Awaiting renewal

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Awaiting renewal

Exit the freeway at 39. Photo by Nadine Rovner/Gallery Stock

I’m 43 years old now, damn it, and my life is amazing. So why am I comparing myself to some styled professional?

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum. Her latest book is the memoir Disaster Preparedness (2010). She lives in Los Angeles, California.

2900 2,900 words
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Today I have to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get my driver’s licence renewed. My current licence photo is 10 years old, so old that the carefree woman in the picture always takes me by surprise. Her hair looks unnaturally shiny. Her smile says, ‘I have nowhere in particular to be. Let’s go grab a cocktail!’ Today I have to say goodbye to that lighthearted girl, and welcome her older, more harried replacement. Today I have to stand in poorly marked lines with impatient strangers, reading signs about what we can and cannot do, what we should and should not expect.

Last time I got my licence renewed, the first picture was so bad that the DMV guy laughed out loud. I was young and carefree then, so it didn’t bother me. ‘Show me,’ I commanded. He turned the screen around. My eyes were half-closed and my mouth was screwed up in a weird knot. Remember that scene in Election (1999) where they press pause just as Tracy Flick, the wannabe school president played by Reese Witherspoon, looks drunk and deranged? It was like that. The next photo turned out great, though, because I couldn’t stop smiling about the first.

That’s not the mood I’m in today. Today, if the same thing happens, I’ll stew. They’ll take a second crappy photo of me and no one will be laughing. To them, I’ll be just another angry lady to tag and release back into the wild freeways of Los Angeles. When you visit the DMV, you realise that you can bestride the narrow world like a colossus for only so long — namely, until you’re about 39. After that, you’re not special anymore. You’re just another indistinct face in a sea of the nobodies.

I have all of my father’s old driver’s licences. That’s the kind of thing you save when somebody dies — not their unpublished papers, not their shelves full of books, not their boxes of old photographs of girlfriends you never met before. You save the evidence of their trips to the DMV. Something about those little snapshots of my dad’s face, four years older, and then four years older again, standing up against that dark-red background they once used in North Carolina, slows my pulse a little and makes me find the nearest chair. My father was not one to smile for these photos. He did, however, open his eyes a little wider as the years went by, possibly to make himself look less old and grouchy.

On 5 March 1973, he wore a red gingham shirt and matching red tie. He was about to turn 34. On 10 March 1981, he wore a V-neck sweater over a maroon shirt. He was about to turn 42, and he looked fitter than he was at age 34. On 14 March 1985, my father looked as tan as George Hamilton. On 13 March 1989, he was about to turn 50, and he took his glasses off before they took the picture, maybe so he would look younger. His face was more relaxed and open than it was in the other shots. In his last licence photo, taken on 15 March 1993, he had let his hair go grey, and he looked relaxed and happy. Two and a half years later, he went to bed feeling a little bit sick, and died in his sleep of his first heart attack.

The fact of someone’s premature death shouldn’t make everything they ever did seem tragic, but it still does. I wish I were enlightened enough to have a more uplifting story at the ready when I shuffle through these laminated cards. I wish I didn’t feel quite so melancholy about his life, neatly sliced into four-year intervals, his face transforming from young to older to oldest. What was he feeling at each moment when the camera flashed in his face? What buried shame or sadness bubbled up, what bit of longing worked its way to the surface in the bleak light of that DMV office?

When you glance from one licence to the next, you don’t see the long nights I spent tossing and turning

My father talked a lot about not wanting to get old. He visited his parents regularly, but it often depressed him. He didn’t want to live the way they did, growing stooped and wrinkled, smoking and bickering as they circled the drain. He seemed to have an unusually strong fear of ageing and death. He was very fit, and he was always juggling three or more girlfriends at once, one of whom was usually under 30. Old age made him anxious.

Twenty-odd years later, I realise that most people feel this way so strongly that they’re hesitant to say it out loud. We can’t quite believe that we’ll grow old, too. At a certain point, we start counting the years we might have left, if we’re lucky. We become more pragmatic. We take what we can get. We don’t need big signs to tell us what we should and should not expect.

Ten years ago, when that last driver’s licence photo was taken, I was 33 years old and weighed 125 pounds. In the photo, my face is lean and tan because I went hiking every single morning. I worked from home and made good money as a freelance writer. I read a lot. I adopted house plants. I wrote songs on my guitar. I was so young, I had no idea how young I was.

Heather Havrilesky, licensed. Photo by the DMV Heather Havrilesky at 33, photographed by the DMV

But before you go flipping between the 33-year-old, with her broad smile, and the 43-year-old, with her vague look of world-weariness, keep in mind all the things that happened in the 10 years in between: I dumped my boyfriend. I found a full-time job. I bought a house. I got married. My stepson moved in. I had a daughter. I wrote a book. I had another daughter. I quit my job. A close friend died of cancer.

When you glance from one licence to the next, you don’t see the long nights I spent tossing and turning, working up the courage to ditch my boyfriend. You don’t see me painting the walls of my house alone, trying to accept my uncertain future. You can’t see me driving through the south of Spain with my future husband, or big and pregnant a year later, pulling weeds out of my front yard in a fit of hormonal mania. You don’t hear the breast pump — ahwooonga, ahwoonga — or feel that sinking guilt I had when I left the baby at day care for the first time. You don’t see me at the beach with my kids, smearing sunscreen on my face and hoping that no one eats sand when I’m not looking. You don’t see my hands shaking as I crush up pills, trying to help my friend die a peaceful death of colon cancer, wondering if there even is such a thing.

