Tomorrow is the first day of my 40th year. It still feels odd to say that, because in my mind, when I think of ‘being 40’ I still have the picture I had as a 20-year-old, 40 seems a million miles away from the person I feel. Many people start re-evaluating their lives when they hit this milestone, there’s something about reaching the half-way point that stirs people up, existential angst dangling like the sword of Damocles above them – who am I? What does my life mean? Have I been the best version of myself?
For me, 40 is significant and a little confronting, but it isn’t scary. And it does not make me wish I was 20 again, or even 30. For me, it feels almost like a moment to exhale and say “I made it this far”! Because there have been times that I didn’t think I would. I have absolutely no desire to go back in time, because for all the day-to-day hardships, now is the best it’s ever been.
My childhood was a shit shower of gargantuan proportions, with a narcissistic and often emotionally abusive mother, an absent father and a stepfather, who was beloved, but entrenched in criminality. Huge portions of my weekends as a child were spent visiting my parents in prison, I have vivid memories of what HMP Holloway looks like. I bounced around from care homes and relatives, or spent huge amounts of time with my un-medicated bipolar grandmother. It was a horror story in which all the adults did what the fuck they wanted and I came out of it terminally bruised.
I was under the care of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) from the age of 13, inevitably my adolescence was a hideously dark place within which, for the most part, I was lost. Couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face in the darkness. Most of my twenties were lived under the sceptre of acute manic episodes, bouncing around from spectacular, grandiose highs to soul destroying, crushing lows. How I managed to actually get my degree amidst the chaos is still a mystery to me. But following graduation, when everyone else got fabulous jobs, I just got more and more broken.
There were periods where I didn’t leave the house, or wash, or speak to anyone for months. Then there were times where I couldn’t be contained inside four walls, waking up in strange houses, partying all night at places I don’t even remember getting to, being picked up by the police for being mad as a box of frogs in the street – shoeless, penniless and out of my mind. Once Social Services put me in a homeless hostel full of crack dealers and had I not been detained temporarily under the Mental Health Act I would have ended up as street homeless. There was no one to call for help, no one gave a shit.
But somehow amidst all this I managed to recover enough to get a job as a receptionist in a factory and from the £60 per week I earnt, I saved enough to move to London – where I got a job doing admin for a firm of accountants. From my wages there I saved enough to do my master’s degree and finally realise my dreams of becoming a journalist. On qualifying, I went to work in Africa as a reporter. The day I boarded that plane I was beaming. I had made it.
But despite all the progress and the healing and the hard yards I had done, I was still off-kilter. Still only half okay, I was still on too many occasions flying too close to the fire. And risky behaviour only ever ends one way, in my case, it culminated in a brutal rape in a foreign country and repatriation by the British High Commission, followed by 8 weeks of anti-retroviral drugs as prophylactic treatment against possible HIV infection.
I was lucky, I tested negative. But the treatment itself was its own form of torture, I lost 3 stone in those months and spent my days crawling from the bed to the toilet vomiting and shitting myself. I have gone over the events of that night a thousand times trying to find a rational answer, trying somehow, to make sense of all the mess. But in truth, there are only two things that I am absolutely certain of.
The first is that my illness had been propelling me toward some type of serious assault for some time. People tell me not to blame myself, they give me the ‘rape speech’ about victim mentalities, tell me that it wasn’t my fault. But you know what, it just isn’t that simple. I may not have asked for it, but it was my fault, or rather the fault of a condition that made me behave in reckless ways, that made me sail too close to the wind too many times. That put me in the path of danger without the clarity to jump out of the way of the oncoming train.
And the answer to the why of that night, the only one that has ever made any sense to me, is that I was fair game. There is no deeper or more complicated reason than that. The man that raped me was not meting out some post-colonial form of justice, exacting his revenge for the sins of my forebears. It was not an issue of first world feminism versus third world chauvinism. What I truly believe is that he decided to rape me that night, quite simply, because he could. Because he thought he could get away with it. Because he was a manipulative opportunist that saw the chance of violent sex and took it. Because he knew that I would be no match for him.
Aside from the actual trauma of the rape itself, the aftermath of vaginal and rectal swabs, constant blood tests and reliving it all in endless statements to the police nearly ruined me. Nearly. Until the day came when I had finally finished the retro-viral treatment and I decided to board a plane and go back to Africa – the site of my undoing. There were many reasons why I went back, but mainly it was because in my core I knew that if if I nurtured the fears that surfaced following that night, then I would have become a person that I did not want to be, and he would have taken everything.
