Monday, July 11, 2016

Triggered

I have a terrific fondness for a certain retail chain that sells colorful, eclectic wares. Things from all over the world, the store implies, although I suspect the majority of it is straight out of China. Most of what they sell is expensive and unnecessary, and once I get it home, I find it has lost its magical glow, so I rarely buy anything. I go there semi-regularly, though, and either window shop, or buy something small and edible.

However, for the last few years, I approach my favorite dealer of useless crap with a great deal of trepidation. Connie* might be there.

Connie is a woman with a lovely speaking voice and a sweet manner who works at the shop. I want nothing to do with Connie.

"Why?" you may ask yourself. "Why would you feel the need to avoid a nice lady like Connie? Is it because you're a bitter old curmudgeon who hates everyone?"

It's possible.

I don't want to see Connie ever again, and here's why.

Connie likes to approach me and ask me if I've remembered my coupons.

Once upon a time, I told myself it wasn't personal. She asks everyone that. It's her job. But here's the thing - it is personal. She will see me across a crowded store and walk past everyone else, just to make sure I, Erin, have remembered to bring my coupons. I have never, and will never, remember any such thing. I could tell you my trips there are usually spontaneous, that this is why I don't remember. It's the truth, but not the whole truth. The whole truth is, even if I'd left the house expressly to go there, I would still have forgotten my coupons.

It bothers me because she seems too invested in my answer. She'll steer me over to the store's laptop so that I can go through a long, multi-step process that usually involves recovering my password, checking the email on my phone, and changing it, with Connie hovering over me all the while. I do it to appease her, not because I care about saving money. Because she needs me to save 5% on my $1.50 bottle of coffee-flavored soda. I may, in the end, save 7.5 cents, but I'd have gladly paid double for the privilege of not being asked about my coupons. Triple, if it meant not having to talk to Connie at all. Quadruple, if it meant not having to see her.

Does she think this is our thing, a little private joke we share? Does she think I find it as amusing as she does?

"Look, there's that woman I see from time to time! Yay, we get to do our little routine, the one where I remind her of what an irresponsible, careless loser she is, she stares at me like a deer in the headlights, and we both just laugh and laugh!"

Does she find it amusing? She doesn't seem to. Either she is a master of deadpan delivery, or she really is that desperate for me to save 5%. It doesn't matter. I don't care if it's a joke or not, I just don't want to be asked about coupons.

I've considered the likelihood that it's part of her job, but other employees don't do it. They may ask if I have coupons when I'm checking out, but if I say no, they seem to accept my answer. I don't feel like I've let them down.

There's something about Connie that makes me feel like I've forgotten my homework. Again.

I suspect Connie has problems of her own. I sense she may have a compulsion of some sort, that she knows she's upsetting me and isn't happy about it, but can't stop herself. It seems likely I'm not the only customer who is bothered by her. I have no intention of complaining to her employer about her asking a benign question that just happens to trigger my deepest insecurities, but a part of me secretly hopes someone else will. Maybe a few someones. Maybe enough someones that she'll be asked not to work there anymore.

When I didn't see her for a while, I thought she may have moved on to more satisfying work. If I hope she found a better job, I can still be a good person, right?

I'd almost let my guard down when one day, while I was perusing the chocolate, she came up behind me.

"Are you shopping with your coupons today?"

Her voice felt like a gentle but greatly unwelcome hand on the back of my shoulder, and I instinctively tried to shrug it off. Unfortunately, this doesn't work when the person in question isn't physically touching you.

