The concept is not for the weak-hearted: yesterday, I ran out of shows on my DVR saved-shows list. Yes. It was horrifying. Here I had an hour and a half of uninterrupted child-naptime to watch something, anything, and had nothing saved up to watch. I could have watched something in real time, but the concept was just too appalling to entertain. Watch commercials? The horror.
So I flailed around for a bit, and found a show on TLC called The Day I Grew Up
, which featured several vignettes of people whose lives had some drastic turning point. It was sappy and not especially enriching or fulfilling television, but at least I was able to eat lunch while it recorded and then fast-forward through the commercials.
And, even worse in the Realm of Horrible Concepts, it made me think. These were people who had lived through violence, death of a family member, and so on, and then said, "After that, everything changed." So, okay, then. What day did I grow up? I've been through some relatively big events, positive and negative, in my life, and can pinpoint a bunch of watershed events, after which everything changed. But the title of the show wasn't And Then Everything Changed
, it was The Day I Grew Up
. And I don't think I took that step from adolescence to adulthood immediately after, or as a direct result of, any specific event. I was raped, twice, and didn't cope well or move on or grown up for far too long after either of those experiences - the first at 12 and the second at 17. I lost a close friend to suicide when we were both 14. I have had hearing loss and migraines diagnosed since 16. I had a pregnancy loss and deep relationship turmoil at 19. And so on, and so forth. None of it ever made me grow up. In fact, in some ways, I backtracked after each event.
And my life has not been a long list of woe and crisis and misery; I've had a bunch of life-altering positive events, too. The birth of each of my sisters, when I was 9 and 14. The long quiet summers with my grandparents. The Children's Wish Foundation trip to Disney World when I was 20. The first kiss with Willem in his dorm room while listening to Candlebox, at 17. But again, those were things that shaped and changed my life, but made me grow up? Not exactly.
The moment I keep coming back to wasn't a containable event that caused me to mature; instead, it was a moment in time after which I knew that it was time to be a grown-up, and I couldn't step back into childhood anymore. Even if I wanted to, which I really did not.
I don't know the date, only that it was sometime in summer 2000, but I have a crystallized memory of the experience. I was 23, Emily was a few months old, and we had just moved into a new apartment in Salem, MA. It had been a roller coaster of a year - well, two, really - leading up to that moment. In 1998, I graduated college and moved to Boston for grad school. A few months later, I learned that though we'd been together for two and a half years, Willem had only been faithful for about a week. I was floored, shocked, hurt, all of that. Not a good time.
To pour lemon juice on that particular paper cut, I didn't find out from him. I waited a few weeks - he was in New York for grad school, so it's not like our paths were crossing on a regular basis - and then, after the wedding of mutual friends in New York one weekend, he drove me back to my mother's house and we broke up on the way. I returned to Boston, and the next few months were not good. That's another story for another day, I think.
Then in February 1999, about three or four months after we broke up, I was away for a weekend with my ex-and-ex-again-fiance, when I sort of had a lightning realization that no matter how nice that guy was, no matter how much he said he cared about me, he wasn't right for me. And, what's worse, Willem was
. I fought that particular awareness for a while, but then we had a series of late-night telephone calls. I presented him with an insistence that he provide a list of everyone he'd been with - because there were many - as well as documentation that he was HIV negative (along with whatever other creepy crawlies one might pick up while one-night-standing), and I laid down an ultimatum that he had used all his strikes, so if there was ever another instance of infidelity, ever at all, it would be over for good. And we got back together.
It was hard. Easily the hardest process I've ever gone through, far harder than living through any of the previous traumas or losses and harder even than parenthood, because all of the other things - even Willem's infidelity - were not my fault. I wasn't always 100% well-adjusted around that knowledge, but at least on an intellectual level I could recognize that I hadn't caused or deserved those things. But this, the choice to re-enter a relationship that had damaged me so deeply, this was up to me. I could have walked away and never looked back, and would have been not only supported but applauded by those who knew me. By returning, I was taking a conscious, deliberate risk, and if I got hurt again it would have rested squarely on my own head. Except for the parts that I blamed on Willem.
