Aging gracefully isn’t a luxury afforded to the young. It’s reserved for the moment you finally stop dyeing your grey hairs, when you switch from shopping in New Look to M&S. In your 20s, it feels like time is running out. You’re dragged kicking and screaming over the threshold of each new age, watching your youth fade away behind you and praying to some unknown god for life to be more than it currently is.
Me? I’ve always loved getting older. I felt out of place as a child and a teenager, like I was a middle-aged adult trapped in a young person’s body. The independence and reinvention that came with adulthood was a blessing for me, and each new age was a step closer to the potential I tried to live up to.
But 25 is different.
When I was 19, every misstep felt like the apocalypse. I rode the highs and lows of the emotional rollercoaster; I was impulsive and dramatic. It felt good. I was ruled by my emotions, and I had the space to make poor choices and say every stupid thought that came into my head. I was bold and ambitious, and had so many expectations of who I should be by which age. Those dreams have mutated now. My career plans changed, I changed, the world changed.
I don’t miss being a dramatic teenager, but as I get older, I miss the freedom of giving in to my emotions, the freedom to be thoughtless and immature without having to watch helplessly as each choice I make ricochets throughout the decades ahead of me.
In the latter months of being 24, I have had no choice but to age gracefully. I started 2022 aimless and confused, all my dreams felt out of reach, and I had no idea what the future had in store. Since then, I have painstakingly pulled myself up from rock bottom. I got my first decent job, I finally saw my friends who had moved away during the pandemic, I worked on myself, I grew as a person. During this time, I had an anchor, a goal shining brightly at the end of the dark tunnel. I clung to it; it kept me sane.
Since I finished my master’s degree in 2021, I have wanted to do a PhD. Academia has been my safe haven throughout my adult life. I have a complicated relationship with it—even more so this year—but it’s home to me. I had planned to apply for a PhD researching feminist approaches to Russian foreign policy, and timing and external circumstances stopped this from happening. Which was for the best, because a few months later, Russia invaded Ukraine, and “feminist approaches to Russian foreign policy” sounded more like a punchline than a topic for a research proposal.
I spent most of this year reading articles about Ukraine and feminism in East European studies, and finally came up with a new research topic, which would focus on the experiences of Ukrainian refugees in the UK. The waiting made sense to me now, because I had found something I was so much more passionate about, research that could help real women, rather than something theoretical. I spent 5 months working on a research proposal (that’s more time than I spent writing both my dissertations), I spent hundreds of pounds on Ukrainian lessons. I fully committed myself to making this happen, in spite of hugely stressful things going on in other areas of my life.
Yesterday, two weeks before the supposed deadline, I found out that the information I’d been given was incorrect, and I had missed the application deadline by 3.5 months.
Do you hear that? It’s the sound of a pair of scissors going snip snip to the thread my sanity was hanging on by.
From August until now, new sources of stress have entered my life on a weekly basis. It has been constant. The other day I wrote a 51-point list of all the things causing me stress. I am burnt out and exhausted and I would love nothing more right now than to be 19 and dramatic, instead of rationalising the situation and trying to find the positives in it. I don’t want to be positive; I want to be angry. I want to be furious that I worked so hard whilst trying to deal with the rug being pulled out from under me in damn near every area of my life.
I tried. I tried to be angry. I tried to drink a whole bottle of wine and drunk-tweet my sad thoughts, but I only managed a glass-and-a-half, and fell asleep on the sofa. You can only be so dramatic when you have to be a functioning adult and wake up for work the next morning like nothing happened.
It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that this happened two days before my 25th birthday. It feels like a reminder, that getting older means something different than it did when I crept over the threshold of my teenage years.
25 is still young, I know that. But assuming it’s 3rd time lucky and I do actually start a PhD next year, I’ll be 30 when I finish. Then, best case scenario, I start a career in a field plagued by precarity and temporary contracts, rife with pension cuts and casualisation (#supportheUCUstrike). I’ll be starting my career at an age where other people have had years of experience in their chosen field, or are getting married and starting families.
I’m three hours away from being 25, and all I can think about are the choices I’ll have to make in my 30s, the sacrifices women are always called to make.
A more sensible person would choose a different career path, sacrifice a dream or two for some semblance of stability. But that’s not me. Academia has broken my heart over and over, and I’m still doggedly determined to return to it.
Education has always been a choice for me, and not one I made lightly. I was homeschooled until I was 15 – going to school, going to university, it wasn’t something that happened passively. I chose this, I fought for this, I am still fighting for this. I have spent years of my life feeling like I was behind everyone else, riddled with imposter syndrome because I didn’t have the same foundations as my peers. That fighting spirit never left me. Academia makes me angry, it fills me with despair, I am running into it’s thorny arms with my eyes wide open, because I know how hard I fought to get to where I am right now.
So I allowed myself a little time to be dramatic, to cry in the staircase at work, to come home and drink wine and cry-shout to Taylor Swift’s saddest songs (the line “I got wasted like all my potential” from This Is Me Trying had never felt so true). I let my emotions wash through me, but I didn’t let them control me. Because underneath the dramatic girl that I’ve almost outgrown, there is a steely determination fuelled by unrelenting optimism. I’ll pick up the pieces, I’ll try again next year. I will become fluent in Ukrainian, get relevant volunteer experience to make my application the best it can be. I will wash away my bitterness with hope.
I once read that when we don’t take the time to acknowledge and celebrate our milestones, our brains don’t recognise them as achievements. If we constantly shift the goalposts, we’ll feel like we’re continuously failing. I worry that my brain does the reverse, too. I skip over the sadness, find comfort in the “I’ll try again next year” and squash down the negative emotions. So here I am, feeling them. This situation sucks! As I wrote that line, my brain was flooding with images of all the positives I can spin from it. But it’s crap, I am angry and bitter. I will pause my optimism for long enough to be pissed off. I deserve that much.
This past year has made me want to smash my head through a window on a daily basis, but hidden beneath the many layers of crap is real and tangible progress.
I want to honour that. I need to.
Important things have happened this year. I was reunited with my best friends; I got back in touch with an old mentor who changed my life when I was 20. I realised things about myself that had been hiding in plain sight for so long, painted the monotone of my life with the pink of my rose-coloured glasses, the purple that used to fill my wardrobe, the blues of the emotions that guide me. I stripped away the greyness, and began to fill my life with colour again.
Last night I auditioned for a play for the first time in 3 years. In 4 days, one of my friends is visiting from abroad. Who knows what else this year holds? I hope I will travel, and write a new novel, and make more friends. I spent 24 learning who I am and what I value, and I plan to spend 25 letting that knowledge guide me. I am half way through my 20s now, closer to 30 than I am to 19. As I cross the invisible threshold of one age into another, I am living for the hope of it all.