No, I didn't remember my coupons. I also chronically neglected to do my homework in school, or didn't to turn it in. I didn't forget - I'm not lucky enough to be able to escape the reality that I'm failing at something for even a minute - I was just too overwhelmed to do it, or thought it wasn't good enough to claim. I didn't know where to start. There has never been a time in my life when I haven't been constantly nagged by someone, or multiple someones, and I know I deserve it. I also know it doesn't help. I can't keep my paperwork straight. I can't sort my mail. Bills go unpaid even though I have the money, because neither my husband or I can get it together. When someone hands me a calendar or asks about scheduling something, I am literally paralyzed by how overwhelming it is. Like, I cannot speak. I have fines at the library so steep I might as well have just bought the books. My kids miss out on things because I get so behind on my email. I schedule them for their yearly checkups months too late. I'm terrified of my voicemail. No, I didn't [insert whatever you want me to do here]. I let down people I genuinely care about and neglect things that are important to me all the time. I am a major disappointment to all, yourself included. I could tell you that if I can't get it together to make my own family happy, I certainly don't care about you, but it would be a lie. I want to do what you want more than you can possibly imagine. I just can't do it. 

So no, I didn't remember my fucking coupons. If your emails weren't going straight to my "promotions" folder, I'd have to unsubscribe, because every such email I get ensures that I won't get to two that actually matter. It's all I can do to be punctual most of the time. That's it. If I had any more brain power, I'd use it on one of the things I just told you about. I simply don't have the will to give a FUCK about coupons, okay?

None of that is her problem, and I know better than to take it out on her. I may be a flake, but I'm not an asshole. Still, I had to let her know she was stepping on my toes, so I came up with an answer. The rudest, coldest one I could think of while still maintaining a shred of human decency. Something that would hopefully make it clear I was done playing games.

"No."

I was careful to speak with a definitive period at the end, not apologetic ellipses. I couldn't pretend to feel guilty anymore. I tried to sound firm, but not mean.

"You could save at least ten percent."

I hate you. 

I know it's not Connie's fault. There's no way she could know how deep all this runs for me. Perhaps something in me triggers something in her, or in you, and I have no way of knowing that.

I suppose I'd better find a new favorite store not to shop at.



*I can't promise Connie isn't her real name, but if it is, it's purely coincidental. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Because Fuck You, That's Why

The warnings came in June or July, portending a catastrophic earthquake that would destroy the entire Seattle area. I remembered sitting in my fifth grade classroom and being told exactly this, verbatim, right down to the preachy, sanctimonious tone. “Look at you, going about your life, failing to hold up the sky by constantly keeping the possibility of a 9.0 earthquake on your mind at all times! I know you brain dead morons won't listen, but I'm here to tell you about it anyway. At least I'll have done my job.” 

So an earthquake might wipe us all out any minute. What do you suppose I should be doing about it? 

I scoff because I can't conceive of such a disaster. I scoff because suddenly, out of nowhere, I'm once again being admonished for not living in constant fear of something I've always known. You might as well inform me that I am going to die, and then sit back, cross your arms and let me contemplate how flagrantly irresponsible of me it is. But mostly, I scoff because it doesn't matter. I love this place. I don't want to die, but if it goes down, it would be best for me to go down with it. What would I do without it? So I don't worry. 

Meanwhile, I’d been gaining weight at an alarming rate. It had been happening for the past three months or so. No, the past year or two. No, since I’d had kids. Actually, no, it started when I was 19 and got a car. But no, it went back further, to when I was born. Wait, no, it started around March of 1976, when I was presumably conceived. Yes, I spent nearly the entirety of 1976 gaining weight like crazy. That’s my final answer. 

But it had really picked up lately.

I consulted my doctor, who didn’t seem to believe it was inexplicable. Nevertheless, he offered me medication to help me lose weight. I’d really wanted to get to the root of the problem, but I’m an American woman. Offer me a means of losing weight, and I’ll take it. If you’re a medical professional telling me to take diet pills, which is what I secretly want to do anyway, all the better. He wrote me a prescription for Topamax, which I filled and started taking the next day, no questions asked, no googled search conducted. If there was some reason I shouldn’t be taking it, I didn’t want to know.

