It is possible to be four years old and know exactly what’s going on, and exactly who you are and how you’d like to be treated. You know when your mother tells you she has to scream at you to get you to do what she wants, when she wants it that screaming is precisely what she must not do if she wants to get results. You may be smarter than all the other kids on the block, but while your back brain understands concepts like “rebellion” and “power struggle,” your front brain has never heard the words and you wouldn’t be able to articulate them if you did, because you know you haven’t yet earned the right to negotiate. And there is absolutely nothing you can do with this knowledge other than have it, and tell yourself when I’m a grownup, I’ll show you! And eventually, after the familiar refrain of if you’re so smart, then why are you such a crybaby? has done its devastating number on you, and other adults have parroted variations on your mother’s theme, you can’t even do that anymore, and you grudgingly agree to know your place, remember who you are, and keep your eyes low, because that’s how a girl like you was born to go through life.
As we know, dreams deferred don’t go away. They dry up like a raisin in the sun. Sometimes they explode. Mostly, they fester.
I spent close to two decades festering, waiting for express permission to be able to negotiate as an adult. I received none. I may have kept my eyes low, but if you peeled back the lids, you’d see me glowering. Sometimes one of those deferred bits of knowledge would explode, spraying pus everywhere, often on innocent bystanders who’d just happen to suffer the great misfortune of standing next to me on the subway. My front brain did what others told me I needed to do – put a smile on my face, forget what I couldn’t possibly have known at four years old, and avoid “emotional triggers.” Accept that I’d have to live a more truncated life than others. Let others do the truncating for me. Learn to like it.
My back brain, which always sensed this was a bunch of bullshit, eventually led me to a therapist who agreed in toto. “It’s because you keep your eyes low that people think they can treat you like crap,” my therapist must have told me ten thousand times and in roughly as many ways before my front brain and my cerebral subcortex, the part wired for survival, would let me hear her. She not only gave me permission to negotiate as an adult, she demanded it. I didn’t know how to do that, and I didn’t trust that I could learn. I have to do it this way, I argued. If I don’t, people will get mad at me. “Then fuck ‘em,” my therapist said.
But mostly they didn’t. Sure, there were some assholes who got angry when I stood up for myself. And until I learned to present myself without yelling or apologizing, I was still an easy mark for “help” of the put-a-smile-on-your-face variety. But this happened less and less as my therapist and I pushed and pulled my spine out of its recumbent accordion position. Eventually, I could say “fuck ‘em” without rancor. I could even accept there were many times I didn’t know exactly what was going on, and that this did not mean I had no idea what was going on, ever, or that I was inherently stupid. And when I did know exactly what was happening, I could say it without hesitation, and people actually believed me. And I started to believe myself again.
I can’t remember exactly when it was or where I was when I recognized I was finally an adult. But I did recognize it, and have been able to more or less stand up straight, literally and figuratively, ever since. Of course, standing up straight is part of the contract of adulthood. What it doesn’t require is doing so with a ramrod up your ass. You can marry resoluteness to the flexibility of youth; you can pursue your long-deferred, no longer festering dream of becoming an actor while accepting the reality that the odds of making a career out of it are poor, as well as the possibility that someday you might decide to chuck the whole enterprise out the window and become a midwife instead. You can give that four-year-old a much needed, long delayed hug and tell her yes, at least on certain points, she was right all along. You don’t have to yoke the idea of “being a grownup” to the trappings of marriage and mortgages. You don’t have to make like a frightened turtle if someone screams at you. You don’t have to do anything except work hard, pay your bills, and take responsibility for who you are. How you perform those tasks is entirely up to you. That’s freedom. That’s what I love best about growing up.