Making Sense of My 20’s: Turning 20

In the run up to turning 29, I had a retrospective look at my 20’s so far, in order that I might make a little sense out of them. So far, my 20’s have been all about figuring myself out. Often chaotic and sometimes infuriating, this series will examine each year of my 20’s, addressing the mistakes I made and the things I found out along the way.

couple stood on a pier, wrapped up warm

My twenties started in the same vein as the last years of my teens. I didn’t know myself well enough not to be ashamed of preferring a quiet night in to a roaring night out. I felt massive and stupid and less than everyone else. To stop myself feeling this way, I’d drink huge quantities of Asda Smart Price gin and spew all the thoughts I’d repressed to the people I felt had wronged me. At the time I was in Falmouth at Uni, and felt like I was at the very end of the earth, teetering over the edge into absolute nothingness.

On my 20th birthday I threw a Rod Stewart themed party in the pebble dashed student house I lived in with three people I barely knew. There was Sam the surfer who had once had pneumonia (the only exciting thing about him). Sara the heavy metal lover I’d shared a flat with in first year, who had a tendency to whinge about how many boys liked her (something I found irritating as a girl who often felt completely invisible), and Ada, whose father had died the summer previously. Her sadness was impenetrable. I didn’t know how to be around her, which perhaps goes to show just how naïve I was.

At my party, me and my friends, who lived across the road, wore silky leopard print boxer shorts over thick black tights and we made our own iron-on Rod Stewart tee-shirts, each with the wearer’s favourite photo of Rod on. A photography student friend Photoshopped my face over that of Patsy Kensit, in a photo where she stood, bikini-clad, next to Rod, who wore very skimpy trunks. This photo was iced onto a chocolate cake – the best birthday cake ever.

At the party I drank too much, like always. I have one vivid, cringe-worthy memory of saying in naïve earnest that my to do list before turning 20 had only included falling in love and going travelling, and that I had only fallen in love.

“Surely falling in love is the most important,” a Scandinavian guy that we hung around with occasionally said, kindly indulging my sentimentality.

I nodded and sank another plastic cup of gin mixed with Robinson’s barely water. I did have a boyfriend. He lived in Leeds and made hardly any effort to come and see me. He had visited Cornwall once and we had got a take away. I had reached for another chip and he had sighed dramatically,

“Are you really going to eat more?”

I put the chip in my mouth in defiance, but later I fretted about it. Why was I so greedy? I couldn’t relax for the rest of his visit. I vowed to never eat in front of him again. A promise I was doomed to break.

At the time I thought I loved this boy but I worried constantly that he didn’t love me. In fact, when a group of lads we hung around with arrived at the party, they asked where my boyfriend was and made a few well-worn jokes about him not actually existing. I laughed along but inside I was flooded with worry; why didn’t my boyfriend ever visit me? Why was I always the one to go to him? When I read my diaries from that time all I’m concerned about is how I can make myself more loveable by being a better person, and how I can make myself more loveable by losing an immense amount of weight. In hindsight, I wasn’t in a great place.

In the hours before my party a boy who lived across the street sent me a text saying he couldn’t make it that night. I ignored the heaving sense of disappointment and pretended it meant nothing. I told myself I had only invited him to get the numbers up. So what if he didn’t come, I barely knew him. I had a boyfriend who I loved, who cared if the boy across the street couldn’t make it?

Everyone got drunk. Liz got alcohol poisoning and spent the following day in A & E hooked up to an IV– always a sign of a good party. We slouched on my floor, leaning on my grotty suede beanbag and sloshing punch about while we sang Kate Nash songs loudly. I talked about a cartoon I watched as a child where a football team go back in time and take the places of King Arthur and his knights and was thrilled beyond belief when two other guests had fond memories of it too. I was passed shots of sambucca and when it was time to knock them back I threw them over my shoulder (and on to my own living room wall) because I was already so drunk I couldn’t see. At the end of the night we made a huddle of about 20 people and we all bounced around in a pulsing circle, yelling Mr Brightside at the top of our lungs.

