Two related things happened recently. I turned 30, and I went out at night for the first time in two years. It's taken me a while to write about it, because it's taking me a while to recover. I've been taking the time in bed, as usual, to have thoughts about it.
I should say first that yes, it is objectively wonderful that I could leave my house, sit upright in a chair, and hang out in public for over two hours. Back when I was only half-sick, I used to read blogs where people wrote rapturously about their once-yearly nights out, and I couldn't imagine a life like that. I thought if I ever got that bad, I'd want to die. Now that I've crossed that divide, and I know that life with this kind of illness is indeed possible, I am genuinely grateful that I was able to go out on my 30th birthday. I'm 30 years old, and I definitely don't want to die.
I am increasingly able to will myself into a few hours of health, and I choose these hours carefully. Spending my 30th birthday alone and in bed was too disheartening to be an option. My family wanted to take me out somewhere, and I was determined to let them. I did nothing for days, in preparation. We went to Teller’s, a restaurant I chose because of architecture. It's in a building downtown that used to be an Art Deco bank, the kind of place I could imagine classy gangsters robbing. It has impressive pillars and a three-story ceiling. In a life as claustrophobic as mine, high ceilings mean a lot. I spent much of the night craning my neck up to stare at the great expanse of air and space above me, like a rube encountering a skyscraper. The light was pink and dim, making the artsy waitstaff look even more attractive than usual.
The isolation of illness makes doing normal things, like eating a meal in a restaurant, seem bizarre and surreal. Look at all these people! Strangers! More people than I've seen together in a long time! Many more people fit in a restaurant than in a doctor's waiting room, or my mom' s house. They all look so well-groomed and upwardly mobile. They all seem so natural, eating and talking, like they do it every day. Walking like it's no big deal. They probably have "jobs" and stuff. Some of them are on "dates." It's like looking through the glass at an aquarium.
Except it's not. Sitting in the restaurant also felt perfectly normal, and the normalcy itself added to the weirdness. Two years isn't really that long, and in my mind, I've never really left the world of the healthy. I felt like I was doing an excellent impersonation of a normal human being. I ordered scallops and risotto like a pro, and made small talk like a returning champion. I ate a piece of chocolate cake and got an Oscar and standing ovation.
Relatively late in life, I've discovered a love of occasional light drinking. Everyone around me is very encouraging of this. What I especially love about it is that after half a glass, I feel my body, but I can ignore it. The "occasional" is key. Here I am on my big night out, next to my friend Jonathan, having ordered in my inexperience a sweet, girly cocktail that I had to convince my brother to drink for me. After that, I had a whole glass of white wine, by myself. I stopped drinking at 19, and in my 20s I was either too Buddhist or too afraid of illness to drink alcohol. So hanging out in bars is still novel and exciting. I failed at my first cocktail, but I will persevere. Jonathan offered to show me the bars in Lawrence that the college students don't know about. I was happy to be invited.
Jonathan is one of my few friends in town, and though we don't see each other often, he's been the only guest at several of my birthday parties. I think the awkwardness and the tradition appeal to both of us. He's been a father for most of his 20s, and we have a lot of conversations about how relative age is, and how our lives are constrained in ways that most of our peers’ lives aren't. Our 20s weren't what we expected them to be. I don't know what my expectations were exactly, but I know that this decade has defied them. Sometimes I think I tried to stay a teenager until I abruptly turned 90 years old at the age of 27.
I can be pretty ashamed of my Peter Pan syndrome, but it's also hard to pick a career and “go forward”or whatever it is you're supposed to be doing with your 20s when you're sick all the time. I kept thinking that in a few months I would get better, and be able to commit to something. I thought that for years. I fueled my personal economy on low-hour teaching jobs and grandparents dying. I moved to a lot of different cities, and spent what energy I had on friends and fun, which I considered desperate necessities. I guess I achieved what I set out to achieve; I made really good friends, and we had a lot of fun. Many of the friends are still around. It's easy to look back with regrets, and it's also easy to look back and see every decision you made as absolutely inevitable. I won't say my youth was entirely misspent.
I am much older and wiser now than I was two weeks ago, when I turned 30. Despite being generally glad to be rid of my 20s, many days of crying buffered each side of my birthday. A typical case of 2.5–wave feminism grappling with and losing to three decades of media conditioning. A tally of my material achievements over the last 30 years, coming up short. Unfavorable comparisons. Gravity. Loneliness. Etc.
But I don't feel bad about it anymore. Feeling feelings when you turn 30 is an inevitable stage one has to go through, if everyone older than me is to be believed. It's a chance to look back over my life and let go of everything that doesn't apply to me anymore, which is almost everything. I think about how I haven't done what I wanted to do yet, but I still have as much time as I can remember, and more. There are achievements I can tally if I must; they are mostly invisible, but they are real. I'm always dismissing the invisible, although it encompasses almost everything of value.
Also, unlike most people whose bodies decline as they age, mine is getting stronger. Like that guy, from the movie, based on the short story that F. Scott Fitzgerald apologized for writing: I'm aging backwards. I could go out to dinner a few weeks ago! If current trends continue, who knows what I will be capable of a year from now? Wondrous things, no doubt. There are also wondrous things that I can do now. 30 years old: Totally glad I'm not dead.