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What I Almost Missed as I Grew Frustrated With the Elderly Woman at the Grocery Store

Yesterday, I was standing in line at the grocery store. I had precisely three items, and ahead of me in the “15 or fewer” lane was an elderly lady with a cart piled high. I sighed quietly to myself, trying not to allow my impatience a voice. Mostly, when waiting in lines, I try to use the enforced stillness to practice deep breathing, to reflect on the progress of my day, or simply to map out the tasks ahead. But yesterday, I was anxious to get out of there, to flee to the safety of my car.

You see, I had just left an appointment with a psychologist, a woman I am not sure I like or trust and about whom I am intensely resentful. It’s not just her – I am resentful about the fact that I was sent to see her. About needing medication for a depression that’s returned after many years away. About the possible renewal of the label “borderline personality disorder,” a moniker I thought I had left behind so, so long ago. And about a mid-life situation in which I feel increasingly unmoored, adrift, alone, lost. And terribly, obsessively, overwhelmingly needy.

My insides churned and lungs contracted as the wave of anxiety rose upwards from the pit of my stomach. A band of tight pressure snaked its way up from the base of my neck to encircle my head. My breathing became quick and shallow, hot tears of panic prickling the backs of my eyes. I stood figuratively tapping my toe as I watched the lady battling to insert her credit card into the reader. Snapping gum aggressively, the teenaged cashier looked away in undisguised boredom as the woman struggled to force her card into place. After a handful of failed attempts, I leaned in and guided the woman’s hand around the card reader, sliding the plastic squarely into the slot.

She looked at me, eyes rheumy and red-rimmed behind glasses, and approximated a smile. “Can you manage?” I asked as gently as my rising anxiety would allow. She shook her head in resignation, tight gray curls bobbing. “Let’s see…” I continued, punching the buttons for credit and guiding her hand to the place she should sign. All the while, the cashier unleashed wave upon wave of bored antagonism in our direction.

As the transaction completed and a bagger stuffed her groceries roughly into sacks, the woman set me squarely in her sights. “I have macular degeneration. Do you know what that is?” I nodded. “I can’t see anything right in front of me and this screen,” she gestured at the credit card machine, “is so tiny. These days, I can’t seem to manage without help.”

I nodded again and touched her arm. “It’s OK, it was a pleasure to help,” I said. And that was when I realized it had been. The encounter had, for the briefest of moments, taken me out of my rising panic, out of the roiling, bubbling, churning resentment as memories of the therapy session played in a constant loop in my mind, and had given me respite.

And I also realized something else. Neither the cashier nor I could have known this apparently confused and infirm senior was actually neither of these things. She simply could not see. Her condition prevented her from carrying out what many of us experience as a simple, routine activity: paying for groceries.

And, in the same way as her condition blinded her to the payment screen, my condition was blinding me to seeing that the psychologist was just doing her job. That, despite my overt hostility, lack of trust, and passive-aggression, she was trying to get me help. That the medications I struggle to accept as necessary are part of the solution and that taking them is not a sign of weakness. That the wildly fluctuating emotions I am currently experiencing – from the lows of sobbing on my knees alone on my kitchen floor to the comparative high of daring to believe that everything might just work out…often within the same hour – will level out and I need to give myself time. And patience. And kindness. And to accept the help where I can get it.

And not allow my condition to blind me to the fact that I do not have to struggle alone.

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Thinkstock photo by gpointstudio

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