growth Non-fiction

25 | Emer O’Toole shares her list of life lessons, big and small.

Non-fiction

by Emer O’Toole

I’m turning 25 next month. I’m less than delighted about it.

Adults – actual grown-ups, I mean – keep telling me that I’m being an eejit. That I’m still a baby, and that I have my whole life ahead of me.

Of course, they’re right (the wisdom of age, eh?), but this birthday has a heaviness to it that 19 and 22 and 24 didn’t carry.

Maybe it’s numerical: I’m officially, unambiguously, slap-bang in the middle of my twenties now, whereas up until this year I could still let on that I was in the early stages.

Maybe it’s because I’m moving up an age category on check-box online forms, or because it seems to take me ages to scroll down to my year of birth.

It definitely has to do with the fact that, were I on the X Factor, I’d be an ‘Over’, and would be shipped off to a manor house in County Monaghan with Louis Walsh, not to a Marbella beach with Simon and his ‘girls’.

Mostly, it’s because I entered my twenties seeing a huge, delicious decade stretching out in front of me, ripe with opportunities for redemption after an icky adolescence which I mostly spent feeling out of step with myself and with everyone else. I had ten whole years to travel, find my dream job, find the love of my life, find myself. Then I blinked. Now, the time is half gone. I still haven’t done everything I’d wanted to do, and I’m still nowhere near being the person I’d hoped to be. I don’t have as much time left anymore.

“I had ten whole years to travel, find my dream job, find the love of my life, find myself. Then I blinked. Now, the time is half gone.”

So, in an effort to convince myself and others that the past quarter-century has, in fact, taught me important life lessons – not least how to speed-read uni texts, how to make a really nice cup of coffee, and how to avoid earning enough money to pay back my student loans (let’s pretend it’s been intentional) – here are twenty-five things I know to be true.

