A big birthday makes self-important fools of us all, so I wrote 20-year-old Kirsten a rough guide to the decade she was about to embark upon, from the wise and lofty heights of 30.
Hello, 20-year-old Kirsten – student, flibbertigibbet, mere child – it’s Kirsten at 30. Fuck off, 30’s not old. Have a read of this:
First things first: that anxiety that sent you mad last autumn and is still there, gnawing at your synapses like a rat on a cable? That’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better, so you should take it seriously and insist on getting some help. You won’t though, and I’m sorry, but come September you’ll start properly enjoying life again – you sort of exhaust yourself out of it. It’s going to get better and it’s then going to return a few different times in a few different guises. It’s a lying, malevolent, shape-shifting thing, and we can manage it with drugs and therapy, but I think it’s always going to be with us.
The boyfriend: he’s utterly lovely but this relationship won’t last beyond university. I think you already know that. You’re going to behave badly, and you’ll surprise yourself, but eventually you’ll do the right thing.
The next boyfriend: that guy, the one you secretly think is hot, the one you know will never see you that way – well, have I got news for you… You start a conversation with him that goes on for seven years. You fall in love, properly in love, and it’s wild and silly and wonderful. Problems work their way in after a few years, and for you, that feels within the realms of normal. But you’ll come to learn that your expectations are only ever half the story, and you’ll come to learn which sharp edges of yours scratch uncomfortably against his own ragged edges. But he will keep you in one piece through one of those anxious periods I warned you about, and you won’t end up together and it will be fraught and horrible, but my God, the things you will learn about yourself, and about love. Not a second of it will be wasted.
Speaking of love: the dog. Yeah, there’ll be a dog. You will learn that dog love is what human love thinks it is: joyous, fierce, and unconditional.
And sharing a dog with the man you once thought you’d marry is one of the hardest commitments you’ll make before you turn thirty, but it is worth it. Even on the worst days, it is so worth it.
The second half of your twenties will involve 50% of your friends getting engaged, married, mortgaged up, and having babies, while the other 50% try to complete their dating apps of choice. You’ll kind of do things backwards, coming out of a serious relationship just as it feels like everyone else is racing to the altar. And sometimes that feels sad and strange and like you’ve failed, but you know what it takes to work at a relationship, to hang in there for a good few years. You know the costs; you were doing Serious Cohabiting before it was cool. Hold on to that wisdom.
You still believe in love that feels like quiet magic and lust that makes everything Technicolor. Hold on to that too.
You don’t really know what you want to do with your life right now, except an exceptionally niche MA in Linguistics, so you should consider at least one other option. You won’t, though, I know. But would you please think about writing your own stuff again? It’s been ages. I know you think all the Creative Writing students in your year are pretentious and deluded, but you’re being a dick, and one day you’re going to wish you’d been one of them. And much as I hate to be the bearer of spoilers, you’re going to finish your twenties certain of one thing and only one thing: that writing is what you’re here for. So, er, get cracking.
Read some fucking poetry. I know you think it’s tedious and irrelevant, but do me a wee favour here and read some Mary Oliver.
I cannot begin to tell you how awful job-hunting is. It is one of the most thankless, soul-destroying endeavours anyone undertakes; it’s got to be the most evil of all life’s necessary evils. It gets less stressful eventually, because you start to realise that half the battle is making the interviewer’s life easier. Try to see it as two people aiming for the same thing: the right person in the right role, rather than Oliver begging for scraps. You’ll feel like you’re begging for scraps – “please take me, my useless arts degree and obscure Masters and make me do mundane tasks in exchange for barely enough money to live on” – but you can really string a sentence together, and not everyone can do that. Or so I’m told, anyway.
You’re going to get a couple of tattoos – I know, don’t let Mum find out for as long as humanly possible – and every time you catch sight of them, they’ll please you. Waiting until your late twenties to get them was a good shout; you had a better idea of what would be meaningful to you for the rest of your life than you would have done any earlier.
Talk to Granny. Or rather: listen to her. Get her to tell the story of how she met Gramps one more time. Get her to tell you everything she knows about cooking, about dogs, about men, about love, about loss. I know it’s a cliché to tell you to appreciate a grandparent while they’re still around but clichés become that way for a reason: they’re fucking true. As soon as she’s gone, you’ll want to talk to her every single day. At first it feels like grief, then it just feels like the scorch-mark of a fierce, burning love. You were so lucky to have her love you.
Cut your mother some slack. Basically: you’re too similar and too different in all the wrong ways – both anxious, both fiercely independent, both unable to stay inside and do nothing for more than a few hours. But you’ll be grateful for that independence, that energy, I promise. Mostly you think of yourself as a barely-coping mess, but there’s refusal to wallow in you that comes from Mum, and it will get you through the sad times.
A decade from now, you’re going to be seeing a therapist on a regular basis. I know – how utterly American of you. But you come to notice some patterns of behaviour that have the potential to be rather destructive, and that’s not how you want to live. Take it seriously – if nothing else, you’re privileged to be able to afford it, so show up and be honest. There’s no fucking point otherwise. You’ll hit thirty a whole lot more forgiving than you were at 20, at 25, even at 28. You’ll come to recognise a hungry, flailing heart when you see one, and you won’t judge its owner too harshly.
And speaking of therapy, we should talk about the thing we don’t talk about: your dad. Think about whether you can face finding out a bit more about him. You don’t know it yet, but the silence, the empty space: it’s weighing on you in ways you can’t see. And yes, you’re not wrong: a wholly absent father is preferable to an abusive one, or a physically-present-but-emotionally-AWOL one, but an absent one also isn’t… ideal. Maybe you deserve a bit more information than you’ve been given thus far? Maybe feeling like 50% an unknown quantity isn’t sustainable? You can fan the smoke out the window all you like but you’re going to have to look for the cause of the fire eventually.
You won’t take any of this advice, of course. That doesn’t change – you love getting other people’s thoughts on things (so long as it doesn’t feel like you’re actually asking for help) but you’re awful at actively taking their suggestions. I think it’s because you secretly love working on a problem yourself. You always have to be chasing something. You feel pointless if you’re not.
Oh, and this might sound batshit but you turn 30 in the middle of a pandemic. And after the events of the preceding four years, a virus that sweeps around the world like wildfire and causes a global shutdown feels practically inevitable. Yeah, I know, it’s fucking madness.
See you when you get here.