Some days my heart feels like it’s being squeezed the way one longs to squeeze a tube of toothpaste: from the middle, letting all the minty-freshness bulge on either end, while simultaneously being twisted like a washcloth being wrung out before being applied to ease a migraine. In those moments, the least thing I feel is independent.
Except, as my friend Cyndy astutely pointed out on Saturday while we waited in line for a scarier-than-hell water slide, “I think whoever you date is going to have to accept how independent you are.”
“Wait,” I said. “I’m independent?”
She pointed her chin down, lifted her eyes up and to the side and starred with her classic Clearly face. I retaliated with my classic Skeptical face – half my lips puckered yet pursed, eyebrows raised and one eye squinted.
Apparently independence is not worn as an armband, tied proudly like a personal flag at the base of your triceps. Rather, it’s a Cub Scout sized badge sewn tightly above your heart – and you might not know you’ve been branded with it (or earned the honor, depending on how you feel on a given day) until it’s already been lovingly applied.
“You struggle to let anyone help you,” she said. “Ever.”
I pushed a finger against the two-person inner-tube my friend Steven was so kindly hoisting up four flights of stairs for us. The yellow rubber gave way just a tiny bit before springing back into place, the smell forever reminding me of the surf mats my parents used for Scuba diving. Steven, oblivious to the memories and to our conversation, said something manly to Cyndy’s husband – a sure sign they were paying very little attention to us.
Independent was never a title I’d give myself. Cyndy of all people knew how needy I was, yearning and clinging and beating dead horses. People with a streak of independence didn’t clobber colts or fall asleep clutching their stuffed dolphin like without something to cuddle they wouldn’t be able to breath. Independent people didn’t rely on NPR when insomnia struck in the middle of the night. I’ve had an imaginary Golden Retriever since I was 18, for Christ’s sakes (his name is Dumbledore and he’s very pleased to meet you) who I still hang out with occasionally. I mean, how much less independent could I be?
“I’m not sure that’s true,” I mused.
“Honey. Why do you think sometimes I check in with a text without provocation? Something has usually tipped me off that you’re not 100% – and I know you’re not going to reach out and tell me you’re in need.”
Flushing, I silently cursed her intuition. Also, wasn’t the whole not reaching out also somehow tangled up with co-dependence and not wanting to burden someone else?
“I can only imagine that same thing goes for your boyfriends,” she continued. “And since men are, in general, helpers, it stands to reason your independence gets in the way. You say don’t need anything, and that’s probably only true 50% of the time.”
Fine. On numerous occasions, I’ve definitely told someone I’m dating that I don’t need anything (like flowers sent to my work, or being brought cough syrup when I’m sick or coming over and wrapping themselves around me like a koala when I’m sad) – and the men have responded differently. Sometimes ignoring my request, often times not. There’s a balance to knowing when to push, and when not to. I can’t help but think of all the times I denied offers of help from my last boyfriend – and how what I probably should have been doing was saying “You’re offering? I’m saying okay!”
I never thought that made me independent though. Just someone who didn’t want to be a wet blanket.
“Here’s the thing,” Cyndy said as we neared the top of the slides. “You’re a little broken. It’s not bad, it’s just always going to be there. And you’re going to need someone who can see through the independence a little and help you get through stuff.”
Then she with her husband, and I with Steven, screamed down a long, dark, water slide.
All my life, I’ve only focused on one definition for independent: free from outside control; not depending on another’s authority. I’m not those things. I follow (many) rules. I read directions. I’m happy to take direction. Tell me we need to walk briskly in the woods, and I will walk so damn briskly you’d be hard-pressed to keep up with me.
So I looked up independent again, wondering where Cyndy was coming from. She’s a smartypants, and I figured she had a point somewhere. There was a second definition for independent: not depending on another for livelihood or subsistence (bellowed The Google!!). Synonyms: self-sufficient. Self-reliant.
Oh. Well. That.
I mean. Sure, I guess I’m those things. And I suppose we could even make the argument that Dumbledore is actually a manifestation of my independence, rather than a sign of my not having any.
But I always have thought independent people were brave (which I am certainly not. I slept with the lights on until I was 22). They are like my friend Liz,willing to look at their fears and say “You’re not keeping me down, Mr. Fear-o-Flying (she’s gone all over the world). They’re like my friend Tami, who travels alone and takes the time to do things she wants to do (like be an au pair in Rome). They’re Angie, who isn’t afraid to be exactly who she is (and she barely cares what you think about it). They’re Mala, who makes positive life changes for herself by way of volunteering, yoga, and following her interests.