When I was seventeen, I fell in love with a thirty-one-year-old guy. For the sake of not incurring a lawsuit (I mean, it’s not libel if it’s true, but just the same), let’s call him Peter.
As soon as I met him, we were fast friends. He was kind, funny, well-read, and had a seemingly endless supply of patience and understanding when he listened to me vent about my problems. He was dating someone at the time, but it wasn’t long before I was hanging out with both of them regularly, in a rather Three Muskateers-esque fashion. I didn’t feel anything more for him than devoted friendship, and since he was already attached, I felt secure in the notion that he wouldn’t want more.
That notion turned out to be false. To make a long and convoluted story short, he and his girlfriend broke up, and he began confessing his feelings for me immediately afterward. I was admittedly flattered, but I could think of several reasons why it wasn’t going to work between us — he and I were in very different places in life; I was likely to be a different person in just a year’s time, never mind three or five; I didn’t want to ruin our friendship . . . and then, there was the slight complication that I was still underage, and would continue to be underage for several more months. I voiced all of these concerns to him; he acknowledged the difficulty with my being underage, but swept the rest under the rug by saying he couldn’t help how he felt. Gradually, I let myself fall in love with him — at least, I thought that I was.
For reasons that would take a whole post of its own to explain, my parents, while uncomfortable with the idea that my best friend was a dude nearly twice my age, never outright forbade me to see him. My father, however, suspected that my relationship with Peter was becoming more than a close friendship; in the interest of protecting Peter and myself from his scrutiny (and possible legal action), I insisted that we were just friends and nothing more. My father didn’t say as much (then, anyway), but looking back on it now, it was pretty easy to see that he wasn’t buying it.
Now, my father is a deeply troubled person, and there are good reasons why I haven’t spoken to him in almost four years. He did a lot — and when I say “a lot”, I mean a whole fucking lot — of damage to my psyche over the duration of our two-decade relationship (which is probably already clear to you, dear reader, given that I’m writing about having had a relationship with a much older guy while I was still underage). That being said, there are some things he did get right. There are many nuggets of wisdom he passed down that often seemed unfair at the time (and truthfully, the manner in which he passed them down was often hurtful in ways that I still carry with me to this day), but turned out to be things that have served me well to remember.
The one he gave me in this instance, trying to explain to me why it wasn’t a good idea for me to pursue anything with Peter, was, “Honey, it’s not that you’re on Peter’s level. It’s that he’s on yours.”
I was offended. I thought that if a thirty-one-year-old found me worthy of his time and attention, and he was treating me like an adult, then clearly there must have been a good reason for that. I was so tired of being treated like a moron all the time — especially by my father, which made me even less keen to consider what he had to say about this, since it seemed to include the implication that my intelligence was lacking — that I was all too happy to believe Peter when he said that I was as intelligent and mature as any adult. For once, an adult was taking me seriously, not dismissing me out of hand and constantly invalidating my perceptions of reality — another thing that my father did, all the time and about everything, which made me unwilling to listen to him. (It’s amazing how some parents manage to shoot themselves in the foot that way.) Peter gave me hope that maybe, just maybe, I was competent enough as a human being to make a happier life for myself than the one I had — and all I could see was my father trying to crush that, just like always. Why couldn’t someone just find me worthwhile for once? Why was it so important to my father that I never believe anyone who told me that I was intelligent and mature for my age (even though the people who told me so were many in number, and so few of them had anything to gain from it)?
What I didn’t understand, though, was that intelligence and emotional maturity are two very different things. What’s more, age doesn’t necessarily translate into emotional maturity. Just because Peter was a chronological adult didn’t mean he was a psychological one (my calling him a “guy” and a “dude” instead of a “man” is quite deliberate). And just because he may have thought that my maturity was on par with an adult’s didn’t mean that it actually was. Really, anyone who could look at a sheltered teen with severe daddy issues who was being forced to take prescription psychotropic drugs (for bullshit reasons, I might add, but that’s neither here nor there) and say, “Now there’s a real woman” is probably not the most qualified person to judge such things.