But I loved him, he completed me, however you want to look at it. So we took turns driving the 8 hours between his college and mine on the weekends - which involved me renting a car because my poor little truck had committed Mazdacide - and in June he finished the classroom part of his degree and we got an apartment together in Salem. It was better.
Around this time, I started seeing a therapist, and continued for about a year and a half. Which is a long time, by most measures. I had worked through a ton of shtuff, and my only regret in my whole life so far is that I didn't get into therapy and stick with it sooner. I was 21 at the time: nine years after the first rape, which is far too long to carry around that baggage and garbage. I hadn't magically attained mental health, but I had worked and struggled and slogged through things until, bit by bit, I felt okay. I felt normal. Happy, even. Except when I was unhappy.
We took a trip to Europe, three weeks backpacking around at lightning speed. That was fantastic, and the first time when I really let myself believe that this relationship might actually work. We got engaged in Brussels, and, though I didn't find out until a month or so later, I got pregnant in Luxembourg City. We postponed the wedding until after Emily was born, and things, finally, were good.
On the surface.
What was not good was inside my head and inside my heart. I was still hurting, and so insecure and doubtful. I had trust for Willem on an in-the-moment, superficial level, but I kept waiting for the next bad thing. Let's also remember that I had a newborn and was psychotically sleep-deprived. Which does not tend to be good for my coping mechanisms. Maybe I'm just weird that way.
So, this all brings us to The Day I
Grew Up. Sometime in that summer of 2000, after we had moved from our tiny one-bedroom apartment to a much larger place, still in Salem. I had a habit of standing at the back window, sort of blindly gazing out toward Gallows Hill, and rocking or pacing with the baby, and I had a mantra. "I can't do this," I would think. "I can't do this." I can't raise a baby with someone I don't trust and whose emotions for me are unclear. Sure, he said he loved me, but he always said that before, too. I can't continue to struggle between my fiance and my mother, neither of whom ever said anything outright against the other but both of whom were clearly waiting for the attack in some form or another. I can't marry someone whose mother so blatantly despises me. I just can't do this.
And I would angst and pace and rock the baby some more, and then repeat the cycle over again. I was lucky enough to be able to stay home with her for about 16 months, but the flip-side of that coin was that I was living in a town where we knew no one. No family, and only one friend close enough to be in touch with outside of school - and she had a baby a month after I did, so she was in the same sleep-deprivation haze. Plus we'd just met around the time we each got pregnant (though not, like, at the same wild orgiastic party) and I didn't feel like I knew her well enough to share the details of my relationship. I felt isolated and alone.
So, one night, I was standing out the window, rocking the baby, and indulging in my mantra. "I can't do this. I can't do this." When suddenly, I realized, "Yes, I can. I already am." I had been doing it, taking one step at a time through every day, loving my daughter and loving my fiance even when they, together or separately, drove me insane. Through all of the self-doubt and Willem-doubt, I was pushing through and making plans for the future and living my life. Sure, there were dark spots, and those were going to continue to happen, but pretending that I couldn't do this was just delusional. I could, and I already was. I had gone through the worst-case scenario and was salvaging something wonderful from it, and spending any more time trying to convince myself that I couldn't do this was just a waste.
So, I grew up. Of course, it wasn't like flipping a switch; I wasn't suddenly filled with optimism and strength on a daily basis. I waivered a lot, even after we were married and legal and stuff. My doubts continue in some forms to this day; I trust him now and I don't spend my time wondering when the bad news will come, but I don't know if I'll ever feel confident in my own ability to engender enough loyalty and steadfastness to hold someone without an ultimatum. Which I know is stupid, but since when are doubts smart? But underneath it all is something fundamentally good, and strong, and right.
And I have to say, while there are any number of down-sides related to responsibilities and demands and worries, growing up was also a pretty good thing.