To help with my back recovery, my chiropractor suggested I train on a piece of equipment known as a pilates reformer. The other day, as the result of a mix-up, I walked into what I thought was a private session, only to realize it was actually a group class. I went and sat on my assigned machine and watched the other women file in. With each passing moment I realized I didn’t want to be there. I wasn’t in the mood to fumble with this new equipment or start my first in-person exercise class of the pandemic. Maybe someday—just not that day. So, I got up, put my shoes on, and quietly walked out. The instructor fretted that something was wrong, and I said no, I’d just thought I was walking into one thing and didn’t feel like doing the thing it turned out to be.
Later, when the person who booked the class apologized for the mix-up, I told them it wasn’t a big deal. (Because it wasn’t.) Twenty-four-year-old me would have sat there, taken the class, felt awkward and annoyed the whole time, and likely spent the day irritated that I hadn't had the experience I’d signed up for. Forty-four-year-old me just walked out, went home, and danced with Jo. Why? Younger me—like lots of younger people—would have felt paralyzed by “making a scene” or “seeming rude” or “offending” the instructor, and would have prioritized avoiding that awkward moment over my own happiness, even as I actively resented doing so. Middle-aged me is aware that life is short. Middle-aged me is aware that life is too full of unavoidable obligations—psychic, financial, emotional, and otherwise—to give energy to imagined ones.
How did I arrive at this place? By spending much of my 20s allowing my body to endure any number of circumstances that my gut told me would be unpleasant, and coming to regret having stuck them out. Sitting through a brunch with frenemies because I “felt obliged” when they asked to hang out. Enduring a painful or bad manicure or massage because walking out “felt impolite.” Tolerating a bad exercise class or rude service at a bar or restaurant because I didn’t want to “make a scene.” And, yes—dare I say it—by consenting to lots of mediocre sex that I knew was going to be unfulfilling before even the act had begun so as not to “hurt” the other person’s feelings.
Each of these episodes resulted in a feeling of regret that varied in degree but was always the result of prioritizing implied social mores over the autonomy of my body. After suffering through enough of these “hangovers,” I learned to care less about the fleeting moment and to care more about myself. To listen to my gut and heed what it is telling me my body wants to do—where it wants to be, who it wants to spend time with. With age come wrinkles and creams and graying hairs, but also the delightful shedding of fucks. But it was with the knowledge of how icky the regret can feel that I have developed the strength to walk away or in some cases avoid certain circumstances altogether. (I left frenemies and their brunches in the dust long ago; bad sex—harder to spot in advance—sometimes still has a way of sneaking in the door.)