The Night I Became Independent

by Abby Albrecht on November 1, 2004 - 10:05am

Abby Albrecht
Albrecht as a senior

She quit. It was 2 a.m., three weeks before the end of my freshman year at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and my personal care aide quit.

This was the first time I’d ever hired anyone to take care of my needs full time. And, as a young woman with SMA type 2, I had quite a few needs. I needed a strong pair of arms and a strong back to help me cook, clean, dress, move books, everything. The fact that I’m rather girly and insist on looking cute just added more work for my aide.

Heck, this was the first time I’d ever lived on my own, except for MDA summer camps. I’d worked with part-time aides and respite workers before, but not to the extent that I relied on my first college aide, “Jennifer” (not her real name), a fellow student who shared my apartment.

I admit I let Jennifer walk all over me that year. She didn’t feel like cooking? I ate microwave popcorn. She wanted to go out to “study” with friends until 3 a.m.? I waited up.

I should probably also admit that, while I give all the people helping me a generous amount of leeway to have their own lives, at the same time, I can be a bit snippy when that leeway is used up.

At 11 p.m. that night, Jennifer used it up.

She wanted to go study. I wanted to sleep. She claimed she could only study at a local diner with her friends. I didn’t dare go to bed without her around because there had been some fires in the building recently and I knew I couldn’t get out of bed by myself. We both said angry things we shouldn’t have, and I left to be by myself for a while.

Maureen McGovern
Albrecht as a college freshman

A new plan

A while later Mike, the head resident adviser (R.A.) of my apartment building, found me while he and his roommate were roller blading. (Yes, it was nearing midnight. Finals are a wacky time.) I was at my usual haunt, a fountain between the school’s movie theater and stage, crying.

Mike and I were friends, who hung out every week to watch “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Leave it to a fellow Trekkie to help me readjust my priorities. He invited me to his apartment to watch a movie and figure out a plan of action.

As we talked, I realized that all year I’d spent my energy trying to keep Jennifer happy and ignoring my own wants. I’d convinced myself that my biggest want was to be independent and go to USC, far away from my home near San Francisco.

I loved my home and my parents, but we all knew that I needed to be independent. I didn’t want to be 30 and still living at home, afraid to spread my wings. (Since I’m not 30 yet, we’ll just ignore the fact that I chose a career that doesn’t pay a living wage, and so am back home.)

Time for pie?

My mom and I had a deal: If I was in over my head and felt in the least bit threatened by my aide, I just had to call and ask her to send a pumpkin pie with her next gift package. She would be down at school within 24 hours, or sooner depending on how much I thought I needed that pie.

Mike convinced me that it was time to call home and ask for pie. I wasn’t giving up. I wasn’t dropping out of school. I was just firing an employee. In the long run, it would be better to admit I’d lost the battle, so I could get my life centered and pass my finals.

Little did I know, but Jennifer had already called Mom and told her she quit.

When I got back to my room around 2 a.m., Jennifer let me know what she’d decided. She’d stick around that night, get me to bed and up the next morning, but that was it.

I was relieved in one aspect: I didn’t have to fire her and beg Mom to come down. Yet, she was still walking all over me.

Jennifer’s walls were covered in newspaper clippings and her possessions were strewn around the apartment. Mom was going to show up to a mess. Jennifer claimed she’d come back over the weekend to gather everything she couldn’t be bothered to pack or take down before Mom came.

Sitting up straight

Maureen McGovern
Albrecht today

Darnedest thing. I looked at the mess she’d be leaving and my backbone suddenly grew strong. I no longer felt the need to keep her happy so she’d stay. She was leaving.

I smiled sweetly — something everyone who knows me knows to avoid — and took a deep breath. I then informed her that as of tomorrow the room was Mom’s. If Jennifer wanted to keep any of her stuff, it had better be out of the apartment by noon.

You’d think I’d learned independence earlier that school year: balancing my finances, learning to work with an aide full time, living on my own. But no. That was all window dressing.

I found my independence that night by sticking up for myself. That night I learned that my friends would support me when I couldn’t find a way through my problems. I also learned that I wouldn’t be my own person until I stood up (OK, sat up) for myself.

The next day was amazing. The sun was brighter. Classes were easier. Jennifer’s stuff was out of the apartment by noon.

Mom stayed with me those last three weeks because it’s impossible to hire a good aide during finals. We did Disneyland, many shopping malls and even a commercial audition.

It was time to live my life, not what an aide would give me the time to live.

Abby Albrecht, 28, is back in the San Francisco area as an unemployed Web designer/TV watcher. She finished USC in four years and is still very good friends with one of her school aides.

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