There are two events that neatly bookend my journey from 30 to 40. In my own mind they are milestones that bear the witness to how my life was at those moments. There is so much captured in those moments that epitomises who I was.
Turning ThirtyJust before I turned thirty, I went on holiday. It was a fantastic holiday, to Jordan, with GrannyBear, BrotherBear and TheEx (who was still FirstHusband at the time, though only just). It should have been a glorious holiday, and in many ways it was. We landed late at night in Amman and drove straight to Madaba. From Madaba we went to Jerash, Irbid and Umm Qais, then the Dead Sea, Kerak, Petra, and finally Aqaba. We spent nearly two weeks seeing the most fabulous places, hiking round Petra, walking in Wadi Rum, diving in the Red Sea. To see where Moses first saw the Promised Land, to stand where Jesus cast the devils out into the Gadarene swine, to float in the Dead Sea, to stride down paved roads first walked by the Romans, to climb through crusader castles, to walk through the dunes where TE Lawrence walked, to dive in sparkling water with beautiful fish and coral - all of these were magical and wonderful experiences. And there isn't a single person to whom I've spoken about this holiday that I haven't said "Go to Jordan! If you get the chance, just go, you won't regret it". There are so many civilisations whose paths have crossed Jordan, so much history, so much natural beauty, that to not go when you have a chance would be a travesty.
I also hated it. In retrospect I now know that what was happening to me was acute anxiety. At the time all I knew was that I felt physically sick. I felt as though there was a tight band around my chest and I couldn't breathe. I felt as though sometimes my heart would be racing and sometimes missing a beat altogether. I felt boiling hot and yet shivering with cold. I felt like crying. I felt like curling up in a small ball and never looking at the world again. I felt terrified.
BrotherBear is the master of "winging it". He is the antithesis of me in this regard. He was happy to arrive at Amman airport at 10pm with no hotel booked in advance. He was happy to have no itinerary, but to just go wherever the fancy took us. He was happy to shrug and say "it'll be fine". GrannyBear and I were not. We need plans. We need certainty about where we will be sleeping. We need to know where our next meal is coming from. We need security. So BrotherBear relented and booked a hotel for the first night, and on our first morning we made a plan of where we would go, and when. We already had our list of "unmissable" things, so it was a matter of moments really to turn that into a plan. That helped calm me a little. But, in truth, that wasn't the heart of the matter. The uncertainty had unsettled me, but it wasn't what was making me anxious. It would be many months before I realised what had been making me anxious, many months before I discovered that it was anxiety that could create such strong physical reactions. Only when I sat in my doctor's surgery explaining the same symptoms again, did the penny drop. Looking back, it was obvious...
"Don't bother putting her on the hire car insurance, she won't drive."
"She's fine, she's always like this"
"You won't try diving. You'll just snorkel"
Day by day, word by word, bit by bit, TheEx was telling me, and the world around me, that I wasn't good enough. That I wouldn't try things. That I couldn't do things. That I wasn't worth it. And I believed him. Who knew me better after all? He must be right. Every doubt I'd ever had in myself was reinforced. Every fear, every question, every aching uncertainty was hammered home. He didn't create the self-doubt, or the lack of confidence - the seeds were always there, as perhaps they are in all of us. He watered the seeds and helped them to grow and flourish.
Three months after we got home from that holiday, TheEx left. The next few months of prolonged "leaving" continued the verbal assault, but with more venom and vituperation.
"You've always been a disappointment to me, because your lack of confidence means you underachieve."
"You have no empathy"
"I never loved you, I just felt sorry for you"
"You'll never get your chartered status"
"I deserve better"
My mind can rationalise away all the things he said. I am a Chartered Physicist now. I'm the R&D manager of a high tech company. I've made scientific breakthroughs that were world firsts. I have a wonderful, loving husband and son. I have a home filled with warmth and comfort and love. I have an incredible collection of loving, funny, supportive, glorious friends. None of those things would be the case if there was a grain of truth in what TheEx said. But I cannot un-hear those words. They lurk inside and feed the demons. I have not found a way to expurgate them. I have found ways to laugh at some of them, and perhaps that's the answer. To see the utter absurdity in the barbs and rise above them. Because I cannot un-hear them.
