The Moment You Realized That You Had Changed

I respect that one reason humanity has rituals that effectively tell people something they already know (e.g., you graduated high school!, you got married!, you retired!) is that even major life changes that were entered into consciously and with great effort do not necessarily work their way into our self-conception unless they are prominently reflected to us by others.

A friend who was a new mother told me a story of her first play group with her son, who toddled tentatively, took a tumble and then cried out “Mommy!”. She instinctively looked anxiously around wondering where on earth the child’s parent was. The women next to her said “He’s yours isn’t he?” snapping her into awareness of how her life had changed forever.

Another example I have seen repeatedly is a long-time renter who finally buys a house. The first time the boiler bursts or the sink pipe breaks, the owner reaches for the telephone feeling sorry for the miserable landlord who has to fix the problem and then realizes that they themselves are the poor sod in question.

The experience of this sort I remember most vividly happened at Stanford Hospital. As a new arrival, I went to the appropriate sub-basement office to get my photo ID. After they handed it to me, I turned the wrong way leaving the office and entered the maze that is our medical center. I finally found a staircase but it wasn’t the one I had come down and I went up too many floors to boot.

I was immediately anxious thinking “I’m lost in a hospital, I’m going to get in trouble.” I walked further and realized I was in a cancer ward…Oh Geez this is really serious now, I’m really in big trouble. I started walking faster, thinking it wasn’t visiting hours and I had no business being around these grievously sick people and I just needed to escape before someone called security and had me thrown out.

I entered a long hallway and saw exit doors, but there was a nurse’s station on the way. As I got closer I saw it was occupied! But she’s looking at her notes so maybe I can slip by, but then, oh no, she’s looking up now and looking right at me, staring at me intently in fact. I am thinking desperately what to say “I got lost! It was a mistake! I meant no harm! Please just let me go and it will never happen again!”

And then she shocked me by smiling and saying “Good morning doctor”.

I literally started to turn around to see who she was addressing and then realized she had been staring at my name tag. I mumbled a response and walked out, trying to suppress laughter at my own expense.

Ever had a moment like that? What was it?

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

9 thoughts on “The Moment You Realized That You Had Changed”

  1. Since I am older than you, I can report that I have had several such points of inflection.

    First, I studied for the Bar with a guy who was a little older than me. We studied at his house and we interrupted from time to time by his infant son crying. We lost touch, but I ran into him several years later at a shopping mall. A strapping young man came up to him and said something like "Dad, can I have the car keys." It hit my like a lightning bolt that this was that crying infant!

    Second, from time to time I have taught law school as an adjunct. I still can't get over the students calling me "Professor" or "Mr. Levine."

    Third, there was that time when, while lecturing law students, I made a cultural reference that I assumed that most, if not all, would understand. Yet they all gave me a puzzled look, having no idea what I was talking about.

    Finally, I have had numerous "old people's" health issues arise in recent years. Each one is a new wake-up call.

    1. The third example isn't really on point, but it reminds me of a story that a literature professor told me. He was teaching a not-recent novel, and the narrator said that one of the characters was "gay." The students were confused, because that character was heterosexual. They were unaware that "gay" had ever had another meaning.

  2. I recently received my PhD, and emails addressed to Dr. [Lastname] are still jarring. Of course, I still feel like nothing fundamental has changed about my identity or my day to day life, so maybe this isn't exactly what you're talking about.

  3. Going to the Zoo with the wife, daughters and grandchildren, being offered the Over Age Person discount.

  4. In my career, I followed a somewhat a-typical path; rather than moving up in responsibility on a team, I've repeatedly changed teams to more senior teams. Thus, rather than going from the junior person to a mid-level person and so on, I have almost always been the junior person on a team–but the teams got more and more experienced.

    With that history, it was a bit startling to be sitting with some colleagues, and mention a famous, highly-publicized company collapse in the industry and that a senior colleague had been one of the people who was asked to help with the clean-up, and look around the table and realize that no one had heard of the company. I looked around, and realized that I had a decade more experience than anyone else at the table–and it had been over a decade ago.

  5. Age 18, at the counter at McDonald's, and the teen said "sir". I turned around to see whom they were addressing. Age pretty much now, when a waitress said to my daughter, "we'll have to ask your grandfather if that's okay." I turned to see if her mother's father had walked in. Sigh.

  6. When I was at a fast food restaurant with my kids, and grabbed a large handful of napkins instead of one or two. I looked at the wad of paper in my hand and said, "my God, I've turned into my mother!"

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