Becoming an adult: part two - Blog - Reeve Foundation

The day I became paralyzed, I was 51 years old and considered myself a fully functioning, dues-paying adult. I had all the things adults are known for – a solid marriage, two kids, a dream house, a mortgage, a career, life insurance, and an IRA. On paper, I could check off every grown-up box.

In reality, my life was spinning out of control. My wife and two children were real enough, but the dream house had a mortgage I could barely pay in the best of times and these were the worst. I had a production deal with a TV company and at renewal time, they cut me from the squad. I used the IRA savings to keep things afloat, meaning I owed the IRS a fat penalty fee. I was sponging money off close relatives right and left. They felt sorry for me. I felt sorry for me.

Paralysis aside, many of these headaches could probably have been avoided or mitigated if, at some point in the past, I had become an emotional adult while becoming a chronological one. I may have outgrown the thinking that defines adolescence, including adult adolescence, in this consumer paradise called America, namely:

1. The world owes me a good life. It’s written into the contract. The entitlement clause.

2. Bad things happen, but they are rarely my fault. It’s bad luck or someone else’s failure. That’s also written in the contract, under “You Are Special.”

3. Like an insecure teen, I need constant ego-boosting. If I had a Presidential cabinet, I’d make them all say nice things to me, too.

4. When in a fix, lean on others. After all, it’s wasn’t my fault and I’ll pay you back, I swear.

Then came the paralysis. The initial fallout was harsh. All the things that were out of control now seemed more out of control. Finally, the terror subsided and my maturation, as it were, began in rehab. By necessity, I met the small challenges of paralysis like sitting up in bed without falling or transferring from bed to wheelchair without fear. Along the way, some kind of subconscious process clicked in. As many have noted, true dependency, like paralysis, can galvanize your need to become more independent. It’s a survival instinct.

In the book “The Vanishing American Adult,” Ben Sasse calls the effect of a trauma like paralysis an “existential panic.” Panic can be a great motivator. Some only tackle a weight problem after contracting diabetes or become their true selves only with the death of their spouse. Real trauma hits especially hard if, like most of us growing up in the great American Sandbox, we have been largely shielded from any kind of distress by our parents and others – soft parenting. That’s what “participation” trophies and policing “hurtful” language on campus are all about. As Sasse points out, this kind of round-the-clock psychological protection, reaching its peak with the current generation, leads to coddling behavior, with these kids as grown-ups “demanding constant feedback and tender reassurance.” See #3 above.

Slowly, applying good adult sense, we climbed our way out of the morass. It still took me a while to see clearly that much of the bumbling of the past was due to my own immature obtuseness. Owning up to being the perpetrator of your failures as opposed to the victim is liberating. And you don’t have to be an oldster like me or experience a painful existential wake-up call to get there.

There are a lot of so-called adults out there who have yet to grow up – “adultescents” --and some of them occupy the highest realms of power and celebrity. You know them. Anthony Weiner. Charlie Sheen. Lindsay Lohan. Donald, Jr. At times, it seems like the whole country is in an adolescent snit. “Do it my way!” “No, do it my way!” “Will not!” “Will, too!”

Adulthood has nothing to do with age, education, talent, bank account, or social status. It has to do with cultivating resilience, self-control, and taking responsibility. It’s not all that tricky, but it demands you leave the reassuring confines of middle-class insulation, no matter what age. However far along I am on that course, I owe a lot to paralysis. It’s the least such an unkind twist of fate can offer in return.

© 2017 Allen Rucker

Purchase Allen's book:

The Best Seat in the House:
How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life

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About the Author - Allen Rucker

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

Allen Rucker

The opinions expressed in these blogs are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.