Coping: Approaching 30 and alone in the dark with a mutinous brain

And I had thought my recent birthday didn’t bother me

Photograph: Thinkstock

I have had bad bouts of insomnia in the past, but this one has involved more fretting than the rest. One night last week, deep into the long worry hours, before worrying about tax returns but after realising that I forgot to email someone back last summer, I jumped out of bed in alarm.

Whispering madly to myself, “For feck’s sake, that’s the start of it now”, I shuffled in to the living room. Himself, somewhere else entirely and skirting the brink of unconsciousness, mumbled something about “mutants taking over the school”, then turned over with a gentle snort and was lost again in sleep. As is always the case for insomniacs, I was alone in the dark with my mutinous brain.

Perhaps it was an overreaction, but my brain wasn’t the only thing mutinying. I had had a sudden sharp twinge in my back. An unfamiliar and quite unprovoked crampy sensation made lying down uncomfortable. I can feel the tug of it now, pulling at the muscle and sinew, announcing the onslaught of a new era of cramping muscles and adult paperwork.

My birthday – one that brings me decidedly towards 30 – had been the day before. I had thought it hadn’t bothered me, but the back twinge seemed to announce that rheumatism and decomposition were setting in, and that I had better spend tonight lying awake in a sweat of worry while there was still time.


Lose all faith

Sometimes I think about


when I am worried. His straightforwardness soothes me. All of his writings take the form of his teacher,


(who never wrote anything himself, at least not that we can find), engaging in conversation with various people.

In Plato's Republic – the book that made my teenage self lose all faith that any adult knew what they were doing – there is a lovely moment when Socrates has a chat with an old man named Cephalus about old age. Cephalus says that he is very content to be old because he is no longer a slave to the passions of youth. He can get a lot more done these days because he isn't interested in chasing skirt (or possibly boys: this was ancient Athens) or in doing anything to excess. He doesn't care too much what people think of him; being old sets Cephalus free.

As nice as that is, I’m not comforted by it. Partially because Socrates responded to Cephalus by aptly making the point that old age is bound to be more comfortable if you are rich, and partially because I have a while to go before I can free myself from such passions. I really like cake, and I’m not yet comfortable to sit on the sidelines of life’s flurry and feel superior.

Feeling sorry for myself, I contemplated that I have reached an age of peak social expectation. Pair that with the bureaucracy of adulthood and it’s enough to make me want to hide under the covers until I am old enough to sit next to Cephalus and complain benignly that my knee hurts when it rains.

In the past year I have sold a house, opened and closed bank accounts, read and signed what feels like a forest worth of paperwork, and had to have conversations with actual solicitors in actual suits without screaming, “I’m only small; I don’t know”, and then running away.

And that just covers the everyday business of adult life. By your late 20s, people start to consider you some sort of failure if you don't have a foothold in a career of whatever sort. Our parents' generation will say things like: "Marie from down the road, she's finished her accountancy exams and she's engaged to a doctor."

I don’t want to be like “Marie from down the road”, but in the whispering night, I do sometimes wish I were more like Cephalus.