Every healthy adult individual should be capable of and willing to care for the majority of her or his own needs.
I’ve spent much of my adult life living alone, and even more of my life caring for myself without much assistance—so much so, in fact, that I found it desperately difficult to allow others to care for me following a major surgery. This isn’t really a bad thing, I think. Every healthy adult individual should be capable of caring for the majority of her or his own needs, and of living, when necessary, with little companionship. Nevertheless, it is sometimes a difficult way to live. Bearing the burden of loneliness and surviving without the care and compassion of others can be emotionally devastating.
I recall feeling startled when, as an 11-year-old, I heard my friends complain about the food their mothers had packed in their brown-bag school lunches. My bewilderment was understandable; I’d been packing my own school lunches for well over a year, without supervision, and had no one but myself to blame if the contents were unappetizing or (as they frequently were) unhealthy. In that same 11-year-old time frame, I woke one night violently ill with stomach flu. I rushed to and from the bathroom all night long until my digestive system had completely emptied—then got up the next morning, washed, brushed and dressed myself and boarded the bus to school. In retrospect, this wasn’t a wise decision, as I had to be sent home, shaking from dehydration, before the morning had barely advanced. Yet there’s no denying the sense of personal responsibility I’d already developed that sent me off to the classroom despite a lack of sleep and brutal illness.
That ability to care for myself and accompanying inherent sense of responsibility served me well, when, just seven years later, at age 18, I moved to a tiny apartment in the slums and began supporting myself in a minimum-wage job. Decades later, the skills to care for a household and to be accountable were my strength as I became the divorced mother of a daughter just beginning high school.
To this day, I chuckle when recalling the astonished reaction of a man I was dating as I described to him a water problem at my apartment, explaining that I had rushed for the water shutoff before calling the apartment emergency line. He was simply flabbergasted to find that I knew what to do. He didn’t believe his ex-wife would have even known where to locate the shutoff valve, much less have done anything about it before calling for help. I was just as astounded as he was; I couldn’t imagine being unacquainted with the basics of taking care of one’s home in an emergency. I laughed yet again one afternoon a few years ago, listening to a podcast in which young people bemoaned the dreadful tragedy experienced by their peers in foster care who were, when their government stipends ended at age 18, being forced out to live on their own as adults. “It’s not that big a deal,” I said to the no one who was listening to me. “Trust me on this one: They’re going to be okay.”
But then, “Grow Up and Deal With It” might have been carved on my walls as my motto. I am, after all, the person with a fire escape ladder stored beneath my bed in case it should be needed to get myself out of my second-story bedroom. My monthly budget still includes an emergency fund into which I always drop a few dollars. The household junk drawer contains not just a flashlight and batteries, but a battery-operated radio, while three filled oil lamps hang on the walls. When I moved to a condo with smoke alarms wired into the home’s electrical system, I bought battery-operated models as backups.
There is an undeniable sense of strength inherent in such personal accountability. But there is also, just as undeniably, a sense of onerous oppression in having always been the grown-up. Despite knowing that there must have been a time when I was so small that I was completely dependent upon others for my care, I know just as surely that I was forced to take up the reins of my life much earlier than was common for a child growing up in Western world in the 20th century. The differences between the lives of my peers and the life that I was living made for a constant feeling of disconnect and discomfort. Nevertheless, I was and still am strengthened by the empowerment it gave me.
Not long ago, going over my medical history with a new doctor, she remarked that I seemed very self-sufficient.
Remembering that sick 11-year-old child, I could not help but laugh a little as I agreed.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Touching the Angel’s Hand”,
which can be found in the Archives from August 14, 2018.