So I’m still not sure how I let this happen, but I turned thirty last year.
And….that was about it, really. I held my breath and put my fingers in my ears and shut my eyes and everything, but no seismic change took place at midnight. And this despite the frankly injudicious amount of Baileys in my Baileys latte. Despite the twin facts that I am terminally single and have no children, and despite the fact that if I’m honest I had always seen 30 as some kind of celestial cut off point, I don’t appear to have entered my Sperm Bandit Years even a whole birthday later.
Now this may in part be because I’ve plotted my adult life according to the Law of Jarvis, or if you ask my best friend the “how-old-was-Jarvis-when-he-did-the-thing-thing” which was devised when my painfully virginal sixteen year old self saw the Do You Remember The First Time documentary and learned that the great man himself didn’t cash in his v-card til a mere few weeks shy of his twentieth birthday. The living deity himself endured cold hearted teenage rejection right up to the wire but oh, what glories were to follow! And with that Fresher’s Week had forever lost it’s terror. (creepy fact: I was almost exactly the same age, and a small part of me considers that an homage rather than an indictment of my market value) Now according to the Law of Jarvis I have until I am 33 to achieve success, be hailed as a living god and then have a Creator Breakdown and spend a year in hiding writing really bitchy songs about Tony Blair. And I don’t need to worry that I’ll never have kids til I’m well into my forties. Result!
So, disturbing and weird as this all may be, at least I didn’t have a full on Bridget Jones my-life-is-over brain melt and start making up aloof-sex-goddess names to write on my coffee andattempt flirtation with Starbucks staff.
But maybe I did, a bit.
An important fact here: I am thirty years, two months, sixteen days and two hours older than my first ever niece. Like me, she came the exact day she was supposed to and like me, she was born during a thunderstorm and I adore her beyond measure, as I do the sister from whence she came. Who-here goes-is two years younger than me.
‘I didn’t have a problem with this. People asked, and it really wasn’t a thing. My sister was always the kind of child who planned her wedding with a tea towel on her head and named all her dolls the names she’d picked for her four babies. I was the kind of child wont to run downstairs in a blind panic at midnight to tearfully inform my parents I couldn’t stop blinking. That’s families, and in particular, sisters. We grew up wrapped around each other, as you do, but we are poles apart in the Game of Life tactic stakes. Her gameplan was always very different from mine, and there is nothing at all wrong with the priorities either of us set for
I did get to thinking, though.
About life and plans and being thirty and stuff, and about being someone’s big sister, and hoping that in between doing each other’s homework and grassing on her for bunking off school, I passed on something to her, something I will pass on to her daughters (second one imminent) something about hope/bravery/wishing/love/happiness or whatever.
And I hoped I, and my sister and my nieces, would think I was worth it.
And I kept thinking over the next year, not all the time, just sometimes.
When I was about 12 and a strange, sad, confused little thing,I spent much of my time upstairs with my typewriter and my copy of Pulp’s Different Class with amazing changeable covers, trying to write something that felt like listening to that album. At the most I managed some clumsy purple prose that made too much reference to soft furnishings. However, I spent the weekends at my auntie’s house for reasons that involve the bizarre North West subculture of girls’ competitive Morris dancing (NO WORD OF A LIE RIGHT) happily eating sandwiches made of digestive biscuits and Nutella and sometimes gaining access to the Narnia of my cousin’s bedroom. She was ten years older than me and her room smelled like secrets and Impulse and she once let me taste Hooch and she had an amazing selection of magazines with filthy bits, which I would sneak out into the spare room and scour for information about what being an Adult would be like. I was fairly sure I would need some instructions for this, having proved not overly good at being a child. And what I found when I looked for instructions was those lists. You know the Lists. Things You Should Have Done/Worn/Owned/Eaten/Forced Yourself To Give A Shit About Before You Turn 30 And Your Youth And Promise Fade Overnight, Forever And Ever. All these lists that try and reduce thousands of weird and gorgeous and scary and funny and brave women into a bullet pointed list of value judgements and none of them ever say “before turning 30 every woman should have perfected the art of looking casual in Boots whilst costing up pregnancy tests.”
