When I was a kid, I thought that adulthood was something that just happened. That one day, I’d be standing on a field in a cap and gown, and the next, I’d arrive home from my fancy office, sit down at my grown-up-looking table, and sift through bills I’d have no trouble paying with all the money that had suddenly appeared in my brand new checking account. What I, and many of my friends discovered, was that the route to adulthood is not as simple as ascending a staircase. It’s a precarious path on the edge of a cliff, and the majority of those who trek along it stumble and fall at least once. I fell three times.
When I turned 18, I wanted nothing more than my independence. One night, a younger, naïve version of me scrawled in her journal: “I need to get away from my family, be on my own. I want to have a good job, and work full time, and learn full time, and make lots of money and have time to party. That’ll never happen, it’s impossible.”
What I didn’t realize was that I was among the first generation to experience “youthhood” — the period between adolescence and independent adulthood that emerged once baby boomers started becoming parents. Dubbed “boomerang kids,” we kids of boomers, upon becoming of legal age, didn’t necessarily want to stay at home but had difficulty staying away.
I was still 18 when I moved into an apartment in Lemon Grove with a friend I’d met at San Diego State University. Ten months later, I reported to my journal that I’d decided to move back home to save money. Over a year later, I moved out again, this time into my own place with no roommates — an arrangement made possible by my dropping out of school and accepting a promotion at the call center at which I worked in Miramar. My apartment was furnished with a blend of hand-me-downs from home (an old coffee table, dresser, the bed from my old room) and new items my mother gifted to me (dishes, utensils, towels).
A year later, I quit my job and drove the car my parents bought for me to Los Angeles to prove to myself that I could get by in a city without knowing anyone. At 23, I was fired from my job at a recruitment agency for sending personal emails and again moved back into my old bedroom at home.
Within six months I’d found another job in San Diego and an apartment in Hillcrest to share with one of my sisters. But, just weeks after my 25th birthday, I lost that job due to massive layoffs. By now, my parents were separated. I moved into the spare bedroom of Dad’s Mission Hills condo, and my 23-year-old sister moved back into the house in Chula Vista with Mom.
I had set out on a march toward adulthood but life got in the way. Each time I stumbled and fell, instead of plummeting into an abyss, I rebounded. It was as though my family was a trampoline, catching me on my descent and then redirecting me upward again.
When there is no trampoline
Fewer than ten miles from the home in which I grew up was a group home for foster youth. There, another girl reached her 18th birthday. Like me, she was eager to escape the strict authoritarian rule of her household, which in her case was dictated by paid caretakers rather than parents. Upon being emancipated, the girl stuffed everything she owned, which was mostly clothing, into two black trash bags, and that was it.
This girl, and around 300 other 18-year-olds that year, didn’t have a trampoline to catch her. If she fell off the metaphorical cliff while attempting to climb her way toward independent adulthood, she’d disappear into the chasm and eventually land at the bottom as just another statistic: one of the 60 percent of girls who get pregnant in the first year or two of leaving foster care, one of the 50 percent to end up homeless, one of the 30 percent to end up in jail, or among the 80 percent who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts, and/or depression.
Many years later, a 19-year-old Suamhirs Piraino-Guzman found himself leaving that same group-home, his own black trash bags in tow. The youth, who’d entered the foster-care system at age 16, couch-surfed and slept on the streets for a few weeks before a bed opened up for him in the transitional housing program for which he’d applied. Now 23, Piraino-Guzman lives in a house not far from that group home with his girlfriend, her two small children, and their foster son, Jacob, a 14-year-old whose special-needs conditions include cerebral palsy and epilepsy. After surviving atrocities as a powerless minor, Piraino-Guzman now dedicates his life to foster-youth advocacy. He currently runs the Families Forward and Caring Helpers Programs at Mental Health Systems, a local nonprofit organization that seeks to assist those facing substance abuse and behavioral problems.
I visited Piraino-Guzman in his home. As I crossed the threshold into his living room, sparsely furnished with a couch, a television, and diminutive toddler chairs and table, I thought about how grown-up it all seemed — to have a house and children; to be that responsible and together at 23, the same age I was when I moved back in with my parents for the second time.
Piraino-Guzman was born in Honduras. His father was from Saudi Arabia and his mother from Turkey. His father was a Muslim, his mother Krishna. This is relevant because when Piraino-Guzman’s father began abusing him, it was because his son was “not a full-blood Muslim.” With the slow and steady cadence of someone reading a report, Piraino-Guzman recited the sources of the three most visible of the 57 scars his father gave him: the attempted brand on his forehead to mark his contaminated ethnicity, the gash at the back of his head where a plate of improperly heated food was shattered, the jagged white line from the top of his right brow and down over the eyelid from where his father used a bread knife to try and remove his eye for being hazel like his mother’s, not brown like his father’s.