A lot can happen in 10 years. You can’t be carefree forever. But when I was just 33, I thought that I would never have the bad taste to grow old, let alone allow it to depress me. I thought I was better than this. What is youth, but the ability to nurse a superiority complex beyond all reason, to suspend disbelief indefinitely, to imagine yourself immune to the plagues and perils faced by mortal humans? But one day, you wake up and you realise that you’re not immune.

When my driver’s licence photo arrives a week later, it feels like an omen of my impending decline. My hair is limp and scraggly, I have dark circles under my eyes. I look like the ‘after’ photo in one of those photo essays on the ravages of crystal meth. I have the blank but guilty look of a sex offender.

It’s maybe the shittiest photo of me ever taken, and now I have to carry it with me everywhere I go. On the bright side, my husband and I spend a good half-hour passing the licence back and forth, laughing at how hideous it is. But privately, I wonder if I have the face of a woman who missed out on something. This is the shape my mid-life crisis is taking: I’m worried about what I have time to accomplish before I get too old to do anything. I’m fixated on what my life should look like by now. I’m angry at myself, because I should look better, I should be in better shape, I should be writing more, I should be a better cook and a more present, enthusiastic mother.

I go online looking for inspiration, but all I find is evidence that everyone in the world is more energetic than me. Thanks to blogs and Twitter and Facebook, I can sift through the proof that hundreds of other people aren’t slouching through life. They’re thriving in their big houses in beautiful cities, they’re cooking delicious organic meals for their children, and writing timely thank you notes to their aunts and uncles and mothers for the delightful gift that was sent in the mail and arrived right on time for Florenza’s third birthday.

When I was younger, I thought I might wake up one day and be different: more sophisticated, more ambitious, more organised

Forget those weary strangers at the DMV. This country is apparently populated by highly effective, hip professional women, running around from yoga class to writing workshop, their fashionable outfits pulled taut over their abs of steel, chirping happily at each other about the upcoming publication of their second poetry chapbook — which is really going to make the move to the remodelled loft a little hectic, but hey, that’s life when you’re beautifulish and smartish and hopelessly productive!

It’s not enough that I know all about their countless hobbies and activities and pet projects and book clubs. I’m also treated to professional-looking shots of their photogenic families, their handsome, successful husbands and their darling children who are always hugging kitty cats or laughing joyfully on pristine beaches, children who are filled with wonder around the clock. Their children never pee in their Tinker Bell undies by accident and then whine about going commando, just for example. But maybe that’s because their children have parents who never lose their tempers or heat up frozen fish sticks for dinner or forget to do the laundry. Their kids have parents who let them sleep under the stars at Joshua Tree, and no one soils her sleeping bag or has a bad trip from too many corn-syrup-infused juice boxes.

Dear sweet merciful lord, deliver me from these deliriously happy parents, frolicking in paradise, publishing books, competing in triathlons, crafting jewellery, speaking to at-risk youth, painting bird houses, and raving about the new cardio ballet place that gives you an ass like a basketball. Keep me safe from these serene, positive-thinking hipster moms, with their fucking handmade recycled crafts and their mid-century modern furniture and their glowing skin and their optimism and their happy-go-lucky posts about their family’s next trip to a delightful boutique hotel in Bali.

I am not physically capable of being that effective or that effusive. I can’t knit and do yoga and smile at strangers and apply mascara every morning. These people remind me that I’ll never magically become the kind of person who shows up on time, looks fabulous, launches a multimillion-dollar business, and travels the world. When I was younger, I thought I might wake up one day and be different: more sophisticated, more ambitious, more organised. Back then, my ambivalence, my odd shoes, my bad hair seemed more like a style choice. When you’re young, being sloppy and cynical and spaced-out looks good on you.

But my flaws are no longer excusable. I need to fix everything, a voice inside keeps telling me. It’s time to be an efficient professional human, at long last, and a great mother and an adoring wife. It’s time to shower on a predictable schedule.

No matter how fervently I try to will myself into some productive adult’s reality, though, I’m still that 43-year-old superfreak in my driver’s licence photo. Some day, one of my daughters will hold this licence in her hand and feel sorry for me, long after I’m gone. ‘She was only 43 in this one. But, Jesus, look at that awful hair. And that look on her face. Why does she look so down? Or is that fear? What was she so afraid of?’ I don’t want my daughters to look at me — then or now — and see someone who’s disappointed in herself. At the very least, I have to change that.

That woman on the curb probably looks great in her driver’s licence photo, because she isn’t afraid of falling short

One Sunday morning, when I was running out to get some groceries, I saw a big woman standing on the sidewalk, waving a Yard Sale sign around. She was wearing an outfit that didn’t compliment her body. Her boobs were jiggling and bouncing in a wild way, but she was smiling and shaking this big piece of cardboard with something scrawled on it. You could barely read the words. The writing was in ballpoint pen and maybe she ran out of room for the address because the last part was squeezed in there, and then there was this huge space under the words anyway. The whole thing was very unprofessional, the kind of thing that, if I had done it myself, I would’ve ripped it up, declaring it unacceptable, and then I would’ve complained about how I didn’t have anymore goddamn poster board to start another sign. Then I probably would’ve blamed my husband for not buying more poster board at the drugstore. ‘When I say get some poster board, that word “some” means more than one piece.’

I also would not have put on that outfit, if I were as big as she was. I’m not slender, mind you. But let’s be honest: if I were her, I would’ve looked in the mirror and moaned softly and then crawled back into bed. Even with a perfectly good outfit on, I wouldn’t have agreed to stand on the curb with a bad sign, drawing attention to myself. No way. If I were her, I would’ve made my husband stand around with the sign, and then I would’ve blamed him when the yard sale got too crowded and hectic. ‘Where have you been? I can’t handle this whole thing on my own! This was YOUR IDEA IN THE FIRST PLACE!’

