40 and…?

Author’s Note: To celebrate my 40th birthday and to give this blog an update on my life, I intended to write a brief post to muse over the events of my thirties. It soon became obvious that I have too far much to say for a short post. So this is more of an essay. A long essay. I make no apologies for its length, but consider yourself warned. 

When I was 21, I saw a psychic for the first time. I took a dictaphone and recorded it onto one of those tiny little tapes, and spent hours painstakingly transcribing it into a notebook, back in the days when I still used a fountain pen. In my best handwriting, I’d written, among other things, ‘Everyone has a crisis. Either at 30 or 40. You’ll be a 30 person, but you’ll be sorted by the time you’re 40.’ Not much of what she told me made sense at the time, but gradually her predictions came true. A month after our psychic session, I did meet a guy in an RAF uniform, as she had predicted I would. Soon after we met, he brought me a rescue kitten, and five years later we got married.

At the age of 27, I began to feel an unease. I’d worked for the NHS for eight years, and put the unease down to being bored in my job. I want to go and work in HMV, I complained to my co-workers. I want a job where I can wear jeans to work. I did nothing to change my job or career, and the uneasy feeling increased.

At the age of 28, I was certain that if only I could find that elusive job I could be passionate about, then I would be happy. There were few jobs around back then, and I struggled to find jobs to apply for. I still harboured dreams of working amongst DVDs, but I needed a salary to match my NHS one. I was stuck.

At the age of 29, still working for the NHS, I began to think about what I seriously wanted out of life. The only dreams I’d ever had were to meet a man and get married, which I’d done, and to go and live in America. We’d spent two weeks in Orlando for our honeymoon, but I craved to see the West Coast. I decided that if I wasn’t going to be able to live in America, then I could at least have a decent holiday there. With my 30th birthday approaching, it seemed appropriate to plan a big trip to those big cities I’d only ever seen on TV and films.

I spent hours researching flights, hotels, things to do. I did nothing else. I became obsessed. My husband, who agreed to the trip initially, became reluctant to discuss it. For his 30th birthday, six months before mine, I’d booked a trip to Paris. I wanted to keep it a secret, but he worked weekends and that weekend between Christmas and New Year would definitely be one of the ones he would be asked to work. In November, I told him about the trip. He accused me of keeping secrets from him and stormed out of the house for hours, taking the dog. The vague uneasiness that had plagued me for more than two years was finally taking shape. We made up, and went to Paris, but continued to argue about the America trip. At one point I told him that if he didn’t want to go, I would go on my own. His answer to that was ‘you won’t even go to the Co-op by yourself’, which sadly was true, but I was determined I would go to the States. The realisation that I really would have gone by myself was an eye-opener for us both. The trip was eventually booked for September, two months after my 30th. Six days in LA, three in Vegas, three in San Francisco, and three in Seattle.

Despite his reluctance to the trip, we began to talk about the possibility of living and working in the US, and began to research it. Unfortunately, even in 2008, you couldn’t just board a plane with your belongings and set off to the land of the free. You needed visas, sponsorship. A job. We found that a university degree would help, so I started to look at courses. There was a business degree you could do, four years long which included a year working in the States. I started an application, but something was stopping me. I wanted a fun job, not some boring business job. In the end, I didn’t apply but my husband did. He got straight onto the course, which was due to start in September. We cut our US trip short, binning the San Francisco and Seattle portions. We were forced to still fly home out of Seattle, and spent a few hours there after arriving from sunny Vegas, trudging round my Frasier city in the rain. He hated it. I loved it.

At the age of 30, I was more determined than ever to live the American Dream. For us both to have degrees would still give us the best chance. At an open day, I talked to some lecturers of American Studies, and decided that’s what I wanted to do. It was a three-year course, and included a semester studying in the US. What can I do to prepare? I asked. Read, they said. I only read Agatha Christie back then. So I switched to American crime fiction.

