It is hard to recognize one’s own growth, especially in the undesirable circumstances during which it so often takes place.
How much do I actually know about growing up? Very little. I am not so old, and have yet to approach the idea of health insurance. However, the particular growth I am concerned with here is not one that results from divorce, death or even insufficient funds. Here, I am speaking about the growth that is a product of loneliness. In the horrific, yet developing instant when a father throws the crying child into the pool, the same flailing child learns to swim. Far from the arms of his father, that child must fend for himself. To be alone, to keep up one’s end, to take the plunge, these things produce maturity. Growing up is a programmed instinct, and whether or not we choose to accept it, at some point we must all confront it. I can recall, with such clarity as to induce migraines, a period of time in which I grew up.
For someone like me, it always begins with a city. Part of what I want to tell you is what it is like to be young in San Francisco; the benefits of omission and manipulation. I am inclined to think of how often my ex-boyfriend and I would enter the Cartier on Grant Ave under false pretenses of engagement, or how many nights we made a meal of $2 baguettes from Bi-Rite Market. I would like to share just how far fake identification can get you, tell about dinners with groups of twenty or thirty-something-year olds and their sexually charged conversations, about how those same people came to disappoint me. Unfortunately, that is a lifestyle I became jaded with, and it is not a story in which I grew up. As it turns out, abandoning the narrative of a “young adult in the city” is where it begins.
“Was anyone ever so young?” it read, “Thank you for the memories. Touch base in the Fall.” This was the note I had left behind as an indication of my presence, and frankly, to make him feel like shit. Although now, some time later, I marvel at the decision to savor in melodramatic behavior, it seemed appropriate for the situation. I had moved to San Francisco, denied myself of opportunities, and subscribed to a two-person meal delivery service for, what was now, one person. The dismal fact is that my relationship was over. It was time for me to leave. So I sat there angrily sorting through items, attempting to assign ownership to them: a classic separation dilemma. Then I tackled our shared things, creating a pile of objects I no longer wanted to keep, except for a small polaroid to be hidden in a book; one memento. Then I left San Francisco.
Later, in the innumerable phone calls I would make to anyone else, my best friend said to me, “You don’t have to narrate your life like a book.” I found a reason to hang up because I was already feeling lousy and didn’t appreciate that she was right. I had imagined myself at the point of the story where the protagonist faces a series of conflicts and becomes dispirited. What I once considered to be markers of maturity (really rather superficial virtues) had vanished. To such doubtful achievements had my maturity been pinned, and I faced myself that day with the harsh realization that adulthood has nothing to do with independence, which anyone over the legal age has access to. I had envisioned myself older than I would like to admit, substituting experience with bad decisions. Moving on, of course, would require some growing up.
One’s growth becomes apparent by looking at their coping mechanisms. Far removed from the immediate comforts of coddling, it is evident that adulthood has begun when one cries alone, not by choice. When one must resort to those tactics so favored by my generation, of benzodiazepines and social media, with the ironic intention of combating sleepless nights and loneliness. For many, innocence ends when one is stripped of the conviction that “nothing like this has happened to anyone before.” We abandon these immature attempts at isolating ourselves in an effort to assimilate into the adult world. A world in which we willingly engage in ambivalent conversations, obligatory sex and taxes.
Occasionally, it feels like the life we have worked so hard to create has been nuked. During the weeks in which I felt the most intense pain from leaving, I wrote in my notebook that “This wasn’t supposed to happen,” had written “how betrayed I feel” and “how it is unfair.” It was one of those moments where I wanted to curl up into the fetal position and make whale noises and fill my mother’s voicemail box with pleas to come home. The feeling that your world is ending is a perfectly human one. Nonetheless, waking up and continuing your day because you have to, regardless of crippling emotions, is a product of adulthood. The notion of “picking yourself up by the bootstraps” has been instilled in us from a young age to teach self-reliance. As my editor noted, “you can curl up into a ball, but the ball has to keep rolling.” So on I rolled.
Late one night, I was staying with a close friend in Berkeley talking with her housemates in the kitchen. As it happens, it was their last year and they were discussing the inevitability of adulthood that awaited after graduation. The topic became everyone’s varying definition of what it means to “grow up.” One girl, under the influence of marijuana and some troubling concoction of alcohol, said with startling coherency, “I cannot give you a finite definition of growing up because it is a perpetual process. Growing up isn’t a one time event because no one is ever completely fulfilled. You keep self-actualizing. Maturity is accepting what you are given and working with it.” Then she quickly turned around and tended to her burnt pasta. I have found that this explanation aligns most closely with the truth about becoming an adult, and is a good example of drunk wisdom.
After moving out of the apartment, I had published my first article and thought to email my favorite high school literature teacher. She’s a caricature of a free spirit Appalachian woman with great, Southern advice and has always supported my writing. I love that woman. Her response read: “I couldn’t be more proud of you. The article is perfect. Writing so professional. I’m sorry about your boyfriend. Eight months is a long time. I remember having a little chat with myself about the importance of maintaining a deliberate trust and willingness to love again no matter if it hurts like hell every single time. I love you.” There are so many gold mines in that last sentence: the idea of chatting with oneself, acknowledging that there will be more pain in the future, the emphasis on “trust and willingness.” Although, the most crucial discipline necessary for adulthood is to keep in mind that growth and pain are recurring.