Years ago, I recall standing in a sporting goods store at the Queens Center Mall, staring at a display of softball mitts.
It was 1975, after school; I was twelve. I was probably wearing Smiths carpenter pants and Lil Abner boots and a Huckapoo “silk” shirt that was really polyester, judging by its fragrance whenever I broke into a prepubescent sweat. Anyway: I was standing in the store, in front of the softball mitts — the Rawlings — staring at them for what seemed like an hour, wide-eyed and unblinking and frozen, paralyzed where I stood until someone came up behind me, put their hand on my shoulder, and asked me if I was okay. It startled me; it was like they were waking me out of a deep sleep. I don’t recall what I told them. I have no recollection of how I even got home that day — I either walked (a very long walk down Queens Boulevard) or I took the subway — or what happened when I arrived; it was probably dinnertime, and I was probably fed Swanson’s fried chicken by my grandmother.
I didn’t tell anyone what had happened to me that day until I was in college, a decade later, when I went to talk to a guidance counselor. A few days earlier, my mother had figured out that every phone number on my dorm floor was one digit apart, and, looking for me, called each one in succession; I sat on my bed, paralyzed, and heard thirty phones ring that Saturday night (my dorm mates were out), one after the other, until she reached the end. Then she started all over again with my neighbor, since she couldn’t reach me: I had physically removed my phone from the cinderblock wall it was hanging on. What was so dire? Had someone died? No. She just needed to fight, and I didn’t. This went on for three hours.
Tom explained it: I had experienced what is known as the freeze response—the thing that happens when the amygdala tells the hypothalamus to open the cortisol and adrenaline floodgates, creating a tsunami that sends the nervous system off-line.
I told my guidance counselor about it. He asked if anything similar had happened before, and I said yes: all the time. But that night was different, and all I could see as I sat on my bed listening to the phone ring — I couldn’t move — was the wall of softball mitts at Herman’s Sporting Goods. Tom explained it: I had experienced what is known as the freeze response—the thing that happens when the amygdala tells the hypothalamus to open the cortisol and adrenaline floodgates, creating a tsunami that sends the nervous system hurtling off-line. It shuts down completely, and the result is paralysis, either physical or emotional or both.
I’m writing this because yesterday — for the first time since 1981 — this happened to me. I was working: writing, editing, teaching. I could feel it coming on; I pushed through it. The physicality of it hits like this: I can’t get warm. I shiver. I drink buckets of water, as if to flush the cortisol out of my system. I have a hard time getting my mouth to form words. My hands shake. I don’t go to the gym. I don’t walk the dog. I forget to eat. I’m starving. I can’t look at food. I eat boxed macaroni and cheese. My eyes burn as though my body is secreting some sort of poisonous chemical that keeps me from blinking.
What happened to cause this? I’m in Motherland/eldercare hell, taking care of the very woman who called every phone on my dorm floor over and over again, searching for me that night in 1981. I am up to my ears in deadlines. My spiritual life is in a shambles, having been shaken like a snow globe when I had a Covid-related stroke in 2020. Petey, our dog, is going deaf and losing his vision, and is sundowning on a regular basis. The bills are piling up, dangerously so. Add to this: I just finished a page-by-page review of the tenth anniversary edition of Poor Man’s Feast, the book that ignited the spark that ended my relationship with much of my family. I am going into the studio next week to record the audiobook.
So on that late afternoon in Queens, while glaring at the word Rawlings, my body said enough, just as it did yesterday.
Back in 1975, on that day in the sporting goods store at the Queens Center Mall, staring at the rack of softball mitts for what seemed to be an hour, unable to move, unable to speak, I had — unknowingly — reached my stress limit and my sympathetic nervous system went into free fall; the home I lived in was like a war zone, a local male teacher had taken a shine to both me and my mother, I was being bullied and then ghosted in school, I was going through puberty and figuring out that I was not like all the other girls who cooed at the boys, my grades were suffering, that summer I had a counselor at camp who was straight out of Tom Brown’s School Days. So on that late afternoon in Queens, while glaring at the word Rawlings, my body said enough, just as it did yesterday.