In August, I headed to New York to meet my husband, who was on a business trip. His boss had paid for me to fly out for the weekend. He'd even sprung for first class tickets. I should have been excited. I was excited. But when the time came, I didn't want to leave my kids, or my favorite little corner of the world. Suddenly, I was afraid the earthquake would come while I was gone, taking virtually everyone and everything I cared about except my husband away. My home. My parents. My brother. My kids. If I lost my parents, brother and children, would I still get to miss my home? 

I'm easily distracted. I have a hard time disciplining myself to stay off my phone. I read, I write, I stare into screens. But one promise I've made to myself and kept is to always look out the window while the plane takes off. People have longed to fly since the beginning of time, and it may be the one miracle I don’t take for granted.

I'm impressed with any take off, but this one far exceeded any other I can remember. Soon, we were flying through a perfect blue sky. Mt. Rainier rose through the blanket of clouds, but that isn't unusual. I was awestruck because I could also see Mt. Adams. Two majestic mountains. What else have humans longed for since the beginning of time? Heaven. Here it was. Was this a secret perk of flying first class? 

Naturally, I was miserable, fighting back the tears that come more easily with every passing year. I've become more comfortable with this, but was aware that perhaps the stranger next to me had not, so I tried hard to keep a lid on it. 

I'm not a fearful flyer, per se – no crushing dread, no panic attacks, no Xanax. But I'm not indifferent to turbulence, either. It does make me think the plane might crash, a possibility I normally find upsetting. This time, though, when the plane started shaking, I calmly wondered if it was for the best. I'd had a decent run, done some of the things I wanted to do. Not all, but that's not going to happen, no matter how long I live. I could die right now and be spared a lot of pain. I'd never know of the earthquake that would shortly be taking out everything that mattered to me. I could leave this world never having lost a parent, sibling, spouse or child (listed in the order they were received). None of them would be able to say the same, but what are you going to do? It's a plane crash.

I love the Pacific Northwest, but it isn't my ancestral home. It's not where any of my parents or grandparents come from. When my maternal grandmother remarried and moved here, my young adult mother followed. My father and his friends got the call in their early 20s – go (north)west, young man. Climb that mountain. The one I was now looking at from my first class window seat. 

In fact, if I have an ancestral home, that's where I was going. New York, where my great-grandparents died, and my mother grew up. That's what I'd call two generations, all in one place. I do feel a connection to it, just as I do to my father's Chicago (fireflies, and the flat landscape impresses me as much as Mt. Rainier does my midwestern relatives).

Once in Manhattan, I did what I almost always do once I've arrived somewhere – immediately decided I wanted to move there. I'd done the same thing when I'd visited my dad's family in the Chicago suburbs a couple of months before. I love the the New York accent, like all my mom's relatives had, affection baked into every word. I love the instant gratification; anything anyone could want, immediately, at any time of the day or night. The art, the restaurants, the infinite possibilities. I hadn’t been here since I was nine years old, and I wanted more. 

Unfortunately for me, I was going on two or three days of the insomnia marathon that often hits me in August. Every exhausted pore in my body hurt, and it stood to reason that sleep deprivation may have accounted for the wild mood swings I was experiencing, too. In the morning, I planned no fewer than three sleep-related tourist activities for myself while Jeremy worked, but was too tired to make any of them happen. I poked around a bit, but mostly wasted half my time, rendering me sadder, sleepier, and less able to sleep than ever. 

More than anything, I wanted to see St. Patrick's Cathedral, the church my grandmother, devoutly Catholic before I met her, had attended. I dragged my husband there the next day and looked around, enthralled. It’s beautiful, of course, like many Catholic churches are, but also a connection to my beloved and long gone grandma. This is where she’d come when she was young, so much younger than I was now. Before she’d been widowed twice before the age of 30, and left with a child from each marriage. Before she took her eighth grade education and rose, Peggy Olsen-style, from secretary to upper-management at the company where she worked for more than 20 years. Before she’d retired, married for a third time, moved across country, rebranded herself as the ideal, traditional grandma, and ultimately died. 