I couldn’t change what happened, but I did not want to spend the rest of my life fearing every man I came across and hating Africa for what it had come to represent to me. To say that it would be letting him win would be crediting him with an omnipotence that he didn’t deserve, but at that stage, the only power I had left was the will to carry on and not let what happened on one misguided night ruin all the other nights that followed.
I am undoubtedly wiser for it; I know now that sympathising with a westerner’s idea of ‘disadvantage’ does not provide exemption from harm. And I know that regardless of political rhetoric such as ‘no, means no’ it actually just comes down to survival of the fittest, the stronger against the weaker. And I know that being a woman, particularly a white, western woman, in Africa makes you vulnerable irrespective of how independent or educated or freethinking you may think you are. That man didn’t give a shit about the rocky road I had taken to get there, he didn’t care that getting that far – to journalism, to Africa – was everything to me. He just wanted to fuck me by force, right then. That was his narrative, all the other stuff was my narrative.
And if my twenties were about rising and falling, my thirties seemed to be about metamorphosis. I got married and I had my daughter. These things, rites of passage to most people, were like climbing Mount Everest for me. I had always assumed that no one would ever want to marry me, I felt too damaged, too unfixable. And had always been told by doctors that I probably shouldn’t have children because the likelihood of being able to stay sane off medication for the duration of a pregnancy was minimal.
Well I did go through my pregnancy off meds, and I was fine. So high on the fact that I was finally carrying this child I had dreamed about but never thought I’d hold in my arms, I bloomed throughout the entire nine months. I did of course relapse spectacularly shortly after delivery, and kept relapsing for the next two years. But this time, even in the maelstrom of my darkest or most chaotic days, I had a reason to fight – my daughter. My marriage ended after five years, and at 35 years old I found myself a single parent, living in an empty house claiming state benefits.
It took me a long time to come to grips with what felt like the stripping of my identity, I had fought hard to become a journalist, so much blood had been shed to travel that road, the thought of starting again was soul destroying. But over time I have had my emotional reckoning, have gathered my strength and bit by bit transformed the shell of a house we moved into a beautiful home and my daughter and I have planted our garden together – quite literally putting down roots. I have finally learned to drive and the healthcare assistant job I got to make ends meet has turned into a secondment – with the NHS funding me to train as a psychiatric nurse. There have been times when it has felt that actually all roads have led me to this true path
And for five whole years I have been single, bar an ill-fated love affair with a childhood sweetheart which I can’t really even count due to its ludicrousness. What I have learnt about love is that we accept who we think we are worth. With my background and just out of a divorce I accepted a whole array of selfish fuckwittage from a person who was unwilling and unable to get his shit together. And it wasn’t about being scared to be alone, because in many ways I have always been alone, it is my default position. It was about just not believing that I was worth anyone better. The people we end up with are a reflection of how we see ourselves.
It is about the roles we cast for ourselves in life, for me, I am always the caregiver – since childhood with my personality disordered mother I have been locked into a dynamic of afflictive love, of trying to heal people in order for them to resume the role they’re meant to have in my story – to parent my parent to enable her to be a mother to me, to wrestle my lover’s demons in order for him to be present emotionally, to be my equal. I became addicted to the potential that I saw in him, whilst wasting my own precious years trying to heal him. But the thing is, it doesn’t work that way, you cannot save people who do not want to be saved. You cannot heal people who prefer to stay broken.
At the end of it all, we all have personal agency, we all have the choice to do or die, to board the goddamn plane back to Africa or not. Now at 40 years old I can look back and say that I am a person who prefers the forward trajectory to stasis. I will always board the plane and build the house and plant the garden, I will always choose to fight over surrender because for me there is no other option. There is a little girl who depends on me to be present, and to try. And I know what happens to children when adults are not present, and do not try.
I have huge amounts to be thankful for, a beautiful daughter, a lovely home, a career I am passionate about, and it feels such a long way from the places I have been and the things I have seen. But what feels most enriching about it is the fact that I did all this myself, it is not reliant on anyone else, it is not conditional on someone else’s presence. It is not dependent on a man’s validation or acceptance. I made this, and I own this.
I am no longer at the mercy of the irresponsibility and selfishness of others. The sky won’t fall in and the ground wont crumble beneath my feet, because I damn well built them and I know the foundations are strong. So for me, this milestone age is liberation: and tonight my daughter and I will board a plane to Africa and tomorrow, on the first day of my 40th year I will wake up with a view of the Atlas mountains. For me, forty is finally being free.