In September, I started my degree. I was still working full-time in the NHS, who allowed me to work the time back that I spent at uni. We’d moved into town just before I started my course, to save money and make things easier for me to get around, since we were down to one car by then. I loved my degree, and set up a group for mature and postgraduate students so I could meet people closer to my own age, and provide support for those students of non-traditional age. I was happy, for the most part.

At the age of 31, in February 2010, I left my husband. It was quite sudden, and I’d told nobody of the unhappiness that had plagued me. Despite being unhappy for four years, I’d known for over a year and a half that my marriage was the problem, but I was in denial. When I eventually decided that I had to leave, it took me almost a year to get up the courage. He picked me up from work and I told him then. He was confused and angry, and after driving us around for a while dropped me at my mum’s house. She was on the phone to her other half for ten minutes before she started to wonder why I was in her kitchen, alone, on a work night. I’ve left him, I told my shocked mum.

As the tears finally fell, I felt nothing but relief.

The next ten months were difficult. My husband pursued a reconciliation, but for me it was too late. Six months after we’d split, a blossoming relationship on my part was ruined by his jealousy, and I began to wonder if he would ever let me go. I worked long hours to make up the time spent at uni, and was walking 7-8 miles a day, from home to work, work to uni and walking our dog. I organised countless social events for the uni group, and pushed hard to gain new members. I worked overtime at the NHS every Saturday to save money for my upcoming semester abroad. I weighed 8 stone 3.

At the age of 32, in January 2011, I had a nervous breakdown. Three days later I left my home city of Lincoln for Pennsylvania, USA.

I threw myself into small town life. I made new friends in fellow international students and teachers of foreign languages. The American students were reluctant to engage, with the exception of those who had studied abroad themselves. I’d had free reign to choose my classes, so I opted for three literature classes and a journalism class. My favourite by far was Women and Literature, and our professor, Judy Katz, wanted three written journals a week, based on the texts we were reading, one of which should be autobiographical. In reading stories of women in troubled times, I found my heroines, and the cathartic nature of the autobiographical journals provided a therapy on top of the counselling I was having from the school psychiatrist.

In March 2011 I returned to the UK to see my Nana, who was dying. She could barely speak now, and I told her ‘I know what I want to do now, Nana, I want to be a writer’. She replied, ‘I always wanted to be a writer.’ She died as my plane touched down in New York.

Back in Pennsylvania, my Nana’s death was a struggle. I was already on various antidepressants, and couldn’t focus on my essays. I had also planned to get a summer job and a work visa, but despite applying for publishing internships, I was offered nothing, and as the term ended, after four weeks of travelling around the US, I reluctantly returned home to the UK. I started back at my NHS job and moved in with my dad. Soon I found a house share with friends, and after two months handed my notice in at work. There was no way I could work full time and do uni, and I didn’t want a repeat of the previous year. Come November, I was well into my final year, but the lack of focus I’d experienced with my US assignments was back, together with my depression.

At the age of 33, I had suspended my studies. I started this blog, 33andlostinlife, a month later, in January 2012, as a way of documenting my life with depression and what I had dubbed ‘The Thirty-Something Crisis’. In March, I got a temp job, which I hated. Suspecting that I may be dyslexic, I had tests at uni. They were negative, but I was told that my depression could be affecting my studies.

At the age of 34, I started back at uni to take my second final year, with a renewed vigour, a study coach and other resources including equipment provided by the uni to help me study alongside my depression. It was still a struggle, and I gave up on my dream of achieving the first class honours that many of my fellow mature students did, but in May I handed in my final essay. Three days later I moved to London with Bish.

I lived in a house in Ealing with two people who had a combined aged of 160. I got a temp admin job a month later, and a month after that, attended the work summer party, a day before my birthday. I got drunk and one of the guys from my office walked me to the tube station. I collapsed in a heap on a quiet road on the way. I don’t want to be 35, I wailed through my tears.