Later, I learned the hard way that my father was right: Peter’s maturity was closer to a seventeen-year-old’s than mine was to a thirty-one-year-old’s. To make another long story short, Peter demonstrated it very clearly and in a way that caused me great pain, and I stopped associating with him of my own volition.
Mine was a folly that all too many young and troubled people commit. I wanted to escape my unhappy situation, and Peter, with his money and car and own apartment, gave me the means to do so. I wanted to feel that I was capable and sane and worth something, that I had a bright future ahead of me that I deserved and was within my grasp, and Peter made me feel that way. And really, Peter had enough charisma about him that it was hard not to get suckered in. When you’re that young, troubled, and inexperienced, an older person treating you like an equal doesn’t just seem like a godsend; it’s like a drug. And you want so badly for it to all be real that you’ll do whatever you have to do to keep believing in it. What’s more, you want so badly to express your gratitude to this person who makes you feel like you have a real shot at happiness that you’ll remain loyal to them no matter what hurdles you face, no matter how many people tell you that this person isn’t good for you, no matter how many times you hear the question, “Don’t you think it’s a little weird that a grown adult is spending that much time with a teenager ten/fifteen/twenty years his junior who isn’t related to him?”, no matter how many other relationships you lose.
After all, you have the chance to be a padawan to a Jedi master, so that you can someday become someone greater and happier than who you currently are. What kind of fool would pass that up?
Thankfully, that’s as far as Peter got with me before I got the hell away from him. Nevertheless, variations of the same theme played out a couple more times in my life after that, in which things went even further and more disastrously.
If your JM gets you enough under their thrall, then their will becomes your will, their values your values, their interests your interests, their goals your goals. You easily dismiss or even cast aside anyone who questions or disputes the vision of this person upon which you’ve come to depend. And even when your JM is clearly in the wrong, you find reasons to keep believing that they’re justified in what they say and do: they meant well, nobody’s perfect, you can see how various traumas in their past cause them to act the way they do, that person who called them out was a crazy and/or abusive asshole anyway. Sometimes, you feel like half your life is spent justifying your association with your JM to other people — but it’s everyone else who has it all wrong. You’re not “making excuses” for your JM. They just don’t understand your JM like you do. And it’s you who will reap rich rewards for your loyalty . . . eventually. Once your JM gets their shit together — well, no, maybe once you get your shit together. Once you can figure out a way to impress them enough that they’ll start treating you like a true equal again, since they stopped doing so at some point along the way. Once you’re a real Jedi master yourself, not just a padawan. That day will come, right?
Meanwhile, the whole affair is running you ragged. You’re exhausted all the time, but you can’t put your finger on why. If you have a job, you never have as much money as you wish you did, because you spend so much of it trying to keep your relationship with your JM afloat — movies, museums, restaurants, gas, groceries, rent, bills . . . and if you don’t have a job, your JM is constantly taking you out, buying you things, and otherwise spending their hard-earned money on you. You’re having the time of your lives together, and your JM assures you that the secret to being a successful adult is being able to be a kid at the same time, or knowing when to be an adult and when to be a kid, or some similar idea that is designed to “set you free” . . . though being “free” sometimes feels a lot like being a slave to your JM’s every whim — thoughts which you quickly set aside, because you don’t want to think poorly of your JM, who is a good person even if they do have a few problems. If you ever need to rest, or if you just want some time to yourself once in a while, your JM is disappointed and concerned: something is wrong, you must be depressed, you should make $CHANGE to your life in order to fix it (and how convenient, that means your own lifestyle will match up even more with theirs — won’t that be fun?), and come oooonnn, live a little! Well, you spend all your free time “living a little”, but you’re not living enough. And once you start living enough, you’ll surely be as happy, fulfilled, and full of win as your JM is.
Except that your JM is never truly happy. There’s always some adversity to overcome, some interpersonal drama that’s causing your JM to suffer, some past trauma that your JM just can’t seem to get past. And it falls to you to ease their burden. After all, your JM has helped you in countless ways; what kind of ungrateful jerk would you be if you didn’t do everything you could to reciprocate? Your JM may not explicitly state this, but they don’t have to — you already know it, as well as you know the color of your eyes.
