Kidding myself

I look in the mirror and see this greying, wrinkled, gonk-faced old man looking back at me

I turned 40 three weeks ago. Even as I write those words I still refuse to believe them. Me? 40? It doesn’t make sense. My calendar must be malfunctioning. I still feel like I’m 20… unless I am walking up some stairs. I still behave as if I am 20. In fact I behave more like I am 20 than I did when I was 20. So I can’t be 40. I am nothing like a 40 year old.

When my dad was 40 he had been married for 17 years, had three children, two of them teenagers. He had worked hard as a teacher all his adult life and recently been promoted to headmaster, wore a suit and tie every day and had proper grown up hobbies like listening to classical music, gardening, golf, DIY and making elderflower wine.

I, conversely, am single, I’ve never been married and am childless. I am sloshing around in the insecure (in both senses) world of stand up comedy. Most nights I go drinking with other people in their twenties (“other” because I am in my twenties, remember), most daytimes I play on my Nintendo Wii. I have the latest Arctic Monkeys CD, wear Converse trainers and recently acquired a skateboard – though tellingly I am too scared to be on it when it’s moving, but it’s good to casually hold, whilst walking down the road, nodding at other sk8erbois (it means skater boy, granddad). I have no practical skills whatsoever, paying other people to mend broken stuff and even do my cleaning.

If I stop and think about it my life I is pathetic, so generally I don’t stop and think about it. I’ve been in total denial. Which is why I buy trendy, figure hugging T-shirts. Because if I am going to deny the fact that I am old, I might as well deny the fact that I am fat as well.

Reassuringly I am not alone. Whilst many people in their 40s have families and responsibilities, an increasing minority still resemble teenagers. Scary, wrinkled, grey-haired teenagers, with some kind of terrifying premature ageing disease, but teenagers nonetheless. It’s enough of a phenomenon to have been given its own portmanteau label– Kidult. They’re adults, but they behave like kids. Which is at least better than being a kid that behaves like an adult. Though I was probably one of those too.
So what’s the cause of this new social trend? Is it just a collective mid-life crisis? Partly perhaps. The start of one’s fifth decade is an unsettling and upsetting land-mark.

In my latest Edinburgh Fringe show, aptly titled, “Oh Fuck, I’m 40!”, I discuss the perspective that being half way through your life suddenly gives you. It’s like getting to the top of a hill. For your first 39 years you’re struggling up the steep slopes, heading for the top as fast as possible, not even looking around you, desperate to see what’s on the other side. Finally you are at the summit and get a clear view both ahead and behind.

You look back and you see a lush, fecund valley, full of cavorting young people who wanted to be your friends, but ahead of you is a sheer cliff dropping into a stony, icy crevasse, littered with the bodies of the dead and dying. You want to turn round and do the climb again at a leisurely pace, but you are man-handled into a toboggan and sent whizzing down the slope. You might get thrown off at any point and die or get to the bottom and die. All that is certain is you are going to die, soon, along with all the other idiots who rushed to get over the hill, only to find that the hill was what it was all about.

So it is perhaps inevitable that, faced with this sudden realisation that we are over the hill, many of us make one last grasp at the green grass of youth: desperately trying to get fit in the gym, buying a sports-car, having an affair with your secretary. But this is usually just a temporary aberration and I don’t think qualifies you as a true Kidult. A mid-life crisis is something a grown-up has. We Kidults suffer from the Peter Pan syndrome – we never grow up in the first place. We remain children, because unlike our parents we are able to.

My parents’ generation’s lives were all pretty much mapped out: they had limited choices about what they could do professionally, needed to work to survive and got married early either because sex outside of wedlock was frowned upon, or because they had had sex out of wedlock and pregnancy had followed.

A proper job and the responsibility of a family will soon make a twenty year old grow up, whether they want to or not. But my generation had more choice. Whilst my dad almost automatically followed his dad into the teaching profession, I had career options. Perhaps foolishly, but fittingly for someone who wanted to remain puerile, I chose writing and performing comedy. Even had that been a viable profession in the 1960s, my dad could never had gone down it, a) because he is really not funny in spite of his best efforts and b) because he had a wife and young children to support, which requires money. I was in debt for the first decade of my career. If I’d had a family, I’d be teaching history in a comprehensive right about now. And I might well have been happier.

Effective contraception along with the subsequent shifting social attitude to sex outside of marriage means that my generation has much more of a choice about when and if they have kids. It means marriage and responsibility can be postponed indefinitely and we are able to focus entirely on ourselves. If that isn’t a big step to becoming a perpetual teenager I don’t know what is. Though in reality the Kidult will probably be focused on their career – working hard to play hard – they just have the kind of career that doesn’t slot into the traditional 9 to 5. And their spare time is all their own.

