When and How My Adulthood Happened

childhood adulthood

By Troy Headrick

It’s hot in Texas right now, but that doesn’t stop me from riding my beach cruiser bike, on a daily basis, as a way of staying healthy.

The other day I was just finishing up a ride when a series of interesting questions popped into my head:

  • I wonder if I can pinpoint a moment in my life when I stopped being a child and became an adult?
  • Does becoming an adult happen in one fell swoop, like an abrupt transformation, or does it occur gradually, over time?
  • What does it mean to become an “adult” and are there skills we need to possess to make that transition?
  • Why am I suddenly thinking about childhood and adulthood at this precise moment?

I’ll start by answering the last question first.  I think I started thinking about these topics because I was riding my bike, an activity I did when I was a kid and still do today.  Thus, cycling is a kind of “bridge” which connects my childhood to my adulthood.  It is one of the few things I have done consistently throughout my lifetime.

Now, let me begin to try to answer some of the other questions.  To do so, I’ll need to go back in time and look at something that happened when I only eight years old.

At eight, my father’s mother, a woman I called “Grandma Headrick,” was diagnosed with breast cancer.  I remember her well, going all the way back to my earliest years.  Her maiden name was Zinglemann, and she grew up in a small, mostly German-speaking community in Central Texas.  This meant that Deutsche was her first language and she taught me, when I probably four or five years old, to count to ten in her mother tongue.  I also recall that she smoked a lot and often smelled of tobacco.

When she got the cancer, I remember that something changed about her.  She’d always been very playful and had had a wonderful sense of humor.  Then, almost overnight, she began to joke around less frequently and went mostly silent.  This change became especially noticeable after her mastectomy.

When she had her second mastectomy, she almost entirely stopped talking and turned inward.  Whenever we would visit her, I would sit nearby and watch her closely.  The dramatic change in her behavior made a powerful impression on me, and I began to realize that this thing called “cancer”—what did it look like and why couldn’t they get rid of it?—was something very mysterious and scary.  In fact, when the adults talked among themselves about my grandmother’s illness, they mostly whispered and their words were less than reassuring.

The cancer metastasized and she died when I was eleven.  I remember her funeral like it was only yesterday even though it happened a very long time ago.

I think I became an adult right toward the end of my grandmother’s life, and I think watching her slow, sad demise helped me develop two skills that we all need to have to move out of childhood.

First of all, I began, likely for the very first time, to witness and viscerally feel the suffering of another human being.  Up until that moment in my life, I had seen no one close to me deteriorate and die.  This experience moved my attention away from ego, and I began to see what was going on around me.  In other words, I became much more observant.  And what I saw forced me to confront a truth that was new and made me uncomfortable:  Things don’t always end happily ever after.  Of course, often when I visited my grandmother, I was with my cousins and we would play and run wild together, but I felt less carefree during the time my grandmother was dying.  There was a pervasive and unmistakable feeling of powerless in the family.

I also developed, maybe for the first time, real empathy.  I wasn’t dying of cancer, but I could put myself in my grandmother’s place and see what it was like to get sicker and sadder.  Often, during our visits right at the very end, I would see a single, slow tear roll down her cheek, and then she’d wipe it away.  Her sadness pulled me into her experience, and I was able to imagine what it would be like to suffer in the way she was suffering.  By the way, empathy requires imagination.  Empathy is nothing more than one person imagining what it must be like to be in someone else’s shoes.  If you can’t make that imaginative leap, you may always remain unfeeling and callous.

You cannot believe how fast I wrote this blog.  The words poured out of me like some torrent.  That is a sign that they needed to come.  And because they came so spontaneously, I plan to do very little to clean up during the editing stage.

I look forward to seeing your reactions.

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.

65 thoughts on “When and How My Adulthood Happened

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  1. I enjoyed this. I must admit, the first thing I thought about was your location – mostly hills or mostly flat? I miss bike riding but I like at the bottom of what feels like infinite hills so I don’t do it that often. It does make you feel like a child.