Regardless of how little your JM ever actually moves forward in life, how much of their own advice they fail to follow, or how much you yourself start to feel that maybe this relationship has gotten a little toxic, you still feel compelled to stick around. You and your JM have already been through so much together; you can’t leave now. They need you as much as you need them. You love them. You would follow them to the ends of the earth. Everything that annoys, saddens, or downright infuriates you about your JM is surely fixable; there’s still hope that everything will be just as good and promising as it once was. Besides, so many other people have screwed your JM over and hurt them badly in the past . . . you don’t want to be like them. You won’t be an ungrateful twat who can’t see the true worth of your JM. You refuse to hurt them like everyone else did.
But you are “just like everyone else”, and this is inescapable. It’s not because you’re as bad a person as your JM says all the others were. It’s because you, like all the others, were suckered in — and you, like all the others, will be shamed, raged against, and possibly even cast aside the second you fall out of line. Should you ever decide to leave, should you ever reach your breaking point and be forced to leave to save your own sanity, you’ll be the latest of a string of villains your JM has encountered; you know this, even if you don’t know how to articulate it. You will be held responsible for your JM’s ills — not failings, no, that feels like too strong a word; just ills. And because you love your JM despite everything, the very thought of being cast as a villain in their mind and the minds of everyone to whom they’ll relate the sad tale of your parting henceforth . . . it hurts. You’ll have given your all to this person you love, without whom you’d still be in that dark, hopeless pit in which they found you, and it will all have come to nothing. Not to mention that you honestly don’t know what you’ll do without your JM to guide you. Without your JM, you would feel like a limb has been cut off. Without your JM, you’re not even sure who you are.
But the day will come when it’s time for you to part with your JM. Either you’ll finally get fed up and leave or your JM will dispense with you, and make no mistake: it’s a matter of when, not if. And when that day comes, you will be thrown into a state of vertigo; all at once, you’ll feel hurt, confused, angry, sad, and empty. Where will you go from here? Is it even possible for you to go anywhere from here? Hell if you’ll know. For what will seem like an eternity afterward, you won’t. You’ll have spent so much time following your fearless leader wherever they went that you’ll have forgotten how to lead yourself — if, indeed, you ever knew how to begin with. You’ll spend countless days and sleepless nights trying to piece it all together: why you all of a sudden weren’t good enough to stay with your JM; why your JM had to be such an asshole; how you could have been so stupid and such a pushover for so long; how much time, energy, and possibly money you wasted trying to make it work . . . how much it hurts that the good things about your relationship with your former JM — the camaraderie, the emotional support, the carefree nights you and your JM spent shooting the shit over beers that you may or may not have been legally old enough to drink, the friends you met through your JM whom you’ve also lost — are gone and not coming back. How you wish it hadn’t had to be that way. How you want nothing more than for your former JM to just stop trying to stay young using the youth of others — really, stop trying to have their cake and eat it, too, trying to be the wise older mentor while also remaining forever youthful — and grow up already, so they’ll stop being too toxic to be around and you can forge a better, stronger, healthier relationship than the one you had before. And as impatient as it’ll make you feel, you’ll wait for that time to come.
You’ll wait . . . and wait . . . and wait . . .
And still, that time won’t come. It may come someday, if your former JM gets enough knocks to the head that they realize that in truth, they never really were the sagacious master they thought they were. But that day will be pretty far off. It may also never come at all — and you’ll have to learn to be at peace with that possibility.
But over time, you’ll learn to stand on your own two feet. You’ll come to understand that you really are competent enough to move forward on your own, and that what your former JM claimed to see in you wasn’t entirely bullshit, even if the ways in which they were trying to bring it out (or so they thought) definitely were. When you need guidance and emotional support, you’ll get it from people who give a damn about you, not the ways in which you keep their egos inflated. And you’ll be able to figure out who those people are because you’ll know what the alternative looks like. You’ll be sadder, but you’ll be wiser.
You’ll have outgrown your need for your former JM, and slowly, over time, piece by arduous piece, you’ll find that you’re okay with that. You’ll move on with your life, and you’ll have plenty of fun figuring out who you are, by yourself, without anyone attached to your hip.
And then you’ll say to yourself, “That was fun. Let’s never do it again.”