But that morning, I sat at the intersection in my idling car and watched that woman bouncing around, and even though I was in a bad mood, she made me smile. She had swagger. She didn’t give a shit that she looked a little unwieldy out there, jumping up and down, boobs jiggling. She didn’t care that her sign sucked. And the drivers in the cars next to me were smiling and waving at her, and some of them were men, too. They weren’t giving her a cheap, ‘Hey there, little hottie!’ wave, they were giving her an appreciative, you-made-my-morning wave. They liked the cut of her jib. And so did I.

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I need to be more like that woman. I’m 43 years old now, goddamn it, and my life is amazing. So why am I comparing myself to some styled professional in my head? Right now in my life, I keep ripping up the stupid sign and starting over. I keep saying: ‘This is all wrong. YOU are all wrong.’ I keep saying: ‘You messed up. You should be on your third novel by now. You’re running out of time.’ When did I fall into the habit of seeing myself in such a bleak light?

That woman on the curb probably looks great in her driver’s licence photo, because she isn’t afraid of falling short. No one can tell her what she can and can’t do, what she should and should not expect. I guarantee you, that woman doesn’t give a fuck about mid-century modern furniture or organic dairy farms in Wisconsin. Maybe her house needs to be vacuumed, and her hair colour needs a touch-up. So what? She doesn’t do yoga and she doesn’t consider that a personal failing of hers. She doesn’t ask herself whether or not she has it all. She has other stuff to do.

She looks in the mirror and sees a dishevelled fortysomething and she feels good. She is just a person in the world. She’s not indistinct, though. She knows that she’s someone with ideas, with spirit, with heart. She is someone who can make strangers smile and feel really good inside, for no reason at all.

That’s what it looks like to accept what you have. That’s what it looks like to feel grateful for who you are, in all of your messy, fucked-up glory. The next time that DMV flash goes off in my face, I’m going to think about her.

Read more essays on life stages and memoir


  • ArchiesBoy

    I'm 76 years old now, goddamn it, and my life isn't as amazing as it once was. How come I keep seeing both the curses and the blessings?

    I feel a special thing toward this lady, since we both live in L.A. and are still breathing. God, at 43, she's complaining about life as if she's 93. Oh, to be 43 again! (Or 53 or 63 or even 73.) But I know what she means about those driver's licenses (I spell it with an "s"). I just got my latest one. Hell, my first one was at 19! My current one will last (even if I don't) until I'm 80! You can probably guess that in some ways our outlooks are a bit different.

    She says you're "not special after 39 anymore." What bullshit. I'm special to those who love me (the most important "special"); I used to be special in a special way when I played in symphonies and opera orchestras. I'm still special as a fairly known photographer. I'm special in a bad way due to the complications of overweight. But you're special all the time *somehow*, no matter what, if you can just see it.

    She has all her dad's old driver's licenses, and says that's the kind of thing you save when somebody dies. First time I ever heard of such a thing. I save rings. I have my parents' wedding rings saved. I even saved my wedding ring from my first marriage (I know, how perverse). I could have saved my mother's upper plate, but yichh! Not the kind of thing I save.

    Her dad feared aging. I don't blame him, and that's a shame. I don't fear aging. I *am* aging, and I could have been doing it much better. I fear a stroke that leaves me a helpless turnip, trapped inside my own body, like Stephen Hawking but without the talent.

    World-weary at 43? Wait till you hit 73! Bless you child, you're still old enough to be worried about your looks! Right now I just wish I could get over my sciatica. I'm walking all stooped over like an old man. Oh wait -- I *am* an old man. But getting past the sciatica -- literally a pain in the ass -- would be a real blessing.

    Well, this has really gone on too long. Sorry, it's 3 in the morning.

    Like you finally say: accept what you have. And fix what you can. And feel grateful. Looks like you finally got it, kiddo. And stop worrying about your DMV headshots. They only get worse.

    • suetuba

      dear Sir, your reply is as good as the article, and that was good too. I am in between you and the writer in age, and a symphony musician. I've been starting to see the curses of increasing age too much. You've reminded me of the blessings. Thank you!

      • ArchiesBoy

        My pleasure! :-)

    • SBCA&69

      Archie's Boy—you're great! You really nailed the age thing. With your great spirit, may you live long and prosper!

      • ArchiesBoy

        Thanks for your kind words, sir! :-)

      • Paul A’Barge

        He's a man, she's a woman. It's the hamster freaking out in the cage thing. It's a gender thing. Dig it.

  • Mike

    Really wonderful piece. We put up so many barriers for ourselves to stop us doing the things that make us happy.

  • rameshraghuvanshi

    Only immature and shallow people afraid to old age.Become old is part and parcel of .our life.From ancient times people are wholeheartedly searching remady for every green young age but all of them failed.If we are not old and retired how can youngsters get a chances to adventure ,head of family,responsibility to show their creativity .Live forever young is illusion and enmity against nature

    • Tony Prost

      As I look back, I recall only being more pleased to be getting older. I thought my life was better each year, and internally I still feel about 18 years old, but I am much more worldly wise. As for how much time I have left, I don't think about it...I could clutch my chest and keel over at any moment. So what! Gather ye roses, baby!

