An Education

Many things I have done in the first 24 years of my life. I have learned how to drive and quit smoking twice, and once I was punched in the face by a girl eight years my junior. I moved to New York for college, and acquired a knowledge of the subway system, lost my virginity and ate falafel for the first time. I have broken someone’s heart, filed taxes, and checked myself into the emergency room alone. I have cried. I have assembled an IKEA bookshelf by myself, and visited countries where I didn’t even know how to say ‘thank you.’

But there are also many things I have not done. I have never truly been in love, and therefore I have never been heartbroken. I have never learned another language to the point of fluency. I have never broken a bone. I have never seen Prospect Park, although I live just a few blocks away from it. I have never told someone “I hate you,” and meant it. I have never been to a real wedding, nor a funeral. No one that I have ever loved has ever died. No one has ever left me alone.

*

Anthropologists identify a combination of individual and demographic shifts that together result in the “growing up” of a person, such as: age, financial and domestic independence, sexual maturity, marriage and then parenthood. Culturally, there are artificial benchmarks to delineate these developments. We have quinceañeras and cotillion, legal guidelines that define the age of consent, the age of criminal responsibility, the legal drinking age, and the age of majority. Then there is college, that dreamlike extended adolescence from which teenagers are somehow expected to emerge as adults.

But studies of men and women in their early years of adulthood (ages 18-29) show that many participants identify internal as opposed to external factors as the true indicators of adulthood. They say that, despite financial independence, advanced age, or even parenthood, there is a nameless but definite shift that happens inside a person, without which one would never become “grown up.”

I tend to find myself thinking of adulthood in the negative. I am not an adult because my schedule is erratic and I regularly make my student loan payments one day late; because sometimes (often) I eat dinner in bed, and all of my tights have holes in them, even the new ones; because I have never had a home of my own; because I feel as though my life is on the very brink of collapse, and that one more wrong decision, six more dollars on lunch, another late night, will put me over the edge into total and irreparable destitution, despair, and disgrace.

The other finding of these studies that measure young people’s perceptions of adulthood is that the process of growing older isn’t so much connected to a gain of freedom as the loss of a safety net. Intrinsically, participants correlate a coming of age with an increased sense of loneliness and isolation—an understanding that when you have become yourself, there won’t be anyone to help you when you fall.

*

I spent eighteen months after I graduated college in Berlin. The idea of a career frightened me so much that after three months of a semi-nervous breakdown, I bought a plane ticket, and flew away from New York on a freezing Tuesday in January.

From the moment I landed, I was catapulted into a dream-like Neverland, a city stuck somewhere between 1985 and the future. I met artists who didn’t produce a lot of art, but were highly skilled at rolling cigarettes with one hand. Well-dressed men and women with ambiguous European accents and a communal love of döner and very late nights. A number of friends were entering their 30s and still working on their undergraduate degrees, while others the same age already had three Masters and were working on their PhDs. But Berlin has a particular sparkle, even though grey clouds hung low from October to April. It was a city where it was possible to do a great deal while doing very little at the same time.

Nothing in Berlin ever stays the same for very long thought it felt like it had always been that way. Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories describe Weimar Berlin at the very beginning of Hitler’s rise to power, but take out all the references to politics and the characters may well have just fallen out from one of Berlin’s thousand casinos. For a city that has experienced such trauma and ugliness, it seems to have very little idea of its own mortality.

Maybe it is a Puritanical American impulse for restraint that gives me away, but I felt that there must be something immoral about the heedless way that this city functioned. Yet, next to any comparable American city, Berlin has lower amounts of crime (except, perhaps, bike theft), a higher standard of living, and a remarkable infrastructure to support the homeless and the mentally ill. Medical insurance is free, you can drink champagne in parks, and public holidays are celebrated maybe too exuberantly by everyone, and cleaned up by the city before the next morning.

It is natural then that so many young Americans find solace abroad here. Affordable and with a generous visa system, Berlin has low standards for what constitutes success. All you need is a roof over your head. Even then, I had one friend who lasted nearly a year on other people’s couches.

