I don’t normally do birthdays. I don’t mind celebrating other people’s, but I don’t celebrate my own. This is partly because I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness, so I never celebrated my birthday as a kid, and it’d feel weird to start as an adult. It’s also because I have what my therapist terms “a pathological dislike of attention” so the idea of sitting in a room while people stare at me and sing to me and bring me presents sounds like actual hell.
However, I am quite proud of turning 30, because I never thought I would. And since you’re all staring at screens instead of directly at me, and none of you are going to sing to me because how would you anyway, and you’re definitely not sending me presents because fuck that shit, I thought I would take a moment to talk about turning thirty.
This song is the soundtrack to this post:
Technically it’s not my birthday until tomorrow, so I suppose it’s still possible that I’ll die before my 30th birthday, in which case you’ll be reading my musings posthumously. But let’s assume that’s not going to happen.
In the spirit of being cheerful about turning thirty, I thought I’d look back on some of the times it seemed like I’d never get this far.
Part One: I’m Not Dead
The first time I nearly died I was eighteen months old. It’s my earliest memory. My father fell asleep in a car on the motorway and we ended up in a serious accident. The car was totaled. My mother and I had to be cut out of it. My father somehow walked away without a scratch. This feels like a metaphor for the rest of my life.
No wonder I’m nervous in all my driving lessons.
I nearly died a couple more times as a child, one of which involved me almost drowning. Remarkably, I got straight back in the pool the following day and carried on swimming, because I love swimming that much.
When I was seventeen, several of my organs started failing simultaneously and my blood cells started killing themselves. At the time, it amused me that I was suicidal at a cellular level. I was, of course, the archetypal emo teen.
The requisite ‘twist yourself into an awkward position and post a selfie in your stripy tights on MySpace’ pic. The litter you can see on the floor is because my job at that point was stuffing envelopes with promotional material for a university. IT. TOOK. DAYS.
Following the Broken Organ Fiasco, the doctors gave me three weeks to live.
“That’s not going to happen” I told them.
“Why not?” they asked.
“Because I have to do my A-levels.”
It was desperately important to me that I would finish my A-levels, take the exams, and do well. After that, I decreed, I could die if I must. I think I saw myself as some sort of heroine of Victorian literature, lying pathetically on my deathbed but determined to have one last hurrah.
I got my hurrah. I got my A-levels. And once I’d defied medical science to that extent, I figured, why not just keep going?
Of course it was hard at first. I could only walk veeeery slowwwllly. I spent a lot of time in hospital and with doctors and consultants who were all like, how the fuck did you do that? How are you not dead? And I was like, I dunno, I just kind of… didn’t die.
After a while I got a little stronger, and I completed my plan of leaving my mother’s house and her religion behind, and moving to London on my own. This meant I was shunned by everyone I’d known, and simultaneously hounded by the religious elders who were trying to get me back “into the fold.” I was also working full-time to make rent, and starting uni.
It was a stressful time. But at least I was alive, right? If a little paler. Being a goth / emo kid though, that didn’t bother me.
For the first three years or so after I didn’t die, things were a bit touch-and-go. Every so often I’d end up back in the hospital for a few months, at which point the doctors would try various different things to see if my body could be persuaded to stop trying to kill itself from the inside out. Somehow they always succeeded. Gradually I got stronger. They told me I’d probably always end up back in hospital after a while, and that eventually my body would win the war and I’d end up with all the organs melting out of me, but in the meantime just to keep going. I took that advice to heart.
Part Two: Things I’ve Done Instead Of Dying
One of the things that prompted me to write this post was Damn, Girl’s post about turning 30. I swear we’re soul sisters. Alongside talking about some of the things she’s overcome in her life, she also spoke about some of the things she’d done in her twenties. I thought this might be a fun thing to do, so here’s my list.
- Adopted a teenager.
- Published a paper.
- Got divorced (I’d add ‘got married’ to this list too, but I did that when I was nineteen).
- Started a company (strictly started, like, seven, but once you’ve started one the rest don’t seem like such a big deal).
- Worked on an initiative that makes it easier to identify where child trafficking victims are being abused (thus making it possible to prevent further abuse).