  • Matthew White

    Very nice read, thank you. I'll not particualrly motivated, I work come home, tinker in the garden, maybe see an odd movie. I've fallen out seeing bands. But, I am content and happy. Letting go of the expectations of others and pushing yourself is one of the best ways to attain happiness. If it doesn't come naturally and you have to force yourself into achieving or doing something it's not worth doing in the first place.

    • Tony Prost

      I've fallen out seeing bands.

      YEah, It is a shame, but I can't stand in one spot bouncing up and down for hours on these knees any more!

  • Mike

    Fantastic piece. Thanks for that.

  • Mike B

    At 61, 43 sounds very young!

    • M Collings

      And it makes a 35yo treasure this age.

  • noah saber freedman

    lost a parent suddenly at a young age. this resonates.

    • Lynda M O

      We have lost both our younger siblings before they turned fifty. One was a blood clot, the other a heart attack. Neither could be missed more by anyone anywhere. I have altered my lifestyle since 2008 when Teri went and even moreso three years later when we said good-bye to Tony.

  • M Collings

    "Dear sweet merciful lord, deliver me from these deliriously happy
    parents, frolicking in paradise, publishing books, competing in
    triathlons, crafting jewellery, speaking to at-risk youth, painting bird
    houses, and raving..."

    Sounds like the Lord already has. I mean look where you are and what you've written. You've been given the ability to see through the thin veneer that is the American dream and perceive the temporal nature of material time. The time that leaves nothing un-touched from its ravages. Not only that you have the gift to write about it and present that view to others. If anything it sounds to me like you have been given a more valuable gift than those you are comparing yourself to.

  • Kaz

    thanks for a great article that made me smile and open to embrace myself a little more lovingly than lately!

  • ironchuck

    This is very good writing. I felt it in the gut.

  • Scott

    Where's the picture of her as a 43 year old?

    • Paul A’Barge,or.r_cp.r_qf.&bvm=bv.48705608,d.aWc&fp=6f9e058b2daac30e&biw=1318&bih=585&imgdii=_

      • writeby

        OMG! What a doll!

        Are you still married? If you are, congrats.

        But if you aren't, wanna have a drink?

        Well, perhaps this quote will cheer you: "To hold an unchanging youth is to reach, at the end, the vision with which one started." --Dagny Taggart

        "Unchanging" as in maintaining an unbreached integrity. Skin may wrinkle, bones may creak, muscles may dwindle, but character can stay sterling.


  • MomDude

    Two years ago when I got my picture taken at the DMV the three women in front of me all got to look at their pictures and have them retaken if they didn't like the first. I got my picture taken and asked to see it and was told "Get real! Guys don't care. NEXT!!"

    • Jeff Blanks

      That sort of "real guy" attitude is a lot more insufferable than Those Narcissistic Boomers.

  • EP

    Excellent essay, and well-written. But the ending was a cop-out. That woman probably does not have a wonderful life - in fact, it's probably a lot worse than yours, given that you are upper class, travel, highly educated, relatively fit, and have good children and a steady marriage.

    Don't make the mistake of seeing a moment of someone's happiness and thinking their whole life is like that - I guarantee she would trade places with you in a second, in all probability.

  • Joseph

    Hi Heather,
    Great piece of writing, Speaking from the heart needs balls. And saying it the way you said it needs flair. You got them both. I was surprised with a lot of comments below. It's YOUR point of view. I remember thinking (rather foolishly) that 30 was the end of the world. (I must have been 17 then.) All of us have imperfections and you are talking about yours (or what you thinks yours are), but then, that's you, so how can people have a problem with that?
    I'm 43, lost my Dad 10 years ago, am going through a mid-life - and I'm a writer. One or more of these make me qualified enough to understand what you're saying. But it's nice that you've found hope, faith, inspiration (however you would like to term it)... Make sure it's enough to last you a lifetime. And keep writing. (In three years' time, you could well be into your third book - how's that for a thought?)

    • Paul A’Barge

      She's a woman. Women don't have balls.

      • Joseph

        Literal? Figurative? Excuse me? And you've got a vote as well for that...

  • Copacetic in South Dakota

    I love your sardonic wit. Number of your comments made me laugh hard enough to accidentally kick the dog off the ottoman she's sharing with my feet:) I've always thrown my old drivers licenses away. Never thought to keep them. Never put a lot of stock in photos anyway, unless they were candid ones that captured a moment of the authentic essence of the subject unawares. Those are stolen moments that are worth keeping, framing, passing on, because they capture a slice of the soul. And it might have been a gritty nitty kind of day for that soul, but that's ok. It's just one view of the whole goddamn greatness of the good, the bad, and the ugly of this miraculous entity known as the human form.

  • Marta

    I'm 26 and already it resonates (god, the speed of things). I am very glad I read this. Thank you.

  • Josh

    Los Angeles. I never felt this way until I moved here. To be blunt, it's the most superficial, vapid city I've ever lived in, and looks are one of the main ways people judge each other. It's a sad place with many many sad people. There's no right or wrong to it, it just is the way this area works, and if you want to have a deeper relationship with people and not feel this impending doom of losing looks or not having enough toys, there's really only one answer. Move.

    • ArchiesBoy

      I've lived in L.A. all my life, except for a hitch in the Air Force. So I disagree with you, when you knee-jerk judge seven million people by tarring them and their neighborhoods with the same brush. I've made friends in L.A. who are jewels, gems, wouldn't give them up for anything.

      I spent my youth living in really crappy areas. Now i live in a very nice one. Drive a few miles and everything changes; it's a patchwork quilt. Forgive my saying it, you're just projecting yourself all over everything.