*

By certain “coming of age” standards, I am an adult. But, to be an adult is to have a more finely tuned sense of loss, of the ebb and flow of mortality. I have an instinct, a terrible unspecific gut feeling, that at any moment, I am going to lose something. Every day I am a little bit surprised that I have not been hit by a car. Or that my home hasn’t been robbed. That both of my parents are still alive. And that I have managed to sleep through the night without the earth breaking beneath me.

Do I truly think that experiencing heartbreak will force me to keep my room clean, or make me brave enough to look at my bank statements? No. What I do think is that there are still so many soft, lumpy parts about my personality. I do not know my limitations. I do not know whether I am brave, whether I am a survivor, whether I am weak, whether I have a will to live. I have a lot of feelings, but none of them that seem to mean very much. At some point I will lose. At some point, I will be hardened into adulthood. In this sense, I would rather stay a child forever.

*

I was not an adult when I met my first boyfriend. It was my freshman year of college, and he was a musician (as they unfortunately tend to be). Once we started dating, he said “I love you” way too quickly. I held out for a while, and finally reciprocated one night because I wondered if by saying it, I would begin to mean it. Although language has many powers, the words themselves did nothing for me, except to make me self-conscious whenever I would use them casually, like “I love those shoes,” or “I love this lasagna.” 

Many times during our relationship, I would think about him, his smile, how he said my name, his favorite food, or his arms around me and I would let feeling well up in my chest. Is this love? I would ask myself. I think this is love. This is probably love. And so I would tell myself over and over, love. And later that night when we’d meet, I’d think, this is it, I’m going to say I love you and mean it. But when I saw him, I’d feel the slightest tinge of disappointment—an ugly shirt, a dumb comment, or maybe he looked a little differently in person than inside my head—and the feeling would fade away. The relationship lasted over a year and a half, and when it had ended, I was as content to be alone as ever, although maybe a little more anxious.

*

Of the 18 months I spent in Germany, I battled the common cold about 18 times. There was something about the city that wore me down, probably having to do with the five-month-long winter, ceaseless cigarettes, and general lack of purpose, even when I had two jobs.

In the November after I moved to Berlin, my right knee became swollen. I thought I had twisted it and so I didn’t let it bother me, but six weeks later it hadn’t gotten any better. I went to my doctor, an American-born woman who practiced out of a clinic on the ground floor of her apartment building in Charlottenburg. The waiting room was filled with Canadians and elderly German men with big mustaches. She ran some blood tests, and told me to stay off my feet, advice I was glad to take.

About a week later, she called me. “You have some kind of an auto-immune disease,” she said, tersely. “I don’t know what kind, but I’m setting up an appointment for you to see a rheumatologist.”

When I hung up the phone, I wondered if I felt upset. Is this it? Is this the moment when it all changes? Without a diagnosis, I had a hard time directing my panic. So I went on with my day, limping slightly around my dusty apartment, and ate my dinner with a lukewarm beer in bed.

In the meantime, I looked up information about autoimmune disorders. An autoimmune disease develops when the immune system stops recognizing healthy cells and starts to attack them as foreign agents. It can range from afflictions as common as rheumatoid arthritis, as unusual as vitiligo, or as serious as lupus. These illnesses are among the most difficult to diagnose, since they typically occur in flares, and rarely have a set of distinct symptoms that are shared by all patients. In other words, the diagnosis of an autoimmune disease can be subject to interpretation, and may change on an individual basis.

The other thing about autoimmune diseases is that they aren’t curable. Treatment is aimed only at controlling the symptoms.

*

My favorite books have always been coming of age stories, or, as they are called in German, Bildungsromäne. In these novels, the protagonist typically starts his journey as a result of a newfound isolation, like the death of a loved one, or expulsion from a community. Having lost his foundation, our hero must reclaim a sense of stability and rediscover human connection. Only then does the story come to an end, after he has traversed the full range of emotion and experience. Only then is stability an acceptable outcome of his narrative.

I used to have a theory that no one ever really changes. I thought there was some basic, fundamental core of oneself that stays more or less the same. You don’t become a different person as you grow up, you just learn to understand yourself better, as someone once said. Handwriting, for example, stays identifiably yours from childhood to old age.

