Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Mindful life: Entering my panic years

As I turn 28, I can’t help but think I’m running out of time—and how much of it was stolen by the pandemic
April 11, 2024

Whether I’m walking to the shops or running for the train or getting into bed at the end of the day, I am haunted by a single ominous thought: you are running out of time. My birthday is soon, and all I can think about is how much older I am than I feel. The age I am about to turn, 28, fills me with a visceral sense of horror and dread.

The fact that I ruminate on my age quite so repetitively may be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder. And I’m also aware that this is a common feeling for many, if not most, people. Nearly all of us hit an age after which getting older feels surreal, a travesty, fundamentally wrong. But I can’t help but wonder if my worries have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and whether many of us are only just beginning to feel the implications of Covid-19.

I was 23 when lockdown began in March 2020 and 26 in June 2022 when the final restrictions were lifted. At the time, I remember commenting to my friends that I was grateful we were at a relatively insignificant age—we were not at school or university, or approaching any major milestones. We had already built a network of friends and we weren’t wrestling with any big decisions about our education, career path or fertility.

In other words, we were losing our “fun” years. Years for making mistakes and messing up. Years that should have been spent adventuring, travelling, building the beginnings of a career. Years designated for house shares and friendships and late nights. Nothing too important, or so I thought.

It is only in recent months that have I begun to realise just how much I lost during that time when I was cooped up in a small London flat. I hadn’t known then that it is in those pre-responsibility years of “messing around” that you find out who you really are. I hadn’t imagined how, in the first decade of your career, falling behind in skills and salary levels can create an inordinate pressure to catch up.  

And now, in what feels like something out of a horrible nightmare, I have gone from 26 to 28 with two fewer years of mistakes and lessons under my belt than I had anticipated. I am hitting what author Nell Frizzell calls “the panic years”—in which women in their late twenties and early thirties face acute anxiety about the “mother of all decisions” looming on the horizon—two carefree years down.

I can hear readers scoffing at this. “Twenty-eight is so young” or “you’ve got plenty of time.” This is undoubtedly true, but time doesn’t feel abundant when you can hear a biological clock ticking, when you are reminded, again and again by Instagram adverts for egg freezing and think-pieces on the falling birth rate, that the eggs in your ovaries are slowly draining away like sand in an egg timer. Time, when you are a woman in your late twenties, becomes menacing and overbearing and terrifyingly concrete. 

It also seems that, currently, the only acceptable attitude when facing the collective trauma of the pandemic is to pretend it wasn’t a big deal. I suspect this is partly because some medical researchers have been quick to claim that evidence suggests the long-term mental health impacts of the pandemic at the population level were “minimal”. I don’t dispute the quality of their studies, but I do think they have spoken far too soon; for, although it doesn’t compare to a war or natural disaster—and was endlessly worse for people who were vulnerable or lost loved ones—the immediate contraction of all of our lives, and the attendant loss of civil liberties, surely meant something.

And I wonder, too, what those researchers would find if they surveyed women, like me, who are now in their “panic years”. I, for one, am only just beginning to see how the pandemic has shaped the arc of my life—and my anxieties. And I reckon I’m not the only one.

Until then, I’ll try my best to use mindfulness techniques to let go of the thought that I’m running out of time. I’ll try to enjoy my actual birthday. But I don’t think I’ll be getting over my age obsession any time soon.