Being a grown up

I am currently 51. You would think I have been an adult for a while, even allowing for new thinking that adolescence goes on until the mid-twenties still gives me 25 years, right? Uuhhh, no, not really. I feel like my adult kicked in emotionally about three years ago and so is still in development and settling in. Surely, yes, I did adulting and fulfilled many mundane tasks and responsibilities, all the while, inside, feeling a fraud or like a frightened child.

I finished my first degree at 21, and then I started professional training and got married at 24. By this stage I had bought a flat, was running a mortgage and running a household. All of these are deemed grown-up activities and responsibilities, and I performed this adulting with outward ease. Looking back I can see I got on the conveyer belt of adulthood after university and fell into job/house/mortgage/marriage, what might be termed conventional paths of a person brought up in middle-class England in the late 20th century.

The catch for me is, I can see now, I literally did fall into these things, as one might fall into a river. I was wandering along the path and not looking where I was going, turned around and slipped into a current stronger than Myself. It feels like I didn’t think through any alternatives, I am not sure I thought at all, I was fulfilling my destiny as a child in my adoptive family and destinies don’t often include personal choice. There was no coercion; I thought I was happy with my “choices” but that thinking proved flawed.

I was brought up in a home where education was everything and luckily I was bright enough to do well at school. Mum was set on it, her parents, from mining stock in the northeast, both went to university in the 1920s and so there was absolutely nothing more important than getting into university. Come hell or high water, and there were plenty of both, my brother and I were to study, pass exams and go to college. This was so expected that it was only years later I realised I never considered anything, not even for a second, except to go to university after school. Nowadays gap years and other routes to employment are perfectly usual but I did not have a thought of it. Friends of mine did go Interrailing in Europe, which was the closest equivalent at the time, but I did not consider that as a possibility!

In fact, for me, studying was a saving grace. I worked and worked; my study was a safe place to be in the shark-infested waters of the family home or the world outside. It was where I incessantly studied or practised the piano, both acceptable activities. This became an issue in my later school years as we all felt the rising crescendo of marital and emotional disharmony and mental illness in the family. I worked more and more, probably obsessively, so much so that dad attempted to shut me out of the study during my last few months of the sixth form in fear of my own wobbly mental health. It was not a great move as I felt more out of kilter and lost without my safety net. Notwithstanding, I still managed to get good grades at A level and my passage to university was secured.

At university I floundered. Although academically I did OK, and somehow ended up with an upper second (which pleased mum – and that mattered!) I did not feel confident or able to have fun. In my journal of the time I recorded, “What it is to realise you are unsure of everything. I want to be able to be me and not worry what others think and feel all the time.” and “I don’t want to go out to pubs and clubs, I want to be in, I am used to it. I don’t want to be an outward extrovert, I don’t want that at all, it’s surface life not inside.” Also at this time, I had a boyfriend whom I relied on heavily and whom I nearly fell into marrying, this would not have been a success! (In fact, my history with boys/men is messed up but this is a post for another time!)

The idea that adulthood should not start until later into the twenties strikes me as an accurate one, at least for me. I look now with hindsight and more maturity, seeing I was incredibly young and emotionally unready when I was taking on all those adulting roles in my first career and marital relationship. I was swept away further down the river.

This river induced a kind of hypnosis, and I continued on the adulthood conveyor belt by moving into a career in finance – so far away from my natural bent, which involves words or people development. I did not know myself enough or have the capacity at that time to make a better decision. I desired a” career” because I felt it would please my dad, but mum always maintained that they were both flummoxed as to why I chose accountancy!  I believe I wanted him to be proud of me and it felt like I didn’t have a choice; my field of vision of acceptable and safe activity was incredibly narrow and restrictive. In fact, I came to realise I am dyslexic with figures because calling over columns of figures in accounts made me panic and I could not transpose what I saw on the page easily into the numbers to say out loud. I really struggled to succeed, ending up being made redundant from my first job because I failed my exams.

It was as I approached my thirties that I became conscious of the current I was caught in. D and I made an abrupt house move south, completely away from home for the last ten years, this displaced me and I felt more and more lost and confused. That life change was sufficient, (along with some disturbing news about my past, a story for another time) to tip me into what I termed my mid-life crisis, although it was a little early! I began therapy for the first time, but continued to struggle in my professional and personal life for another five years, feeling often like I was out of control and in a large vehicle with no brakes – like the bus in the film Speed. I deem these years the Fuckwittery years, and I don’t think I am in a place where I can share them here, but by 2000 I was a bit more together and chose to start a new year by leaving my job and changing career.

This felt like I was beginning to take back some control, starting to climb out of the fast flowing river. I spent the next ten years progressing my career as a coach and personal development professional, both gaining qualification and credibility in my new field. Still, I felt a fraud and at times the frightened child inside would wreak havoc with exploding anxiety and fear – often expressed as drunken anger – none of which is conducive to a happy marriage!

Starting a new relationship with J in 2010 was another huge life change and that, plus my best friend dying early in 2011, and having enormous work stress caused a mental collapse that saw me off work for six months, only to go back and be made redundant! I have a series of events that I call my “Metre of Misery” that flow from 2009 to 2012 – literally a timeline on the back of wallpaper that is one metre long and causes therapists to raise their eyebrows when they see it. On the Holmes and Rahe stress scale I was off the scale!

The support of therapists is weaved in and out of this story, and I am grateful to the three ladies who helped at different times.  As I have recorded here on the blog, it is the death of my parents and the age of fifty that finally seem to have birthed my adulthood. I am looking forward to enjoying it now!