Turning 24

According to her

Illustrated by Gabrielle Funk

January 2023 hit like a ton of bricks, and something else is on the way: my 24th birthday.

Some years ago, I would have written a smug article about turning one age or the other, with declarations of wisdom, the lessons I had learned. I may have written about the graceful emergence of a new me. The old me would have been an old skin that I shed and then tossed away: bad habits, moments to cringe at, boys to leave behind.

At the precipice of 24, I know that’s all a bucketful of hogwash. Here I am, still the old me – the person who has remained stubborn since childhood, my outward shell ever-evolving to manage the instincts and emotions that sometimes still flare with a child-like intensity.

But surely, at this point, I’ve learned some things about life. Surely some inner change should reflect the fact that, year after year, my age increasingly aligns with the word “adult” and its expected demands and connotations.

What I have learned is that the emergence of a new me – a me who has completed all of life’s important lessons, who will never again make a stupid decision – is a fantasy that will not be achieved. A completion date simply does not exist.

Growth isn’t a matter of years going by, and knowledge doesn’t seep in effortlessly with the passage of time. It takes conscious effort. And, hardest of all, it requires you to really look at yourself.

From the first moment I was taught to be ashamed, I started avoiding parts of myself. I did this for so long that these parts felt like bruises that would never stand to be touched.

But they were still there. The shame when someone hurt me and I could not stand up to them. The shame of being overlooked. The need to be held by a man, any man, and to forget about the world in this way.

When I made a mistake and felt its consequences, I would hate myself. I would swear to do better. But I never faced myself. I never admitted there were parts of myself that lay behind each bad decision, making it seem like a good one in the moment.

I know now that I was never stupid, even as I made mistakes. I wanted to survive. I wanted to be comfortable. Sometimes, I was temporarily rewarded by a bad coping mechanism.

It’s so hard to break old habits. But I know now that I can never hate myself into improvement. Self-hate comes from shame, and shame involves running away from the parts of yourself that need your attention most.

I want to be gentle with myself. I want to do right by myself, keep myself safe, keep close the people who speak to me with softness.

I want to be done kicking myself when I’m down. I’m turning 24. And I still have lessons to learn.

Ciku Gitonga is a fourth-year creative-writing minor. She is currently working on never cringing at her younger self.

Published in Volume 77, Number 17 of The Uniter (February 2, 2023)

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