I ask my college roommate if he feels like an adult, knowing that he doesn’t. The last time we were together was on a trip to Greece, where we tried to do adult things, like visit important historical sites, and go souvenir shopping for parents and loved ones. Instead, we spent too much money on dinner and slept in late, passing our days in hangover-induced panic attacks on the roof of our building, drinking sugary iced coffee and flipping through guidebooks.

“Nope,” he tells me.

In the most basic sense, the transition into adulthood can be seen as the adoption of the previous generation’s role. As young people become adults, and create and care for the newest generation of children, their parents slide into old age, into menopause and retirement, and the generation before them slides into the afterlife. It is a cyclical process, one that happens regardless of whether we feel adult or not. This idea, for some reason, comforts me.

*

Friends of mine who have taken mushrooms and other hallucinogenic drugs describe their experience in this way: after your come down, when the blurred lines go back to being solid, and the logic of unreality recedes into earthbound understanding, you feel like a different person than when you started. Your values, perceptions, and self-understanding have changed, irrevocably, and every day of the rest of your life will always be a little bit different.

I have never taken mushrooms, nor do I have any desire to, mostly because this particular side-effect, which others describe as “spiritual,” horrifies me. I have no desire to experience anything outside of who I am. If I were to take anything to alter my mind, I would rather it enforce a concept of myself as a discrete person with a tangible personality—something to hold onto.

I have heard from people who have experienced the death of a loved one that time becomes split into two: there is before, and after.

I had a teacher in elementary school who posted a banner across the classroom: “This is the first day of the rest of your life!” I didn’t understand it until years later, and perhaps because of that, I found it singularly annoying.

*

To be honest, I have been to several funerals, but they took place deep inside my childhood, long before I possessed the emotional capacity to understand what had happened, or why the occasion was supposed to be somber.

I saw three of my great-grandparents pass away, each well into their 90s. First was Helen, a practicing Mormon who lived in Flagstaff and sewed the quilts that have always covered my beds. Next was Florence, who dyed her hair black even in the hospice, and used to tell me how to eat my food at Thanksgiving dinner. Last was Betty, who always had caramels in a glass jar on a table in her living room which smelled like aging vinegar, and whose funeral I remember as short, poorly attended, and distressing.

The first time I began to understand death was when my neighbor across the street died of a heart attack while I was at school, when I was maybe eight or nine years old. I didn’t know him that well, but for some reason I felt compelled to write his widow a letter of condolence that I decorated with stickers. After I sent it, I began to feel uncomfortable around her—I would leave the house through the garage when she was out gardening, and at Halloween, I would try to find ways to avoid her house, where she gave out homemade popcorn balls.

I have noticed that the friends I have grown up with are no longer as indestructible as they once were, even at the age of twenty-five. New diagnoses, college habits hardened into full on addictions. Several of my acquaintances have made childish mistakes that carry adult consequences, and have been forced to adjust accordingly. The people around me are beginning to look more and more like the adult versions of themselves—a little thicker, with promises of wrinkles, a hardness around the eye that comes with certainty of experience. None of us is old, but young has begun to seem a relative term.

I recognize that time is passing, and that the valence of time itself is beginning to change. Moments that are treasured seem to happen faster, and seem to blot out the surrounding days like the image of your own childish face among classmates in an old school photo.

*

Transactional Analysis, popularized in the 1960s by Eric Berne in his book “Games People Play,” is a psychological theory that says that in social interactions, an individual adopts one of three roles, either the Parent, the Child, or the Adult. All of us have each of these roles, or “ego-states,” and we can switch between them rapidly, sometimes even within the same conversation.

The first two ego-states are pretty straightforward: when you act as a Parent, you emulate the mindset and behavior of your own parental figures, and as a Child, you revert back to behavioral patterns you displayed in your youth. Of the three, the Adult ego state is by far the most complicated. Berne suggests that only in the adult state can you make intelligent decisions, and engage in mutually beneficial and productive interaction. He writes that when you act as an Adult, “You have just made an autonomous, objective appraisal of the situation and are stating these thought processes, or the problems you perceive, or the conclusions you have come to, in a non-prejudicial manner.” He also believes that everyone, including “children, the mentally-retarded and schizophrenics,” has the ability to be an Adult, even if this ego state’s function is somehow impaired.

