December 12, 2013

A Free, Zero-Calorie & Legal (But Possibly Addictive) Fix for Suffering.

I am having a dark night of the soul.

It doesn’t really matter why, at least not as far as this story goes. Let’s just say that I’m really sad and anxious and that I cried in Walgreen’s the other day because “Auld Lang Syne” was playing on the sound system. I just sort of stayed where I was, in the corner where embellished nail tips met body washes, and I tried to keep myself from snuffling at a volume that would attract attention.

Let’s also add the fact that the whole holiday thing makes it worse, and that I oscillate crazily between listening to the Ronettes singing “Frosty the Snowman” and making wrapping paper out of grocery bags, and wondering if I can actually make myself get dressed to go to work.

I think I could “fix” myself on some kind of retreat, even a DIY retreat where I ate healthy soups, did lots of restorative yoga and meditation and read nothing but Pema Chodron and Shambhala Sun. I think I could get my mind and body realigned that way, and reclaim my wandering spirit in the bargain. I can find time for snippets of that, but the “fix” can’t be dependent on my ability to run away from the demands of my family and my work.

And, of course, I know that time will eventually do that thing it does to smooth and gentle even the sharpest pain. It always does. In the meantime, though, there is the problem of doing the needful on a daily basis with ones’ mascara intact and without being fired, losing friends or forgetting to buy paper products for the 5th grade holiday party.

So when I had pretty much given up on feeling better, the universe handed me an elegant solution. (As it so often does, if we are paying attention).

My husband had appointments scheduled at the VA Hospital an hour away from here. I had to go on the off chance they would need to dilate his eyes, but I didn’t want to go. It was cold, and I was sad, and hospitals make me sadder right this minute. I didn’t want to ride in the car, I didn’t want to spend hours in waiting rooms, and I didn’t want to go somewhere where there’s no Wi-Fi or decent coffee.

In short, I was channeling all of my misery into an epic moment in bitch-hood.

When we got to the hospital, the woman who was supposed to be checking us in was on the phone. It was clearly a personal call, and I started to get all judgy-twitchy and self-righteous about the fact that she was making us wait while she talked to whoever it was.

Then, because I am a world class eavesdropper, I started to listen to her side of the conversation. She said she was in a lot of pain, and that the cold made it worse. She had three more hours left on her shift, and if she had to go to the doctor’s office to pick up her prescription it would mean taking three buses after she got off work at 4:00. Her doctor had promised her that refills could be called in to the pharmacy, and if they could just do that she could pick it up on her way home, and please could she speak to the office manager because she was in so much pain and she knew that if they would just ask her doctor he would confirm what she was saying.

She hung up the phone, and said “May I help you, sir?” to my husband. He checked in and started walking towards the waiting area for his first appointment, but I hesitated in front of her desk.

“I’m sorry you’re feeling so bad,” I said. I don’t know what possessed me. She might have been angry that I had listened in on her conversation, or wanted me to hurry up and get out of the way since I was not a veteran, and there were real ones waiting in line behind me. She could, for all I knew, have been a Vicodin addict trying to scam another 30 pills.

I think I spoke up because her pain spoke to mine. There was some invisible filament that bound us as humans, strangers or not, and I did what I wished someone would do for me. I saw her, saw her suffering without judgment and acknowledged it.

“It’s the arthritis” she said. “It gets terrible when it’s cold like this. I was at church yesterday morning and while I was waiting for my sister to pull the car around I thought my bones would break, they hurt so much.”

“I’ve heard cold makes arthritis worse,” I said. “And I hope they can help you feel better soon.” Her eyes filled.

“Thank you,” she said. She blinked hard. “It’s hard when you don’t have a car and there’s a different doctor every time at the clinic and nobody remembers what the last person said.” I nodded. She reached up over her desk to put one of her tiny, cold hands on my big warm one.

The man behind me was drumming on a table with his fingers. She moved her hand and I walked away, after my husband.

I noticed that I was humming. My shoulders were lower, and I actually smiled back at a man in a wheelchair.

I was not, perhaps, cured of my deep sadness but I had made it bearable by connecting with another human soul. I had, in some paradoxical way, halved the weight of my own suffering by caring about the worries of that birdlike woman behind the VA check-in desk.

And that balm, that salve for the most broken soul is always available if I’m present and paying attention to the world outside my bubble. It always fits into my schedule, it’s free and it has no calories.

It’s just love.

P.S. There are lots of ways to help others, particularly during the holidays. Check out groups in your area that help out  with meals, shelter, warm coats, rides to doctors and hospitals or holiday parties for children living in poverty. Call the nearest animal shelter and see if there are dogs to walk and cages to clean. Visit a retirement community with your accordion or write letters for folks with shaky hands. Help the frantic mom in the line at the grocery store who is one second away from losing it.

Writing a check is nice, but it doesn’t have the power of human (or animal) contact.


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Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Anna Quinn/Flickr


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