I remember standing before Mrs Stringer - my middle school English teacher - as she chided me for something (what, I don’t remember).
She towered over me, with her big, middle-aged lady glasses and loose middle-aged lady dress. She wasn’t threatening, but her sheer size overpowered me.
Me. Little me. Always one of the smallest in the class. All bones, frizzy hair and braces wrapped in Catholic school plaid. My eyes welled with tears, making it harder to see through my bifocals (yes - bifocals).
I was always told not to cry, to swallow my tears or as my mom would say in Portuguese, “chora pra dentro.”
I got this message many times from my parents. Swallow your tears, and “learn to control your emotions.”
In my household, being someone who couldn’t control their emotions was a grave sin. In discussions, the moment you cried, you lost the battle. And that’s what life was - a battle, and the directive was “toughen up, or die.”
And so I tried not to cry, and every time I felt the tears welling, I felt embarrassed - like I had already lost. Just what I had lost, I can’t tell you.
My parents were well-intentioned and acting from a place of love. It must have been terrifying for them raising such a sensitive child - they must’ve wondered how I would ever survive it in this world if every little thing - criticism, a minor loss, an F on a test - brought me to tears. It’s only natural and prudent that they’d want me to be tougher.
Today, I’m 32 years old and I’m arguably more sensitive than that middle schooler at St. Agnes Academy.
I cry nearly every day.
You see, I was always the good kid, the achiever. I worked hard, I did well in school, I did mostly the right things, and I beat myself up when I didn’t. As long as I knew the rules of the game, I could figure out how to appear successful.
I studied engineering because it would look more impressive on a resume than a humanity or social science. I got a good corporate job after college, moved to New York, made friends and dated.
One day when I was almost 28, I wondered when I’d have enough money to quit and do what I really wanted, which at that time was to travel. A little voice inside me said I was never going to have enough money, so I quit and took off.
A year later I moved back home to Miami, got and quit a job I hated within six months, and then set about being entrepreneurial. Three years and two ventures later, I’m still living back home with my folks. I’m single.
I’m often profoundly unhappy. I often look around and wonder where I went wrong. I wonder why I threw away the rulebook and went off road when playing against rules is what I know how to do.
You see, I knew leaving my job would be hard, that there were no guarantees of success...But I didn’t expect to still be struggling four years later.
When I left corporate, I traded a constant low-level professional dissatisfaction for a crazy roller coaster with incredible highs but more often, grinding excruciating lows, and I wasn’t even remotely prepared for this.
Often I think I’m not cut out for this life - I’m not tough enough. I’m too sensitive.
Often, all I want are the Markers of Adulthood to shield me in social situations and share on Instagram to gather likes.
You know the Markers of Adulthood I’m talking about - the pictures of beautiful weddings, gorgeous babies, exotic trips and magazine-worthy homes.
Other than exotic trips, I have none of them.
And you know what the worst thing is? I’m not even sure I want these Markers of Adulthood, but having them would serve as signals to the world that I’m doing fine, that I’m keeping up, that I’m playing my part, that I’m following the rulebook.
I’m sure a few people look at my travel pictures on social and think I have it made. But let me share with you a few secrets.
That picture of me touching the elephant in Thailand? My anxiety medication was the only thing holding me together that day.
When I cry at those far-away weddings I attend, I’m not crying because I’m moved by the love or happiness of the couple - I’m crying because I might never have that Marker of Adulthood to show.
I’m often entitled and think I’m more deserving than some people, and when I see those people’s Markers of Adulthood on display, I seethe.
Want solid proof? I once hurled my phone against a wall when a college classmate I thought was uglier, dumber and had a worse personality than me got married. How dare this bitch achieve this Marker when I struggle to date anyone for more than a month!
A couple weeks ago I called my (married, pregnant, New York) friend Liz crying because of my lack of Markers to show. She kindly reminded me that four years ago I walked away from comfortable dissatisfaction and took my life into my own hands.
Unfortunately, such abstract action doesn’t yield many good Facebook posts (after the “I’m leaving!” announcement, of course).
It’s not a shield that can protect me from the violation I feel when near-strangers try to set me up on dates.
It doesn’t give my parents ease, it doesn’t give them proof that my life is on track, that I’ll be taken care of when they’re gone.
In short, because I don’t have proof of Markers to display, my life life is nowhere society tells me it should be for a 32-year old, and this deeply bothers me.
I’d like to say that I don’t care about what society expects of me, but the paralyzing anxiety that not fitting in causes is proof otherwise.
Recently, due to prodding from a friend, I realized I often can’t answer the questions, “what do you want?” and “how are you feeling?” even about simple things, like “hot or cold.”
I have no idea how I got to this place.
And to tell you the truth, it doesn’t matter at this point.
What matters is not even where, but how I go from here.
And the answer to “how” is with humility, with kindness, with openness, and without using the Markers as guides.
I might not know where
I’m ready for battle
(and here come the tears).
Original artwork by Natalia Soares.