The last decade has, for me, been one of immense personal change. It has been one of great shifts, spurts and growth but it has also been one of immense stress, anxiety and exhaustion. The two are related.
A brief, potted history:
In 2012, I stopped drinking. I had a 4 and a 2 year old.
In 2013, I had questions about my marriage, about how I felt and why.
In 2014, I had my first festival experience in nearly twenty years. And an affair. I also got very fit.
In 2015, I opened up my marriage. I discovered kink and my sexual needs. I stayed super fit and got a lot of attention mostly because I sought it. I saw 80 bands at gigs and festivals.
In 2016, I met Andrea and fell in love. I separated from my husband.
In 2017, my kids and I spent time away from the family home. I went to Iceland and Spain with Andrea. I commuted between Peckham and Kent. I lost many friends and gained some wonderful new ones.
In 2018, I had my first book published. I went to New York. I moved out of the family home to live alone with my kids. The kids changed school. I did a 5 hour commute every term day for two terms.
In 2019, I moved house (for the third time) on my own. I co-habited with Andrea which triggered my drinking more, along with other issues. I met Rebecca whose friendship was important to me. I wrote short stories.
In 2020, I went on a few really great dates in the pre-COVID time. I had two short stories published. The pandemic and lockdowns meant I did almost no writing and I started drinking too much. I addressed my problem eating (binge/starve cycles) and started to exercise more again. I cut back on drinking.
Now, at the start of 2021, I’m frequently overwhelmed with anxiety and sadness. I recognise my flight tendency, the habit of tuning out and scrolling, or just frittering, time away and yet seem unable to break it. I’m going to change that. I need to change that. The funny thing about flight, is that we do it because we’re tired but all too often the things we do because we are tired are the exact things that make us MORE tired. Tackling head on, for the first time, the way in which my anxiety about ageing plays into this retreat and the degree to which it is sapping my creative energy as well as my general energy is a part of this change.
I notice that my energy levels are different now. I’m guilty of looking back and wondering, wishing for the energy of my 36 year old self. Whilst, intellectually, I know we must have fallow time to have growth time, it still feels hard to lose that energy. It’s hard to admit but it is hard for me to not look younger than I am anymore. I see how much I fed off that. I used to fear looking older and I’m working on that. I need to address this fear. Many of us have been taught to fear it.
As I’ve moved from 20s and 30s, into my 40s, I’m now looking ahead to my 50s. The biggest challenge for me is in staying confident. Confidence in myself and my body as I age; confidence in the self as the external no longer mirrors the internal, often idealised way we see ourselves. By 45 there is little to be done to hide the signs of ageing. And little should be done. But letting go of “fixing” can be hard. And, often, the external world will ignore and demean us and we can either accept that or refuse it; we can either let that noise tell us to shrink and hide away or we can stand tall and proud.
It often makes me laugh to see mid 30 somethings fret about their changing appearance and to be anxious about the decline in attention and acceptance they receive based on their appearance. And yet, this type of ageism is on the increase. There seems to be a willingness to call 30 and over “old” in a way that would not have happened even twenty years ago.
All too often these people were the ones who were crude and mean about those younger than them too. People who are younger are told they shouldn’t feel anxious because “You’re still young! Wait till you’re xx!” and yet we all know that anyone, at any age, can feel these socially and family created pressures to look and be different to how we are.
It’s hard to be on the receiving end of a dismissal based on no longer looking 30: a dismissal based on nothing other than prejudice and fear. I also accept that I felt that fear and also disgust. I was taught to do that, by my parents and the wider world around me. I know that people older than I am now might mock the anxieties of a mid-forty something as they themselves go into their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. I’ve seen, and experienced, this kind of thing online and IRL.
How about we accept that most of us have days where we feel less than thrilled with how we appear and are in the world, physically? That this can happen at 26 as much as 46? How about we acknowledge that our society is relentlessly ageist and that to age, especially for women, is to face discrimination, dismissal and even rudeness? I’ve lived too long with anxieties about my appearance and body. It was “not good enough” in my teens or twenties where I was taught to starve myself to look how I should. It was a challenge to gain and lose the three stone that each of my pregnancies gifted me and to adjust to the irrevocable changes that the gift of childbirth made to my body. We need to normalise all kinds of bodies and the way that life experience changes that, the work of disabled and fat activists has so much to teach us all about the glorious diversity of our physical bodies.
We all age. If we are lucky. Ageing is living. Ageing is a gift. And yet so much around us tells us that after 35 we’re not much use to anyone. The book deals and the TV appearances go to those under 30 even when those in their 50s have more interesting things to say. The fields of feminism, gender, sex and relationships are notorious for this. Why do we want to hear what another 24 year old thinks about relationships? Why not hear from the 54 year old who has the actual experience to share? This is because we assume that everyone older is literally “old”, and that word conflates with not growing, stuck, stubborn, closed minded. It’s perfectly possible to be closed minded, stuck and stubborn at 24 and at 54. Age is less of a factor than how someone has chosen to live their life and how much
For me, the answers are to be found by digging deeper. By seeing that we aren’t just the sum of the people who check us out in the street. As a Generation X-er, raised within 1980s and 1990s TV and tabloid culture, I was taught to see male validation and attention as the be all and end all of my worth as a human being. It’s important to recognise the impact that these generational environments have. Growing up in a culture that did not question, on main, the beauty standards of big boobs and big blonde hair, that saw the gender pay gap being even bigger than it is now and yet not talked about, that saw sexual harassment of women in the work place and outside of it as something just to shrug off, certainly not something to challenge, takes its toll on confidence.
They are also to be found by seeing myself with honestly. Looking at myself clearly, hearing how I judge myself based on what a 25 year old looks like or an air brushed women in a magazine of the same age looks. How many women in their mid 40s saw those recent photos of Jennifer Aniston and Kate Moss and compared themselves unfavourably all whilst KNOWING about the air brushing and the photoshop and the fact that the are two women paid huge amounts of money to manage how they look? Realistic photos in the media would help. Looking around at how people look in real life, their aliveness and warmth, the energy they have, helps. Paying attention to how you look and feel but not to the point of distraction helps. Do you look and feel healthy? Are you getting enough sleep, enough water, enough nourishing food? Do you trust yourself? Do you LIKE yourself? What can you do to lean into who and how you are right now for yourself and not for others?
Attraction and acceptance are about energy. How we feel inside projects out of our skin and how we feel inside also impacts on the amount of grace, kindness and confidence with which we interact with others. Not needing validation means you are able to interact authentically and honestly. What can you hear see and value about the other beyond how they make you feel about yourself?
I have also begun to ask myself – how do I want to be as I age? Who do I want to be? Someone that anxiously watches the tone of jaw, the lines around my eyes, the crinkling of my knees? Or someone who sees these things and doesn’t allow them to dictate how tall I stand, what I produce creatively or who I speak to?
It’s about finding my own inner well of acceptance and validation – about recognising that whilst I love a compliment and the approving glance of a stranger I do not NEED them to feel good about myself about my changing body and my changing face. I can care for myself, create, live, love and move as much I want for me. I can feed my body and soul with creativity, knowledge and care and embrace the growing confidence within. A tree grows faster as it ages and I hope I will too.