Photo: Dmitry Molchanov/Shutterstock

The First Time I Felt Independence

by Emma Thieme Jul 4, 2014

I come from a long bloodline of worriers. My failure to call home once a week as a college student was often met with a downpour of panic that I’d “gotten into a car accident and died.”

My desires to work in writing were met with concerns that I wouldn’t have health insurance.

When I got a new boyfriend, it was very worrisome that he didn’t have a 401K.

Before I went whitewater rafting for the first time, I had to listen to my father tell me about his “friend” who had also gone whitewater rafting. This friend had “broken his leg and died.”

I wish I could say that this worry gene didn’t pass on to me, but I too have felt myself hugging a loved one too tightly when saying goodbye. I’ve saved countless voicemails as if they were soon-to-be artifacts. I’ve even gone so far as imagining the minute details of myself, distraught, at a funeral. What would I wear? Who would bring me? How soon would I return to work?

It’s a strange characteristic. And I’m not even a parent yet.

Throughout my upbringing, I felt glimmers of realizations. They hit me while I was riding my bike, alone, down a main road. While I was driving my ’99 Mercury Sable at 16. While I was walking down a side street, in Portland, Maine, on a late spring sunny morning.

These little epiphanies: “Wow, I exist, and I can do things.”

“Wow, I can go anywhere.”

“Wow, I have a bank account with money in it.”

These sudden realizations, always reminding me, “Wow, I’m alive,” would burst in epiphany before fizzling out with a stifling “but.”

“But my parents are expecting me home.”

“But I’m $35,000 in debt.”

“But I’m scared.”

The “but” was the reason I went straight to my local university, just 30 minutes away from where I graduated high school. And when my first year ended, I went straight back home for the summer. Even though I knew people who were spending summers away, exploring new cities, taking road trips, studying abroad, I never considered it. Because how would I get an apartment? What would I do for work? What if I missed my friends?

As my college years continued, I did eventually travel. I went to Spain to visit my grandparents in Mijas. I backpacked the northern coast of the Dominican Republic with a boyfriend. But every trip I took, every new move I made, I needed to be with someone. My travels had to be at the hand of someone else’s plans, desires, worries. The person often changed, but there had to be a person.

Maybe I finally uprooted myself years too late. Maybe I look back on my recently graduated self just like my mother did, with envy. Maybe.

When I graduated from college, the independence was overwhelming. The weight of it came down on me while I was packing up my apartment in Orono. It was so heavy that I mistook my new freedom for limitation. I hadn’t planned for it. I hadn’t gone through the necessary steps to get a job in my field. I hadn’t thought of any trip I wanted to take. And even if I had, I didn’t have anyone to go with me. I was worried.

I stopped packing and immediately drove to my parents’ house.

“I envy you,” my mom said. “You got yourself an education, and now you’re done. You can do whatever you want. We’re not worried anymore.”

She was right. I could do anything. So I moved to Bar Harbor with a girlfriend, and I more or less stayed put for two years. Still traveling on time off, still always someone else’s idea, still always returning to restaurant work in the spring.

When I ask the people around me about the first time they felt independence, most people say, “When I got my license.”

“When I graduated.”

“When I paid off my debts.”

My boyfriend says that independence struck him for good when he was 10 years old. He took his XR80 eight miles down the baseline by himself.

I just turned 25, and the first time I felt independence was four months ago in the Denver airport. I was sitting on the floor up against a wall, writing in my journal and watching the passersby move about the crisp, glassy lines of the sunny terminal. Those guys with huge, exaggerated cowboy hats were walking around smiling, giving people directions to Starbucks and the post office.

I’d just taken my first ever flight alone. I’d sat next to an elderly woman in the window seat who never once looked up from her Elizabeth Gilbert book to say hello. I’d visited Colorado out of curiosity, and instead of flying home after a long weekend I was on my way to Texas to begin a road trip. I’d quit my job. I didn’t know when I was coming back.

Maybe I finally uprooted myself years too late. Maybe I look back on my recently graduated self just like my mother did, with envy. Maybe. But either way, I did look up from the page I was writing on, and one of those sudden, faintly familiar realizations gave me another chance.

“Wow, I’m alive.”

But this time, the feeling stuck.

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