Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Hitcher

When I was in graduate school an acquaintance of mine once casually mentioned that she picked up hitchhikers on a routine basis. I thought she was deranged. She was only slightly bigger then I was and clearly defenseless. Didn’t she ever see The Hitcher? Didn’t every girl my age see that creepy film just to watch C. Thomas Howell? After one viewing of that film, I never once considered picking up a hitchhiker.

Today I was on my way home from my psychologist appointment. Just let me digress for a minute here. Yes, I have a psychologist, and a psychiatrist, and a biofeedback therapist, and another counselor, and I routinely cry on the massage table. I also take the world’s smallest dose of Zoloft (we have to dilute the liquid for to get me a 2mg dose because any more than that I get anxiety side effects). I really think it’s high time for the whole mental health stigma to get kicked to the curb. Why do people act as if misfiring neurotransmitters are somehow different than flawed islet cells (pancreatic cells that make insulin)? Mental illnesses are just that: illnesses. And diseases like depression, left untreated, worsen other chronic illnesses and can lead to alcoholism and drug abuse and a myriad other problems. And, yet, insurance puts these illnesses into a separate category, often “carving out” the policy to another company who gives you 20 visits to clear up your issues. Great, 20 visits should take care of all my anticipatory grief. Three words for the US health care system: mental health parity.

Ok, I am off my soapbox now.

As I was exiting I-40, I noticed a young man, about 22 or so, jogging along the side of the exit ramp. “That’s weird,” I thought to myself, “Why would anyone jog here?” As I drew closer and looked at his clothes I realized he was not jogging just running but where to and why? Honestly, I forgot about him in the next millisecond.

While I was stopped at the red light, the young man appeared at my passenger-side window. “Maam, I ran out of gas at the beginning of the exit ramp. I was going to run to the gas station but the sign says it is 1.1 miles away. Could you give me a lift?” I had about a second before the light changed. I looked him over. He looked like the average 22 year-old, had no backpack, and did not appear to be carrying any obvious implements of destruction. I drive a 2004 Saturn Wagon so he clearly was not after my car.

I had just spent the first half of my therapy session talking about the Bible verses I highlighted in the kids’ future Bibles. My favorite verse is Matthew 25:35 “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in.” To me, this verse points to the reality that we are all divine and that caring for our fellow man is, indeed, caring for God. Having just extolled the wisdom of these words I could hardly turn the young man away in what, I hoped, was his moment of need. Suddenly I found myself saying, “Sure, get in.”

Then I started talking to God. “Dude, seriously you have got to stop fucking with me.” Yes, this is how I talk to God. It’s hard to justify this because I will not let Aidan call me “Dudette” as he loves to do. But I feel like I just need to be real with God. And he seriously needs to stop fucking with me. I housed a homeless pregnant girl, had a lot of parties where I gave people food and drink (granted much of it was fattening and alcoholic), I donate to the NC Food Bank, etc. I have tried to see God everywhere so must I now be asked to pick up hitchhikers?

“I’m Michelle,” I said reasoning that he would be less likely to kill me if he new my name. “Travis,” he answered back. We had a polite conversation about the fact that he and his “girl” were traveling to Kentucky to get her dog from her mother. We arrived at the gas station and I told him I’d wait and take him back to his car. I watched him. He hurried into the store and bought a red gasoline can then rushed off to fill it with gas. He hopped back into the car and we continued with a little conversation. He was trying to make the round-trip fast enough to make his little brother’s birthday celebration later that evening. It was 11 am; I didn’t see how that could possibly happen.

“How do you know he isn’t a homicidal maniac?” my fearful voice asked. I tried to figure out whether there was any possibility that I had played into some elaborate scheme that still awaited me on the exit ramp. I couldn’t conjure up any scheme at all let alone an elaborate one so I just continued on with praying.

“You can let me off here,” he said, motioning to the east exit ramp, “I’ll just cross the highway.”

“No, thanks. I am not interested in being an accomplice to your death. I will go down to the next exit, turn around and take you to your car.”

He stopped talking and reached into his pocket. On a sleek little cell phone (can they get any smaller?) he called his mother. In that moment, I knew I was in the free and clear. I smiled to myself, “There will always be someone there to mother you.” I have promised my children this. And in the car today, I was mothering someone’s little boy, now all grown up, while she spoke to him on the phone.