I hate the bloody things. I hate them and I’m not going to deconstruct them anymore, because I’m going to tell you to go here where Ellen takes them apart and reassembles them far more succinctly and with much greater wit than I could.
And it was while I was reading her scarily accurate reworked list that it occured to me that of course I wasn’t the person little me had conjured up from mid 90s magazine lists and sneaking Bridget Jones’s Diary out of the library. Nobody ever is. That’s the whole point of your twenties. And while you probably didn’t need me to point that out to you, I wondered why nobody ever made a list of all the things they never imagined they’d do, or have done, or be doing, at 30.
Because it seems to me like all the list things: getting a tattoo, planning a wedding, losing your passport in Magaluf- anyone can do that shit without even thinking. That’s exactly why it ends up on the lists. Cold reading as lifestyle journalism: the abyss stares back. The stories, I reckon, are in the bits we didn’t imagine.
An example: When I was little, all I ever wanted to do was write books. For a couple of years when I discovered music, I made up bands in my head-my lack of a) discernible musical talent and b) friends rather ruling out an us-against-the-world platinum album followed by painful Behind The Music episode. When I hit 17 I fell down the fanzine rabbithole armed with a) a best friend who enabled the shit out of my schemes and b) my poor battered lecky typewriter-my god, if those keys could talk. I’m not going to lie, these were some of the best times of my entire life. I’m still the bassist in perennial non existent indie also-rans Unexplained Calf. That was a whole other thing, I’ll-nah, I probably won’t get to that later, it makes me sound weird.
But I don’t write books for a living. There’s a long and a short and a wry-little-joke-peppered version of that story and I alternate them like the writer I’m not, but in short what happened is: I went mad. I was pretty much born with OCD, and my first memories of this are the secret magic spells it was my job to do every night, as my sister slept next to me, or something awful would happen to her and it would be all my fault when she was dead. And I got older, and sadder, and the evil hissing spiteful bitch who snarls out at me from the mirror led me to hurt myself in ways it makes me sad to remember and starve myself to keep her fed, and there were hospitals and pills and stitches and hands I washed til they bled and they still weren’t clean enough, and therapists and food replacement drinks that tasted like Baileys which had been pissed out by a racehorse. And I got more scared, and more sad, and I ended up in my mid twenties spun entirely into a web of all the things I hadn’t done, and all the things I’d never be. Suicidal, in fact. Within a hairs’ breadth of never making 26, fuck 30. I wasn’t ticking off items on the list. No house, no wedding, no baby, no career, no books, no success, no fascinating anecdotes, no job even, no friends who didn’t pity me, no future, no worth, no point, no, no, fucking NO
Clearly, something had to be done.
I have this friend who made a whole show out of going back and doing all the jobs she dreamt of as a little girl (which you should totally go and see, by the way. Juliette is a major force for good in the world AND SHE HAS A MUPPET OF HERSELF). And in the end I picked myself up and threw myself into getting a job no little girl, anywhere, EVER, has wanted when she grew up. Hold your breath… I’m a fucking social worker, kids. I told you. Nobody dreams of that as a child. But here’s the thing: it saved me. And I love it. It’s one of the best parts of my story, I think, and no script editor would have thrown that one out in a million years.
And that’s what I’m trying to say. I think that’s true for all of us, and I think your 30 List will be better and braver and weirder than some dross on the other side of a perfume advert. If I were Juliette orEllen or one of those other smart and brave girls I never was, I’d probably be putting together for this years Edinburgh Fringe a show of all the things we never dreamt we’d have done when we woke up in a cold sweat at thirty and realised we were adults.
But I’m not. I’m this girl, in this story right here, and so this is my (somewhat befuddled) list of Things I Never Imagined I’d Have Done at 30:
My job. I never thought I’d be able to do it, and I never thought it would show me so much.
I never thought I’d sit holding the hand of a man who sobbed with joy and relief when he saw in the file that his birth mother hadn’t wanted to give him away.
I never thought I’d be able to manage alone in a house full of angry, broken teenagers as a terrified and unprepared substitute parent or that I would, in the end, love them all, or that one of them would pop up on Jeremy Kyle some years later (THAT’S THIS WHOLE OTHER THING, RIGHT…)
I never thought I could convince someone, really make her feel, as I sat on the phone shaking and dry mouthed and scribbling details so people could find her as she sobbed down the phone, that her life was precious, and it could be good again, better than good, and that she was never going to be alone with the fear that it wouldn’t.