To be honest I still always assumed I would be in a serious relationship and have spawned progeny by the time I was 40 and part of me regrets that I haven’t settled down. But mainly I’m glad. I would never have stayed married to the women I thought I loved when I was 25. I was more of an idiot then than I am now. I don’t think anyone should get married til their 35. Imagine having to live your life by any other decision you made at 22!

Having said that, when I was about that age, I did make a pact with my friend Emma that if we were both single at 40 we would marry each other. It seemed so unlikely that it was a promise I made all too readily. Though as it turns out, both of us are still fancy-free, because Emma is a Kidult too. Certainly they are less prevalent than the male version there are female Kidults. They are rarer because to be a girl Kidult you really can’t have children yourself or even desperately want them. You can’t be a Kidult if you are a mum. I know women with grown up children who regress a bit when they are in their forties, but the bubble will be burst when your 20 year old child tells you to grow up.

But women who aren’t that bothered about children are also able to ensure they don’t have them and you will spot them if you look for them, dressed up in gear from Top Shop, looking pretty good as they have time and money to look after themselves, because they’re not looking after anyone else, chasing after young men (or women) at night clubs, and generally being pesky and having the time of their lives.
But I can’t marry Emma. Kidults can’t inter-marry, mainly because nothing would ever get done and what of the progeny of such an unholy union? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

I must admit I’ve had fun, but sometimes worry that I’ve left it too late. Too late to find someone, too late to have children. But there’s still a little time left on the toboggan ride to death. And if I spawn at the right moment I’ll be able to enjoy my kids while they are still cute and giving me unconditional love and then die just as they are approaching their teenage years, saving myself an awful lot of unpleasantness.

Writing this has made me wonder why I am a Kidult? Am I trying to compensate for some perceived privation in my childhood? If my parents had just bought me a Scalextric would none of this have happened? Am I making up for being so square during my teens and twenties? Or is it just as I originally posited, I do it because I can.

I am the first to admit that my life can be slightly depressing (whose isn’t?), but it’s hard to change. Doubly so for me, because I am a comedian. It’s my job to be childish. I have made a living portraying this foolish, immature, eternal teenager on stage. Now I look in the mirror and see this greying, wrinkled, gonk-faced old man looking back at me. If I carry on with the puerile schtick I am in danger of turning into the English Wee Jimmy Krankie. Though I would never marry my own brother – however desperate things got.

Whilst fairytales can come true, it can happen to you, if you’re young at heart, I think as with most things it is a question of balance. Being grown-up doesn’t mean we can’t occasionally be silly and have pointless fun, but if you only do the stupid stuff you’re missing out too. And I am going to change. Before I am 50. I wouldn’t want things to get embarrassing.

I guess what I am saying is that if you’re still young, slow down a bit and enjoy the climb and if you’re over the hill like me then there’s nothing wrong with trying to do a bit of the descent on your skateboard. Might as well have some fun! It’s all downhill from here.

Richard Herring began writing and performing comedy when he was 14. His career since Oxford has included a successful partnership with Stewart Lee and his hit one-man show Talking Cock
Flickr/Michael Stern
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I’m a man with bulimia. But too many like me are unable to address their “hidden” condition

A failure to understand that eating disorders can strike anyone, at any time, can make it harder for people to accept they have a problem and start asking for help.

What was it about George Osborne’s last Spending Review that made me physically sick? Fresh cuts to already-sliced government departments? The latest squeeze on vulnerable housing benefit claimants? The sheer jamminess of the Chancellor’s tax credits u-turn?

Actually, it was a handful of salt and vinegar crisps and a couple of tiny triangle sandwiches, courtesy of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

It’s now customary for journalists to head to the IFS for what we like to call the “real” Budget. This hour – blissfully free from “long-term economic plans”, with nary a “hard-working family” in sight – is when Britain’s sharpest economists help us cut through the spin.

Less known about the IFS, though, is that they also put on a top-notch spread for assembled hacks. And it was this, rather than the Chancellor’s latest manoeuvrings, that had me on my knees last November.

For about eight years now, I’ve been bulimic. Bulimia is often described as a “battle”, but I’m not a big fan of this term. You don’t feel like much of a hero when you follow a detailed briefing on the distributional effects of Universal Credit with a bout of shoving your fingers down your throat in a Senate House toilet to get rid of a cucumber sarnie.

According to the National Institute for Care Excellence (NICE), just under 1 per cent of the UK population has bulimia nervosa. Using some back-of-a-fag-packet maths that the IFS would no doubt slam me for, I reckon this means that there are more than half a million of us out there making shonky excuses to leave meals or brushing our teeth at strange times. But we’re a shrewd lot – time and again, the people I speak to about the problem characterise it as a “hidden” condition.

Mary George from the eating disorders charity BEAT tells me that while anorexia is actually the rarest of all the eating disorders – accounting for around 10 per cent of all diagnoses – it continues to receive the most attention, in part because its visible consequences “are much more obvious”.