      • XLA

        Actually, no, Josh has a pretty good point. LA draws an inordinate number of the young & the beautiful thanks to the entertainment biz. If you are a regular-looking person who lives there, it ain't so hard to begin to feel like YOU are the freak, an ugly one at that. Same thing with driving a beater car in certain parts of LA. I once sat in my beaterToyota Tercel on San Vicente Blvd surrounded by 8 vehicles -- 2 Mercs, 2 BMWs, an Audi, a Range Rover, a Porsche and a tricked-out Jeep Grand Cherokee. The ages of all those cars combined would just barely have surpassed the age of my Tercel.

        LA is an unnatural environment in many respects. It takes someone with a very strong sense of self to maintain the awareness that those false signals are just that -- false -- and go right on being comfortable in their own skin (and beater car).

        • tragicsandwich

          That's one of the many reasons I like living in the Valley. It's populated by mortals like me.

    • anonymous

      Could say that about any city really. I've lived in big cities and small towns. In the big city you are a nobody unless you have money, fame, or something to offer. Very few people care about you, not even having time to stop and have a conversation. You are just something in their way that's why there is also so much road rage and anger. Small towns at least people know you and it's a bit slower pace of life. Sad thing is American culture pushes the big city lifestyle so people in small towns turn to alcohol or drugs because they think that slow life is not good enough. Unfortunately life seems to be like high school, find your clique, define your own style, and just tune everyone else out.

  • ChumbaWumba

    Great piece. Resonates
    I have one consolation for you. Life gets better when the kids grow up.
    Its like owning a boat - the two happiest days of your life are when the first is born and the when the youngest becomes truly independent,
    Not to say it hasnt been deeply fulfilling / rewarding / satisfying and there is the continuing joy of the relationship with them as adults but when the burden is lifted you turn the clock back and feel reborn.

    A rebirth!

  • Godot

    Slob! Potty mouth, too.

  • Marianne Villanueva

    Oh, Heather, I had to pose for a passport photograph recently. Those also show clearly the deterioration (BWAH HA HA) -- passports are renewed every 10 years. It takes a lot of strength to grow old.

    I have been searching for you sporadically since you left Salon and was pleased as punch to find this article in Aeon, which I bookmarked just a few months ago.

  • ninedragonsphotography

    They say time is not, in actuality, linear. Which explains why I feel like what I just read was written by me eleven years ago. Some of those feelings are still alive and well within me eleven years later...but I'm coming to accept myself with all of my flaws and wrinkles and sagging bits and unfulfilled dreams as the beautiful being that I am. Even better, I know to practice loving myself exactly as I am -- and I'm getting better at it. I may not recognize that person caught in the unexpected reflection in a window or a mirror out in public, but I'm beginning to recognize the beauty, joy and love that she is. You will too. Practice. With love,

  • JTHC75

    I kept reading, thinking that the author must surely put forth some interesting piece of insight, but no. Just a bunch of solipsistic nothing. Your moment of insight came from watching a random stranger who was seemingly not caught up in your first-world neuroses? The whole thing is just me-me-me-me-me! No wonder you're unhappy and neurotic.

    • Jeff Blanks

      This tends to happen when people write about themselves. If you think people shouldn't write about themselves, just come out and say so.

  • PeteRR

    When I was 48 I went to the emergency room complaining of a chronic headache. The tiny Indian doctor who consulted on my case told me my lifestyle was killing me and that if I didn't change I'd be looking at heart disease, stroke, and possible amputation within 10 years. I resolved to be skinny by age 50. I've lost 130 pounds since that night in the ER. Meals aren't as enjoyable as they once were, but the other 90% of my life has improved immeasurably.

    My only regret is I didn't take control 10 years earlier.

  • Andrew

    I'm sorry you feel so harried and inadequate. Perhaps attempt to understand what you can change about your behavior and attitude and set about doing it. Accept your limitations and understand that you are not your body; you are your consciousness. Often the former reflects the latter but not always. If you want a full experience of life (which, by the way, your essay indicates you have even if you don't recognize it) then identify with your consciousness and not the physical vessel that contains it. Work on making that consciousness as full and compassionate toward yourself and others as possible. Joseph Campbell might be helpful to you as he made this point repeatedly in his work.

    Visit a really old cemetery and seek out the tombstones of mothers who died in childbirth even 100 years ago, children who died in infancy or early childhood, fathers who died doing dangerous work or, as yours did, prematurely. Try to comprehend the suffering and hardship they, their loved ones and all of mankind endured daily and be grateful that you live in a time and a nation that occupies the pinnacle of civilization and progress and be thankful for longevity unheard of when my dad was born in the '20s. Live with gratitude and not fear or envy.

    This is all under your control. I'm pushing 50 and am contending with many of the realizations you cite, as are my friends male and female. You're not alone; we all go through this. Write an essay about how incredible and relatively peaceful and prosperous the world is today compared with any time in human history, let alone 50 years ago.

    • Archies_Boy

      Reminds of the saying "The wealthy person is he who is happy with his life pretty much as it is."

  • David Govett

    What's disheartening is to realize that people over 50 might be the last generation to die after the current normal lifespan. Powerful rejuvenation technologies are under development, and young people might see their healthy lives extended by decades (which would give more time for even more extension). A train will depart in the near future, and some of us won't quite catch it.
    Like I said, most disheartening.

    • Jeff Blanks

      The solution (to the extent that there is one) is to administer those technologies to the oldest people first, working down to younger people. In the interim, we should forgive people their efforts to stay young with present technologies (from plastic surgery to makeup and toupees).

  • juandos

    "I’m 43 years old now, goddamn it, and my life is amazing. So why do I keep comparing myself to some styled professional?"...