Three months later I got made permanent at work, and left the elderly house-share to rent another flat in Ealing with a friend. The flat was nice, but required lots of work, and the constant need for workmen entering our flat, without consent, liaising with the agency to actually get work done, took its toll on us.  By the following May I had convinced my flatmate that we had to move out of the flat, and while she was moving in with her boyfriend, I was struggling to find somewhere to live with my then 14 year-old cat, Bish.  Moving day came, and a friend helped me pile my stuff (there was lots, including furniture) into a huge Luton van.  By the time we’d finished and cleaned the flat, the storage unit nearby had closed.  I had nowhere to move to, a van full of crap and an elderly cat.  I called my mum in Derbyshire.  I drove Bish and I the 150 miles north where we stayed overnight, offloaded a few smaller items, then drove back to London the following day. The van was unloaded into storage in Hangar Lane, and Bish was left at a cattery in Edgeware.  I booked myself into a B&B in Chiswick, close to work.

At the age of 35, I was homeless. Ok, not on the streets, but of no fixed abode, in a huge city where I had few friends, and those I had couldn’t offer me a place to stay.

My sole focus was to find somewhere for Bish & I, but all the places that allowed pets already had a cat, and the tenants wouldn’t take another. I stubbornly refused advice to rehome Bish, or to move back up north. I stayed at the B&B for two and a half weeks before money started to run out.  I spent three nights in different hostels sleeping on bunk beds before a friend I met through a mutual friend offered for me to take over his room in a flat in Twickenham.

It was very sudden and I could move in immediately, for which I was grateful.  My boss at work had commented that big bosses were getting concerned at my state of ‘homelessness’.  Arriving at work with a small suitcase day in, day out, will do that for you.

In the beginning, my new flatmate was ok.  He could see I was broken, and being a life coach, wanted to help me.  Soon, however, it became suffocating.  I would arrive home from work to a two-hour lecture on how different personal development ‘celebrities’ and strategies could help me.  I was shy as a child and grew up being unable to say what I really thought.  I struggled to leave these conversations, not wanting to be rude.  I started spending time in the pub after work, avoiding going home, and when I was at home, I would hide out in my tiny, cluttered room, which annoyed my flatmate even more, and the fact that I was so anti-social became a huge bone of contention with him.  But I just couldn’t cope.  I started social smoking, and buying packets of cigarettes to smoke on nights out. The day I bummed a cig off a guy from the IT helpdesk and found myself smoking it, stone-cold sober outside the office one cold November afternoon, was the day I really got worried, and stopped smoking there and then.

I found myself a new house-share in North London. It would be over an hour’s commute to my office in West London, and they already had one cat living there. I was unsure about the move, and my flatmate convinced me that we could work things out, that I shouldn’t run away from my problems. Paying too much heed to my doubts about the new place, I agreed to stay. Days later I knew I’d made a mistake.  Things got worse.

In December, I found a ground-floor studio with a garden on Gumtree and arranged a viewing. It was dark outside, so I couldn’t see much of the garden, and though the studio was small it had a bedroom and a separate kitchen with washing machine, and shower room. As I left the house to allow another viewer in, I waited around to have another look.  As I had suddenly realised, the back door was solid wood. There was one window, approximately 15cm x 30cm. The following day, I called the agency.  I’ll take it, I told her, if I can replace the door with a half-glazed one and fit a catflap.  The answer came back yes, if you buy it, the landlord will get it fitted.

At the age of 36, yet another moving day arrived. It was New Years’ Eve.  My friend came with her car to help me move. I’d dejunked a lot to the charity shop, but there was still a lot of stuff and it took two trips to get to my new place in Mitcham, on the London/Surrey border, a good 50 minute drive from Twickenham. My housemate and I argued as I moved out, and we screamed at each other in the street. When all my stuff was into the new place, my friend left, and I dived under my duvet, where I stayed for two days. The new door wasn’t to be fitted until after the new year, and I lay in bed, in the dark with barely any natural light, or in lamplight. Another January where I was physically and mentally broken.

I soon got used to my almost three-hour daily commute from the edge of Surrey to West London, using the time to write the occasional blog post.  I also started a dystopian novel, inspired by The Handmaid’s Tale, which I’d studied several times at university. I got to 25 pages of notes and actual words, before the idea faded.