- Worked on an algorithm which works similarly to fuzzy hashing, but for linguistic analysis rather than images, to make it easier to track child abusers when they’re grooming children online.
- Went to Brussels to work on the EU privacy directive. I am partially responsible for all those annoying GDPR compliancy emails you’ve been receiving. Sorry. It’s meant to make it harder for large companies to screw your privacy, but of course it’s also a pain, like all security measures.
- Spent time doing some Very Badass Things in counter terror meeting rooms around the world.
- Learned how to deal with a bomb hidden inside a computer.
- Owned a business whose turnover goes over the VAT threshold.
- Had employees.
- Became a grandmother, technically. The teenager I’d adopted had long since moved out and set up a home of her own. Then she messaged me one day to tell me she was pregnant. “You’re a granny at 25!” my best friend crowed hilariously. And technically, I suppose, she was right.
- Written my own songs and performed them in various venues around London.
- Busked, both a cappella and with a ukulele.
- Been the official fortune-teller at a local fair and done a tarot reading for the Mayor.
- Got a passport and went abroad.
- Worked in the Netherlands, Ireland, Switzerland, Italy, the USA, Belgium, and Spain. And, of course, from my little home office in London.
- Published a book.
- Found a place I wanted to live in and finally created something that feels like a home.
- Started renovating that home. I’d love to say I finished renovations in my twenties, but considering I’m only 29 for one more day I strongly doubt that’ll happen. In the meantime I’m trying to persuade myself that my living room walls look like they’re in a Tuscan villa, rather than like I haven’t quite finished stripping the wallpaper yet.
It’s been a busy and interesting decade.
And I didn’t die, which is exciting. When I was 22 I spent a couple of months in hospital while my insides tried to kill themselves again, and then there was a long period of reprieve until last year, when an organ melted. Luckily only one of them died, though, and it wasn’t one I needed for anything important, so they just took it out. This year my body’s a bit tired and they think it might be either trying to kill another organ or just have a lot of nerve damage, so more hospital time is required to find out what’s happening there. I think they’ll find it’s a nerve thing rather than an organ thing, because over the years I’ve become pretty attuned to what it feels like to have a dying organ and the way I’m feeling right now isn’t it.
Part Three: Upcoming Plans
At the moment I’m waiting to see a consultant to find out whether, and to what extent, whatever my body’s doing is going to impact on my life for the next few years. Since the doctors are often wrong, however, I’m also planning to just carry on until my body tells me it’s time to stop. Rough plans for the next few years go like this.
- 2018: Join a new research project. Publish another book. Finish work on the living room, kitchen, bedroom and hallway.
- 2019: Continue research. Publish another book. Grow Bohemiacademia. Save as much money as I can.
- 2020: Continue research. Publish another book. Solidify Bohemiacademia’s team of employees. Promote someone to a position where they’ll be able to run the company in my absence. Get the bathroom redone.
- 2021: Publish research outcomes. Publish another book. Hand over day-to-day running of Bohemiacademia to promoted employee. Later on in the year, set out on my walk around the coastline of the UK.
- 2022: Walk around the UK.
- 2023: Walk around the UK. I don’t plan to suspend work entirely while I’m doing this: I’ll still be working a few hours a day alongside the walking. But the employee I promoted in 2020 will hopefully be dealing with the London-based day-to-day stuff.
- 2024: Write up notes from walk and publish them as a book. Decide what to do with the rest of the decade. Possibly adopt another child. Probably have some kind of health-related crisis. We’ll see.
So that’s the past ten years of my life, plus a canned version of my life before that, and why I’m pleasantly surprised that I’m still around to celebrate turning thirty. The BFF suggested I should have a death-themed birthday party, which I’m quite tempted to do, but the hospital’s told me to take it easy for the next few weeks so it may need to happen later in the year. In which case it’ll probably just be a Hallowe’en party instead, which makes me happier because then the centre of attention will be the undead, rather than me. And I can dress up as Siouxsie Sioux: the archetypal goth. Really, even though lots of things have happened over the past ten years, in some ways not much has changed.