for what did, or didn’t, happen in your misspent/correctly-spent youth – people start getting worried about what they’ll never do (or at least never do again). I won’t pretend I’m immune to this but actually, at the moment, I’m finding it more intriguing than anything – because it’s rare to notice something like that until well after it happened. Last year, encouraged by our niece, I did the most awkward forward roll of my life, and immediately afterwards I said that I wouldn’t be surprised or disappointed if I never do one again. (I’m even more sure I won’t do a backward roll again, because I was never terribly comfortable with those even in my gymnastic prime.) I also doubt I’ll ever willingly leave the house without wearing a bra or eat any pasta product that comes in a can.
At 35, few people are constantly turning cartwheels or think canned meatballs are a good idea for dinner, but it is interesting to see how once unusual things I do are beginning to intersect with expected behaviour. For example, at some point over the last couple of years, my teetotalism switched from being something unexpected that people would openly query (and maybe result in a spiked drink), to something that is just accepted and not questioned, in case the uncomfortable answer is that I’m an alcoholic or pregnant (or both). (It’s neither.)
Inside my increasingly-wrinkled head
Most people who have known me for any decent amount of time will know that I’ve struggled with depression since I was a teenager. I’ve had some very dark patches, some lighter but utterly apathetic patches, and some patches that were purple with rage at everything (since, as I told myself recently, it’s easier to be bitter than resilient). But for nearly the last year, I’ve felt … ok. I’m not confident/naive to think that it’s gone forever but I’m enjoying this respite because it’s allowed me to break (or at least notice and mock) some of my usual negative thought patterns and to truly understand stuff than most mental healthy people realise at a much younger age.
One thing that has dawned on me recently sounds ridiculously obvious but it took me until thirty-four-and-three-quarters before I realised that I can’t change what I’ve done – or who I’ve been – in the past: the only thing I can do is control how much I let those past deeds affect me now. I let them affect me a LOT. Barely a day goes by without me biting my knuckles or humming a little song to distract my brain from poking an old memory that causes embarrassment — and that’s when I’m comparatively mentally healthy.
The trouble is that as these years, these decades, pass by, I’m acquiring more triggers to memories. I’ve got a good memory – or at least, I can retrieve/recall things better than a lot of people – but with depression/social anxiety, that’s more of a curse than a blessing. Reading a first name in a book, returning to a place, hearing a song, using a pan that I had at university – whatever it is, it can set off a burst of fireworks in my brain. Flashes of every externally innocuous, internally cringe-worthy memories associated with it rush through, sometimes to the point where it is overwhelming and I have to do a little jig* to stop it becoming totally paralysing. (* if you want an example, ask me about the word ‘jig’. I dare you.) I’ve had a good life, an easy life by a lot of people’s standards, and none of my triggers are particularly major or dangerous – there is just a lot of them and as anyone who knows about meditation will tell you, a noisy mind is not a great place to inhabit.
It doesn’t matter that I’m often the only person that remembers these incidents because I can’t forget them: they’re very sticky (and not just the ones involving gross tacky substances). I am trying to get better about it though – to be able to remember things without reliving them – but I think it’s going to take a lot of work. I’m trying to share more stuff, since getting it out of my head usually makes it shrink but I’ve found that it’s a bit of a double-edged sword – if John/the other person (quite rightly) shares something back, I often invariably take on their trigger as well, damn you stupid brain.
When I wrote my letter to my 16 year old self the other week, I called my younger self an idiot but remarked that she was in good company because I’m an idiot too. (The logic being that I constantly see my past self as an idiot and given present-me will be past-me at some point in the near future, I must be an idiot now.) John didn’t like me calling myself an idiot but I find it freeing. For so long, I’ve tried to be in control of myself and the world around me, but as I begin to recognise that there is a dumb monkey driving the train, I find it easier not to get quite so fixated on bad things. It’s not me, whatever and whoever me is, it’s the dumb monkey.
I also find it easier to exist in the world when I realise I’m not alone in my … lack of togetherness. When you’re a kid, it’s hard to see adults as anything other than their roles: teachers were teachers, doctors were doctors, and
small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri policemen were policemen. Now though, now that I have friends that are teachers, doctors and police officers, I see that, obviously, they’re just … people. They don’t have a magical key to the universe that I’m missing. They’re as brilliant and flawed as the rest of us, and sometimes, they have to fake everything as much as I do. (A quick illustrative story: one day, when I was wavering about my ability to lead a drama class, I told my boss/mentor/friend that I felt like I was faking it. She replied that she felt the same – she’d been teaching professionally for close to fifty years at that point.)
Dithering in the face of brilliance
From the youngest age, I wanted to be a professional too – or at least, have a good career. The trouble is I could never decide on the specific nature of that career – and I still don’t know. I’ve never been able to settle onto any one thing for long enough to acquire the necessary knowledge, skills or training. At times I thought I did, at times I would have sworn blind that I wanted to do something more than anything else in the world, but if that was really true, I’d have done it. I thought I was ambitious when I was younger but really, I’ve always much preferred to play than be a big shot.
Basically, I’m a ditherer. More generously, I call myself a generalist and by and large, I like being one. The world is a fucking awesome place, with so many interesting things in it – I don’t think I could restrict myself to one field, one section of it, any more than I could do a backward roll. But it’s getting hard to be a generalist – because people who have specialised have become really, really good at what they do. Ten years or so ago, we were all just dicking about but when friends start getting “global” or “international” in their job titles, or winning acclaim for their art, or are considered leaders in their field … well, it’s a bit humbling. (This is obviously exacerbated by the fact that many of those people are now younger than me.) I still feel like I’m dicking around and there isn’t a prize for being mediocre at lots of things.
In which I try not to be a women’s magazine headline
So where am I? I’m feeling old, I’m gathering things than make me cringe faster than I can shake them off and I’m being eclipsed by people more focused than I am. But at the same time, I think I’m starting to get a better feeling for who I am (whatever that means) and to maybe becoming a little tiny bit more comfortable in my own skin (whatever THAT means). So I don’t really know.
I do know that I’ve got it pretty good – I’ve not had the successes I once craved but I’ve not had any colossal failures either. I got here without any dental fillings, broken bones or ghastly scars. If I can keep that up for the next 35 years, I’ll be impressed with myself. And if at 70, I’ve got so few worries that I can afford to reminisce about how much of an idiot I was at 35 … well, I guess that’s alright too.