My mother has always been interested in this theory, and often uses it to explain her relationship with her parents. Her father and his second wife both inhabit the Parent ego states with her so fully that, even in their old age when they rely on my mother’s help to pick up their groceries, my mother finds herself acting like a sullen teenager in their presence. Her mother, on the other hand, is stuck as a child, and my mother has been taking care of her since she was sent out to buy her packs of cigarettes at the age of five.

I have a difficult time applying this paradigm to my relationship with my own parents. In many ways, I had one of those magical, boring, privileged childhoods that took place mostly outdoors. Then, when I turned thirteen, I entered into that period where the only words I could say to my parents were angry ones, and I spent several years with my door shut, dark eye make-up, and a general “fuck you” attitude.

After I emerged from that stage of adolescence, something changed. Although my parents still wouldn’t let me watch R-rated movies until I was seventeen, or drink wine at their table until I was 21, I no longer felt like their child. There were small moments of epiphany: when I began to take trips out of town, and then to different countries, without first calling them to ask for financial help, or to leave them with alternate phone numbers in case of emergency; or when they came to visit me in Germany, and relied on me to communicate with waiters, baristas, and the subway vending machines, which rejected their American credit cards. When I first realized that they didn’t know how to save money much better than I did, I began to suspect that all three of us were partially-formed adults, never fully inhabiting any of the three ego-states. Only my younger sister, whom we all doted on, remained a child.

I call my mother to ask if she feels like an adult.

“If you want to know the first time I felt like I was an adult, it was when I was in a restaurant in Santa Barbara. I went into the restroom, and someone said, ‘Excuse me, ma’am.’”

We laugh. My mother would have been in her twenties at this time, dark-haired and tan with large blue eyes. She was fond of earrings and floral print dresses.

I remind her of a moment on my last visit home when we were leaving a dinner party. The home was large, clean, and the napkins matched the placemats. The hostess wore heels, and her husband a golf shirt. As we walked to the car, my mother commented offhandedly, “They are real grown-ups, aren’t they?”

“We have always gravitated toward the unconventional, but Dad and I are fully adult in the ways that count,” she says, after a pause, “which is assuming an adult role in terms of being responsible for the next generation. Everything we should care about, we do.”

I point out to her that all her parents are alive, and ask if this has altered her own connection to adulthood in any way.

“We’ve seen our friends getting older,” she replies, clearly a little annoyed by my question. “We see the arc of life, and we don’t feel like we are immune. Do you want to know the first time I felt like you were an adult?”

I am surprised. “Okay.”

“It was when your sister left for school. You were so solicitous, you called to check in on us every day. At first, I thought, how nice! Julia is calling every night. And then I realized you were actually worried about us.” She laughed. “We’re getting old.”

*

In Berlin, I ended up seeing three different specialists who provided me with three different diagnoses. The first said reactive arthritis, the second said lupus, and the third said it might have been just a fluke, but it could also be lupus, and that there was something weird in my blood and maybe I should see a hematologist. What they all said was that there was no use in worrying about it now, because they needed some more information to make a real diagnosis. Just wait and if it comes back or if I develop any other symptoms, then get back in touch. In the meantime, take ibuprofen and stay out of the sun.

It was around this time, when my body took a definitive leap toward adulthood and started to attack itself, that I decided to leave Berlin. I left Berlin because I was sick of feeling like a child. I wanted there to be a real reason to get out of bed in the morning. And I was scared that by hiding so thoroughly, the part of me that had the ability to grow up would be lost forever.

*

These days, I am trying to grow up. I floss almost every day. I go to bed early on weekends. I want a dog, although I know I am not capable of taking care of it properly. I worry about my parents and their happiness, and I worry even more about my grandparents and their health. I try to wear tights without holes, or at least tights with ones that can be hidden. A pile of my clothes still lives on the floor, but I take these things one step at a time.  

In the meantime, I resign my self to waiting, patiently, terribly, to lose.

 

Julia Bosson is a writer living in Brooklyn. She is currently at work on a project about memorial museums.