I remained unhappy in the capital, despite having my own self-contained space. I still had few friends, and I began to dread the weekends that I’d often spend alone. Long bank holiday weekends were even worse. I was more lonely than I had ever felt before, and I hated my job. I applied for other things, and even did a few days’ work experience within the editorial team at my company. I enjoyed it, but it was obvious that I did not fit in. My efforts to pursue another chance to work with them failed, and I knew that if I wanted a writing job I was going to have to find it elsewhere.

The worst part about my time in London was my ‘love life’. Note I use the term loosely. I used dating sites to try and find my soulmate, and I kissed a lot of frogs. Some were nice guys, but it wasn’t meant to be. Some were the worst possible kind, and I wondered if I would ever meet someone who would love me.

After a few dates with one of the nicer ones that didn’t work out, I decided if I was serious about meeting someone, then I might have to put my hand in my pocket and pay, rather than using the free sites like Plenty of Fish and Tinder. I signed up for E-Harmony. Months went by, and though I completed a few of the questionnaires they like you to do with potential dates, nothing led to an actual conversation.

In September, my dad and his other half visited me for the day. Dad told me that he was gifting me some money. Enough for a deposit on a house, should I choose to buy one, though not in London, of course. A fellow Northerner in London had been trying to convince me to move back Oop North for almost the whole time I’d lived in London (he was there on the moving day when I became homeless), and suddenly I began to see that I could have a life outside London. I’d owned property years before in Lincoln, when I was married but had seen the money we’d made from our house going up in price go down the drain on debt. I hadn’t ever wanted to own a house again, but suddenly I was tempted. I gave myself six months to find a job in the North. I wanted to live in Sheffield, close to my Mum, but looked at jobs as far away as Leeds and Nottingham. I changed the location on my E-Harmony profile to Sheffield.

Another New Year’s Eve came and went, and I had a quiet one staying at my Mum’s. On New Year’s Day, I checked E-Harmony and found the profile of a guy I liked who lived in Derby. I tried to send the questionnaire to him, but although I was fully connected to the internet, it wouldn’t go. Being a believer in signs, I took it to be a sign that it wasn’t meant to be. The following day, before I returned to London, I took another look at his profile, and deciding to stuff the signs, re-sent the questionnaire. We spent 24 hours sending questions back and forth before having an actual written conversation via their messaging service. We had lots in common, and arranged to meet a few weeks later, in London.

At the age of 37, on our second date in London, Chris became my second proper boyfriend and I, his girlfriend.

I had interviews for two jobs at the University of Nottingham, one in the International Office, and didn’t get either. With the deadline I had given myself for my move approaching and no new job, but my Dad offering Bish and I a place to stay in Lincoln, I suddenly handed in my notice at work and on my flat, and on Sunday 13th March 2016, my brother and his fiancée drove a van to London and helped me move back up north.

I got a temp job through an agency, ironically back in my old department at the NHS, and spent the weekends visiting my boyfriend in Derby. Arriving back in Lincoln one Sunday, I found Bish on my bed, and suddenly became aware of something moving on him. I called for Dad, and we found him riddled with ticks. Bish had missed his litter tray (as he was prone to) and hit the back door mat, and Dad had put him out in the garden. He’d spent all day under the conifers, and the tick invasion had begun.

It took several trips to the vets to cure him of the horrid things. They were everywhere, all over, even in between the toes of his paws. It put a great strain on my relationship with Dad, the stress of a poorly cat confined to my bedroom, me sleeping on the sofa. Inviting my boyfriend to stay without asking Dad was another contentious issue; I was 37 and this was my home, what had been my childhood home. I didn’t understand why I had to ask for permission. Wasn’t Dad happy that I finally had a boyfriend? I’d never had boyfriends when I lived at home before, as I had bought my own house at 21 before I met my first boyfriend, the man who would become my husband. I came to understand that Dad just wanted to be respected, and was struggling with sharing the space he’d had to himself since he and my mum had split over 10 years previously. Instead of asking Chris to visit I took to going to Derby for weekends, with Dad agreeing to look after Bish.

