Things they don’t tell you about being thirty

Before I turned thirty, I heard people talking about how terrible it is and how afraid they were of ageing all the time. Dirty Thirty. You’ve seen people do it – the roll of the eyes, the sigh, the birthday blues. Accordingly, I decided that I was also terrified of turning thirty, because being old is surely horrendous. Being old isn’t sexy! It’s boring and crappy and full of unwanted burdens and responsibilities. Rather unappealing isn’t it?!

Now that I’m two years into my thirties, I’ve come to a rather shocking conclusion. Perhaps turning thirty is not as morbid as people would have you believe.

My early twenties were spent in the usual style of a white, Western woman: consumed by insecurity and anxiety, desperately trying to be cool, fumbling towards a semblance of a career, and blindly trying to find my place in the world. I worked shit jobs, I spent all my money, I dated shit guys (on the off chance that AJ is reading this – you are the exception). I was as thin as I had even been yet I still hated my body and face and went on “diets” that consisted of not really eating very much at all, then getting really very hungry and eating an entire pizza in one sitting followed by McDonald’s, instant mee goreng with peas in it, and the scraps of ice-cream in the freezer. I had some good friends and some shocking ones. I was entirely absorbed in my own torture. I was a shit person. Messed up, selfish, obnoxious, clueless. I hated myself and everything I did was like a big fat lie. There were some occasional tender moments with a dear friend or a lover, and I’ll admit that the freedom of having no discernible responsibilities or boundaries is pretty great. But for me, that freedom translated to enormous anxiety around what to do with it, which is apparently very much the modern curse. I now see my early twenties as a necessary evil, part of the journey towards thirty year-old me.

As is typical for white, Western women, by my late twenties, I started to get my shit together. I went to a therapist and addressed some problems, met a guy that I could see myself with forever, got lucky with a job that I loved (for the first time ever…I never thought this would happen to me!) and the fog felt like it was starting to lift. I’m sure this all sounds pretty familiar to most people. Of course, we are humans, and we like to ruin good things for ourselves. Because when you turn thirty, that means you’re not young anymore, and you might start to get boring and have wrinkles. Ew! How suburban! Who wants to be old anyway?

Here’s what they don’t tell you: when I turned thirty, I felt an enormous sense of relief. I no longer had to be a bright young thing or a precocious success, that time was long gone. Somehow, I realised that I could just be me, warts and all. I stopped worrying about what I now think of as really dumb things, like whether people thought I was popular or stylish, or about how many friends I had on Facebook. In fact, I deleted it all together for a while. I started spending time alone on purpose and actually enjoying it; doing things to please myself and no-one else. It’s liberating, not giving a flying focaccia what people think of you. It all ties into my theories about saying no and being a little bit mean – you’ll be happier in a more profound way if you’re doing things for the right reasons and living deliberately.

Another perk of developing self-awareness is that you’ll make improvements in your job, choice of partner, living situations and friends. If you’re like me, you’ll find it very difficult to manufacture self-esteem but by actually seeing yourself grow as a person, you might just get some organically.

Conversely, as I grew older, I became aware of the suffering in the world in a very different way. Yes, that was a burden. When I was younger I’d think about all the terrible things that happened and I’d feel totally powerless to change them. I’d drown myself in vices to forget about how cruel the world can be, and lie awake at night fretting, thinking about these awful things that people do to each other, being crushed by the guilt of someone that “has it all” yet still feels empty. I still feel this guilt today; it’s the burden of a middle-class white person, one that lives in an incredibly lucky country like Australia, and I accept that.

What I don’t accept now is that I’m powerless to change anything that I don’t like. I am no angel, far from it, but I take my privilege seriously and try to use it as best I can. I didn’t finish uni but I did have the privilege of a wonderful primary school education that taught me to how to think instead of how to pass exams. I wrote sonnets, had spirited teachers that cared deeply about their students, small classes, historical school grounds and a real sense of freedom. In my recent years I’ve realised what a true gift that was, especially when I realise how many people didn’t have access to a good education in their early life.

Once I mustered that bit of self-esteem that I had been scraping together over the years, I realised that I might be in a position to help people. Not all people, but some, and not because I was special but because I had privileges that allowed me to do so and the desire to use them. I started with one tiny good deed, just one, that I kept to myself. How easy it is to make a hint of difference! Empowered by my own private crusades, these little habits and changes and conversations started to become habits and now they are an almost weekly part of my life. Just knowing that I was trying to do what I thought was right gave me a sense that there’s even more to do, and that’s not scary anymore, and that other people must be doing these small things too and maybe that will make the world right one day.

Of course, I’ll admit that I sometimes lament the superficial downsides of ageing – I’ve put my face extremely close to the bathroom mirror in order to bemoan the fine lines and wrinkles on it. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that most of them are from smoking like a chimney throughout the majority of my twenties. But over the years I’ve realised I don’t actually mind them. I am not an infant, an ingenue. I am a grown, adult woman. The love I have to give is more real now, my experience more true. As I grow older, I hope that people see the lines on my faces as symbols of those things, little markers of someone who has been there and knows, and has something to give.

by Penny


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