    I don’t know that I feel like an adult. I feel old at times but that’s not the same thing. I do adult things but that’s not the same thing either.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi. San Antonio has its share of hills and I seek them out. I have three or four different routes I ride, and I alternate between them depending on what I want to see and how I feel that day. There is something absolutely delightful about being on the seat of a bike. I love that riding is both fun and really good for me. Thanks for dropping by.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Troy, I enjoyed your story of becoming an adult. It had to be a traumatizing experience watching your grandmother change as her illness progressed. It is wonderful that it helped you develop empathy. In some people, I think pessimism and bitterness would have been the result.

    As a child, I expected that I would suddenly be an entirely different person when I became an adult. As the years passed… surprise! I was still me. Slowly, I came to the realization that change is a gradual process and that we become adults by accepting responsibility.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I was reading your comment, my eye hit upon that word “traumatizing.” Maybe it’s the experiencing of trauma that finally pushes us ahead in life. We spend those first few years being protected, and suddenly something comes along that our loved ones can’t protect us from. My piece was really just a speculation about the concepts of “childhood” and “adulthood.” We mostly think that we can distinguish between these two states by how old a person is. But it occurs to me that that’s a pretty unsophisticated way to look at things. Thanks so much for prompting me to dig deeper into this topic.

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  3. Our early ancestors would have a ceremony. It might be something extended and onerous like the Australian walkabout. Or something quick, like a ritual circumcision or sticking your hand into a nest of bullet ants. You know you’ve been through something.

    Today we have a gradual series of steps, drivers license, confirmation/bar-bat mitzvah/Quince Años, high school graduation, first full time job, first menstrual period, first sex, able to vote, setting up your own household, able to drink, starting a family, ect.

    After the formal events, you will always hear some authority sonorously intoning “and from this day forward, you are a man/woman. After the informal events you have to think those thoughts for yourself. Maybe you aren’t really an American adult until you could be president, age 35. At that point you have all the options available to you that you can have.

    There are as many definitions of adulthood as there are people. Mine includes being able to live independently of your parents. Many people never live up to any particular definition.

    And of course, other people will tell you to act like an adult or accuse you of being childish based on whether you are behaving according to their idea of what adult behavior ought to be. It can be a very self-centered definition on their part, a way to belittle behavior they don’t understand.

    Tightening political and social controls can leave one wondering if adulthood is something that really ever happens. Or are we perpetually wards of a nanny-state, unable to choose options that someone else has decided aren’t in our best interests? Are we always children, just in a much larger sandbox?

    I think we can mostly agree the transition to adulthood is getting delayed until later in life. It is the economics and the social forces of the time. We leave home later and later, education stretches out longer, entry-level jobs are elusive, can’t quite get to the level of economic independence our parents had at the same age.

    Or maybe adulthood is what Kipling suggested…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! I always love reading them because they teach me so much.

      I haven’t looked at the video yet, but I will as soon as I post this.

      By the way, have you read The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell? Your comment immediately brought Campbell to mind.

      He talks about the hero story, the bildungsroman, as the quintessential story about moving out of childhood and into adulthood. He would say that all of us leave childhood bearing some form of scar. I suppose, now that I’m thinking about it, my blog is about the scarring nature of moving into maturity.

      I really intended my blog to simply be a speculative piece about how we might think of the concepts of “childhood” and “adulthood.” As you’ve pointed out, those are pretty slippery terms.

      I look forward to reading and rereading your comment and watching the video. Like I said, you’re a great teacher!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Campbell’s seminal work is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how hero stories work. Campbell was able to achieve a rare thing during his lifetime. He was able to write a book that influenced scholars and artists and ordinary folk alike.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I can’t imagine watching someone you love fade away like that at such a young age. You could have responded very differently and been traumatized by that. I’m glad you responded with empathy and growth.
    My first clue that I was getting older was much sillier: I realized for the first time that I was older than the Playboy centerfold! 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s amazing that I can barely remember what I ate for breakfast this morning, but I can very vividly recall (all those many years ago now) watching my grandmother get sick and then fade away. I have a few life experiences like that. Most things just fade away, though, because they leave no scar or make no impression.