It is not unusual for me to get teary-eyed when I remember her, but crying all the time, from morning to night, is not a part of my regular routine. Typically, I spend the majority of my time not crying. Something was wrong. I lit a candle, threw a few dollars into a donation bin, and prayed silently to St. Anthony. 

“St. Anthony, St. Anthony, won’t you please look around? Something has been lost that must be found.” I repeated this in my head a few times before I realized I was talking to St….Patrick!?!?! 

For once, I felt none of the Catholic guilt that must be programmed directly into my DNA, just anger at that St. Patrick for having the gall not to be St. Anthony. Oh, well. Off to the gift shop, where I bought a laminated St. Anthony prayer card, and a St. Patrick one, too. No matter how dismayed I may have been upon realizing he wasn’t St. Anthony, he was the one who was there when I needed someone. 

Exhausted and edgy, my husband and I spent the next two days exploring Manhattan and meeting a friend for lunch in Jackson Heights, Queens, where my mom grew up. We saw Taye Diggs play Hedwig, observed a cockroach on the floor of the Museum of Modern Art that easily could have been part of an exhibit, but, we concluded, wasn’t, and got Italian ices that weren’t quite as magical as the ones I remembered from when I was nine. 

I cried, picked fights, and hated myself for not enjoying it all more. 

On the plane on the way home, I settled into my seat with my husband at my side. There's no doubt first class is comfortable. I was grateful to my husband’s boss for paying for it, and I’d choose it every time if I could. However, I was mortified to see people - my people - the ones who fly coach - stuck waiting behind the flight attendant while she asked me if I wanted a glass (an actual glass!) of wine. The plane was still boarding. 

“No, thank you,” I answered, sinking down in my enormous seat. I stopped short of attempting to make eye contact with the flight attendant to communicate how much she was embarrassing me in front of Coach. 

I wanted to shout at them as they walked by, “This isn’t me! I’m one of you!” 

I probably should have just accepted the wine, because as it was, the flight attendants kept offering. But I couldn’t be seen doing any such thing. I was dying. 

I attempted to watch the movie Still Alice, but can’t recommend you do the same. If you’re not in the best of spirits, it will make things worse. If you’re happy, happiness is fleeting - why drive it away? Besides, while the movie is technically “good,” Alec Baldwin is not believable as a loving husband. If you haven't seen it, imagine Jack Donaghy saying "I wish I'd known your mother and sister." It was like that. I didn’t finish. 

I chose another movie, one about James Franco murdering his wife and children, then manipulating a journalist with his story. "It's not so much that you murdered your family," the journalist seemed to say, "but that you lied about it." It was a true story, and there was nothing cheerful about it, but perhaps because Still Alice seems more relatable to my own life, it didn’t bring me down quite as hard. 


When I returned home, I finally googled Topamax. 


Topamax is an anticonvulsant drug used for treating epilepsy and migraines. Although it is prescribed off label for weight loss, that is only a temporary side-effect. It can storm into your brain and cause depression and major personality changes. That’s what it did to me. And, although I did lose my appetite, and I did stop gaining weight while I was on it, I did not lose any. Which brought me back full circle to my doctor. I’d told him I was gaining weight inexplicably, he hadn’t believed me, and my mind had already been groomed to doubt what I knew to be true and submit to him. 

I made an appointment and tried to explain it all. 

“Yes, it’s true, I don’t eat anymore, but only because I walk around feeling like my mom just died. All the time. I look at my kids and feel no love. I also haven’t lost any weight.” 

Was that a gleam I saw in his eye? 

“Do you want me to up your dosage?” 

“You don’t care if I die,” I thought. “You think I don’t care if I die. You think I’d rather be nearly suicidal than fat. You’re wrong.” 

As a last ditch effort, I pulled out the pedometer on my phone, hard proof that I was above-average active. 

“You just keep at it!” he told me as he exited the room.

