“The Big Three-Oh.”
“Everything will be different in your thirties,” they said. My aunt did not even get out of bed on her thirtieth birthday, feeling that the last of her youth had been sapped from her, that her life had become one gigantic downward spiral.
For every count of “Life ends after 29 because you’re old now,” I’ve heard “Life gets even better after thirty.” So where am I now? How should I feel? How do I feel?
I’m still working that out. What I can say is that every single birthday comes as a surprise to me. One of the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder is this vague sense that you’re not going to live a particularly long time. For me, sixteen was when it started–my “sweet sixteen” (which was decidedly not sweet) was a total shock, not because I actively wanted to die or felt that my life was in danger, but because I had never conceived of a future where I would live past the age of ten, twelve, fifteen, eighteen, twenty-six.
I often feel as though my story lacks the poignance of, say, a young woman who beat childhood leukemia and views each new year as a gift. Lots of bad things happened in my childhood and adolescence, point-blank-period. Were there times when I thought I might physically die? Yes, of course. But mostly, the first twenty-odd years of my life were marked by a free-floating sense of existential despair, the all-encompassing question of “where am I in the world and what am I doing with my time?” coloring every significant moment.
A person can get used to just about anything if they have to.
When I was seven-going-on-eight, my birth mother tried to kill my grandmother (who, to me, is “Mom”). I was in the house at the time and I heard everything. The whole awful night became one disastrous blur and it’s still hard to suss out all the specifics, even after multiple rounds of EMDR.
But the end result is clear: from that moment on, I was no longer a child. I was damned to live this strange half-life full of anxiety over something happening to Mom, because she was so old and frail already and had almost died once, right in front of me. As a child, I tortured myself when I awoke in the middle of the night, anxiously counting her breaths, watching the rise and fall of her sleeping chest and taking it not as an affirmation but as a question: what if the next breath never comes? As I grew older, that particular fear turned into the fear of something bad happening, period.
What if, what if, what if. Always waiting for that other shoe to drop.
I’d already gotten used to living with this sense of being just a brain floating a few feet above a body, like a balloon being dragged along by an eager child. At eight, I was already detached emotionally from my surroundings. My birthday party that year was small. The year before, photos of my party overflowed with laughing children and bright colors. Eight was different for me. Most of my friends had jumped ship; having a violent alcoholic for a birth parent does wonders to shrink one’s circle of friends, especially when said birth parent goes to actual-prison-not-jail for a couple of years.
So, eight was surreal in the way that thirteen was surreal in the way that twenty-two was surreal. I didn’t have many parties. I don’t really “celebrate” my birthday in any traditional sense, though I’ve made it my custom to take the day off from whatever I have planned and spend that time in quiet contemplation. Or indulgence.
During these times, I wonder at the fact that I am still alive and breathing. This year, I am especially in awe that I am married to a good man and attending a good school and living what is, on paper and in practice, a good life. This year, I am going to be especially self-indulgent: I have plans to make a blanket fort and drink some good wine and snuggle with my fella and our cats.
But I always remember. How could I not? I think back to those old wounds, of handing out birthday party invitations and later seeing them left, trampled, on the ground next to the swing set or stuffed haphazardly into the trash can. I think about all the wonderful things I have now, the wonderful life and the wonderful people in them, and I marvel at the vast improbability of it all.
I am still here.
I am turning thirty, the Big Three-Oh.
I am alive. I am living.
And I am incredibly lucky.
Recap of My (Roaring) Twenties:
At age 21, I got married for the first time. It was a colossal mistake and the entire marriage was plagued by ugly fights and all manner of unpleasant things. I prefer not to think or talk about it because it occupied such a large part of my twenties that I don’t believe it deserves any more air time.
At age 24, I separated from my ex-husband officially, though we hadn’t had any semblance of a proper relationship in a long time. This was the big turning point–I realized that I had nothing left to lose and decided to go to graduate school to pursue counseling, as I’d always had an interest in psychology but had been scared away from the bachelor’s degree program because of statistics. (Numbers are bad.)
26 was a big year for me. I met my husband a few weeks shy of my 26th birthday, got accepted to a graduate program in Madison, and moved into my own place. The divorce was finally finalized that year as well. Be warned, readers–it is easy to get into a marriage but incredibly difficult to (legally) get out of one!
At 27, I moved down to Baltimore with my now-husband. I got accepted to A Very Prestigious School and began my graduate work in earnest. That Thanksgiving, we got engaged on a rooftop in Boston and it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. I cried. (Of course I cried!)
28 was more of the same–dragging myself through school, putting in the time, taking as many courses as I could so I wouldn’t have to deal with classes during my official internship. I began my practicum, which is basically baby-internship. While I had previously thought I’d never want to work with substance use, I quickly found that the challenges and chaos of working with a dually-diagnosed population, many of whom are indigent, is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
At 29, I officially began my internship as a mental health therapist. Every day, I fall more in love with the field.
I also got married in October! It was a small wedding and drew from my husband’s Jewish culture. We got married under a chuppah, he slaughtered a lightbulb, we signed a ketubah, and we danced. Oh, how we danced. He taught me a very simple quickstep to Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” and I somehow managed not to embarrass myself. The fact that he taught me to dance at all is remarkable and not unlike teaching a dog to walk on its hind legs.
We should be getting our video soon, and I am very excited to see how awkward I looked on camera. At the moment, I Did. Not. Care. All I felt that day was love–love from my husband, love from our family and friends, and love from myself. My god, the love! There was so much of it in that room, and I had never imagined my heart could be so full that at times, it felt close to bursting.
The morning of the wedding was very strange for me. The Tree of Life massacre occurred on the morning of October 27, 2018, and we were watching the news while I was getting pampered and prettied-up for the wedding when the story came on. It occurred to me how small and fragile the world is in that moment, as I watched coverage of terrible anti-Semitic violence while I prepared to marry a Jewish man in a ceremony that incorporated Jewish traditions.
I celebrated Hanukkah for the first time last December, and it was a very solemn affair. Every night, as we lit the menorah in our kitchen and my husband said the blessing, I remembered the horrible thing that had been done. I cried, and then I felt that I had no right to cry, and then I realized I was crying because the world as a whole had started to feel very dark and frightening around the time of the 2016 presidential election. I had thought myself unflappable and quasi-invincible up until that point, when I was forced to face the vast and senseless cruelty of the universe.
But I remember every day, dear readers, that while humans are capable of astonishing cruelty, they are also capable of profound kindness and mercy and joy. Every day, I stubbornly choose joy.