      Hey, man, like you, I had my silly moments. But I always think those silly moments are so important. It’s cool that we can look back and laugh at ourselves. I know some folks who take themselves way too seriously!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. So sorry about your grandma. I’m not surprised watching her change so dramatically, and eventually die, profoundly affected you as a child and then the adult you became. It’s especially hard when one is so young and doesn’t fully understand what’s happening, doesn’t know how to help.

    I became an adult on the eve of my 17th birthday when, without warning, my parents split. Everything changed, including all of my plans for the future. I ended up going into family law, representing kids whose parents are divorcing, my own experience increasing my empathy for those enduring similar trauma.

    I would have much preferred a slower transition into adulthood.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story. My parents also divorced three or so years after my grandmother died, and I ended up living with my working-class mother who struggled to raise two boys on a fairly small salary. Watching my mom’s struggle politicized me, and I ended up studying political science as an undergrad. I had the intention of going to law school and even did well on my LSAT. However, rather than becoming an attorney, I ended up working on my MA and PhD and becoming an academician. Though I never dreamed of becoming a college instructor, I’m glad I did. I ended up traveling the world and working in Poland, the UAE, Turkey, and Egypt. It’s funny how a few pivotal childhood experiences can end up sending us in one direction or another.

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  6. The awakening of certain feelings, thoughts… assuming responsibilities… understanding the magnitude of positive and mainly negative events and feeling the need of modifying our attitude during those events, after acknowledging that out actions may have an influence in others… growing adult is a huge thing indeed. Gladly you did pretty well, despite of those feelings you had to grow up with, that now are clearly escaping, like an irrepressible truth.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Regrets, longing… we all carry a bit and some people a lot of that. But we can say we did well when those don’t keep us stuck with them in that past nor poisoning our present, or if that experience didn’t mold us into a negative shape. So yes, I guess we did grow up pretty well. At least we did gain enough maturity to openly talk about it without inspiring pity or feeling that it makes us look weak.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I think my grandmother must have known, pretty early in her sickness and even if the doctor didn’t tell her, that she had a bad case. Because we’re all individuals, there’s lots of ways for us to deal with death and sickness. For my grandmother, she found a quiet way and internalized everything. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This is a wonderful post, and deeply personal and transformational! ❤ You definitely captured the impact that specific experiences in life create, and that cause us to move from one stage of life to the next! I'm sorry for your grandmother's loss, and the way in which she departed, as it had such an impact on you. But it sounds as if she was a special person, and you connected to her through a mutual love for one another, which impacted your entire life! That is the greatest bond anyone can share! Thank you for sharing this touching post! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And thank you for your kind words. With the exception of my paternal grandmother, all my grandparents lived well into their 80s. (My mom’s mom lived to be 103 and passed away in October of 2019.) I was very lucky to have known such fantastic people who helped shape the person I became.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. There are some researchers who argue that the brain now doesn’t fully mature until age 30. I’m not sure anyone fully matures until they learn about death in an intimate way. By extending life we’ve delayed maturation, which might help to explain some of the infantile reactions to wearing masks. Love your post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Vic. The whole “wearing a mask is taking away from freedom!” crowd is driving me nuts. In the case of such people, I’m not for sure that maturity ever comes. Using their logic, the ultimate expression of freedom would be taking out a pistol, holding it against one’s head, and then pulling the trigger. Now there’s true self-affirmation! They’ll be loudly and proudly proclaiming their freedom as the pallbearers carry them away.

