Emotional infant. From all the Frazier episodes I laughed through, that is my favourite phrase. Frazier – grand master of all emotional infants – used this once as a his own brand of expletive, and I’ve kept it in my back pocket ever since. I pull it out and silently tack it onto others, sit back smugly, and enjoy feeling awesome next to them. Don’t judge me. That’s just the opening. There’s a “but” coming. First, let me tell you a story.
Do you love San Francisco? It has become a favourite city of mine. For a couple of years, I would attend my company’s annual conference there. I would look forward to spending a few days hanging out around Union Square where my hotel was, soaking in the rich energy of this place. One afternoon, while absorbing the particular energy of Walgreens – even the mundane is cool in this city! – I had an inkling of the power of my anger to lead me astray and do spectacularly stupid things.
It was something simple that I needed – a nail file or something. Clippers! That’s it. A purchase of less than five dollars almost led to my demise. I’m Canadian. And a white female. And – at least by culture if not current experience “middle class” (whatever that is these days) – I don’t expect the threat of death while carrying out such every day tasks as taking care of personal hygiene. I have a sense of entitlement a la Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers). This is not a slam on the good citizens of San Francisco. It’s not an apologetic self-characterization. I just didn’t carry the same awareness with me that makes their day go smoothly.
Take for example, the local woman in line at the cash register just ahead of me at Walgreens. I will call her “Innocent Bystander”. She was a pillar of the calm patience that looks like oblivion in an emergency. It is, actually, a finely honed survival technique, especially when the emergency is manufactured entirely by someone else (like me, for example). I think it might be categorized as that elusive, nay mythical characteristic many call “common sense”.
Anyway, I’m standing in line. Only, apparently I’m not in line, according to the woman behind me, because I have strayed, in my naive Canadian/possibly ADHD fashion, a foot or so out of her imaginary boundary. It designates customers who are “in line” versus those who are “not in line”, and who should most definitely not presume to wander back “in line” under any circumstances. I sense her claim. I become subtly, and so far peacefully, territorial. I move back, placing myself directly behind Innocent Bystander. I’m not angry so far. I’m just countering the claim. In Canada, there would be an exchange of “oh, I’m sorry” from all parties, including Innocent Bystander. Everyone would adjust in a non-confrontational manner, and we would resume our wait, amicably discussing the weather, or the price of nail clippers.
Not so in San Franciso’s, Union Square. Not at Walgreens. And not by the (now I realize) drug using purchaser of potato chips standing behind me and challenging my claim to the lineup. My boundary affirmation is an affront to her. She begins speaking loudly at me. No, I’m supposed to be behind her. She was there first. Untrue. I suddenly become a Righteous Defender of the Truth, and I refuse to move. Potato Chip Girl leaps ahead of me and stands up against Innocent Bystander, her body stretched so that her back arches slightly. She only barely avoids touching Innocent Bystander, who stands, wisely, in place and makes no response. The three of us make a bizarre pending-mayhem sandwich. There is no negotiation of personal space now. We have entered a weirdness red zone.
I need to say, for the record, that my “this is ridiculous, leave it alone” radar did go off at this point. I’m not that kind of idiot. It’s there, and it’s clear. I’m just the sort of idiot who ignores it.
Now you might piece together the cute picture of Mercer Mayer’s Little Critter at the beginning of this post because at this point in the story I am, truly, So Mad. Like an angry child, I take her firmly by the arm and place her a few feet away. I do this. Except that I feel like I’m watching myself do it. Dumb, says my shocked and almost speechless smart inner voice. It’s a bit late. I am suddenly morally outraged. How dare you. You’re not pushing ME around, little Potato Chip Girl. Except that she is. And she may be little, but she’s not a pushover. She does not get placed anywhere, by anybody. And now, I’m calling on my smart inner voice. What was that you said? Oh damn.
Suddenly, I have a stark realization. I could get shanked at Walgreens. And in that millisecond, I imagine my girls speaking to their friends. “How did your mother die?” “She went to Walgreens in San Francisco for nail clippers and never came back”.
Now I’m backing down. Too late. Potato Chip Girl is on a rampage. I withdraw and say “whatever”. But it’s not “whatever”, because in my residual idiocy, I fling the nail clipper package, Frisbee style, at Potato Chip Girl. And I flee. It’s a walk-don’t-run flee. She’s after me. She catches up to me in the entrance way, and she’s ready for a fight. Suddenly, she is swarmed by security. They have watched this unfold. One of them breaks from the security scrum and blurts to me, “go”. I muster as much dignity as I can and leave hastily. I don’t run, though. Still gripped by idiocy, I will not show that I am scared out of my remaining wits. Common sense does take over when I get outside. I run blindly and sloppily in my little platform sandals, with my shopping bags in hand, terrified, through Union Square.
Lately I’m realizing my own Frazier-ness. I have become a psychiatric out patient in full time group therapy (no connection to my Walgreens epiphany). My most amazing discovery in this Phoenix moment of confronting my emotional life is just how lost I have been, and for how long (Try, forEVER. My therapist assures me that you can’t be born angry. This creates an enormous amount of work for me if I want to be healthy. It’s exhausting. Naturally, I am slightly pissed off).
I know anger. I thought. I definitely experience it enough . Oh, and I kind of express it, well, frequently. (Ask my ex. And his divorce lawyer. And my ex divorce lawyer for that matter). This can be surprising to people (who are not negotiating a divorce or giving me a plodding explanation of the oh-so-rational intricacies of social assistance and how I’m not eligible or how I should go to some other agency). MOST people are used to hearing me sound like this:
Most people would not recognize Crazy Walgreens Tourist.
Imagine my surprise as, in the Emotional Awareness session of my group therapy, the emotions we are learning to identify (yes! because that’s actually more difficult than you might think) – sadness, fear, shame and anger – all look and feel to me like, um, anger.
Imagine my surprise as I realize how little I understand about emotion. It’s me, too, this emotional infant. No longer so smug. Not, in fact, the Star of this class. I am learning my own vulnerability – and that’s a good thing. And it’s not so cute, either. Death at Walgreens brings NO free pass to the afterlife. There will be questions…
Did you have a heart attack, Dear? (you’re in)
Did a crate of tampons stored on the top shelf crash down on your head? (hmmm, refer to secondary for questioning)
Shanked by crack-crazed Potato Chip Girl? (admitted later that day, following heart attack) Oh, Dear, I’m afraid we can’t admit you for that. You’ll need quarantine, perhaps. Seriously. NO ONE dies from that and gets in here easily.
No cute, fuzzy, cookie crunching, paint smushing Little Critter in this scenario. It’s time for some emotional potty training. My girls deserve better from me.
Heck, I deserve better from me.