Once a Puer Always a Puer?

by julie swanson

Do you know where this is?

[…continued from the last post’s topic…]

Puer, yes, that was me. I never wanted to grow up. I dreaded it. I convinced myself I wouldn’t, couldn’t. It wasn’t that I wanted to cling to the safety of home and parents, it wasn’t so much that I was afraid of change (I am); it was that I truly believed my body was physically incapable of the transformation from a straight-lined boyish build to what I saw as the disgusting curves of a woman. I saw them as something that would make me weak and vulnerable, something that would make men treat me as a doormat, look at me as a piece of meat, and forget I was a person who was just as important and had just as much to me as they did. I thought it would kill me and clung to the belief that I would never ever develop like all the other girls did and were. The fact that I was a latebloomer reinforced that. I clung desperately to that comforting belief, and tried to hide any evidence to the contrary, until the other girls teased me about not wearing a bra and I could no longer pretend there was so little there that no one saw it.

I thought that was it, that when I started wearing a bra and no longer had to walk around hunched over so the front of my shirt would hang and not give anything away, I had accepted it. I was a girl, I was growing up like the other girls, I would, unfortunately, become a woman. I’d just have to get on with it. And luckily it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected.

I had a fairy tale high school experience, went to college and survived a bad case of homesickness, met a great guy, graduated, got married, had kids… I thought I had grown up and become a well-adjusted adult. A few wrinkles and gray hairs popped up and I thought I was accepting my age gracefully. But I still dressed like a kid, like the tomboy jock I’d been growing up. I wore athletic shorts, t-shirts, sweatshirts, running shoes, flip flops, went barefoot whenever I could. Thank goodness being a stay-at-home mom and writer didn’t often require anything but casual clothes, play clothes. I kept my low-maintenance short haircuts, wore no make-up, little jewelry. I was the same tomboy at heart, a tomboy wife and mom now, and everybody seemed fine with that (besides one daughter, who used to beg me to wear a skirt or dress when I’d walk to pick her up from elementary school everyday, so I would “look like the other moms”—I humored her and wore a skirt a couple times and the huge smile on her face when she saw me let me know how disappointing I was to her all the other days). Inside I still felt like that 12-year-old tomboy. I would always feel 12; didn’t everyone really? I always heard older people saying they still felt like a kid inside.

But when I was 45, I went through a strange stage in which I began having awful dreams, lots of them, the kind that wake you up, make you cry, shake in fear, leave you with a huge tight knot in your chest, or a disturbed and confused feeling you’re unable to shake even after you’ve been up a couple hours. I’d always dreamt a lot and had vivid dreams, loved to share them at the breakfast table, but most of them were good. Going to bed and dreaming had been fun, something to look forward to, like going to the movies each night. But suddenly my dreams were big and  powerful in a very scary way: what were trying to tell me? Not only had my dreams turned into nightmares, but I became blocked in my writing at the same time. I’d never had writer’s block and there I was, unable to write except for journaling and recording my dreams and trying to figure out what they meant. I began reading every book and website I could find on dream symbols, dream interpretation, dream theory. I got into the different schools of psychology and their takes on dreams. I became fascinated with Carl Jung’s work. He saw the connection between spirituality and psychology, like I did (psyche means ‘soul,’ how could anyone not?), and he thought a study of your dreams was incredibly important to knowing what was going on inside you.

That’s how I learned about archetypes and came to see that I was a puer/puella, that although I had three teenage children, was very independent in my marriage, had lost my dad to cancer… I’d never really gone through an adolescent stage, never rebelled, never really questioned the beliefs I’d been raised with, never truly separated myself from my parents and found my own ‘home.’ Besides my struggles with my mom over hair and clothes growing up, and despite the fact that I realized my parents were flawed people (like anyone else), I thought they were great. As a teen, I didn’t go through a phase where I was embarrassed of them, got snarly with them, bucked and tested them for more independence (my only truly testy stage came as a preschooler). I began to discover the great extent to which I’d internalized their world views, and that in many way I was unconsciously operating just as they did/had psychologically, even in ways I didn’t want to admit and had never recognized before. In ways I would’ve sworn I was not like them. I saw that I was still very much their little girl, following their rules, being a good-girl, doing what I ‘should,’ reacting to things as they would. I was also finding I had these voices in my head, theirs, very limiting voices, telling me what I was and what I could and couldn’t do, should or shouldn’t. Voices commenting on how I did things. Voices that could be cynical and irrational and that used the exact same tones and expressions my dad would’ve used, words and sayings I’d never use myself. Voices that made me worry about how I looked to others. How had I never heard what was going on inside my head before? Because now I recognized that they’d really been there all along. But they weren’t really mine, I saw. My voice was fighting those cranky, bossy, critical, guilt-inducing ones, but it was weaker and would get beaten back. I saw myself doing things that weren’t really what I wanted to be doing, things that didn’t really matter to me, things I didn’t even necessarily think were right. I found myself putting up with things, doing things, acting certain ways because my mom would think I should.  I found myself getting angry and being irrational and insecure like my dad did.  I realized I was keeping parts of myself under wraps because I knew they might not approve, or because my dad would tease me.

In short, I discovered I was a puer/puella, and that I needed to grow up, go through the adolescence I never had. In my mid-40’s! I had to stand up to those voices in my head, say, “No, I am my own person and I have outgrown these beliefs, this limiting world view. That may have been you and I love you, but that is not me. Not all of it anyway, or not anymore…” There was a lot of sorting and going through things, throwing some things out, keeping others. I’m still doing it, maybe always will be.

I still might not be caught up to my chronological age psychologically, but I am finally growing up and not terrified of that! Talk about a late-bloomer. I’ll probably always have a bit of the puer in me. I think our issues are our issues for life. They might get better, but the tendency toward them is always there. Seems to me personal growth is a spiral process and we keep revisiting our issues and dealing with them at deeper and deeper levels each time they crop up anew in our lives, understanding them better. (With the negative aspect of the puer archetype as perhaps my main issue, is it any wonder that I write for children?)

I used to think if I had an issue, I could work on it, fix it, and it would be over with. Done. Phew. No more. But now I see that my issues tend to resurface; I work on one, resolve something, and that solution lasts for a time, but the problem crops up later, in a new way. It shows itself in a different form and I see it in a whole new light. I have a better understanding of it. I’ll have an epiphany and think, oh, my gosh, I thought I totally understood this but I had no idea really! Now I get it!!! Round and round I go, revisiting things and dealing with them at a deeper level (or higher, if you want to think of your spiral going up) each time. Which can be seen as frustrating, or exciting. I mean how great is it that we can keep getting wiser and better, improving and seeing things more and more clearly? So I won’t say I’m all grown up now, or even that I’m no longer a puer—but I’m no longer stuck. I may be behind some people my age, but I’m ahead of others, and life is not a race I’m learning. It’s not a competition.