In my teens and early twenties I had a bit of a hard-edge identity. It was a great quality to rebuff drunks in bars who wouldn’t leave my girlfriends alone. I could always be relied on to send them scuttling away with some hard stares and cutting remarks. I really didn’t mind that I had this underlying wellspring of anger to tap into. On the surface, I was happy and positive and living my best life. My undercover rage was my secret weapon. “Do NOT mess with me. I will tear you up.”
It didn’t occur to me then that there was something to be examined there, some work to be done. Rage is a powerful emotion, and when acted upon, can be destructive to boot. Mine developed over time from pain and plenty of other things, and because I nurtured it, it made a fine coat of barely concealed armor. I wore mine with pride and I enjoyed watching people give me a wide berth when I flashed it.
In addition to having a love of my anger armor back then, I also had (and still do) an even bigger love of macaroni and cheese. (Wow, that’s a weird sentence.) My mac ‘n cheese love is well documented. As in, maybe I love it a little bit too much, and hence “The Incident.”
The Incident occurred one afternoon about a year after I graduated college. I had finished a waitressing shift and stopped by my neighborhood Wawa convenience store for something to eat. Wawa’s hoagies were an essential food group back then, but their mac ‘n cheese was my absolute favorite.
The line was long and I was tired, but I was in luck because mac ‘n cheese was listed very clearly on the daily specials board. They didn’t have it everyday, so I sucked it up and waited for an eternity until it was my turn to order.
Me: “Medium mac ‘n cheese, please.”
Deli worker: “We don’t have mac ‘n cheese today.”
Me, pointing to board: “But it says it on the board.”
The deli worker turned, looked at the board, then faced me again. “Nope, don’t have it.”
Now, this is the time when a disappointed customer can be forgiven for some slight annoyance at fate or the person working behind the counter. Maybe some minor sighing or eye rolling. Maybe a mild rebuke to update the board if you want to push the envelope. But what a disappointed person does not do is point at the sign and shriek at top of her lungs, “Don’t have mac ‘n cheese on the sign if you don’t have any!” and storm out cursing like a sailor to the astonished looks of her fellow patrons.
This is not normal. This is also not okay.
As I got in my car, shaking with anger, the small part of my brain that was still functioning rationally thought in a very quiet voice, “Wow, girl.” As in: wow, that was so uncalled for. As in: wow, you go in there all the time and now you cannot go back. As in: wow, you just behaved so poorly that you should be incredibly ashamed of yourself.
Then the small rational part of my brain piped up again, just as quietly, “Something is seriously wrong. You need to go to therapy.” I put my head on the steering wheel and cried, because at that moment the armor felt so heavy. This rage was no longer serving me; it was wrecking me. A few days later I made my first appointment to see a therapist. With no exaggeration, at that point in my life it was the best decision I ever made.
As an executive coach, my focus with clients is working on the journey ahead. Ethics, training, and common sense ensure that I refer clients to seek the help of trained mental health professionals to handle the healing of the past if needed. I have told The Incident story often over the years as a funny anecdote about why I am such a proponent of therapy and how I experienced life changing healing through its process. Without a doubt I am a better, more empathetic coach (and human being) because of the work I have done myself in therapy.
I think some people laugh with a wince at The Incident because they have their own mac ‘n cheese stories tucked away. Stress can create the occasional, outsized negative reaction to a small setback. But if it becomes a default behavior as it had with me, is it serving you? What does it cost you to carry its weight everywhere you go?
I’d like to apologize to that deli worker behind the counter that day. I am sorry for being a complete jerk. Also, thank you for not updating that sign. You became the catalyst for me to heal my past and change my trajectory as a family member, friend, parent and professional.
Who knew there was such transformative power in mac ‘n cheese?