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June 19, 2024
PI Global Investments

TANYA GOLD: I lost a decade to drugs and alcohol, convinced I was unlovable. It’s a miracle I’ve got to 50

Fifty. It’s less of a number, more of a boulder smacked down on the boulevard of life. I’ve always ignored landmark birthdays, but not this one. It’s simply too big.

It felt like a good time to look back, since I’m finally in a place where I’m not scared to do so. Perhaps for the first time, I can see my life like a path through the forest. There have been painful, almost ruinous turns, but the way is clear.

That said, I wasn’t keen to mark the occasion with a party — I am socially awkward and I no longer drink alcohol — so I planned a trip to Venice, my favourite city, with my husband and ten-year-old son instead. I spent the day, two weeks ago, mucking about on a gondola, and drinking hot chocolate through a straw.

Now home, I feel ready to take stock. So, what are my thoughts on half a century?

First, it isn’t like your 40th (your prime!) or 30th (still young!). At 50, you are closer to the end than the beginning.

Tanya Gold on finally realising life isn’t a score-settling race — and happiness is a choice

Tanya Gold on finally realising life isn’t a score-settling race — and happiness is a choice

And you must be a grown-up, too; if you aren’t by now, the chances are that you never will be. I am, I think, at last — well, most of the time.

I have regrets, of course, but I know I’m lucky that I’m here at all. Between the alcohol and the drugs of my youth, I could so easily not have been.

The twentysomething me could never have pictured myself being so settled and secure. I have an enchanting husband — though he wouldn’t agree, and that is one of the most enchanting things about him — a beautiful son, a gorgeous house and a dog who behaves worse than I did when I was 21.

I have the knowledge that I will wake up safe, if not always happy, and that my world is almost certain not to collapse in my hands. I didn’t always have that. Far from it.

I grew up an anxious child in the gilded suburbs of South-West London. My parents were professionals who were unhappily married until their divorce when I was ten.

I had a difficult relationship with my father — a man who I am convinced doesn’t like me and never has.

I’ve spent a fortune on therapy trying to understand why, but have learned only that the reason doesn’t matter.

Tanya said her younger self was all frontage, all recklessness and all fear

Tanya said her younger self was all frontage, all recklessness and all fear

My mother adored me — and I her — but she had to work long hours after the divorce to support us, and my sister and I were often alone. I was a very odd schoolgirl, both wild and anxious to please. I think I was testing everyone, looking for my father’s love, which never came. Simply put, I fell apart.

I was a using alcoholic from the age of 19 — it began during my first term at Oxford — until I was 28, by which point I was earning a small living as a freelance newspaper gossip columnist. My job was to cover parties, which suited me down to the ground. I liked the drinks, and the hours.

By my mid-20s, I was drinking all day every day, since alcoholism is, among other things, a funfair you can’t leave.

I couldn’t work, I couldn’t form relationships, I couldn’t be loved, and I had very few friends left.

I was, in so many ways, a monster. Alcoholics at the height of their drinking are selfish — they cannot see beyond their own suffering. The friends who stuck around were the ones who had known tragedy, and so didn’t mind my despair.

There was a point when I really didn’t think I would make it to 30. I was repeatedly hospitalised for drug overdoses.

I was even arrested in the street because I was so drunk that the police thought I was a danger to myself. When I had sobered up, my mother had to collect me from the police station.

Thanks to incidents like this, I suspect my young self is more of a stranger to me than yours is, which makes facing the realities of ageing all the more peculiar.

In old photographs, that girl preens with a courage I know she didn’t have. It was all frontage, all recklessness, all fear. She is full of self-reproach under that facetious, terrified smile.

If I could, I would hug her and tell her it will all be OK. I’d tell her how beautiful and idealistic she is.

I’d tell her how it’s all right to trust people, and please don’t sleep with every man who asks you (and sadly, they asked me a lot) just to be polite.

I was what is called a sex addict, which means I had a glut of sexual partners and loveless encounters for many years, searching for something I would never find: validation through others.

Tanya says at 50 she's so invisible she could be a park bench but 'being ignored by men is bliss'

Tanya says at 50 she’s so invisible she could be a park bench but ‘being ignored by men is bliss’

The phrase ‘sex addict’ makes it sound a lot more fun than it is.

I had no boundaries with men back then. I thought my inability to find respect, love or intimacy from a man was because I was cursed . . . bad. I know now I was a toxic people-pleaser, who felt I had no right to my own desires.

When I was a girl, we were taught to be pleasing — to sit nicely, speak nicely, and not make trouble.

I have always made trouble, but am imbued with enough of my childhood teaching to feel bad about it, which is probably another reason why I fell into alcoholism.

One of the things I’m most grateful for about being 50 is the knowledge that I will never have to date again.

Dating is a nightmare. My 21-year-old self had no defences, no red lines, and she yearned so much. I want to grab that young woman and say: ‘You are worthy of love. Don’t let people kick you around!’

I remember the day I realised I didn’t have to take pain from men ever again.

It was almost ten years after my mother had saved me from drinking — hugging me close and sending me off to rehab at a time when I didn’t think I was worthy of anything. With her help I survived, and in my mid-30s was in a relationship with a man who was living with someone else, and they had a child together.

I did not know that when we started dating. But by the time I found out, I was hooked on the drama of it all. It’s another anaesthetic — feel too much and you can’t feel anything.