  1. Your life is happening to you now. Not in a year, or in five, or in a vague future realm where you’re thin and have that job and that boyfriend. Stop waiting for someone else to turn up and make you feel like your life is real, and has value. Stop waiting for someone else to give you permission to live. If you don’t find something funny, don’t laugh.
  2. Don’t mask emotionally fraught times with a style revamp. That fringe/dye job/tattoo will only exacerbate your existing problems: nobody who’s feeling fragile needs the added stress of a high-maintenance hairdo or crusty lotus flower on their ankle. Go and have a cuppa and a bun instead. If you don’t find something funny, don’t laugh.
  3. Do wear suncream, take your makeup off before bed, drink water, and moisturise. I mean, I’ve yet to discover if these tenets of skincare are indeed a step in the right direction towards a perpetual babyface, but surely they can’t hurt.
  4. Black tights go with everything. Polka dots are a neutral. Wear comfortable shoes. It doesn’t matter what your handbag looks like as long as it holds gum, a book, a powerbank and an emergency chocolate bar. No girl looks bad in red lipstick, a grey jumper, or a denim jacket. This is the only style advice I feel even remotely qualified to dole out, but they’re all hills I’m willing to die on. 
  5. To steal an Irish proverb: A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything. 
  6. Foods and drinks with unfailing healing properties include excessively buttery toast, a Smarties milkshake drunk on the beach you always went to as a kid, roast chicken on a Sunday night, a glass of red wine, McDonald’s fries eaten in the car to a ’00s pop soundtrack, and Nigella’s lemon linguine.
  7. Talent, jobs, nationalities, accents, languages, and looks are not sexually transmissible. You should be with someone because you adore each other and because they’re kind to you.
  8. For the love of God, back up your files. Seriously. Become so pernickety and OTT about it that if – on a spectacularly shit day – your laptop got stolen, your phone smashed, your memory stick exploded and your photo albums melted in a fire, you’d still have a backup copy of those precious last pictures with your granny, or a blurry highlight reel of your first girls’ trip squirrelled away somewhere.
  9. When in doubt, make a list.
  10. Don’t cover your face or run away when someone points a camera at you, even if you think you’re the ugliest creature ever to crawl the planet – chances are you aren’t, but even if you were, who cares? Don’t get to twenty-one and realise you’ve no photos of the past half of your life.
  11. If someone is in your bed with you, it’s because they want to be there. Stop holding cushions over your stomach and reaching for the light switch and apologising for the state of your thighs. Bit of a mood killer, tbh. 
  12. Pay attention to red flags on dates (being rude to waiters, rape jokes), red flags in friendship (cynicism, an inability to be happy for you), and red flags at work (“A+E? Appendicitis, you say? Right, well, what time will you be here tomorrow?”). Those crimson buggers are waving at you for a reason – so that you can get yourself out.
  13. Say yes.
  14. Say no.
  15. Your teenage years don’t set the tone for the rest of your life. It’s okay if you haven’t had the best days, dates, kisses, or friendships by the time the clock strikes midnight on your twentieth birthday.
  16. Fill a notebook with an ever-expanding list of all the things that will never stop bringing you joy, no matter how trivial they seem. The smell of October air when you leave the house at night; cinema popcorn; tortoiseshell cats; Scottish accents; a new pen; the paintball scene in ‘10 Things I Hate About You’; Dublin in the rain; a booth in a restaurant. Write it all down and then, when darkness descends on your mind, you’ll have something tangible to remind you of the million tiny reasons why life is still worth living.
  17. It doesn’t matter how many hundreds of hours you spend listening to music – you won’t find a more succinct summary of unrequited lust than Kate Nash’s ‘We Get On’; a better ode to ethereal, fluttery love than The Cure’s ‘Just Like Heaven’, or a song that better describes the tugging ache of desire than Bruce Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire’.
  18. Show up for your friends. It doesn’t matter if you’re a bit sleepy after work, or if you’ve sneezed twice in the past 48 hours – chances are you aren’t at death’s door, and constantly getting cancelled on makes people feel like they don’t matter. Stop being flaky and selfish in the name of self-care when you’d just be heading home to refresh Instagram until 2am anyway. 
  19. Don’t make your siblings, friends, or relatives feel like disposable time-fillers with whom you only want to hang out until your boyfriend or girlfriend finishes work. Non-romantic relationships should be as much of a priority as romantic ones. If you value your friends, prove it.
  20. Go to the doctor if you’re worried about something, no matter how stupid it seems. You’re not annoying them, you’re not wasting their time, and your body isn’t too gross to be worthy of medical attention: your health matters, so look after it. Oh, and the toe-curling mortification of hearing your GP say ‘No, that’s not a tumour – that’s just your skull’ will eventually dissipate. Mostly. 
  21. Even the saddest, sorest, and most embarrassing moments of your life will seem funny in hindsight.
  22. You’ll drift away from people who you once swore blind would be bridesmaids at your wedding. It’ll be awful – really, really awful – and a few years down the line your chest will still ache when you hear a certain song or see a pair of girls who look like you two cackling away on a bus. This doesn’t mean you’ll be estranged forever (although it might). This doesn’t mean you’ll never get over it (although it might). It just means that you still really care about them.
  23. Nobody will ever wind you up the way your immediate family can, but nobody will ever love you as much or make you laugh as hard as they do.
  24. Women are conditioned to stay in awful situations because we feel like we have to. You’re not obliged to be there for someone unconditionally if it’s ruining your life – even if you love them, or even if they’re having a tough time. There’s a difference between supporting someone who doesn’t have it in them to be a good friend right now, and enduring cold, calculated, dangerous, belittling abuse that will seep into your lungs like cigarette smoke and make you sick. The former, you can let slide; the latter, you mustn’t. Know when to run for the hills. 
  25. Your life is happening to you now. Not in a year, or in five, or in a vague future realm where you’re thin and have that job and that boyfriend. Stop waiting for someone else to turn up and make you feel like your life is real, and has value. Stop waiting for someone else to give you permission to live.

25(i). On that note, don’t wait for milestone birthdays to reflect and write preachy lists about what matters.


Emer O’Toole | @_emerotoole
Emer is a 24-year-old Irish girl who loves books, languages, art, writing and being very picky about postcards. She’s currently hiding from adulthood by working as a teacher in Madrid, and the novelty of living somewhere with a metro system still hasn’t worn off. It’s pronounced ‘EE-mur’.

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