My senior year of college I lived in an on-campus apartment with my three best friends. We all had unique strengths and personalities: Katie was the house-mother of the group who kept everything and everyone in order and on track. Jamie was the free spirit/drama queen who kept us entertained, Beth was the earth mother who was nurturing and emotional. And I was…well, I suppose Katie, Jaime and Beth might each have their own answer to that question (and probably have their own characterizations for themselves as well), but I would characterize myself as the…child. I was the one who laughed hysterically as a drunken Jaime molested a soda bottle, who relied on Katie to make me clean up after myself and announce when dinner was over and homework time had begun, and who turned tearfully to Beth to kiss my boo-boos, both physical and emotional.
You’re probably wondering why they kept me around. It’s a fair question, and I’m pretty sure the answer had to do with my tendency to always have chocolate or similarly decadent desserts and late night snacks.
But regardless of what I what role I played, it was very clear what I did not play. And that was the role of the person you turn to in a crisis.
This was rarely an issue because in almost every situation we had Katie, who definitely IS the person you turn to in a crisis. As a result, I managed to get all the way to senior year without having to show how useless I am in any high stress, high stakes, or high emotion situation.
One spring afternoon of our senior year, Beth and I were home alone, and Beth put a mini-frozen pizza in the toaster over and then went back upstairs to her room. I walked into the kitchen a few minutes later to find flames shooting out of the top of the toaster oven.
I immediately started screaming – actually, to be honest, it was probably more like shrieking: “FIRE! FIRE! BETH!!! THE KITCHEN IS ON FIRE!” I may have said something about how we were all going to die…but that might have only been in my head. Meanwhile, I’m still standing right in front of the flaming toaster oven, frozen as I was with my fear.
Within seconds, Beth comes flying down the stairs holding the industrial sized fire extinguisher that she ripped from its wall mounting at the top of the stairs.
She was wearing a robe and I will never forget the image of her coming into view brandishing the fire extinguisher with a panicked look on her face like a bizarre, adult film star version of a fire fighter. She turned the corner from the stairwell into the dining area and toward the kitchen with the nozzle of the fire extinguisher pointing ahead of her saying “Where is it? Where is it?” as if hunting an elusive enemy.
The sight of her was so startling, and comical, that I immediately snapped out of my panic and said “oh, it’s not that bad,” and gestured toward the toaster over where the few measly flames flickered out the top of the door.
Beth, confused and still hopped up on adrenaline, brought the hose of the extinguisher down to her side and looked at the toaster over for a moment and then back at me.
“The flames are sorta, a little bit close to reaching the cupboards…” I offered in my own defense.
Beth set the extinguisher on the floor, walked over to the toaster oven and unplugged it. To my amazement, the flames immediately disappeared. Turning back to look at me Beth just shook her head and said “oh Mer,” as she picked up the extinguisher and went back up stairs.
And it’s the same in my family. Around this same time I was home for a holiday and one of my nephews was playing with my brother’s puppy, Brandy. And suddenly Brandy is laying under the kitchen table whimpering. I was the first to notice, and after I brought everyone’s attention to it: “OH MY GOD. WHAT’S WRONG WITH BRANDY?!” everyone moved away from the table as my mom got down on the floor to investigate. As we stood watching my mom feel along the Brandy’s limbs and listening to Brandy’s whimper, I burst into loud tears and saying “OH NO! WHAT’S WRONG? OH MY GOD….OH NO! SOMETHINGS REALLY WRONG! SHOULD WE GO TO THE ER? I THINK WE SHOULD TAKE HER TO THE ER VET!” My sister Allison turns around and yells “KNOCK IT OFF!” in the verbal equivalent of a slap in the face and then orders me to leave the room because I’m upsetting the, thus far, calm children.
My autistic nephew, who doesn’t naturally understand emotion, started imitating me as his version of what “sad” is for months – every time he picked up cues that someone was sad, or something remotely unpleasant occurred he would say “OH NO! Boo-hoo-hoo! OH NO!”
(And BTW, the puppy was fine. We never figured out why she was whimpering, although as she grew up she had many more episodes like this revealing her to be the only person in the family with fewer coping skills than I had.)
I have many stories like this, and very few where I was actually useful. Or even just didn’t make a situation worse.
When I make new friends or join a new group, one of the first things I tell them is: “I’m useless in a crisis. Just so you know.”
Worse than having to deal with a physical crisis, like an old lady falling off a curb in downtown traffic or some guy getting his hand caught in the metro doors (they were both fine eventually. I think), is an emotional crisis.
I honestly lay awake at night worrying about the day when one of my close friends will suffer an emotional trauma. I try to think of different scenarios that could occur like the death of a parent, a horrible disease, or a child that turns out to be a religious fanatic, and I try to script the right things to say and do. I compulsively study how other people handle these situations, hoping maybe, like my nephew, I can learn to mimic the right reaction.
And like my nephew, at best I usually mange a vague approximation delivered unconvincingly and slightly out of pace with the situation.
But I do always bring chocolate.