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  9. My first experiance with death came when my Great-Grandpa died. I remember standing with the other adults, my mother and her Aunt at his bedside. I kissed him goodbye.
    My mother’s mother was a smoker. She also got breast cancer and eventually had to have a mastectomy. Later on the cancer came back then she ahd to have a hysterectomy. She then went on to live until a very old age.
    When your young like that eys you grow up rather quickly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was at my maternal grandfather’s bedside when he died. At the very end, he took a deep breath, like a person would do just before trying to swim underwater, and that was it. My other grandmother, the wife of the man I watched die, lived to be 103 and overcame every sort of health setback a person could overcome before she finally succumbed. Life is mostly filled with throwaway moments, but there are few that really stick and really shape. Watching my grandmother get sick and fade away was one of the latter type. Thanks so much for sharing your experience!

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  10. Having empathy sucks. It tears my heart up into little pieces. I teared up reading about your grandmother; I could feel your sadness and hers, too. I’m so sorry for your loss. It’s a shame that difficult things like cancer have such an impact on children. My cousins lost their mom to cancer. The oldest was just 16 at the time. (We are close in age.) She grew up way too fast and had to step up and care for her brother and sister. I always admired her strength and courage. I felt so childlike in comparison because I could still be (somewhat) a kid when she wasn’t afforded that luxury. 😢

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some children are forced to grow up quickly. Divorce and the loss of a loved one are transformative experiences. I’m sure that your admiration helped your cousin in all sorts of ways. Thanks so much for sharing your experience.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. I read this to my wife last night. I’m curious as to whether overprotecting kids is part of what delays maturation. We as parents tell them they are safe, when that may not be true. We don’t let the very young attend funerals. Perhaps the overprotection feeds the feeling of invincibility that is biting society in the ass now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s interesting to hear you say that because I’ve just been thinking that America is still a young nation compared to many others. Perhaps we’re still in our infancy and that youthfulness and naivety is on display right now. I also think that Americans really haven’t experienced much collective hardship, not for a long time. What happened on 9/11 was the most recent thing I can recall. But we haven’t fought wars on our territory and such. (Look at how many European countries were utterly destroyed during that conflict; now that’s REAL hardship.) I would imagine that those who lived through the Great Depression would laugh at those who are crying about having to wear masks. And what about what America and Americans had to go through during the WWII! In some ways, I think we’ve gotten very soft and are having a really hard time with being “inconvenienced.” I do think you’re right about funerals and such too.

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  12. Makes me wonder if that’s why adolescents and teenagers seem like they go kicking and screaming into adulthood–from someone who’s never had children. I can’t yet pinpoint my transition into adulthood. Maybe I’ll figure it out on a future bike ride (yes, I love cycling, too). Thanks for such a “herzlich” post.

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    1. Thanks so much for contributing to this interesting conversation. My piece was really intended to be a kind of thought experiment intended to examine what the concepts of “childhood” and “adulthood” mean. We often associate adulthood with reaching a certain age. But what if we looked at adulthood from a different point of view? What if we could say that the attainment of certain capabilities would be a better indicator of when adulthood takes place? That would mean that adulthood might happen quite early in life.

      There’s nothing better than cycling! Do you speak a little German?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ein bisschen . . . Trying to learn, but it’s going slowly. Are you a fluent speaker?

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      2. No. I studied German in college though, but I wasn’t as serious as I should have been. I did end up getting really good with Polish during my Peace Corps days when I was sent to Poland.

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      1. Not at all, I wrote a book about it 🙂 I probably should direct you to the book on Amazon as it is a collection of speeches and the first is entitled “Can you guess where I was born? ”
        I will answer you
        unless you are interested in reading it (wouldn’t want to give away the punchline)

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      2. I will check it out. I have looked at your name to try to figure out where you’re from. I have a few guesses, but I’ll look at your book to find out. Thanks.

