At every semester’s end I am rewarded for my hard work by returning home to Seattle, where I get to eat for free, play around with my dog, and respond to my mom’s questions in noncommittal, bored tones. In other words, I get to return to the teenage zone, with all of its comforts and confusion.
Usually, for about a week or so, it feels like an act of victory that I declare over the looming responsibilities of growing up—ha, back in California I have to, like, pay bills, and not overdraft my account every month! Here, my mom does all that for me, and makes dinner. See, adult life? You aren’t so scary. You’re not so real yet. I can come home and stall the rapidity at which you are throwing yourself at me.
That’s the comfort. But there’s still plenty of confusion, ready to be picked up where I left it last time I was home. There’s a process I think that happens to most kids who leave home to go to college, or whatever they do, around the age of 18 or so. There’s this once-in-a-lifetime, clean-slate attitude that accompanies your first adventure going to school or moving to a new place: it is at once the most intimidating thing you’ve ever done, and the most exciting experience in your development of becoming a young adult. You’re branching out, becoming your own, coming of age…gracefully hang-gliding into womanhood. Hopefully sans crash landing.
What actually happens is that you tuck all of your teenage emotional baggage under your bed in large Rubbermaid containers which wait there to be reopened every time you return. Every negative thought that I had in high school likes to re-enter my mind when I come home. These thoughts poach my generally positive attitude about my life. I thought I’d dealt with these teenage uncertainties when I went off on my own; I thought I had buried them under the bed for good. But I’d just stored them for safekeeping, until a later time when I’d have to deal with them. Now is later.
Off on my own in college, I’m pretty content with my life. I harbor some normal insecurities and social anxieties, but I’d say my outlook is pleasant and I like myself a healthy amount. But when returning to my mom’s place—the house I lived in from 14 to 18—I become the insecure, overthinking, nervous person I was in high school. I start obsessing about how I think people see me—obnoxious, immature, and inexperienced. I start convincing myself that I am that way. The spiral of self-consciousness and social discomfort gets stronger the longer I’m home.
Easily the biggest bad thought that happens is issues with my body. Since maybe sophomore year of high school I have been pretty on edge about the baby fat that never seemed to melt away. That was the year when I began the process of viewing myself from the outside—something I think girls are sent secret societal messages to do. It got worse every year, and I did gain weight because of puberty and whatever, but I’m an emotional eater. When I would feel shitty about how my pants fit, I lunged for the snacks to soothe myself. Pretty counterintuitive, but my feelings about how I looked controlled how I acted. They took over at times.
For some reason beyond me, my weight doesn’t bother me too much when I’m away at college. When I get dressed before class, I pat myself on the back for getting better at it every day! I’m always like, damn girl, you’re pretty fly, yeah love that jacket…let’s go to school. But when I come back to my mom’s house—maybe it’s because I have more mirrors in my room here?—I don’t feel OK in any of my clothes. I teeter on the edge of a nervous breakdown about the fact that even though I exercise and eat well, my mom, in her mid-50s, weighs 20 pounds less than me. That kills me. She doesn’t do anything to make me feel bad about it, and is encouraging me to not “get skinnier” but just get my emotional eating habits under control, for the sake of my self-confidence and mental health. We both remember the sobbing, heaving incidents of self-hatred that occurred a lot in the two years before I went to college, directly related to frustration about my weight.
When I’m back at home, these incidents seem so close again. It’s so stupid, and I feel like such a brat about it. My mind knows I have a healthy, acceptable body. No one ever tells me otherwise. Still, the emotional baggage is heavy. I never got over this problem—and by that I don’t mean losing weight, I mean being able to feel OK with myself. WhenI come home, this horribly mess I left for myself is still waiting to be cleaned up.
All of this makes me anxious about going home for the summer. It’s so much simpler to be somewhere else (e.g., college), somewhere that isn’t filled with all of these associations with the pains of growing up. It’s easier to ignore a problem than to take care of it. I’d rather pretend I’m not self-conscious and uncomfortable, and go back to Oakland where I can keep forgetting that I actually still am. Actually, I don’t even have a bed in Oakland. Just a mattress on the ground. No space for stupid problems to hide there. ♦