    Self-centered narcissism?

    Just a thought...

    • Rich Vail

      Yep, it's the curse of the chilldren of Baby boomers...they were spoiled rotten by the "Me" generation...and their children are even worse...

      • juandos

        "Yep, it's the curse of the children of Baby boomer"...

        Yes indeed...

      • Jeff Blanks

        So Boomers suck and their children suck. *Who's left*? What's your generation? What the hell is this that everything wrong with the world gets laid at the feet of Boomers??

    • Jeff Hanson

      Solipsistic? Not at all. We all have such thoughts and if we
      don’t then we should worry that we’re stupid. Thanks for the great essay!

      • juandos

        "We all have such thoughts and if we don’t then we should worry that we’re stupid"...

        We all go to the bathroom too, is that also worth an essay?

        I'm not trying to jerk you around with that question but its regarding the need for this particular article...

  • effinayright

    Hah! MY latest driver's license pic caught me looking like Khalid Sheik Mohammed when he was photographed right after they rolled him out of bed to arrest him.

    I've given up apologizing to store clerks and the like who see that pic when they ID me---explaining that's "it's really me" in that horrible photo---because they all seem to think there's not much difference between the pic and what I look like!

    So I console myself with the knowledge that "the longer I live, the older I get".

    • Archies_Boy

      "Ve get too soon oldt und too late schmart!" —Seen on a beer stein

  • keymarcus

    For me, acceptance is the key. I am content with who I am, what I have done and my relationships.Envy is gone from my life, and I no longer wish to go back and grab at all those missed opportunities or wallow in my own self-pity at what I thought I had missed. What made me like this? I gave up alcohol over 19 years ago and my life is beyond my wildest dreams. I live life to the fullest, to be of service to another and to appreciate nature and the people around me. I have faith, friends and food (well, the last because I am a chef). Other than the love of my daughters and my lady, what else could I want?

  • Alarms & Discursions

    What I found most sad about the story was first, the way the author seemed to be proud of living the life of a college kid during summer break when she was in her mid 30s, and second, the way that actual adulthood seems to depress her. I guess I just can't relate to that "Forever 21" ethos.

  • TomJ

    "A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams." John Barrymore
    I think this probably applies to women also, but could be convinced that it's different for them.

    • Jeff Blanks

      I have plenty of regrets, but they haven't exactly taken the place of my dreams. Kind of odd, I guess.

  • Bearspaw

    The clock, tick-tock...

  • A Smith

    White People's Problems: a continuing series.

    • A Nonamoose

      And you, my dear, are indisputably racist!

  • JustAnotherJoe

    You look pretty good to me, doll.

  • LauraTXN

    The closer I get to the exit ramp of my life, the more it hits me that I haven't done enough -- not for myself but for the sake of others. What have I given, shared, taught that will have more value than the way I looked, how funny I was, or what others thought of me? I am turning 67 this year. Nothing can stop the aging process except death. But there is a life beyond this one, and I do not want to go into the next realm with a heart of regret. I know I will regret not alleviating someone else's pain when I could have, or not noticing when my neighbors were struggling with hunger. I will never regret the fact that my body got old, because that's not under my power to control. Forgetting about religion and just looking at the deepest meaning of "salvation," it has come to mean to me simply forgetting myself and focusing on the outer world. Seeing what others need that I can give. It's an eternally youthful way to live.

    • Lynda M O

      "Seeing what others need that I can give. " What a profound statement, Laura, thank you for these words.

  • HM

    Self-indulgent. At least you got paid to write this thing.

  • reader

    This is silly. I read the rabbit blog back when Ms. Havrilesky actually WAS 33 -- she was never carefree. Back then she worried about being a childless whore, and angsted over her bad shoes and lax shower habits, and the arc of each post was hand-wringing confessional followed by radical embrace of self -- in all her dishelved, idiosyncratic glory (it was refreshing back then). But gee, a lot has really changed. How ironic that through the lens of time that was the carefree time. I guess I'm being a bit mean here, but why knock people for trying (lecturing at- risk youth .... yoga, organic cooking ... what's wrong with all that? The fact that it makes you feel inadequate?). And now the source of this new-found self-esteem is that some lady who you figure really SHOULD feel worse about herself than you ("she's fat in a bad outfit! her sign sucks!") actually doesn't give an F what you think, THAT'S what gives you permission to think "hey I'm ok" and go on with life with a renewed sense of good-enoughness? Jeez. Doesn't it wear you out? How about focusing the insight and sharp observations on things that matter?

  • Dave

    Wow. As a 48 year old man, that was awesome. And, no, I have not seen your 43 year old driver's license photo, but I know you look amazing.

  • Ezra Gonzalez

    If you ever ever ever feel bad about things, do what I do: Imagine the life of a person living in Somalia; I have the A/C going right now and I don't have to poop in a bucket.

    Yep, we get old, but honestly I remember when I was a younger man and my life seemed awfully chaotic and focused so much on having worthless crap and getting all moon-eyed over pretty but vapid women. Now I buy worthwhile crap and it doesn't bother me that I did so and my cool wife says "good, because we can't take our money with us".

  • Skimerlin

    You just read my mind and made my day! Thanks for putting things in perspective.

  • AB

    Regret is a wasted emotion. Regret for a rosy past perhaps most especially so. Life is like climbing a mountain. If you waste the brief time you get at the summit rueing how hard the journey to get there was, you'll miss the view from the top. And if when you're on the way back down the mountain you get so caught up in not being at the summit any more that you lose focus on where you are now, that can be equally disastrous and can prevent you from enjoying the different experiences that part of your journey affords. (Yes, the view certainly was nice up there, but it's also nice to get back down to a stable, oxgen-rich altitude. Similarly, being young and beautiful is one experience but being in a loving marriage with kids, and in time grandkids, to look forward to has its own charm).