Some might look at my weight gain and say, “Welcome to middle-age!” But I suspect my doctor’s condescending tone might be every bit as indicative. 

Having politely declined his offer of a stronger prescription for Dementors, I left with the same one as before in my hand. But I’d already decided I wouldn’t fill it. As for my doctor, who I’d seen and trusted for years, I thought, “I will never see you again.” And I haven’t. 

I set to work trying to find a feminist doctor, but doctors do not advertise themselves as such, so I settled on a young, tattooed woman with the same first name as myself. The problem with people named Erin is, I instinctively like them, unless they do something to displease me. At that point, I turn on them hard. Erin was no feminist, but she did send me for a psyche evaluation with a nurse practitioner who turned out to be a brilliant therapist. 

I’d have followed her anywhere, but she only did evaluations. She refused to give me my Adderall, because reasons, and I accepted this, because she did a good job of explaining these reasons. She directed me to a fantastic, ninja-warrior type naturopath, who continues to help me get my game back. Maybe someday, I’ll even get there. 

A couple of weeks ago, the earthquake warnings came again. This time, I told the part of me that would rather just die to shut up for a second. I am now the proud owner of a backpack full of survival gear. It’s hard for me to imagine it will make much of a difference if the time comes, but stranger things can happen. 

One time, a tiny little white pill stole my brain. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Pondering the Big Questions

I was wandering around the book store, and, perhaps inspired by the books, asking myself all the big questions. Are accurate records kept of all our deeds, and if so, how are these records used? Will I ever find out what happens when you die, or will I never get an answer, because I'll be dead? Is this why so many people are either religious or Atheists? So they won't have to confront the possibility of never knowing? Is there such a thing as an unselfish good deed?

Most importantly, I asked myself, what even is perfect skin, and can it ever be attained? What if science figured it out earlier today, and I haven't heard yet? When will I hear, if at all? Maybe the movie stars are keeping it from us. When the terrible problem of imperfect skin has finally been solved, will it be too late for me? If so, will I be able to appreciate it anyway? Once again, I asked myself, is there such a thing as an unselfish good deed, like appreciating a scientific advancement from which you yourself cannot benefit? 

I'm not apologizing for my focus on the external. I will, however, point out that I am the victim of a massive and pointed marketing campaign designed expressly to make me hate everything about my appearance, and also that I'm obviously channeling my fear of death into an obsession with my skin. We in the mental health field call that transference. To tell you the truth, I'm surprised you didn't already know that. With that out of the way, I'll continue. 

At that very moment, a woman walked by me. She was at least 20 years my senior, but her skin looked better than mine has in...ever. As someone who developed frown lines at 19 from being such a thinka, a 60-year-old woman with nary a wrinkle stood out. How did I know her age, when it was so at odds with her skin? That's another question I can't answer. I just knew. 

Here was an opportunity to answer the very question I'd been pondering! This must be fate, but I'd already spent too much time considering how to approach her, and she was gone. 

I should find her, I thought. She's somewhere here in the store. It will be a compliment to her, and who knows? She might be able to give me the ageless skin I so long for. We'd both benefit. 

But I knew - I knew - I would bungle it. Occasionally, I have been able to pull off saying wildly inappropriate things to people with the grace and charm of the klutzy main character in a romantic comedy. But I could feel it in my bones, that wasn't going to happen here. I would make an enormous fool of myself, and make her terribly uncomfortable in the process. 

When I saw she had gotten in line, I grabbed a Calvin and Hobbs book for my kids so I'd have an excuse to stand behind her. I was hoping she'd turn around, start up a conversation, and I could say something like, "You probably noticed I was looking at you. Well, it's because I'd been thinking about perfect skin. Can it ever really exist???? And then there you were, perfect skin and all. What's your secret?" 

Instead, she looked straight ahead, the way you do when it's clear you've somehow caught the attention of a crazy person. 

It's just as well, for in my heart, I know exactly what the secret to perfect skin is. 

Genetics.