Chris was due to be made redundant in the July, and our plan had been to move to Sheffield together. He was worried about moving to a new city so soon after losing his job, and I was desperate to leave Lincoln, so I suggested we get a place together in Derby first. We found a house which had a smell so bad ten tramps might have lived there, but it had a cat flap, so we took it. The landlord painted and changed carpets, and by the time we moved in it was fresh and just about odourless.

We moved in at the end of June, and I struggled to get a job. I didn’t want to go back to the NHS, and was quite fussy about the kind of work I would do. In August, I started writing a crime novel, based around a woman at a university in Lincoln investigating her friend’s death. I wrote solidly for three days, but then I found a temp job that I couldn’t turn down, because we needed the money. The writing was abandoned for a while, but towards the end of the year I started taking a notebook to work, and wrote notes on my novel during my lunch breaks. I didn’t do any actual writing, just made notes.

On 2nd March 2017, I attended an author event with a crime writer in Derby. I loved attending book events, finding them inspirational for my own writing. At the end of the talk, I checked my phone. One missed call from my brother. I would call him back after I got my book signed. I waited in line, and when my turn came spoke to the author about my writing as she signed the book. Excited and inspired, and with signed book in hand, Chris and I prepared to leave. I checked my phone. One more missed call from my brother. It’s probably nothing important, I thought, and the one thing that was on my mind was that I’d been to so many book events and regretted not getting a photo with the author. I decided to queue again, handing Chris my phone and asking him to take a pic. I was the last one in the queue, and the author graciously allowed me a photograph. I thanked her, and got ready to leave. You had one more missed call from your brother while you waited, Chris told me. I now had three missed calls, and a sinking feeling in my stomach. I called my brother as we dashed out of the book shop.

My Dad had collapsed and been admitted to hospital, my brother told me. We ran the ten minutes home, pushed a spare key through the letterbox of a friend so they could feed Bish, and I drove at warp speed to Lincoln, usually a good hour and a half’s drive, but at that time of night we made it in an hour and ten. We arrived at Lincoln County Hospital A&E, and ten minutes later the consultant told us that my dad had suffered a brain haemorrhage. Dad could go to Nottingham to have some treatment but this would likely leave him dead or brain damaged, so we made the decision to switch off the machines. He never regained consciousness and two days later, he died.

At the age of 38, I lost my dad.

I took two weeks off my temp job while I stayed in Lincoln to make arrangements for the funeral. Chris and I decided to bring our move to Sheffield forward, and left Derby at the beginning of May instead of July.

On my dad’s birthday, 20th June, I attended another author event in Lincoln, this time with crime writers Mark Billingham and John Connolly. They were funny and inspiring, and though I asked them a question during the talk, at the signing afterwards I took the opportunity to ask them for writing advice. I was buoyed by the fact that John remembered me from when I had interviewed him several years earlier for a radio show I worked on during my time at uni, and so I told them I had started a novel, what now? John’s advice? Finish it. This really struck me.  Mark’s advice? Find an agent (at this point I had no idea about the submission to publishing process so this was also a huge help).

At the age of 39, two months after my chat with John and Mark, I finished the first draft of my first novel. I was elated, mostly because I had finished something, and had written 80k words in two months. Seven years after I started creative writing, I had finished a novel. Of course, as I would discover, it was far from being finished. Chris offered to give me feedback, and while he read it, I made a start on another book, a first-person psychological thriller.  I got 30k words in, then shelved it so I could focus on submitting the first novel. I had previously made the changes Chris had suggested before choosing the agents I wanted to submit to. On 12th December I made my first submissions. Six days earlier, I had found out I was pregnant.

Christmas came and went, and for once January was a happy time, despite the onset of morning sickness. I started to receive rejections for my novel, and found myself struggling to write and edit during the morning sickness, which lasted until the middle of March. Immediately after the morning sickness came the lack of sleep with my increasing bump, and the time of year combined with the pregnancy and the rejections led to a very unproductive time. I worried that I had lost my ability to write, so soon after finding it. I worried that I wouldn’t get it back, and that I wouldn’t ever write another book.