    I'll be 40 myself this year. When it comes to aging, I try to remember the words of AE Ahouseman:

    Into my heart an air that kills
    From yon far country blows:
    What are those blue remembered hills,
    What spires, what farms are those?

    That is the land of lost content,
    I see it shining plain,
    The happy highways where I went
    And cannot come again

    Don't waste what remains of your still-young life in regret. 43 isn't old, not by a long way.

    • Archies_Boy

      "Regret for the past is a waste of spirit." —AA saying

  • John A.

    Great piece! Reminds me of Augustine's drunk beggar from Confessions

  • Anna

    I loved this column and read it twice. Thanks for your honesty! I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but I still was, by many of the other commenters' negativity. I find people so quick to condemn these days!

  • Elizabeth

    I thought this article was amazing. I never engage with nameless people on the internet, but I had an extra five minutes and decided to read some comments. Remind me not to do that again! Holy mother, you people are ridiculous (not you, Archie's Boy. Your comment is totally legit and spot on). So this author isn't allowed to form a beautiful piece about a particular moment in her life because she's white/educated/sick of the guise of perfection/relatively young? Don't any of you know what the word "memoir" means? And, by the way, it's also classist to insist that the woman she saw waving the Yard Sale sign would trade places with her gladly ... possibly so, but that's not the point. The point is that that woman was living a life without all the obvious "amenities" we strive for in this country, and she still managed to live that day with joy in her heart. If you've never been humbled before by that lesson in life, then I feel sorry for you.

    Lovely article, Heather Havrilesky. You are a beautiful writer. I've loved you on, and this stuff was better. Your article kind of ruined my day, but it also kind of put a fire under my almost-40 ass. Carry on.

    • Jeff Blanks

      Plainly, no, they don't. All they can think about is "Boomer narcissists" or "narcissist kids of Boomers" because, well, it's their training.

  • Panagiota Kaltsa

    Definitely mid-life crisis! Heather does make a good point though: there are all these social norms we have to conform with, to be hip, to be green, to be cool, to be superior to others. Who sets these norms? The image of the jingling lady with the sign makes me smile too because we should never compare ourselves, or aspire to be anything other than a better version of ourselves - and by better - I mean what we consider to be good based on our needs and standards, and not what our society implores us to consider appropriate!

  • Lucy

    Hang in there! Once I became happy with who I was and what I have my life became more amazing. I had to let go of a lot of ideas... And people too . Now at 51 my photo looks better than 41

  • robertinjapan

    Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter.

  • Javi Antuna

    The other side of the coin. I had a succesful subdural hematoma surgery about a year ago. I fell off a couple of steps downtown while trying to avoid hiting a girl as I walked. I am 42 years old too. My life almost ended, but it didn´t. And as bad as my life was before the accident, (and it hasn´t changed a lot). Now it looks beautiful. Just to know I´m still alive feels great. Who cares about anything else?

  • Archies_Boy

    9/13/13: Are you so desperate to publish something that you recycle this silly self-involved article *again*? Sorry, I don't have the sympathy for it this time.

  • Ali1966

    I totally understood where the author is coming from in this article. Great work! Thanks for putting my thoughts into words.

  • AlexC

    I appreciate that I'm a little late to the party but having only recently discovered this site I am catching up with past articles.

    I skimmed through the comments below and am surprised that no one discussed the impact of social media. I know it is fast becoming the norm to attempt to thread social media through every topic but the author points out herself the relevance of these platforms. After all, most users of these platforms attempt to share their highlights rather than their lowlights (I have witnessed some embarrassing exceptions).

    I know that I am guilty of this. I post holiday photos, updates about all the fun I am having with my friends. I recently got in trouble with my ex-girlfriend as mutual "friends" had witnessed my positive updates in the aftermath of our break-up. What I didn't share was how lonely and confused I felt when I wasn't getting drunk with my best friends or busy at work. I don't share moments of confusion around career decisions or questions over the kind of life I feel I should be living. I don't share the moments of guilt I feel when I haven't done enough exercise, nor the anxiety that sometimes seems to accompany that (though I am not sure if that is driven by a physical or mental requirement to keep in shape).

    If I log in to Facebook or Twitter right now, I am likely to see that everyone else is having more fun than me, travelling more than me, taking part in grueling fitness challenges, getting married, and starting something new and exciting in their personal or professional lives. At least that's how it feels. The combined volume of all my online contacts' positive moments listed on one flowing screen creates a mirage of positivity and happiness that masks the everyday challenges that they all face.

    I have a wonderful life and I know how lucky I am. That doesn't stop me feeling inadequate from time to time but maybe such feelings will play a role in pushing me towards my greatest accomplishments. Only time will tell.

    With the vast amount of written material available online, I certainly believe that there is a place for a reflective piece such as this. I enjoyed reading it, as many others seem to have. Though perhaps I see it more in terms of the importance of keeping things in perspective than I do about ageing.

  • Josie-Lee Harris

    I really enjoyed this and felt like I identified with it (I'm only in my 20's though I really should stop identifying with people double my age!).
    However. It lost me at the point where she starts getting negative about other being more perfect, kid, knitting, yoga etc. I really can't stand this kind of attitude where people get annoyed at others happiness and success. They are just trying to live their lives and be happy and share their lives with loved ones. It's like other people's lives only exist in the context of your own and their successes makes you feel inadequate. Would you feel more comfortable if everyone just mentioned the awkward, difficult moments of their lives when you're around so you can feel better about yourself? Other people aren't responsible for your self esteem... It's just sour grapes.