        By the way, I have lived in the US, Poland, the UAE, Turkey, and Egypt. And if I’m being honest, I would say that in my heart of hearts I feel much more European than American. Despite this fact, I call myself a “Citizen of the World” when I’m asked where I’m from.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I appreciate your interest. I am a proud US citizen for over 30 years but I am also equally proud of my heritage.
        Most of the beautiful countries you’ve lived in are in my list to visit one day.
        My book is entitled: A Glimpse Into My Life: A Collection if Micro-Memoirs on Amazon
        It’s an easy read under two hours
        Please let me know your thoughts on it

        Liked by 1 person

  13. I am so grateful you shared the exhaustion of your grandmother and your relational impact. It seemed as if I could imagine you walking into the house, seeing her face wither and sadden; the realization that her time was shortened. Maybe she wished her life had been different, the things she still wanted to do, her lack of femininity after her mastectomies, what wisdom she wanted to share, would she matter and be remembered. Hopefully she felt your concern and knew that you cared about her. It’s amazing what trauma does to make us “grow up” and learn about responsibility and being prepared to leave a legacy. Thank you for sharing such a raw memory.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading and responding. Years after her death, I had a very open conversation with my father about what her last years were like. And yes, she did feel like she was “less of a woman” after her surgeries. So, on top of battling a terrible disease, she had to feel as if important parts of her were missing. Most children see childhood as a time for play and such, so when ugly reality intrudes, it leaves the child feeling bewildered. I remember feeling like that a lot when I was around my grandmother. Adults were explaining to me what was happening to her but “death” seemed so abstract. It became more and more real as time went by. And then she was gone.

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  14. Really interesting questions and beautiful post! I’m very sorry for the difficulty you went through at such a young age. I agree that difficulties in ones life can lead to a huge amount of personal growth. Whether that leads us to become ‘adults’ sooner than otherwise I don’t know. I think grow is a never ending process (or should be looked at like that). Sometimes I don’t think I properly started to take responsibility for my life and become an adult until I had children myself. At other times I think personal difficulties I experienced in my own adolescents robbed me of something that caused me to grow up sooner than I feel maybe I should have. Anyway I digress. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And thank you for sharing. I think my piece was intended to simply speculate on what the concepts of “childhood” and “adulthood” actually mean and how we determine when they are happening. We often peg adulthood to being a certain age. But is it about age or character? If it is the latter, then it’s possible a person might come “of age” when still very young. Like you, I’m digressing. (But being digressive doesn’t make one a bad person!)

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Good morning Troy, a very powerful message. Difficult too, to put into words how painful grief is especially through a child’s eye. We sometimes assume that children don’t feel it so much, because they have a “simple” way of dealing with death. I was recently very touched speaking with my 16 year old grandson. My father died 6 years ago , and it was only now that he expressed his grief to me. I never realised how much he thought of Dad, It was an emotional moment. I don’t know when I will become an adult😉
    Have a great day x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. I think we often assume that children are children and thus they aren’t really paying attention. I think it might actually be truer the other way around. I think too many adults lose the ability to really see, pay attention, and feel. Children are wonderfully creative which is a sign that they are vibrantly alive inside. Thank you so much for reading and for sharing your story about your grandson.

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  16. “I also developed, maybe for the first time, real empathy. I wasn’t dying of cancer, but I could put myself in my grandmother’s place and see what it was like to get sicker and sadder. Often, during our visits right at the very end, I would see a single, slow tear roll down her cheek, and then she’d wipe it away. Her sadness pulled me into her experience, and I was able to imagine what it would be like to suffer in the way she was suffering. By the way, empathy requires imagination. Empathy is nothing more than one person imagining what it must be like to be in someone else’s shoes. If you can’t make that imaginative leap, you may always remain unfeeling and callous”

    Extremely profound and painful to witness…

    Thank you for sharing such a personal experience .I read it a few times . I can’t describe how much I relate to ,each word you wrote here.I was only twelve when death visited our family.I saw my mother dying everyday after my brother’s death .She had a stroke after his death and lost the will to live.A witness to all her emotional and physical sufferings ,and gradually moving towards her end made me the person who I am.And ,I am proud of myself.Deep pain and sorrow has the power to transform you .That’s what happened with you too.Thank you again for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I found your words deeply moving too! I hope you are doing OK after the extraordinary experience you wrote about in your comment. I think there’s nothing more frustrating than watching a loved one suffer and knowing there’s nothing really that one can do to change of any of it. I’ve had that experience several times in my life. You’re absolutely right to say that such experiences are transforming. Thank you so much. I really appreciate your comment.