I sat there in my studio flat, and I looked at him and thought: ‘Why am I doing this? I could be watching television or reading or spending time with my friends. Or doing a jigsaw puzzle. So why am I here trying to surgically extract love from a stone?’

Tanya proudly poses with her 50th birthday

Tanya proudly poses with her 50th birthday

That was one of the best days of my life — the knowledge that unhappiness in love is a choice. You may not feel that, but it is. To be powerless is a choice. You can choose for yourself.

So I did. I continued to see him for a while, but the enchantment was broken. I had the odd brief fling with similarly unavailable men, but my heart was no longer in it. I was recovering.

I began to trust again, though slowly. Still isolated, I became emotionally dependent on TV shows instead of people (I can still recall my passion for the BBC spy show Spooks) and poured all my energy into work.

I spent a lot of money on taxis and central London restaurants, convincing myself my life was functional. But I was lonely. I was ready for a partner at last — not a spectator to my illness.

I was terrified of my husband when we met again in 2010, when I was 38, because he had known me when I was drinking. He had seen the chaos.

We had dated for a few weeks while at university in the mid-1990s but, typically, I broke up with him. I realise now that I simply couldn’t handle his love, but at 21 I would have been baffled by this insight.

I now know that love is the most important thing on earth. Keep your designer bags and your Botox and your expensive holidays — none of that is for me.

I’ve been addicted to alcohol, food and sex, and I’ve tried most drugs, and I know there is no feeling more powerful or enduring than love.

The love I have for my son is like a small fire inside me. It is as though my heart is watching me from across the room. My love for my husband is amused, enchanted, constant.

Over the years, I’ve got better at friendship, too. I used to be self-absorbed, mercurial. Now I treasure my friendships.

I tend them with letters, dinners and texts; I am planning a day trip to Lincoln, of all places, to look at medieval architecture with a friend. (How I love medieval architecture, as no young woman feels safe saying in case it attracts the wrong sort of man.)

I am more considerate now. In the past decade, I have become a better daughter, a better sister, a better wife. I listen more.

I am also easier on myself. Or I am when I remember to be. I used to think life was a race, a board game, and I had to gather as many pieces as possible and race to the end. I know that isn’t true now. Rather, I know now that the prize is within the journey. The journey is all.

And as with love, so with work. I have been a working journalist for 25 years and it has taken me at least 20 of them to realise that I want to work with people I like. I’m not good at workplace politics, I prefer to work for women, and I am no diplomat.

If my writing isn’t the best, it isn’t the worst either. I can live with that now.

Workaholism, which I definitely had, means you work because you’re no good at life. I’m getting better at life, slowly.

Now, I have plans for my retirement. I want to sit by my log burner and drink tea and read detective novels. Reading detective novels probably has a lot to do with buried British rage, but at least I’m not alone in that.

There’s the other stuff, of course. The unreliable, changing body; the stomach that behaves like the German army of 1939-45 (it goes everywhere, unwanted). The less-defined jawbone. The aching knees. Sometimes I look down at my body and think: ‘That’s not mine. That has nothing to do with me.’

I have silver hairs, though I don’t have to worry about a thickening waist. It’s always been thick and I like to think that my, well, fat makes me look younger.

I find that washing works wonders for flagging self-esteem; if I can’t be Rita Hayworth — who famously said she wasn’t Rita Hayworth either, that Rita Hayworth was an idea — I can at least be clean and laundered and wearing good shoes.

And by good shoes I, of course, mean flat shoes. Sometimes even walking boots. It’s been many years since I wanted to thrust my hips forward and my breasts up for walking the dog. No one’s watching anyway.

I became only semi-visible to men at 40; at 50, I am so invisible I might as well be a park bench. But I love this. It’s so soothing.

You may question this: do I really have no wistfulness for sexual power? I look back and think: ‘Nah.’ I can do whatever I want. I can wear big glasses, which make me look like an owl.

There’s a price to pay for being what is called a ‘sex bomb’ as I was, at least a bit, at 21.

You blow up. It’s a heady narcotic to be attractive to men, but it’s also distracting. How can you become yourself while trying to please others?

These days, being ignored by men is bliss. I have a friend who is the most beautiful woman I know, but she can’t go down the street without men trying to seduce her, mostly by talking at her. How very time-consuming for her to have to fend them off, and how boring.

So here I am, with the dog and the wood-burner and the detective novel, singing songs with my son and examining recipe books for nice things to eat.

My poor husband, married to an owl-woman impersonating a talking quilt! I think of former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, when he was elevated to the House of Lords: ‘I am dead! Dead but in the Elysian Fields!’

Of course, I miss those purple nights of youth, of knowing that anything can happen to you because you are young, beautiful and filled with possibilities.

But those nights are gone, and women who can’t let go of youth look ridiculous; they are as uneasy in themselves at 50 as at 21. Besides, the possibilities of youth can ruin you. I have a young friend, who I once found distraught. ‘What’s the matter?’ I asked. He mumbled something about a break-up.

‘Ah,’ I said, preening, ‘be grateful you can feel anything.’

It was a joke, but true all the same. Detachment is another win — you learn not to fret over the small things. My emotions are more settled. I am more myself. And so, I can pose proudly with my 50th birthday balloons and scream: I made it, world, and I don’t even care if you’re listening. This is victory!

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