Today I turned 28.
It’s a funny age. I’m reluctantly now wearing my “late-twenties” tag, as my “twenty-something” label has started to feel a little worn out. The most sobering thought is that in just over 100 weeks I’ll turn 30. That feels like an age I’m entirely unprepared for. I picture 30 year olds as confident and experienced, yet I’m still fumbling around and trying not to set my life ablaze. How could someone like me be closing in on 30?
In a way, I feel like my life is getting away from me. As if birthdays are arriving faster and faster, ignoring my request to slow down. Surely I can’t really be 28? The cake with a little 1 and 8 atop it was here just a moment ago. Has it really been 10 years?
I know that it’s silly, and perhaps a little rude even, to imply that 28 is old by any sense. Fingers crossed, I’m still not halfway through my life yet, I’ve got plenty of time to experiment, explore and figure out just what I’m doing here. But I can’t help but feel unnerved at the knowledge that I made that same proclamation at 18. A lot has changed since then, not at all in ways I expected.
At 18, I felt immortal…
When I turned 18, life felt easy. I had left school 2 years earlier, saying goodbye to that miserable drain on my mental health. Now I was at college, studying video games and animation. It’s tempting to paint an idealised version of my youthful self, one full of drive and enthusiasm, but I get nothing by lying and pretending I was somebody else. I know I’ve done a lot of growing since, but back then I had all the gusto of a potato. All I cared about was killing time in the most fun way possible.
Although two months prior I had spent a lively evening at a friend’s birthday party, surrounded by his proud family and friends, my own birthday was spent entirely alone. I sat and played online video games in my bedroom, stopping just to eat. I don’t think I even left the house. Quiet reflection was the last thing on my mind.
At 18 I felt immortal. I figured I had a long, long, life ahead of me. There’d be plenty of time to chase success and achievements. I did run a blog at the time, the first incarnation of many to come, but I only posted 1 or 2 articles a month. Even then I wrote very inconsistently, with a haphazard format. I knew I wanted to be a writer one day, but I had all the time in the world, right?
I arrogantly enjoyed the fact that I was good at essays, compared to everyone else in my college class. I gleefully looked forward to more, while my peers grumbled and longed to go back to tinkering with creative software. I didn’t have many things I was good at, but I at least had writing. While I was praised for being eloquent and articulate, my friends struggled to hit the word-count. That praise ballooned my confidence. I considered myself better than most my age when it came to writing, but that brash attitude was a cover for how I felt about everything else.
My confidence was mostly bluster, compensation for how vulnerable and embarrassed I felt. I wouldn’t admit it, but I was wearing emotional scars from bullying and years of self-loathing. I knew I couldn’t communicate outside of my writing either. I lacked friends and still struggled with shyness and outright anxiety when I was beyond my bedroom. I never took part in group outings, feeling alien and out of place amongst others. I was lonely.
Counting who I considered a real friend, including my then-girlfriend, could be done on a single hand. But it was fine, or so I told myself. I just had to focus on feeling good and ignore everything else. It would be another 2 years until I understood that not only were my skills nothing special, but all that emotional damage I was carrying around couldn’t be ignored forever.
When I imagined where I was going to be in a decade, picturing the final years of my twenties, I saw myself in my dream job. I would be writing for a living, of course, and I would certainly not live in my hometown anymore. I didn’t know about my education, the idea of going to university wasn’t on my roadmap at all, though I wasn’t averse to it either. I was embarrassingly empty handed when it came to any type of plan. Worse still, I lacked any motivation to come up with one, not anytime soon anyway. Why bother? I was 18 and I had an abundance of time, so I foolishly spent it like it was worthless.
At 28 I’m not who I expected or wanted to be…
I’m not where I figured I would be at 28, but my path has taken a lot of twists that I never foresaw. For instance, at 22 I broke up with my partner, a person who I was once certain I would grow old with. Despite what I was pretending at the time, that relationship was far from a fairytale romance. In reality, it was riddled with abusive behaviours. Nobody saw it when I was 18, but the older I got, the more people warned me that I was being mistreated and manipulated. Now I’m 5 years into a new relationship, one much healthier and happier.
Another thing I didn’t expect, is my time at university. It didn’t go as planned, first wasting two years on a course that stole my money and outright lied to me multiple times. Thankfully I recovered, transferred out of that environment and earned my bachelor’s degree elsewhere. Throughout that process I learnt that my writing abilities were still a mess, I was fuelled by ignorance and unearned confidence. With a trial by fire approach, I learnt how to write clean and clear academic prose, after electing to undertake a dissertation and abandon the practical focus of my degree path. I then went on to complete an MA in Media Studies, spending an intense year juggling research, seminars and essay writing. I came out of the whole experience feeling more academically intelligent, but also levelheaded and humble.
Before I had formally graduated, I returned to university for an entirely different reason: counselling. The flippant and blasé attitude I cultivated at 18 was held together by force of will, although I’d never have admitted it. By 25 I was tired of pretending I was okay. Counselling allowed to me unpack and analyse everything that had taken place in my life so far, especially my teenage years. I finally saw the overwhelming baggage, how ignoring it had left me miserable. Months of counselling helped me accept myself, including how I needed to transition, something I wanted to do back in my teens but had kept as a distant and unreachable desire.
At last, later than I expected, I left my hometown for good and found a full-time job down here in my new home. It’s not the job I expected to have by this age, nor the level of security or success, but it’s one I know I’m lucky to have and I’m grateful for it.
If I could speak to that 18 year old version of myself, I think they’d regard who I am now with very mixed emotions. At first I think they would be disappointed. Surprised at me for having failed their career ambitions, goals that they had dreamed up with inexperienced and juvenile cockiness. But if I had time to talk to them, tell them about my transition, my relationship, my new home and everything I’ve done to get to this moment right now, I think they might even be a little proud of me.
That’s not a conclusion I expected to reach when I sat down to write this post, that I may have actually done myself proud, but it feels like the right answer.
At 28 I’m not who I expected or wanted to be by now, but that doesn’t mean anything went wrong along the way. In many ways, I’m unrecognisable from who I was. It’s a reminder that not only is life difficult to predict, but important achievements aren’t necessarily the obvious ones. What I wanted for myself wasn’t what I needed.
10 years is a long time, I don’t know where I’ll be at 38. I don’t have any lofty expectations of fame or success, but I do hope that I can continue the trend of being more open and honest about how I feel.
I’d rather be happy than successful.