“With bulimia, somebody can stay the same weight and those around them are just not aware of the struggle that they’re having unless they start observing certain behavioural patterns,” George says. “It’s difficult to spot – but it is equally as serious.”

While we bulimics very often don’t look that different, then – meaning we can slip under the radar of GPs – George says that we can rather quietly be doing ourselves some real damage. Getting rid of food, unsurprisingly, deprives the body of vital nutrients – and over the long term that runs some big health risks.

“It can impact on the heart, the cardiovascular system, it can lead to loss of bone density, resulting in osteoporosis,” she says. “Bulimia can also lead to long-term dental problems because of purging and the acidity passing through the mouth, an electrolyte imbalance in the body because of the purging, a reduction in testosterone levels in men, and a loss of sexual interest.”

My blood ran cold as George told me about those effects. Yet, in the rare instances it is discussed publicly, bulimia can still be seen as a poor relation to anorexia – even a bit of a comedy eating disorder.

Conservative MP Caroline Nokes – who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on body image – tells me that while understanding of eating disorders more broadly has improved in the last few years, there is still “a great deal of ignorance” about bulimia – and an ongoing perception that it’s only a problem for “middle-class teenage girls”.

“When [former Deputy Prime Minister] John Prescott revealed that he had suffered from bulimia, there was almost sort of a collective question mark hanging in the air,” Nokes says. “People were joking, ‘Well, how can he be bulimic, look at the size of him?’ They were making really cruel, hideous jokes about him.”

It’s important to stress that most of those diagnosed with eating disorders are women – NICE figures show a female to male ratio of around 3:1. But there’s also been a sharp, 63 per cent increase in the number of men being diagnosed with eating disorders in the past five years (not necessarily a bad thing – it could mean more of us are seeking help). And research has shown that men are more likely to get bulimia than any other kind of eating disorder.

So it turns out I’m part of a growing group. Like me, Sam Thomas had bulimia as a young man, and in 2009 decided to set up a charity called Men Get Eating Disorders Too, offering advice and support tailored specifically to men, who he believed were still not provided for. Seven years on, he tells me he’s still trying to challenge the view that eating disorders are confined to just one set of people.

“One of the key messages that we try to get across all the time is that eating disorders have no gender,” he says. “They’re very inclusive in that respect – incorporating not just men and women, but trans people too, who often get forgotten about in these sort of debates. Eating disorders are indiscriminate.”

There are all sorts of reasons somebody can get an eating disorder – a traumatic life event, stress, broader psychiatric problems – and Mary George from BEAT tells me “high achievers” and “perfectionists” are particularly at risk.

Nokes meanwhile points out that men are also increasingly getting a taste of the kind of “impossible-to-obtain” body ideals that women have had to put up with since time immemorial.

Yet despite more pressure on men to worry about the way they look, Nokes says there is still an assumption that we’re not really meant to talk about this stuff.

“There’s a view that if a man reveals something like that he’s fair game to be ridiculed – and that’s just so wrong,” she says. “From visits I’ve made to eating disorder units, what has really struck me is that the men that I have met have had conditions that are every bit as severe as the women in there. And yet they have somehow been expected to be tougher about it.”

But research published a couple of years ago in the British Medical Journal, based on extended interviews with male eating disorder sufferers, makes it clear why those misconceptions can be such a problem.

In it, the authors warn that the “culturally prevalent view that eating disorders largely affect teenage girls” meant many of the people they spoke to “only recognised their behaviours and experiences as possible symptoms of an ED after a protracted delay, mitigating possibilities of early intervention and improved prognosis”.

In other words, a failure to understand that eating disorders can strike anyone, at any time, can actually make it harder for people to accept they have a problem and start asking for help.

The IFS incident was arguably my illness at its most daft – an absurd situation that prompted me to realise that something that had become a weary part of my daily routine was now taking control of my life in a big way.

In many respects, though, I’m one of the lucky ones, tentatively wriggling out of bulimia’s clutches with the help of some open-minded friends who’ve been keeping an eye on me and gently reminding me that it’s alright to sometimes have a donut.

I have no doubt, however, that talking about an eating disorder like mine would have been ten times harder if I had been, say, a working-class teenager, or a City trader whose career depended on never showing weakness, as opposed to a hummus-munching trade journalist in a steady job.

But, as Sam Thomas says, nobody suffering from bulimia – or any other eating disorder – should be left feeling like they’re not entitled to seek help.

“Without stating the bleeding obvious, it’s just important to know this is an issue that other people have experienced, right across the world,” he says. “You’re not the only one. You’re not an alien. You’re not a freak of nature. Get help when you are ready to – talk to somebody you can trust. It may not be that you just pick up the phone and call the GP. But that isolation and secrecy that an eating disorder can often thrive on? You can break that link.”

Matt Foster is deputy editor of Civil Service World and a former assistant news editor at PoliticsHome.