When Does Life Feel Real? AKA What makes a person grown up?

When does life begin to feel real? It’s a question I have asked myself many times over the years. It is a question a friend posed to me recently, though in a slightly different way. She asked me when it was that I felt like a grown up? I suppose that was my question all along. Two different ways of asking essentially the same question. So when does it feel real? What makes a person a grown up?

My whole life I had built up these images of different life stages. What they would look like, feel like, etc. Most of these images were based on 80’s sitcoms, movies, and books as well as looking at my real life role models: my mother, my aunts, and my cousins. I suppose that goes a long way in explaining why many of these images included long acrylic nails, hot pink lipstick, and big hair.

High school was my first real let down. I had fully expected to be popular, dating lots of boys, falling in and out of love. I would be a cheerleader (one goal I accomplished but it fell way short of the dream). I would be social and outgoing. I would be witty and charming. I would be beautiful and confident. I would be the girl other girls wanted to be. None of those things happened. I was shy and painfully insecure. I had very low self esteem. After being mocked throughout middle school and betrayed by false friends I was very, very slow to trust.

I did make friends, one in particular that I clung to like a life raft. She was beautiful and popular, or at least she could have been but she was too nice and kind hearted for that crap. I became her shadow and to this day people that I run into from high school still associate me with her.

While I was not popular, I didn’t date hardly at all, and my brief stint as a cheerleader was not all it was cracked up to be, things turned out all right. I slowly learned to trust again. I let some people in. I still stay loosely in touch with the girl who was my first high school friend. I also met a girl there that changed my life and to whom I am still incredibly close with and I reconnected with a girl that I was scared shitless of in high school who turned out to be pretty darn amazing. I also learned some of the good and the bad of organized religion. I went to a Christian high school which was my first time being exposed to organized religion consistently. That is another story for another day though.

College. Another let down. Many of the kids I went to high school with were from affluent families. They were able to go away to colleges and universities all over Michigan as well as out of state. That was my dream. My ideal. The real college experience. Going “away,” to college. Staying in dorms. Independence. Learning. Falling in and out of love. Getting a good degree that would lead to an even better job. Establishing life long friendships. The works.

Me? I continued to work at the fast food restaurant I had started at when I was 15 years old. I went into management. I attended the local community college, which I paid every penny for. I never took out a student loan. I remember being 18, 19, 20 years old and being in charge of a restaurant that did 1 million a year in sales. I knew I wasn’t doing so bad for myself. Granted, fast food is a joke to most people but the work is hard, the pay is good, and I had benefits. Well the option of taking out my own benefits. I was still covered on my parent’s insurance at that point.

In the early mornings when I was sometimes the only person in the whole place, I’d look around and ponder where life would take me. I was sure that I was not going to work in that restaurant for the rest of my life. While I was making good money and had a good job with a lot of responsibility, it didn’t feel real. In some ways it felt like I had gotten it all too easily. I can still remember how I felt, how things looked, as I would gaze out at the dining room or through the drive thru window and dream. A part of me honestly misses those days…

College. It was so easy. Too easy. I was taking night classes because I usually worked 5am-3pm. That meant I was with people in their 30’s, 40’s, and beyond going back to college or attending for the first time. They asked so many questions. They constantly interrupted the instructors.  I rolled my eyes. I just wanted the information and let me go! The few day classes I took were no better. The students my own age were even more annoying to me. They were so vapid. All giggles, and parties, and promiscuity. At least that was what I overheard. I was certainly not included in their conversations nor did I attempt to include myself.

While I can say that I enjoyed learning during the time I was a college student, I also felt like I was on the slow track to nowhere. I was toying with different ideas for majors but not necessarily based on passion but rather what would land me a good job. I wanted a good job so I could have my own home because having one’s own place and total independence was the true sign of being a grown up in my opinion. Independence has been at the core of nearly all my quests in life.

Eventually I gave up on college. I kept getting promoted at work and found I didn’t have the time nor interest in college. Besides, if something was a let down to me, I would often abandon it rather than try to change it. (Sadly, I am still this way).  After another year or two I finally left the restaurant industry. I felt like I was getting older and was still no closer to accomplishing life’s goals. I was, after all, twenty-two years old.

Twenty-two was a hard year for me. I felt like at that point in my life I should be receiving my college degree and landing a big girl job. Within another year or so I could buy my own condo (and I had just the condo picked out already). Instead I was unemployed (by choice) and lost as ever. I felt like a failure. This was not the life I envisioned. It certainly did not feel real. I was so far from being the grown up woman of my dreams.

