In the cold fluorescent light of the bathroom at my downtown office, I grinned at myself in the mirror like a fool. You are a fucking gem, I thought, and someone worthwhile is going to notice it and never want to give you up. I felt like dancing, something I’d been doing a lot of lately, if only in my room with my own reflection.
It’s crept up on me slowly, and then all of a sudden, this new self-confidence. It started a year ago as a film of cockiness layered over my raw psyche in an act of pure self-preservation. That was more of a ‘no fucks to give’ carelessness, a necessary selfishness; I’ve talked about that feeling of social invincibility before. Eventually the film hardened into a shell, protecting me against first dates that never turned into seconds, job applications that went unacknowledged, and insensitive comments by family members who no longer mattered as much to me. It was less thrilling, this shell, by very factor of being thicker and more resilient – I stopped worrying that something would break it, that lunch with my father or an especially cold reception from a boy would tear the film and let the pain leak through. I was willing to trade my formerly elevated sense of empathy for a little protection from harm.
Over the next year, as I continued to put up boundaries with the people in my life but the initial anger and defensiveness softened, I began to see real changes in the way my relationships operated. I was less easily frustrated, less easily wounded, and, significantly, less easily guilted. I still cared, but mostly I was able to match my level of interest and involvement to that of the other person – I had stopped bending over backwards for people who didn’t do the same for me, and standing up straight felt really good. I didn’t even lose any friends, although some of the levels of closeness shifted a bit as I saw less of the people I felt were more appropriate as fun acquaintances than close allies. Many of my family members seemed surprised at what I suspect they saw as a chillier reception from me, but I found I no longer cared to impress them with my selflessness. I did my part at gatherings, helped my mother especially, but if I felt I was working alone I found a way to disappear and let someone else handle the task. It was liberating, to say the least.
My body image was shifting too. After nearly three decades of stressing – too big, too squishy, too jiggly, too pale – I suddenly stopped caring so much. Of course I still have ‘fat days’ or hate the odd photo someone posts of me on Facebook, but overall I feel more comfortable in my skin than I have in my entire life. Part of the reason for the change is all the yoga I’ve been doing (until recently, but I plan to get back on it as soon as I’m over this flu), which has grounded me in my limbs and made me feel strong and centered, but it’s also a residual effect of the ‘zero fucks’ attitude. Sure, I wish I looked different, and would love to be smaller and thinner and more delicate, but that would require a massive cut back on all the delicious food I love so much, and a time-sucking ramp-up of cardio. And given that I believe this is the only life I get to live, I figure a little extra pudge and a hefty amount of cellulite is a fair trade for enjoying my time here on earth – I eat healthily and I stay active, and as long as my body feels good and functions at its peak I think I’m doing fine. In a less-than-shocking twist, my weight and size have leveled out since my mindset shifted, and I’m fitting into my clothes pretty damn well (I’ve even bought a few smaller sizes), thankyouverymuch.
With men, as well, I’ve developed a much thicker skin. I’m always telling friends that just because someone in particular doesn’t like them doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them, and I finally started internalizing that truism. Don’t like thick thighs and wide hips? Nice to meet you, you’re welcome for the great conversation, and have a nice life. Don’t appreciate a woman with strong opinions or short hair? Move along down the line, there’s a dude behind you who digs my sass and pixie. It only took a few successful dates to realize that there are plenty of men out there who are picking up what I’m putting down; in fact, what I found harder to find was my own interest in and chemistry with them. But after a year and a half of dating, in the US and a little bit in Italy, I’m entirely convinced that if there is a problem, I am not it. Some of the guys I’ve dated have been terrible kissers but stimulating conversationalists. Some had great sexual potential but were boring or awkward over dinner. Some were lovely and faultless but just didn’t float my boat. And I’m sure the reverse was true at times, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a fucking catch; I just need to find the right fisherman.
A lot of people told me that my thirties were likely to be a time of appreciation and security about what I have to offer, but given that I’m only a week past my thirtieth birthday I can’t imagine the change is down to age alone. The other factors, therapy and yoga and solo travel and a devastatingly torn-down, painstakingly-rebuilt life path, have been equally important to my emotional growth. No one thing is solely responsible for this centered, calm confidence that feels like it’s taken up residence in my bones.
Whatever the reason for it, I’m grateful. Last night at dinner, a newish friend reminded me what she had said to me last Christmas. She and I had only just begun to get to know each other, and I was still a pretty broken shell of a person, crying most mornings before I even brushed my teeth, and missing my ex with every heartbeat. She had sat in that exact spot, on the sofa across from me in her living room, and promised me that by the following Christmas I would be at least halfway over him/what he put me through. I couldn’t believe it, couldn’t even picture a day without pain, much less a different mentality altogether, but she was right. I feel strong, and positive, and in control, if not of what happens to me then at least of myself and my reaction to future events. It has turned out to be true what everyone said: now that I’ve made it through this, seen the other side, I know with a new and incredible certainty that I can make it through anything life throws at me.
I’m still not saying I wouldn’t trade the experience – I’ve always maintained that I would go back to that parallel universe of contented ignorance and imperfect but happy partnership in a second if I could – but I have scrounged some good qualities out of it, and I intend to hang onto them. As for turning thirty, I’m feeling pretty good about it. If my twenties were about learning how to be a responsible adult, a supportive partner, and a reliable but secure employee, my thirties have gotten a good head start on learning my own worth and how to value myself highly, and ensure that those I allow in my life do the same. I think I’ve finally found the peace I’ve been so desperate for, and it’s not dependent on God or another person – it’s rooted in me. And once the scaffolding was up, much like one of the many high rises going up here in San Francisco, the rest of the building filled in faster than I expected. I’m not saying I won’t be lonely, or that I don’t still wish for reliable love in my life, but I feel strangely sure that I’ll get there eventually and in the meantime I’m going to be just fine.
It seems like a pretty good gift to myself, better than any tangible item I could have wanted. And it makes for a very happy birthday indeed.