When I was five, true freedom was my dad taking me out for a "special night" with him at the VFW. Finally, I thought, I get attention like a big girl! And my own Shirley Temple with a maraschino cherry.
What I didn't realize was that my father was a drunk and pretending to baby-sit me was the only way my mother would let him out of the house.
When I was ten, true freedom meant curling up with a book to escape my family. I loved Jane Eyre and the Black Stallion books with all my heart. The rest of the time I was a quiet girl who never spoke up. Finally, I thought, a way to escape from my family while under the same roof; a way to slide away quietly to the land of dreams.
What I didn't realize was that I should have been talking back, not buckling under, that the shyness that began then would plague me for the next 35 years, that like Jane Eyre, I would have a rough road toward happiness but would find it in the end.
When I was 15, true freedom meant smoking pot and dropping acid with some cool friends at my new high school. Finally, I thought, people who accept me as I am.
What I didn't realize was that my grades were dropping, my new friends were losers and drugs were an easy way to avoid trying at school.
When I was 20, true freedom meant dropping out of college and running off to live with a man I met in New Orleans while I was hitchhiking. Finally, I thought, I can leave my family behind, say goodbye to all that tired old Establishment crap they're teaching in college and live like a character out of a Jack Kerouac book. Once I take up with this cool man I just met, my real life will begin!
What I didn't realize was that I was quitting school because I had no confidence in myself, or that Jack Kerouac was a substance-abusing, self-deluding psycho -- and so was the man I met in New Orleans (and later married).
When I was 25, true freedom meant being a married woman with a big house, a nice car, a stepson and lots of charge cards. Finally, I thought, I'm a grown-up lady. My family looks up to me. My husband has a good job and I don't have to feel poor or insignificant ever again.
What I didn't realize was that my engineer husband was selling cocaine from his desk at a state job, throwing illegal deals to the Mafia and having affairs with secretaries, or that everyone else knew and felt sorry for me. When he got indicted, no one was surprised but me.
When I was 30, true freedom meant death. I was so isolated and miserable and trapped in my marriage that I didn't see any other way out. Fortunately, all my suicide attempts failed. But for years I went to sleep praying not to wake up. Finally, I thought, a way out of this horrible marriage, this huge waste that is my life.
What I didn't realize was that we all have more options that we realize, that all men were not like my husband, that I was stronger than I knew, that all I had to do was put one foot in front of the other and get the hell out, that I didn't owe anyone an explan- ation, that I was entitled to my own feelings and my own life.
When I was 35, true freedom meant being in graduate school after a bitter divorce from my first hus- band. Finally, I thought, I get to feel young again! Sleep with cute young guys! Party all night and do whatever I want!
What I didn't realize was that I was distracting myself by trying to relive the carefree adolescence I never had. Once again, I put rela- tionships, drugs and sex in front of career goals or finding my life path. I was no closer to knowing what I was capable of than I was at 18.
When I was 40, true freedom meant a terrific job. I'd found a career I was good at and had risen steadily within the ranks to a responsible senior position -- with a window office and an assistant. I'd even sacrificed a second marriage (this time to a nice man) -- when he got a job offer in one state just as I got my big promotion, my job won. Finally, I thought, I've made it on my own! And I won't let another man get in my way. Who needs that?
What I didn't realize was that I was setting myself up for more lone- liness and isolation. Even though I had money in the bank -- my own money -- I still hadn't learned how to balance love and work. And I still wasn't following my heart's calling or my true life path.
When I was 45, true freedom meant being me for the first time in my life, and realizing how much of my earlier life had been a reaction to my childhood programming. I quit my fancy job and worked in a ware- house for a while. I lost my beloved house due to a string of bad finan- cial decisions. The man I wanted to marry nearly died in a motorcycle wreck; his head injury altered his personality completely and he kicked me out. Broke and dis- couraged, I moved to Texas and lived in the garage of a friend until I could find a low-level job. Within three years I'd tripled my salary and had a contract for my first book. Finally I learned how to date and enjoy men without throwing my own life away, how to speak up for myself -- to say both "No" and "Yes" without compromising my selfhood, how to live alone and love it, how to confront my past and let go with love. Finally, I thought, I can forgive myself for all those wrong turns. Finally, I am becoming a whole woman, instead of a compilation of mirrors that reflected what others wanted from me.
What I didn't realize was that I could have done this years ago, if I'd only trusted that still little inner voice we all carry within us.