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By Emily Morrison

When I rounded the bend on my fourth decade I rounded it in more ways than one.

I think it might’ve had something to do with all those black balloons tied to our front porch when my mom turned 40 accompanied by the “Look who’s over the hill!” sign hung over the front door. At the time I was only 8, so 30 would’ve seemed just as old to me, but 40 was a big deal.

It meant a thinning list of activities I could do with my parents.

Sledding was questionable, swimming was optional, badminton was risky and running was downright deadly. No kid should say, “Last one in the water’s a rotten egg!” to people over 40 unless they’ve got an ambulance standing by.

So, a couple of years ago, as my own friends and family wished me well, I kept looking around the corner for the hearse. Where was it? Where were the black balloons? The sign? Even though none of these hallmarks presented themselves, others showed up for the party on my face.

Every new wrinkle, the crows feet, the angry 11s, the dynamic forehead lines, they all screamed, “Don’t let this happen! Don’t let them hang the sign out front!”

I felt a bit like Julia Roberts’ character, the evil queen, in “Mirror Mirror.” There was no price I wouldn’t pay or procedure I wouldn’t try to reassure myself that I was still young and vibrant. Unlike Julia, I wasn’t trying to be “the fairest of them all” or land a hot sugar daddy.

I just wanted to look and feel 10 years younger than I looked and felt. Was that such a crime?

In and of itself, no. It wasn’t. But the lengths that I found myself going to in order to achieve some impossible ideal of youth and beauty felt wrong even while I was doing them.

I started out with a consultation with my dermatologist. What could I do to turn back the clock?

His response went something like this.

Here, try this ridiculously expensive sunscreen, and if at all possible, avoid the sun for the next five decades. Oh, and you’ll need to have a skin care routine. Just buy these soaps, serums and creams and use them twice a day from now into perpetuity.

Now, let’s take a look at your face. How about a platelet rich plasma facial? First, we’ll use a laser on your forehead, erase some of those dynamic expression lines. Then, we’ll draw some blood from your arm and insert the plasma back into your face with microderm needles. This’ll stimulate collagen growth. Remember, we really gotta brutalize your skin to get cell turnover.

Better hit your neck too. Did you know that the neck ages four years faster than the face? True, true. Better start there.

For good measure we’ll add some botox. A little botulism for your eyes and forehead never hurt anybody. Well, some people get weird reactions, but you’ll probably be fine. And if one eyebrow looks higher than the other after a week, just come back. Happens all the time.

Sadly, all this “self-improvement” wasn’t enough for me. I’d never really liked my nose. Wasn’t a woman allowed to change something about herself if she didn’t like it long enough?

Of course she is. No one should tell someone who’s feeling self-conscious not to feel self-conscious, least of all her husband, who reminds her that getting a new nose is like buying a new car only you can drive and no one even notices it.

Add rhinoplasty to the list.

Honesty, I probably would’ve kept going, but my body wouldn’t let my mind hijack it anymore. Whether it was from surgery or the way I slept after surgery, suddenly, I couldn’t look down without pain.

I couldn’t run. Couldn’t use my laptop. Couldn’t carry on conversations with loved ones or anyone really without a stabbing pain in my neck. Whatever I did to my fascia, the skin that keeps you all together under your skin, I really pissed it off.

Actually, this is a great metaphor for my mentality at the time. My mind wasn’t holding me together either. Whether you call it a midlife crisis, turning 40 or a case of body dysmorphia, I definitely had a break with reality.

The prolonged physical pain, while uncomfortable, was what brought me back to myself. My brain was done with the craziness. It helped me realize that what’s truly important in life has nothing to do with a new nose, face or expressionless forehead.

What feeds my soul is my ability to be present with my family, to do things with them and enjoy them, to communicate with the world, to write, to teach, to do the things that enrich my spirit. Focusing on my body without understanding what I truly need it for left me feeling foolish and hollow. It’s also left me paying for procedures I couldn’t afford, and for what?

To brainwash myself I’m not really getting older? To pretend that I’m not really going to die someday?

I am getting older. I am going to die someday. And I am okay with that. But first, I’d like to live without judging myself too old or imperfect to enjoy life as I am.

This year, I was so excited to turn 42 I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t wait to tell people, “Look who’s made it to 42? Look who’s two years over the hill?”

I survived the most painful year of self-discovery ever, and I’m damn proud of it. Consider this the sign above my front door.