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  17. Your post just reminded me of my life. Thinking back, I can’t exactly pin point when I started overthinking about all actions in my life but I know it was very early in my life. Nonetheless, your post is extremely well written and relatable. I have looked at your other work on your blog and truly find it all to be beautifully written and relatable. Keep it up! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Thank you for sharing this trip down memory lane towards your journey to become an adult. I felt the pain of your grandmother and your sorrow as you watched her turn inward. At the same time, I am glad her transition helped you to see the world around you and I hope it helped you to live your life with purpose. Thanks again for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for writing such an uplifting comment. Yes, i still think of my grandmother often even though she’s been gone for a long time. And I think of my other grandparents too, not gone as well. I try to honor them by doing the right thing as often as possible. Of course, i often fail, but I try in their honor.

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  19. Your story was very good! You pulled me right in to it. I could feel your passion. As a grandparent, I’ll be sure to think about what my grandchildren are seeing and feeling when they look at or watch me. The impact/influence we have is amazing.
    Isn’t the goal of a writer to resonate with the reader? Accomplished! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words. Yes, your grandchildren are watching, taking note, and absorbing even though you may not be aware they are doing so. I’m so happy to hear that my writing meant something to you!

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  20. Hi, Troy – Thank you for sharing this painful life experience with love, wisdom, and grace. I too experienced significant loss at a young age. Mine was losing my mother to Hepatitis when I was six years old. I have super vivid memories of this time in my life. It’s been about 35 years since her passing, but the pain is still real and raw. While I wish I still had my mother with me, losing her at such a tender age did teach me invaluable life lessons about empathy, healing, survival, and love that have made me who I am today. The part in your post about seeing the single tear on your Grandmother’s cheek reminded me of when I would be playing in our front yard and look up to see my jaundiced mother quietly watching me through the window. I could tell she too had a tear on her cheek. Such powerful memories. Wishing you all the best.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Reading your comment gave me goosebumps. Your recollections seem so similar to mine. It seems that those who are seriously ill begin–and know that they are–begin saying their goodbyes as they move inexorably toward the end. Like you, I also recall times when I would catch my grandmother looking at me. Looking back now, I know she was saying goodbye to me and cherishing me at the same time. I know that feeling myself, now that I’m getting older. We all have to remember that we’re all saying our goodbyes. We may hang around for quite awhile longer, but we are all headed where my grandmother and your mother went. Thank you so much for sharing your poignant story! By the way, do you write? I ask because your comment was well written.

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  21. Thank you for sharing such personal experiences. Your post throws up so many avenues of thought in my mind.

    I think growth and growing up comes are aided by experience, going through events that do not work out the way we expect, and ones that don’t have the “happy ending”.

    I absolutely agree with the least paragraph, sometimes words come so easily because we need to say them and they need to be said. For me, poetry and music often come in the midst of deep emotion, most pain or struggle. I am starting to channel positive emotion into these creative avenues more readily as I get older, and I think my thirties will be a very productive and creative if I can continue to grow from this experience.

    Kia kaha Troy. Please keep sharing your beautiful words and experiences so we can continue to learn and engage in educational discussion. So many wonderful comments on this post.

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  22. I just finished my taxes. First time since my divorce. Why is this relevant? Well, I can remember the first time I filed taxes and I recall feeling a whole whole lot of “adulting” hitting me all at once. Of course, when I was 18 and filed my taxes, I was thrilled to get some money back. These days, I pay through the nose and that’s less than ….fulfilling. But it is funny, the things that bring back memories. It’s been a while since I cared or had that much control over my finances and while writing the check was a bit of an ouch, I still feel good having done it myself. I think becoming an adult is sometimes bookmarked by those feelings of independence and control over our own lives. At any rate, thank you for sharing your story and reminding me of mine.

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