A friend offered to put me in touch with a crime book club who would be happy to read my novel and offer some feedback. I was grateful for the opportunity to have strangers read my work. The first piece of feedback came, and this person was gripped by the story. They offered a few changes but nothing major. The second piece of feedback, however, was not so good. The reviewer wanted to give up after 20 pages but felt obliged to the person that had asked them to read it. Their review was awful, and I was picked up on things that I didn’t even understand, such as split infinitives and gauche scenarios (I needed a dictionary for both). They called my main character a bimbo. That hurt the most. My character was basically me, and while my character herself acknowledged that she wasn’t the cleverest person at her fictional university, I felt she had some smarts. That was inspired by my own thirties, in which I realised I didn’t know as much as I thought I did in my twenties, and I was ok with that. But now I was faced with being told: you don’t know as much about writing as you think you do. That hit me hard and made me doubt whether I knew enough about writing to actually write.

I couldn’t re-read the person’s feedback, but I tried to make changes and even planned to make the sequel, which I’d made a start on, the first novel in the series, bringing the events from the actual first novel into the second book. But my mojo had gone, and I had serious doubts about writing again.

That was until I read a new thriller, Sticks and Stones, by Jo Jakeman, a Derby-based writer who I’d met a few times at book events in Derby. I loved the story, and when I finished it late at night, I desperately wanted to write again. I remembered about my own shelved thriller, and the next day set about writing. I’d been unemployed since October, after a few weeks temping and a bad interview experience for a permanent NHS job had left me in need of more time off. I spent the next month finishing the thriller, and soon I had my another completed first draft. Despite my own doubts, I had finished another first draft, and pulled myself back from the brink of giving up on my dream of writing. As we speak, the novel is undergoing edits following feedback from beta readers, and is being prepared for submission to agents.

My thirties have been a journey. I went into them not sure of where I wanted my life to go. One by one my dreams have disappeared: a failed marriage, the realisation that I’ll probably never get to live in the US (though given current events I’m not sure I’d want to now), the desire to find a job I’m passionate about. My late thirties also gave me a new way to look at life. It’s short, and that may be a cliché but when one of your parents is gone so suddenly, at the age of 65, you realise how very fragile life can be. I don’t want to die, and I certainly don’t want to die before I feel satisfied with my life. I want to make my parents proud, even though one is no longer here.

My thirties have given me new dreams, ones I can actually touch and turn into reality. I’m 37 weeks’ pregnant, living with the man I love, a creative-type, just like me, who knows what depression is and how support is so very important to getting through it. We’ve given a happy home to our ageing Bish, who is now 18.  I’m excited to be a mother, just as Chris is excited to be a father, and we’re determined that we will both show our daughter that it’s possible to follow your dreams. I’ve completed two novels, one of which I’m actively working on getting out there. The other, I hope to go back to someday soon. I’ve had ideas for other books, which I’ll work on once our baby girl is willing to give me some time to write.

At the age of 40,  I am happy. At last.

A year after I first saw her, I tried to find the psychic lady who told me about The Thirty-Something Crisis. Unable to reach her by phone, in a Tom Hanks’ Big-esque trip to her home, I was told she doesn’t live here anymore. No forwarding address. Perhaps it’s for the best I never saw her again. She could see into the future in a way I never could.

It’s our experiences that make us who and what we are. There is so much about the last 13 years I would change, if I could, but there’s also lots that I would keep. Sometimes you have to go through shit to find the good stuff, to recognise the amazing guy, to realise that you don’t want a copywriting job, that you want to write stories. That weekends are meant to be enjoyed, not dreaded. That big cities are not always the place of dreams, that sometimes to be surrounded by a smaller city full of trees with a view of the Peak  District from your back window will do so much more for you.

If you’re unlucky enough to go through a Thirty- or Forty-Something Crisis, take some relief in the hope that it does get better. If you are lost, you will be found, but remember that the best person to find you, is yourself.

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