In the morning my kitten, ginger and perfect, walked into my bedroom with a cigarette butt poking out of his tiny mouth. It was time to stop smoking in the house. Feeling the first hangover of my twenties, I dragged myself out of my narrow, single bed and walked to Penryn McDonald’s where I had an eight hour shift. So this was what being a grown up was all about.

The rest of that year passed sort of weirdly. I taught my kitten to be a full grown cat and fell asleep each night with him curled up on my belly. I existed in a constant state of loneliness – wishing my boyfriend was there, or that I fitted in better with the few friends I had managed to make. I saw Facebook post after Facebook post of my friends from high school meeting up and hanging out, but I had no inclination to join them. Instead, I wished they wouldn’t see each other if I wasn’t there. I tormented myself with imagined thoughts of what they said about me behind my back. I would tell myself that I would go back home when I had lost the final stone, when I had better clothes, when my skin was less dry. I counted every calorie I consumed, apart from on Sundays when I would binge eat, chug a litre of banana milkshake and then make myself throw up in the shower. I took long walks along the coast, my favourite songs blasting into my ears. I continued to worry that my boyfriend didn’t like me and I carried on chatting to the boy across the street and sometimes we would watch films together. I read books, and took long train journeys, and daydreamed of a time when I had everything figured out.

In the summer I moved into a house on a hill with a sunshine yellow door, with people that I knew and liked. The stairs were varnished wood and I fell from the top to the bottom hundreds of times before I learnt to stop running round in my slippery socks. Some people went back home, but I stayed and got a job as a waitress at a big white hotel overlooking the park. I had no money. Me and my housemate Erin lived off peas and instant gravy. On Sundays, as a treat, we made unsuccessful Yorkshire puddings. We got drunk every night for three weeks. We started hanging around with some local boys Erin met in one of the shabby nightclubs. They hung around her like moths round a flame. I always felt insignificant next to her. One night, we got invited to a street fight but sadly were too drunk to take up the offer and went home instead. We smoked roll ups for breakfast and drank black coffee. Our days centred around Eastenders. We wore leggings and men’s jumpers that we picked up at the charity shop.

One night we went to a grotty pub a few doors up the steep hill we lived on. It was filled with locals and two huge pool tables. I got incredibly drunk and then we went home and threw a trifle all around the kitchen with the local boys. Covered in cream and custard, I took to the internet. On MSN Messenger I broke up with my boyfriend, the one I was pretty sure didn’t love me (MSN was the only way he’d speak to me). He wasn’t really bothered. I had half been hoping when I suggested the split he’d be reminded how much he wanted to keep me around, but it wasn’t to be. I was too stunned to cry. My housemate slept in my single bed in case I suddenly needed her in the night. I put Practical Magic on my laptop; I had been watching it every night to fall asleep for the past six months because I found the darkness and silence overwhelming.

The next day I met the boy from across the street, only now he lived across town. I was hungover and shell shocked. We walked to the beach. I gasped great lungfuls of sea air to stop me throwing up. I felt grey and greasy. My dad rang to chat, asked something about my boyfriend and I told him we’d broken up,

“Oh well,” he said, “he was rubbish anyway.”

I stared out at the grey line of the sea against the sky. I thought, I’ll probably just be with the boy across the street now, forever. The thought had an inevitability to it. It was fact and had always been so. Here was the rest of my life. It wasn’t scary, it wasn’t momentous, it just was. I thought back across the past six months; the times we had walked to the beach after a night out and watched the drunken skinny-dippers, the stupid things I had said to him whilst inebriated, the time he passed my doorstep as I taught my kitten to jump up and down it and he commented, “my flatmate had a rabbit and it died. Your kitten will probably die too.” The films we had watched, curled in front of his dusty laptop screen, when I wondered if he was leaning his head against mine on purpose. The walks we had taken all around the coast together. The time he’d asked me,

“What does your boyfriend do that I can’t do?” and I had thought a while then said,

“He reminds me to take my necklace off before I go to sleep so I don’t choke.”

“Well I can do that,” he said with certainty.

