I began turning 30 a whole four years ago. That was when I found myself in a long term relationship and obliviously bolting to South East Asia, before a house came spinning out of the heavens and grounding me forever. A highly unlikely scenario, in hindsight. But it was the first time I’d really considered the future: I stared the status quo in the face and unwittingly took a rain check.
Tramping around the well-worn backpackers trail, an alternative existence in what felt like a parallel universe charmed me. My boyfriend and I decided to stay. Surrounded by delightfully random travellers, dysfunctional expats and the exotic chaos of Phnom Penh, I slipped into a sweaty pit of denial. Writhing around in purgatory was indisputably pleasurable – I could have stayed there forever, wondering whether this was real life or a beautiful hallucination?
It was when my relationship broke down that I was released full pelt into this spawning petri dish: the tropical heat catalysed the weeks, which soon blurred into one. Rocket fuelled, with icy beers, humid clubs and beautiful pretty things, hangovers bookended the weeks. The antidote was found in the weekdays: the smiles and achievements of my pupils, who were growing outwards and inwards all year, lit up my insides. Never had my days been so filled with love. On a deeper level, I acknowledged that I might like a child of my own one day. It was a silent, grounding revelation that took me by surprise and was quickly countered by the independent woman in me – ‘No rush,’ she said, ‘You’ve got time…’
After adventuring through southern Laos, road tripping to Cambodia’s coast and filling my soul with a thousand laughs, I bought a return flight home – I didn’t plan on never returning. But, I never returned. The shock of living back in the family home, in a country I no longer identified with was gradual and grueling. Young-minded, free-spirited and unafraid of human contact, I patiently grew into London. Once my independence was established and career rebooted, I began to look around and ask questions. Have I lost the deep sense of liberation I worked so hard for? Where do I fit in this heaving city of survivors – do I want to simply survive ‘modern life’? Am I ultimately aiming for the comforts of another person by my side and a nice little bubble of our own, like everyone else – for the material things that denote stability?
The month that preceded the big 3-0, I turned my life around. I paid for a full set of gel nails. I bought myself bras that not only fit wonderfully, but actually looked sexy. I paid for a haircut that I was emotionally invested in, as I etched out the image of the 30-year-old I thought I should be. Yes, I want to be young at heart forever – but I also want my years of self-development to be evident. Having thrown myself into work and my sister’s impending due date, I’d forgotten about my ‘self’ – and the mug I’d hidden in my desk drawer prior to a more hopeful night out.
With only a week to go, I began to take pathetic little runs around the block – 15 minutes was all it took to tighten up my wobbly chin. It only took 45 minutes to spring clean my room. I even rolled out the yoga mat, later drifting off to sleep on a bed of clouds. But this didn’t stop a dark, despairing moment, in which I emailed a local psychiatrist begging for an explanation as to why I still felt disconnected, surely she could reveal where I truly fit in it all. She politely emailed back with a sizable quote, triggering a crimson flush of embarrassment. I never responded.
On the eve of my 30th birthday my friends descended on east London, from Ireland where I’d lived for four years and where this journey had begun. Sat in a scrotty rented apartment, music blaring and beers breaking us into the weekend, the stories began to surface. The ones that glue us together, that trace the curves of our friendship and my formative years. They’re all ridiculous, deliciously silly. The next morning, with a cup of coffee and a packet of chocolate buttons in hand, I wished my twin sister a happy birthday – for the first time in the same country and yet apart. As her new babe suckled on her breast, I lead the Irish crew to a killer fry-up to layer their stomachs for the night ahead.
The sun broke through the clouds as we gathered at Frank’s rooftop bar, shades out, beers flowing and friends from all corners of my life coming together. The easy laughter and swapping of stories induced a welling sensation within me. Like an overstuffed rag-doll receiving her final stiches, I felt complete, as though everything were coming together and the bigger picture were about to be revealed. A euphoric cloud seemed to hang over us. We went for a grown-up kebab prior to entering the ultimate venue for a Soul Train night – where we danced to every imaginable genre of music, from soul to samba. Five hours later and high on life, we trudged into our Ubers and awaited the inevitable hangover.
As the dust settled, I scrawled what was surely going to be my masterpiece – call me A.B. Yeats – on to the back of an envelope, where it should have stayed. I looked ahead, beyond ‘the big 3-0’, with J-Lo’s inanely sassy lyrics ‘I’m gonna live my life’ whizzing through my core: Let’s get Loud.
I was so happy
the outside came in
and the inside went out –
Like I’d forgotten to wear my skin.
My very being, conquered by all encompassing
melted into the
haze of a midsummer’s