  • dupiate22

    Recently I was really, really low on money and debts were eating me from all sides! That was UNTIL I decided to make money.. on the internet! I went to surveymoneymaker dot net, and started filling in surveys for cash, and surely I've been far more able to pay my bills! I'm so glad, I did this! - 1agc

  • simon

    where's the shot of you at 43 ? thanks for sharing.
    love from the 021

  • Dina Strange

    I didn't like this. I didn't' get what she was going on and on about.

  • atomic01

    I'm sure you know the type, the kind who
    seem to have been born not to 2 straight normal folks
    but to 4 mixed-race mixed-language parents
    in non-conventional rich backgrounds.

    who seem to naturally speak 4 languages,
    but can manage to find their way in at least 8

    who have lived in at least 16 different places
    where they have 32 great amazing friends, like, forever
    (in each, 'f course)

    these people irritating and dwindling you
    because they took these 64 great journeys,
    sabbaticals and what not
    and they can't help telling everybody about it.

    who portray themselves as having 128 natural talents,
    whereas I seem to have hardly 2 or 4.

    people who can make you feel 256fold smaller
    because they had these great 512 experiences
    to which you cannot relate

    their vanity metrics and curated life soars 1024 kms
    into the fucking sky,

    from the depth of my pit, that makes 2048 kms.

  • kevinharoun

    How can you think like this yet hate the message of "Jonathan Livingston Seagull"?

  • mrssmurf71

    Thank you so much for this article. I am also 43. I have 4 children ranging from 15 to 3. I lately find myself " ripping. Up the sign'. Its such an awful feeling. I seem be be in. Limbo and its dreadful. Sometimes I get flashes of relief when I count my blessings but then can be crippled with the thought of the I should he's.

  • david_f

    This article sums up the fears and anxieties of a lot of us who are around 40. I'm male, I live in London, my life is very different to the author's, but I know what she's going though. I think there is something weird about our generation - we pitied and looked down on those who were middle aged, so we find it bizarre that we slowly became the people we pitied and laughed at in our 20s. Love-handles, hair loss, root canals - we never thought those horrific things would happen to us. Those things are funny from a distance. Personally, i'm not losing my hair yet, but I check my hairline with dread on a daily basis, looking for signs. My facial hair has gone almost completely grey, which means I'm terrified that I look about 65 to young people. My take on getting older is this: social anxiety comes from spending too much time on Facebook and pinterest et al, regardless of age. The biggest issue with getting older, as far as I'm concerned, is that it's fucking boring. You can't do anything fun and reckless any more. I can't smoke, I can't take drugs, I can't go skateboarding, I can't be in a band because all my friends have families to look after, I have to watch what I eat, I'm finding it harder to stay awake at night, and instead I spend all my money on dentists, my mortgage and tax. I have also lost close friends to disease, so I consider myself to be lucky to be healthy and happy, I do what I want most days and my life is creatively fulfilling and fundamentally very good, so I don't like to complain, but the fact remains that middle age just forces you to be sensible and responsible, and your life becomes more mundane and predictable as a result. Anyway that's just my take on all this. I enjoyed this article.

  • 1bar1

    Very sad to not enjoy every stage of life.
    (Assuming wellness), there is much to enjoy about getting old: no one expects feats of strength or endurance, cops are more respectful, you can blithely pass off lapses as "senior moments", and nobody GAS what kind of jeans or shoes you have on.

  • dw

    I'm a huge fan of this author - particularly Polly - and once again find her putting my own experience into wonderful words.

  • Gary16

    Well the article was very obvious - true to life alright, the kinds of thoughts that many of us carry around in our heads, thoughts we would love to be rid of - comparing ourselves unfavourably to others, comparing ourselves unfavourably to some ideal image of who we could or should be. Classic shoulding. Albert Ellis nails all this stuff. A good example of unwisdom. So many of us are unwise and me too. I could write an essay about the garbage that churns relentlessly around in my head. The insight was obviously coming and based once again on comparing. Wisdom lies elsewhere.

  • Joanna Rusher

    If I lived close to you, I'd invite you for coffee and chat to you about physics and biology, genes and nature. We'd talk about fear and shame, culture and global warming, politics and economics. We would share stories of deaths, loves and family and we'd laugh at how we've grown up and learned a thing or two. After a few cups and maybe some tears we would part as new friends, feeling connected and a bit liberated of our self-applied failings.
    A few days later we'll find ourselves at the side of the road, smiling, wearing unstylish outfits that fit our new selves. And people will pass us by and wave, and feel happy. And think gosh, look at her and that confidence!
    They may go home, only to find an invitation from a friend for coffee. And hopefully they'll accept.

    Thank you Heather, for your lovely honest essay. I loved it.

  • Mary Kostamo

    I know you wrote this piece 2 years ago - but I read it for the first time this evening. I don't believe this is a coincidence because just yesterday I was having a heart to heart conversation with one of my girlfriends PRETTY much echoing exactly what you wrote.

    I feel for you - I'm 47 and just this week it hit me that in 3 yrs I'll be 50 -
    living a life that, while fine, is not anywhere near what I had envisioned my life to be.
    Oh - and don't feel bad about your DL. The girl helping me informed me it was
    the worst pic she's ever seen. Put it this way - if I ever go to jail - and the camera they use for mug shots is broken.....I'm golden. ;-)

    Thank you for sharing - I feel better that I'm not alone. :-)