Within months I started working at a chain salon and beauty retail store. I fell in love with it. It was amazing. So many things I had been intimidated by but oh so enticing. Since I always felt like an ugly duckling and my mother was more of a tomboy I felt out of place in the beauty world. Other than gel and mousse I had never heard of any other hair styling products. I had never heard of “professional” brands. I didn’t even blow dry my own hair. I let it air dry and hoped for the best. I was so naive.

I found myself surrounded by strong women who had had their fair share of knocks in life. Most were divorced. Some were remarried. They were beautiful and intelligent. My images of life began to change a bit, shift slightly. I started to realize that while I was going on twenty-three and single as ever, it wasn’t a bad thing. In fact, it was the complete opposite.

While growing up I assumed I’d marry young like my mother and my cousin, I was now seeing that was not my destiny. I needed time to find myself. I needed to figure out who I was, what I wanted, where I was going. I answered my childhood dream of going to school to learn hair. I loved it! I felt like I was on track for once in my life. Cosmetology school was so much better than college. It was hands on. It was amazing. Except for being a very small, privately owned place, and it got very petty, very quickly. Again, another story for another day.

When I finally finished cosmetology school I felt accomplished. I had gone to school, I had completed school, I had my license. It was nowhere near the life I had dreamed of but it felt right. Doing hair was, and still is, one of the happiest times of my life. I loved making people feel good about themselves. For the first time in my life I felt proud if people asked me what I did for a living because I had earned it. I was really starting to feel like a grown up. The only hitch in the plan was the lack of money. It takes awhile to build a really good clientele. I had started doing hair right when our economy took a nosedive. I had a job I loved and felt great about but financially I was so far away from ever being able to move out or have my own place. On that level, it was very depressing.

The next year or two or three of my life was difficult for me. Sometimes I kicked myself for ever leaving fast food. I rationalized that had I stayed there I would probably be a supervisor by now and making great money. I kicked myself for giving up on college because maybe I’d have a degree and a job in a cubicle or office because surely that meant being a grown up, right? The thought of being trapped in a cubicle was so depressing to me but if it meant being a grown up…

I felt like a female version of the character in the movie, “Failure to Launch.” I was in my mid to late twenties, still living at home with my parents, sharing a room with my sister, with not much hope for my future. I was the farthest thing from a grown up. I had twenty something years of life experience I gladly offered up to people younger than me but at the end of the day I was not even capable of supporting myself. My dreams, my images for my life, I had let them all down. I had failed.

Soon I landed a job that was only meant to provide me with steady income while I built up a clientele in the hair industry. Instead, it changed my life. It’s had its ups and downs but I sincerely hope its the last company I ever work for. I’m not stuck in a cubicle and I’m not asking if anyone would like fries with that either. I still don’t have a college degree, maybe I will one day, maybe I never will.

Last year, I moved in with my grandmother to help take care of her. That made me feel grown up in a hurry. Being responsible for another human being is a big deal. Not living with my parents for the first time ever was odd. I was now the able bodied person in the house. Granted, my Aunt Nancy and Uncle Bill took care of all the expenses around the home and the maintenance but it was my job to notice any issues and help coordinate taking care of them. I bought all my own groceries and looked after myself more than I ever had before. (Growing up with an Italian mother, she did everything).

Since losing my grandmother and now being in the process of buying her home, I suppose I finally feel like a grown up. I guess that was kind of the key for me all along, home ownership or at least providing for the roof over my own head. To me, that means I am fully responsible for myself, a true mark of being a grown up.

As for when things “feel real,” I realized it was my idea that was flawed. I always built things up in my head, believing there were certain milestones one had to reach to be taken seriously. Be a doctor, a lawyer, a struggling artist working five jobs to make ends meet. To be in love or a relationship, be a spouse, or a parent. While I’ve been busy searching for a moment when it all feels real, where I feel worthy of being taken seriously, I’ve come to realize that IT is real. Life is just life. Our stories, our choices, the many moments in a day are what make life. It doesn’t matter what we do for a living, assuming its an honest living. A job doesn’t define life. It doesn’t make one person more worthy than another.

I think that what makes a person a grown up doesn’t boil down to the degrees we accumulate, the property we own, or the milestones we achieve. I think it comes down to taking responsibility for the choices we make, good or bad. To live a life filled with love and compassion. To take the risk of letting people in, whether that risk is for a friendship or a relationship. Being a grown up means not taking life too seriously but knowing when one needs to be serious. Being a grown up means to never stop growing because there is always something new to be learned.

I’ve realized that its always been real, even if life hasn’t always lived up to my ideals. I need to stop looking at what is next and how that will feel and appreciate what is going on right now. Despite its flaws and tough times, this life, my life, is real, and its beautiful.

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