Later began the slow process of rebuilding. Of learning to hear and believe the truth in the words of love and kindness from my friends and family. Of discovering who I was again. Of finding the person I could be. Of trusting enough to love again, and be loved. And one day my mother told me that she had her daughter back again. That I now came into a room with a smile. That I was sure of my opinions again. That I could and would talk volubly and eloquently about anything and everything. That the unsure, withdrawn daughter that I'd become had gone.
I am still a work in progress, but the ten years that followed have brought me to a very different place.
Turning FortyThe year that BigBear and I turned 40, we had a party. We held it half way between our own birthdays, partly to make it a celebration for both of us, and partly because trying to have a party in the garden, in England, in either March or October is just a stupid idea. Half way between is summertime and much more conducive to garden parties.
Rain aside, the day was filled with everything that my life now holds. The nucleus of my day was of course my own little Bear Family, BigBear and LittleBear, but I was also surrounded by friends who'd known me for twenty years, a chaotic riot of small children and copious food and drink. The food plans were marginally shambolic, but it didn't matter, there was no-one to tell me I'd done it wrong, or over-catered, or under-catered. My lovely friend Tigger toddled off to the local shop with her two baby tiggers to collect missing ingredients; the equally lovely Piglet arrived with MrPiglet and their baby piglets, bearing food that she'd made; more booze, flowers and chocolates flowed into the house in the arms of friends from near and far.
Our newly-engaged friends sat on the sofa together looking adorably in love.
Our newly dog-owning friends brought their (immense) Husky-Malamute puppy (puppy! ha! It was a wolf!) with them, only to have my pathetically-timid cat viciously chase it away.
Our friends in Switzerland flew here just for the party. And they brought me a bottle of Tanqueray. As if I needed more than just their presence.
Piglet and MrPiglet brought their event-shelter with them, and put it up, effectively covering the whole garden to keep us all dry. So we sat outside despite the rain and we talked and drank, and drank and laughed, and laughed and ate, and ate and talked. At one point, sitting outside sheltering from the rain, I saw BigBear waving to me from the window, gesturing that we should come into the dry. I waved merrily back, assuring him we were fine. Later I looked around and realised BigBear was the only adult inside. With 7 children under the age of 6. Perhaps he had been drowning not waving? He seemed to survive the experience.
This was my life at forty. A home filled with love, laughter and books. A life filled with friendship, compassion and support. A marriage of equals, with mutual love and generosity. Motherhood, with all its challenges, rewards and adoration.
And this was my party.
Nobody belittled me.
Nobody scoffed at me.
Nobody made me feel as though I wasn't good enough.
I was happy.
I was loved.
I was me.
So here I am, now. A bit broken, a bit mended, a bit more me, a bit less certain. A lot happier.
I wonder what happened to the 18-year old girl who left home to take up an industrial placement as a software engineer on the other side of the country having never written any software. The 19-year old girl who flew to Kathmandu on Bangledesh Airlines for three weeks without having a clue what she was going to do when she got there. The 20-year old who took up playing rugby on a whim because it seemed like it might be fun. I hope, and think, she might still be in here somewhere. She was already hiding by the time I went to Uganda. I'm not sure quite what happened. I know TheEx was part of it. I know that going to University and discovering that amongst the very best I was only mediocre was part of it. I know that the fearless girl that I was has become more and more anxious over the years.
I wish I could go back to Jordan. I wish I could have that holiday again, but this time without the anxiety, without the pain, without the fear. I wish I could be brave enough and strong enough to do it the way BrotherBear can, to wing it, to be unafraid, to know that things will be OK even without a meticulous plan. I don't think I will go back. I think I will go forward. One day I will go to Angkor Wat. One day I will go to Machu Picchu. But I might just start with Norfolk.