invisible shield

For about 45 minutes last night, I felt like I was losing it. I have no idea what brought it on, exactly, only that I was standing at the cashier line at ShopRite casually looking at the items the shopper behind me had put on the conveyer belt, and I got suddenly - and thoroughly - distressed. There were two boxes of confectioners' sugar, two six-packs of Coke, a large Entemann's crumb cake, some kind of Betty Crocker mix, a single banana, and one red onion. Immediately and for no reason that I could figure out, I felt the terrible urge to flee, and I don't just mean the grocery store. I meant New Jersey. I meant marriage and motherhood. I thought to myself, I cannot live in a place where this is happening, where people are eating THIS poorly. I felt the wallop of longing in my heart for the teeny produce shop two blocks from my old apartment in San Francisco, on the corner of Church and 30th, with its overflowing bins of bright, fresh fruit and vegetables and how they always tasted exactly like they looked. Not here, where flavorless grape tomatoes jostle with bland lettuces, where everything has an off-season that lasts for more than half the year. I LOATHE the produce aisle at my grocery store - all these pale ghosts of the real thing. Even the ginger root - meant to withstand a cold cellar - looks gnarled and bent as an old woman's thin knuckles.

So there I was, glancing behind me, like a modern-day Orpheus turning - against all warnings and my better judgment - back toward some elusive love. It didn't matter that I was buying a relatively healthy dinner for us and the boys. It didn't matter that the only pre-made item in my square footage of the conveyer belt was a fairly innocuous tray of mini corn muffins. Nevertheless, some kind of strange molting began, and by the time I walked in the front door of the house 10 minutes later, I was fuming. And 10 minutes after that, a battle was in full force - I was raging against everything I could. The function that dinner has turned into, and how it feels like my joy for cooking and eating is gone. The video games that my younger stepson plays for more hours than he should, losing himself to the screen and - once away from it - becoming an a-verbal animal of a boy. My mounting frustration that I didn't birth my stepkids, and didn't have a hand in raising them, and how utterly difficult it can be to align my personal values with their past and present tense. And then, behind this galumphing despair, a large and lumpy sadness that drove me - after a fight in the kitchen with Amy that exploded into smithereens - to the bedroom to block out as much as I could. As I lay back against the pillows, I tried to dismantle what was going on, tried to understand why this moment, of all moments, I was going berserk. It wasn't like something had happened.

And then, as I got quieter outside and inside, I thought about a Facebook post I'd read before going to the grocery store, a post from a woman who was commemorating the 10th anniversary of her son's death from a drug overdose. In her post, she was writing about how just 3 days before he died, she was convinced that he was finally clean after so many years, and they'd gone out to lunch to celebrate, and he'd driven off proudly in a used car she'd helped him buy a week before. That lunch was the last time she saw him, the last time she hugged him. Three days later, he fell into a black hole and never returned.

When I read this, I thought about my own brother, who might have disappeared down that same path but didn't...and hasn't. But there is a part of me that, if I tell the truth, is still holding my breath. And I'm wondering now if this was what took me down, this darkness and despair still occasionally whispering over my shoulder. The thought of this woman who did not believe her son was going to die from his addiction, and yet was forced to face exactly this. I wondered if this was the dread that followed me through the aisles of ShopRite and then all the way home again.

I am beginning to understand my need to be careful around certain stories. To recognize my own permeability and porousness. How I can't take everything on. How I can't take everything in. And I am thinking now of a friend's caution several years ago to make sure to put up an invisible shield against others' distress. To develop tools to safeguard our own fragility and vulnerability to wounding, even the indirect kind. I see, now, that those stirrings of distress at the grocery store  - and the full-on despair that followed - might have come out of an intangible and emotionally unbearable stressor, that unfathomable loss that for years I found myself hoping and praying to avoid. And how, without the words and actual catalyzing event to experience that grief in full, how it nevertheless came rollicking out from the smaller, totally plebian and manageable stressors of shopping for dinner. How quickly they morphed into a sense of catastrophe and total loss of control. Because all I know is that from that cashier line, everything suddenly looked obscenely dark and weighty and impossible, and from there I desperately wanted to escape everything that even hinted of being a problem. Video games giving rise to a Neanderthal stepson. Two boxes of powdered sugar giving rise to the reason I should not be living in New Jersey. An argument giving rise to the reason that I should not be married, like, ever.

Thank GOD this spiral down the rabbit hole lasted only 45 minutes. Thank GOD my partner is someone I trust with my own demons. Thank GOD the asparagus actually tasted like asparagus. And thank GOD my brother is alive and healthy again, just a few hours' drive away, or a phone call, where I hear him talk breathlessly about all the good things he's doing, and where I can tell him how proud I am of him for everything it took to get him there, which is to say, right here, right now. Right here, right now.