I never thought I’d keep the card she sent me to say thank you under my pillow for a three month sojourn taking time off from life on the National Anxiety Disorders Residential Unit at Bethlem Royal Hospital. That was a thing I hadn’t banked on as well.
I never thought I’d go of my own free will to the place that defines the word asylum, to eat biscuits out of bins and wear red lipstick on the Tube where people can see me and might think I don’t know I’m ugly. I never thought I’d last that long at it without bailing back home. But I did. And I did every terrifying thing they cooked up for me (and ate it all, too).
I never imagined how much it word hurt to hear a sweet, scared 18 year old saying in a therapy group that “I don’t want to be like, thirty, and still be in places like this..” then immediately apologising to me because….yeah.
I didn’t think I’d have it in me to just hug her and say: you’re right. You’re right and you will not turn into me. There is so much, so much that you can do. I lost years, but you won’t.
I didn’t believe, really, that it would work. I never imagined I would really be able to eat food and not numbers, that I wouldn’t write the worst thoughts in my head up both my arms and cast spells to keep me safe from my own pathetic/weak/stupid/ugly/wrong/hateful/evil/fat/angry/lonely/sad/scared self
and the power of that ice cold feeling that you fucked it again.
I didn’t think I’d sit here now, past the magic number on the evil scale, and be brave enough to say that scares me shitless, because if I say these things out loud and not on my body, they can’t touch me.
I didn’t imagine that the bands I loved as a strange little girl would still be going strong, and that I would spend most of my 30th year seeing them live, with the friends I made because of them, fucking smashing it, and seeing other strange little girls discovering themselves to the same soundtrack, and loving it.
I didn’t think I’d have the stomach to let someone screen my picture, cursed face and scarred arms all present and correct, to a sold out house at the Edinburgh Fringe (I was representing Honesty. And people who’ve spent their lives trying not to be photographed. Them too)
I never thought I’d hear my dad, my lovely clever dad who I always wanted so much to be like, tell someone he was lucky to have a daughter who taught him things, and have to duck out of the room because my mascara wasn’t waterproof.
I never thought I’d still be getting use out of my useless degree (Cultural Studies and English, fyi) and that rather than wishing I’d done teaching as my mother predicted I would, I would be profoundly grateful that I did what I wanted instead of what scared me less, and still working my way down the reading lists.
I never thought I’d still be spending nights having YouTube nostalgia battles and writing sketches funny only to us with my first best friend, the funny and vital and rare boy who it turns out was just as scared as I was all along, who kept me going from four to seventeen then left the country trying to run away from himself
I never thought my next best friend, who produced awful fanzines with me and introduced me to Radio 4 and made my university years the happiest of my life and at whose wedding I cried my false lashes off reading out the Velveteen Rabbit, and who held me while I sobbed and sobbed because I couldn’t even die without fucking it up, would still even want to speak to me, never mind still be the smartest, kindest, most gorgeous woman I know and have THREE SPINNING WHEELS IN HER HOUSE which your best friend clearly doesn’t.
I never thought I’d be sitting here as I type this googling PhD opportunities in said useless subject because I can. I could. At some point before I die and hopefully a lot sooner, I will.
I couldn’t have imagined so many jobs and bedrooms and books and songs and stories and overindulged pet rabbits and ill advised T shirt purchases and girls with kissable lips and boys with eyes I drowned in, and I’d never have believed you that even the awful bits would be worth so much more at this point than what some publishing house intern thinks a thirty year old life is measured by. And you won’t believe me when I say it to you, but it’s true. You contain multitudes. You’re going to be fine. You always were fine. In spite of everything, life’s a bit of a bloody adventure, really. And it’s like those books you had to flip the pages of to get the chosen ending, and you always cheated and tried to go back, but even though you can’t go back, you can always, always keep going forward. And you always should. I’ll be so pissed at you if you don’t.
Want to tell me your list?
This article originally appeared on http://manchestermind.org on 21st January 2015