The existential dread. Join us… or are you already there?

sma niell

The existential dread has hit my little urban family hard this year.

I thought it’d happen at 30. That’s what people tell you. And don’t get me wrong, at 30 I had a fair enough freak out. But it wasn’t dread. At worst, it was just confusion.

The dread, is a whole other thing. I can best describe it as a sense of mild panic, nostalgia and guilt, mixed in with irrational fear. I’ve always been neurotic, so I thought best to ignore it. Concentrate on work in the week, and concentrate on drowning the fear with wine at the weekend.

But it’s come to light that it’s not just me, it’s an epidemic. Which was at first comforting, but then I realised, if we all feel like this, and none of us have a clue what we’re doing, how do we stop it?

The only thing I can think of is to share the fear and hope that it’ll make someone else in the same situation feel better. Safety in numbers after all.

Sleep (including lie-ins)

What the fuck happened to sleep? Lyrics & books are a great way to judge how your outlook changes over time. Read something at a certain point in life, then read it again later and you can feel the meaning shift like a shaky foundation underneath you.

When I was thirteen, me and my friend Donna bought Catatonia’s International Velvet. I remember listening to Cerys singing a particular line in Strange Glue; ‘The end of the night never comes too quickly for me’.

What? (Thought my incredulous 13-year-old-self) The end of the night always comes too quickly. A lie in, bed, a great sleep has always fixed everything.

It’s only recently I’ve understood what she meant. Now (especially on a Sunday), the night is a series of hours where your own bastard brain relentlessly demands to know you what you’re doing. It reminds you about money. Tells you you’re going to fail at work. Tells you you’re going to look like shit in the morning because you haven’t slept. Tells you you should follow your dreams (whatever they are, you aren’t sure) instead of doing what your doing (whatever that is, you’re not sure about that either).

In the morning, you curse yourself for not having slept well, because if you had, all these issues (now a distant and trivial memory) wouldn’t even have occurred with you. You’re like a vampire in the daylight again, hiding the cracks with sunscreen (or foundation) so you don’t have to answer any questions.


Don’t get me wrong, relationships have always been a pain in the arse, and a source of potential panic. I know this. But in your 30′s, for an extra bonus, you’re aware of time. It was painful, cocking things up in your 20’s. But now it’s not a sharply felt pain – it’s a niggling, like a headache about to start.

What if you make the wrong decision? Waste a year in your 20’s – no biggie. Waste one in your 30’s, that’s one year less that anyone, anywhere is going to fancy you because you’re heading to 40.

What if you never get married? What if you don’t want to get married? What if you marry the wrong person? Better end it now than get divorced. But what if you end it now through fear of divorce, and realise everything was actually fine and it was just the fear talking? Do all the people who say ‘when it’s the one, you just know’ actually know? Or are they just lying?

More likely – are they just more practical? Who the fuck knows. This kind of pointless train of thought leads on to the following…


Do I want one? Should I want one?

I like having my time free to write neurotic rants like this, then go to the pub with mates. With my vagina in tact. I like having the option to sleep at night (though often that’s scuppered anyway, as mentioned in point 1). But surely not as scuppered as it would be by an unnecessary, expensive, time and planet resource consuming child.

What if I decide at 45 I did want one, but now I’m too old? What if having a child (quote verbatim from my ma) “will be the making of me”, and I don’t have one, and am therefore never truly, er, made.

What if I don’t have one and I have no girlfriends to hang out with anymore as they all had one, can’t come out at normal adult-with-a-job social hours, and on the odd occasion they do we have nothing to talk about as I don’t know or really care what small people do, and my nearest point of reference is how drunk big people act?

What if I do have one, and (as mentioned in point 2) it was with the wrong man, and he either leaves me stuck with the energy and youth sucking little shit, or worse, doesn’t leave me and we spend the next 30 years resenting each other and putting a face on ‘for the kids’.

Again, I have no answer to this.


What does my job mean? Does it matter?

What happened to my hopes and dreams, of travelling, being a journalist, all that. Do normal people jack all that in for stability and a decent wage?

Did it take so long to haul-ass up the ladder (the climb sustained by the worry I’d be a barmaid forever living on tips and free drinks) that I forgot to look where I was going? Do I actually love my job and feel guilty about it?

The higher you climb, the more you find yourself riddled with guilt and terrified of falling off. Half of you is proud, half of you is panicked. But past a certain age, you hide the panicked part because you have to, and your exterior becomes a mask of calm.

Is that normal?

Is it ungrateful to even wonder whether it’s normal? Am I a dick? The last question I can answer definitively. Yes.

Where are all the grownups?

Remember that time you lost your parents in a crowd? You were probably looking at something shiny and grabbed the shiny thing. When you turned round to show them, you were met by a forest of towering legs below a sea of stranger’s blank faces, going about their business.

You felt tiny and lost.

Well your 30′s are like that, but you’re not permitted to have a breakdown on the floor in tears. If you did, rather than kindness, you’d be met by redundancy and and bill you can’t afford from a shrink.

You are the grown up.

The grownups you remember, the ones with mortgages, kids, cars, jobs where you wear a suit and read a paper at the weekend – they’re you and your friends. The same friends you smoked a fatty with in the skate park while necking 20/20 what seemed like five minutes ago.

Got a question and need advice? You’re fucked.

Last but not least… rose tinted specs. 

My friend Donna (remember, from point 1) – has known me since I was 11.

If she reads this, she’ll no doubt (another great 90’s band, with an ironic name given the context) remind me that when we listened to that Catatonia album for the first time, we hugely overanalysed the lyrics, searching for what they meant.

I know (thinking logically, which I do on occasion) I’ve always been a little unsure of everything. I think we all are.

This may be the most irritating thing about your 30’s and the existential dread.

Friendships, jobs, relationships – everything seems easier and more fun when you look back.

I hate it when I hear my dad hark on about the golden days of the 50s, maybe because it strikes a nerve. Do we all turn into our parents in the end, lamenting our lost and semi-fictional youth?


I’m also aware that we aren’t that old.

If anyone could advise on how to get a good night’s sleep and prevent the continuation of this shit, i.e., lamenting the lost awesomeness of my 30’s when I’m 40, I’d like to hear from them.

Anyway, fellow friend of the fear, sleep well…

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