In two days’ time , I will turn 31.
The first year of my 30s, to be honest, has not been a good one. In fact, it has probably been the worst ever, in many ways. It has knocked the breath and the spirit out of me at times.
But it has made me grow up in some important ways. I feel stronger, more self-sufficient and a lot older than I did this time last year; some of my relationships feel reinforced. I have learned some things and my priorities have shifted on their axes. That’s what it’s all about, right?
Importantly, I still feel very, very hopeful about my thirties and I would not choose to go back.
Thirty felt like a good milestone. Thirty-one is making me think back to how far I have come, in some ways more than 30 did. It has been a decade since my twenty-first birthday, a fact that seems incredible to me now – I’m not sure if that’s because it feels like it was just yesterday or 100 years ago.
When I turned 21, I had just finished my degree – and, in the most part, studying – for good. My final exams happened quite early, mid-May I think, so I finished university at 20 years old.
I was living with a flatmate in a one-bedroomed flat. I was interning at a fashion magazine. I was embroiled in a long and ongoing on/off relationship, which I thought was complicated but actually wasn’t. This time, I was convinced it had turned a corner and become what it had been meant to be all along. It hadn’t. It ended for good within, more or less, the next year.
I wrote constantly, unfinished novels or short stories that I would either throw straight in the bin or stash in a box under my bed and wait a few months before throwing in the bin.
My hair was, as was a weird fashion at the time, cut in a long graduated bob and dyed canary-yellow on the top and black underneath. As well as all my perennial favourites, the bands I liked included The Strokes and The Raveonettes. I was enjoying Lauren Laverne’s solo music career and listening to her ‘Take These Flowers Away’ EP a lot.
I think I was a bit lost. I knew what I wanted but had absolutely no idea how to get it. I was very thin but actually didn’t look it because my face was so puffy. I cried a lot and would drink vodka alone in my bedroom; I was very self-absorbed and worried a lot about things that didn’t matter.
I veered wildly from one extreme to the next. Either caning myself stupid or giving up drinking for months at a time and going running every day - only to quit, overcome by failure, the first time I skipped a run or had half a glass of wine. I would often eat two or more fast food meals a day; I consumed nothing but tinned tomatoes and black tea with sweetener for an entire spring. I regularly ate packets of Sweet n Low for my breakfast. I was in the midst of my few years as a proper smoker - at least 10 B&H per day, including one in bed when I woke up in the morning (or afternoon). Whether I was in a 'healthy' or 'unhealthy' phase, my continuous cans of Diet Coke were a constant.
These are all facts, but I suspect that - on paper - things sound worse than they were. I functioned. Except for occasional periods when I would quietly, desperately want everyone to realise that I wasn't, I was OK. I was just 21, and a bit confused.
On my birthday, I think I wore my favourite outfit at the time: A baggy grey-and-pink striped T-shirt dress with an army shirt over the top, tights and red Converse All-Stars. I was finding my way, sartorially speaking – within a year I would look the coolest I have ever looked, and I was getting there but not quite yet.
I travelled back to my parents’ house that morning and we drove in the car to London, for a proper birthday treat. We went to the Ivy for a pre-theatre dinner (a surprise location that my sister accidentally let slip in the car on the way there, and then cried and got angry with me like it was my fault). We then went to see a play that I had selected and so knew about in advance: ‘This Is Our Youth’, in its London run that had a cast comprised of Matt Damon, Casey Affleck and Summer Phoenix.
I loved it. The others had more mixed opinions, but we all enjoyed cringing slightly at my grandmother’s reaction to the frequent and extreme bad language.
It was great, but I wouldn’t go back.
On my birthday this year, I will be hanging out by the river, eating burgers and drinking a couple of beers (without beating myself up over it in any way, shape or form), with a few friends and family. In the morning, I will go for a short-ish, gentle run, for fun, and will probably take the rest of the weekend off exercise,. I may even smoke a cigarette or two, but may not smoke again for months afterwards. I am really looking forward to it. The people I consider my best friends are the same ones I did then, and I have culled a lot of peripheral people in the meantime.
I am not perfect. I am very hopeful.
This is me at 21. Now can you see why I wouldn't go back? I'll let you know what 31 looks like.