There was the awkward cup of tea we drank when he came round to mine once, before I knew him well enough to have a cup of tea alone with him. The time he wouldn’t come to my birthday party, and how disappointed I’d been. It seemed like we’d lived a whole life in those six months and now we were here on a deserted beach staring out into the rest of forever together. He didn’t seem scared at all, just ready.

He went back home to Wales soon after. We struck up a surreal correspondence where we hardly ever wrote as ourselves but as alter-egos. I read and reread his letters. He created a magazine all about me. I sent him ironic fan mail. I waited for him to come back with an empty longing in my stomach.

In August I took my younger cousin to a festival I had intended to go to with my ex and all my school friends. I drank boxed wine all day and tried to stop a 12 year old from contracting a disease in the unsanitary toilets by constantly pumping antibacterial gel into her open palms. Separated from anyone I needed to impress, I had no idea what music I actually liked. I let the 12 year old pick the bands we saw. I let her dictate our whole weekend. One day me and my cousin sat on a hill, watching a band play below and my ex and a few friends from school walked past. They all ignored me, looked out at the horizon and strolled by like I was invisible. My heart stopped. I told my cousin we should go to the funfair. We rode on the huge swings for ten turns. I looked over the top of the world and pretended I wasn’t a real person. I knew that those people didn’t belong to me any more, that I couldn’t count on them for anything. At night the boy from across the street would text me to check I was okay and, huddled up in my two man tent, I would reply that everything was great. It could not be better. I was miserable.

When I returned to Falmouth everything there felt so much more important than it had before I left. I now knew I had nothing waiting for me at home. My entire life was there now. It saddened me that housemates wanted to stay home with their school friends instead of resuming their university lives. I would pointedly call the yellow-doored house ‘home’ and challenge anyone who did not agree. The boy from across the street returned. I couldn’t get enough of him. He made me feel like I was absolutely fine exactly as I was. I stopped making myself sick on Sundays because there was no room in my life for misery any more. He joined me on my once solitary coastal walks. We talked and stared out at the sea. He would grab hold of my hand and my heart would miss a beat. I snuck him into my house at nights, scared of my housemates judging me for moving on so soon. Every morning on my way to work I would check the hall way was clear and sneak him out. It was exhilarating; we would burst into fits of giggles in the fresh morning air and go our separate ways.

There was a problem though. Erin didn’t like him. Or, she liked the boy, but she didn’t like me with the boy. If the boy came round to our house she would ignore us, but if I went to the loo and came back I would catch her talking to him. I began to worry about things; I worried the boy liked her more than me, I worried that she liked him more than me, I worried I was obnoxious with him, and because of all this worry I treated everyone poorly. At parties, if I was with Erin I would ignore the boy. Even if he was stood ten feet from me, I’d avoid his gaze, which seemed silly given that I’d already accepted I’d be spending the rest of my life with him. Over the course of the evening, I’d get so blazing drunk that I’d say something horrible to Erin and crawl into bed with vomit in my hair only to wake up the next morning full of dread and remorse. No one was happy with me, not least myself.

One night, I kissed the boy goodbye at the door. It was a new romance so the kiss went on and on and on in a way I can’t imagine now. Erin’s bedroom was next to the front door. When I went back to my room having seen the boy off I saw she had tweeted, “GROSS, people kissing at my front door.” I felt disgusting for a week afterwards. I never kissed the boy at the front door again. He laughed at me for it, when did you become such a prude?

Over the course of the year things began to even out. My relationship with the boy solidified into something real and permanent that my friends accepted. I stopped worrying that it would suddenly be pulled away from me. The new security made me feel able to be myself a little bit more. I still counted calories and woke up in the dead of night to do sit ups but I no longer cried in front of the mirror whilst grabbing centimetres of fat. I stopped making myself sick. I ate full meals. Me and the boy spent all our time together, we walked miles and miles along the coast, the sea on our left, glistening out forever. I introduced him to my kitten, who hated him and would hiss whenever the boy walked into my bedroom. After nights out we would return to find the kitten sprawled across my single bed as if to say, there’s no room here for you.

I still worried about what my friends thought, and wanted to please them but I started to realise this was unrealistic. We struck a new balance – I stayed home most nights and we would make a pot of tea, sit around the kitchen table writing essays and arguing over which Bronte sister each of us was, and then for a couple of nights I would go to the boy’s flat and we’d lock ourselves away in his bedroom.

