At 26, Kat Poole had a steady job, a live-in boyfriend and a long list of goals she didn’t even know if she really wanted. By the time she was 27, all that had changed…
Anyone with a birthday that falls at the very beginning of the year will tell you that there’s a special kind of sadism in being forced to mark your ascent into adulthood amid the relentless drone of “new year, new you!” and “another year wiser!”.
I was born at the start of January, and have spent most of my birthdays trying to avoid thinking too hard about how the next 365 days of my life just might be the ones in which I grow/change/try mindfulness/start batch-cooking/stop eating so much Cheddar/learn to tap dance.
But on the morning of my 27th birthday, at the turn of 2016, I found myself swallowed whole by the clichés and spat out into a new bed, in an unfamiliar house, surrounded by unpacked bags. I hadn’t even escaped the New Year hangover: however, mine felt like it had lasted for two months. Because, by the time the fireworks were fizzling out, I had completely dismantled the life I had spent the entirety of my twenties building.
Which meant that, yes, I had to start again.
A few months prior to this point, I had begun therapy for a tangle of mental health issues. A general feeling of sadness that I’d experienced since my late teens had expanded and then settled in me like a thick, sticky fog – which I desperately tried to ignore while I got on with the things everyone else my age seemed to be doing.
I graduated from university, I moved out of home and into a flatshare in a different city. I made new friends. I was in a long-term relationship, and we moved in together. I was employed steadily. I spent most of my money on brunch and holidays. I did everything I was supposed to do. The only problem, though, was that none of it seemed to fit, like a puzzle where the pieces are all there but they aren’t quite in the right place.
By the time things got really bad, I didn’t want to leave my flat, I had stopped saying yes to seeing my friends. I quit three jobs in the space of three months, and my relationship became something I didn’t recognise anymore. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt excited, or happy, or even OK.
When my family and close friends intervened and I agreed that yes, maybe they were right and I should talk to someone, I had just about given up on ever feeling alright again. But after the first few months of intense therapy, the fog seemed to shift — a little, at least — and made some room for to think about my life.
I had hoped therapy would make me feel calmer, but the very opposite happened. In flooded an impatience to… well, to do things, change things, make things better for myself. And so I ended the relationship I had been in for seven years, and gave up the flat I had spent two of those years filling and cleaning and crying in. I threw out clothes. I filled bin bags with things that reminded me of the unhappiest times. And I quickly learned the one thing no one warns you about leaving a bad situation: when you’ve chucked all the bad stuff out, when you’ve wiped your slate as blank as you can, there are no signposts for what you’re meant to do next.
I was entering the tail-end of my twenties, and found myself moving into a room in someone else’s family home, because I couldn’t stand the thought of making conversation with “like-minded professional people” every night. I paused my freelance writing career because I was too tired to channel any of my feelings into good work, and I spent two months temping on reception desks in advertising agencies, hoping I didn’t bump into anyone I knew.
Instead of hosting friends for dinner at an elegantly-set table like a proper adult (right?), I was eating takeaway curry out of plastic cartons on a double bed bought by someone else with two of my best friends (I have four best friends; only two could fit).
So when I woke up on my 27th birthday, my alarm screaming at me to get up because I had another morning sitting at another nondescript desk surrounded by other people’s files, my life on paper looked like someone had taken that paper, shredded it, chucked it out of a first floor window and driven over it with a car. By rights it should have felt like s**t. But strangely enough, it didn’t.
For the first time since I had left school, I had the opportunity to start again and do whatever I wanted. There were no long-term contracts in my name, no expectations. I just had to get up in the morning and make enough money to live. When you’ve spent your adult life thus far trying to reach goals you don’t even know if you want yet, there’s something incredibly freeing in not having to care at all.
One year later, just after my 28th birthday, I was asked to co-author Being an Adult, a practical handbook for anyone struggling to piece their own grown-up life together. By then, I had returned to full-time work in a role which I enjoyed, and has led to my job now [Kat is the editor of Emerald Street]. I was seeing a brilliant therapist, a new relationship was going well and I had moved — again — to a shared flat with two other women my age.
I had only just started to figure things out, though, and I assumed they’d got the wrong writer. However, as I gave it some more thought, I realised that perhaps this journey into adulthood that we all go through is as much about the things that don’t go right as the things that do.
Looking back, I find it quite remarkable that I put so much pressure on Early Twenties Me to lay the foundations for the rest of my adult life. I know some amazing women who knew what they wanted and got on the right track from very early on, but I was never one of them. At 21, I almost wrote off my car by driving, sober, into a fence. At 23, I spent two whole days bleaching my elbow-length hair so badly that it went yellow and snapped off. At 26, I emptied an entire bottle of water onto my passport just before a flight.
I was just being a young woman – trying things out, mucking things up – but at the same time shaping my life by a desperation to keep up. I didn’t want to fall behind the peers whose careers seemed to be rocketing, or the friends who were turning relationships into home-owning and marriage and the promise of kids — because I was approaching 30 and I really ought to have a plan, right?
Well, as it turns out, I didn’t. Speaking from experience, the only plan that’s really important is the one that makes you happiest. The rest will figure itself out.
Being an Adult by Kat Poole and Lucy Tobin is out now (£12.99, Scribe)