“Careful pulling up to the car,” he directed me, “The shoulder is rocky.” He got out of the car and then appeared at my window again, this time with a piece of gum to quiet my cough. “Thanks,” I said reaching for the gum, “I’ll wait until I know everything is working.”

I used to say that I somehow escaped the whole Catholic guilt thing, but over the last several months I realized that I just didn’t feel guilty about premarital sex. My Catholic guilt is everywhere. Today I told my therapist that I felt guilty about all the money being spent to keep me alive: around $1500 a week. Last night, as I was lying in bed, I thought about all the Africans that could live off of that amount of money. And I felt profoundly guilty. Intellectually, I know the money would never be redistributed toward them, but that knowledge did little to assuage my guilt.

The more I spoke to my therapist, the more I realized that I have always felt guilty for having more than others, even when as a young child in a very “middle” middle class family. I used to pray for the shoe store on the “Avenue,” our main shopping area, that had no customers. When I received my confirmation I sat across the church aisle from a boy who lived in the boy’s orphange next to my school. His crooked body and uncooperative legs hampered his every movement. Like me, he had a red felt shawl around his neck. Mine bore the hand-sewn letters of the name I had chosen for my confirmation name: Claire. The boy across from me was struggling to tape his letters on in time to walk up the aisle and be confirmed. My eyes filled with tears because it seemed so damned unfair: he was poor and contorted and had no mother. I had everything. And when I was in Nairobi and the children with their bedraggled dress and swollen bellies chased me through the streets, my mouth said, “Hapana! [No]” because I didn’t have money for them all and I did not want to become the Pied Piper of Kenyatta Avenue. But I wanted to say “Ndiyo [yes]” to them all. Inequity bothers me. It is the biggest barrier between me and an unshakeable belief in God. I just don’t see how he/she can let it be this way.

My psychologist suggested that I anthropomorphize the emotion a la Elizabeth Gilbert in “Eat, Pray, love.” To me guilt is a poor child with sorrowful brown eyes, a distended abdomen, and earth caked on her small feet. Guilt is hungry and cold and hopeless.

Perhaps I was born with a socialist gene. Bill reasons that I was a Bolshevik in a past life. I always thought when I stopped working I could volunteer to help the less fortunate, but now I am too sick to do that. I am too sick to do much of anything. “I just feel so guilty for costing society all this money when I am not contributing,” I finally admitted to my therapist. “What did you say?” he asked. I knew that he had heard me; he was making sure that I had heard myself. There it was: I feel useless. “I feel like a barnacle,” I muttered. Though I know it is not true, sometimes it feels that way.

The young man filled up his tank and returned one last time to my window. “Thanks again. You’re a life-saver.”

As I drove away I mulled over his choice of words. Maybe I was supposed to be in that very spot when he reached the top of the off ramp. Maybe things would have turned out differently if I had refused to help him. Maybe he would have gotten hit on the side of the road or crossing the highway. I’ll never know. Perhaps I was a life-saver today. Perhaps we all are sooner or later. We never really know, do we? And maybe that’s what The Hitcher was there to tell me.

So I will keep trying to feel like I am worth whatever amount it is costing society to keep me alive. I’ll try to dismiss the image of myself as a barnacle in the sea of life. And when guilt looks at me with her big sad eyes I’ll tell her that I have given her all I can, and I just cannot afford to feel guilty anymore.

But I will not be picking up anymore hitchhikers.


Sue R said...

As a mom with three sons about that age, I thank you for helping out that young man. In Dallas stories come up now and then about people who don't make it across the highway, most recently one about an African refugee who missed his bus and tried to make it home to his wife and children. You really might have saved a life. I sometimes think that in eternity, we get to see how people and events were changed because our lives intersected with someone else, and we'll find we were more needed in the world than we ever imagined. You may have been an angel sent to help him. And he may have been one sent to help you to understand that you really do make a difference.

Take care of yourself, and don't worry about how much it costs. To your children, it's worth it. I've spent most of my life without my mother, and I would rather have had her. But my life still has been rich and good.

I appreciate your openness. Thanks for sharing so freely.

Cha Cha said...

I second Sue's eloquent words. And I think you're overlooking an important bit of outreach - your blog is such an amazing gift to the world. You are contributing in ways that you can't even imagine. Just trust that you are right where you need to be, doing exactly what is intended for you.