I didn’t feel any more grown up than I had at 19, but by the winter of 2009, I felt like I had a few things figured out.

Things I Wish I Could Tell My Teenage Self

Once, when I was 19 I turned to my friend and said, “I was so worried last night that I haven’t slept at all.”

We were sat on our filthy rented house sofa. I was wearing a huge baggy jumper, clutching a glass of vodka and blackcurrant squash, I was exhausted. I hadn’t slept. I’d been up worrying about the three things that took up most of my brain space as a teenager: how fat I was, how stupid I was, how uncool I was. It had taken an immense amount of courage to utter those 12 words.

My friend rolled her eyes and let out an exasperated sigh.

“You’re always worried,” she said without even looking at me. She was on her laptop, looking at impossibly cool things on the internet because she was cool.

Then she went back to being her apparently self-assured self whilst I continued to worry, now with the added anxiety that I was annoying. I would worry that I worried too much for the next three years.

I spent most of my teens being a scared little mouse. I was scared about who I was, I was scared about what I might never be. I worried about fitting in and to combat that, I decided to just be like everyone else. I listened to the music they liked, I watched the films they raved about, I wore the clothes the magazines told me to wear and I spouted the same opinions my friends did.

Another worry crept in to my nightly rotation: that I didn’t like this person I had created. I didn’t like these bands, these films, these opinions, these clothes.

Looking back on poor, scared, teen me with the perspective of a decade, I wish I could go back and tell her a few things and save her a few dozen sleepless nights.

Firstly, your body is so much more than something for other people to look at and assess you by. The width of your hips is not a visual representation of the depth of your kindness. The gap between your thighs will not diametrically increase your confidence. You are not just the rolls of flab on your stomach and swell of your buttocks.

The hours and hours you spend now, looking in the mirror, pinching inches of fat until your skin goes red and sore, writing down calories, frantically doing sit-ups in the dark, those hours could be spent doing something worthwhile. In the time you spent agonising over your body you could have written a book, learnt to play the piano, watched Gilmore Girls a third, fourth and fifth time through. All these things are more enriching than measuring your thighs with a tape measure and worrying that the tap water has sugar in it.

Also, this is the thinnest you’re ever going to be, so have sex with the lights on, wear the crop top, take up space – be proud of your body, don’t punish it.

Secondly, you are a person all in your own right. You have your own likes and dislikes and talents and weaknesses. If all your friends are pretending to like the same band, same hairstyle, same thoughts then let them. There is so much value in being different, being the one voice saying something true. There isn’t safety in being the same – it just leads to the panic of being caught out as an impostor and misery over denying your true self.

Even when I did ‘all the right things’ – wore the correct clothes, listened to the right music, went to the right bars – I couldn’t enjoy myself because I had the constant fear of being found out. That any second someone would turn and scream, “she’s not meant to be here! She’s not one of us!”

Finally, just because somebody else says something with certainty doesn’t make it true. I’ll tell you what sort of people speak with authority about matters that do not concern them: MORONS.

People will tell you that you are too worried, that you are too boring, that you should hang out with your boyfriend less, that you should hang out with your friends less, that you should go to festivals (you hate festivals!). You will tie yourself in knots trying to please everybody and you will rarely please yourself. Don’t. As long as your actions aren’t hurting you or anybody else then the correct thing to be doing is WHATEVER THE HELL YOU LIKE.

What I’d really like to say to teenage me is this:

Be brave. There are lots of things to worry about in this world but what people think about you should not be one of them. I’d say, eat the cake and don’t worry about it, wear the weird dress that no one likes but makes you feel like Kate Bush, decline invitations to parties you do not wish to attend, if you want to see your boyfriend then see your boyfriend and if you don’t then don’t. I’d say, listen to the song you like on repeat, go for a long walk on your own, cry if you’re sad and do not feel compelled to wear low-rise jeans just because everybody else is.

This is your life, I would say, it’s yours to make what you want out of it and you won’t do that by letting other people make your decisions for you.