Hitting Rock Bottom in a McDonald’s Bathroom

Writing my last blog post about expat depression reminded me of a time I felt like I’d reached the low point of my life.

It was in December of 2002. At that time we were living in Raleigh, North Carolina, and an ice storm had struck overnight. I woke up in the morning to this scenery:

As much as service delivery works in the U.S, the time it breaks down without fail is when natural disasters strike, especially in the form of hurricanes and ice storms that take down power lines. I don’t know if you can see it in the picture, but the tree at the bottom of the driveway took out a transformer box. The entire neighborhood went dark and would stay so for four days.

This was many years before we would move to South Africa. Before we would complain about yet another power outage wrought on us by Eskom.Yet in all the time living in South Africa, we never had a power outage last this long. As my mother famously said, even in World War II Germany when whole cities were reduced to rubble, the power outages didn’t last as long as in modern-era North Carolina.

The driveway blocked by toppled trees was only one of our problems that day. Our kindly neighbor eventually appeared, chainsaw in hand, and cleared our driveway. This is what I love about Americans: There will always be a neighbor showing up with a chainsaw when you need one. 
But our plight was just beginning. Because even with a clear driveway, where would I go with four kids in tow, all under the age of six? And honestly, at first I thought I could make it. It was North Carolina after all, same latitude as Naples or something similar, and it would warm up in due time. I just had to tough it out until the next morning.

Except it didn’t warm up. By next morning the house was freezing. All I had was one smoky fireplace that didn’t heat didley squat, as a North Carolinian would say. I bundled my youngest into a snowsuit and held her tightly wrapped in a blanket in front of that fireplace, as she wasn’t mobile yet and I was worried she’d get cold the quickest. I tried to keep the other kids occupied with games, balls, pushcarts, whatever I could find that would keep them moving.

It worked for a while, but it kept getting colder. The three days I spent in that house were the coldest I’ve ever been (with the exception of summit night on Mount Kilimanjaro). Noisette, of course, cheerfully left every morning for his perfectly climatized office. He might have even told me to “pull myself together” as he is wont to do.

By the third day, when the temperature dropped to 40 degrees F inside the house, I couldn’t take it any longer. I was so desperate for some warmth that I decided I would move our household into my minivan. I had called all my friends, but everyone was either in the same boat or had already left town to live with relatives. My nearest relatives were my former host parents in Mississippi, and if some other option didn’t come up that day, that’s where I was headed.

But first I had to feed those kiddos. I drove down the road and through a winter wonderland that under different circumstances I would have found beautiful, looking for a store or restaurant that looked open. It took about 20 minutes for me to score: The McDonald’s on Falls of the Neuse Road was open for business!

I cannot tell you how happy the sight of the golden arches made me that day. I was fully prepared to camp out till nightfall at that McDonald’s and have the kids entertain themselves with Happy Meal toys until Noisette would be off of work. Then HE could figure out what to do next – I’d had enough.

To give you an approximate idea of the ages of our kids that fateful day: From left to right – 
Jabulani, Sunshine, Zax, and Impatience. This was not the day of the ice storm.

We hadn’t even had a chance to order yet when Impatience needed to go to the bathroom. It’s funny how soon you forget, once you have teenagers who annoy you to no end by staying in their rooms all day not wanting to talk to you. Do you know what teenagers are great at? Going to the bathroom BY THEMSELVES!

Back in 2002, my only option was to take everybody to the bathroom with me. We squeezed into a stall, the five of us in our bulky winter coats, so that Impatience could do her business. Or I should say the six of us. Not wanting to part with the love of her young life, Bibi the Teddy Bear, Impatience was clutching him to her chest instead of leaving him in the car like any reasonable person would have done. Only she wasn’t clutching so well at that very moment, and – horrors! – Bibi fell into the toilet, right there in the McDonald’s bathroom, landing with a big splash.

We all stood around the bowl, speechless. Everyone knew, even little Sunshine at barely six months old, that something momentous had happened. First there was silence es everyone pondered this development. Then came the scream.

Just to show you how inseparable Bibi and Impatience have always been, here is a picture from
a year later when she absolutely refused to go to ski school unless Bibi came with her.
That was the time I cursed the fact that Bibi happened to be white and not brown like any self-respecting Teddy Bear. I still consider it a miracle he wasn’t lost forever in a slush pile in Whistler that winter.

I suppose that was the good news when he floated in that toilet bowl. At least he wasn’t lost, and all I had to do was fish him out. I can’t honestly recall if it was pre- or post-pee. It didn’t really matter. No roof over my head, no place to go, four little people relying on me – all that I could take. But no washer and dryer? I almost lost it then. Life seemed to have become unbearably hard that very moment, conspiring against me one too many times. I remember standing there staring down, full of a self-pity I’d never until that point allowed myself to wallow in, and crying big, heaving sobs over the injustice in my life.

Mind you, it had nothing to do with depression. I had simply reached the end of my rope after a long and frustrating day, something that can happen to anybody, and certainly someone with little children. Heck, in those days, every day was a long day that left you utterly exhausted. 

I certainly don’t want to make light of or misrepresent a serious medical condition. But in a way it was a perfect example of how, if enough things pile up, you can reach a point where you don’t know what else to do, where you just want to sit down, even if it’s next to a toilet surrounded by four little children, and cry. 
Fortunately for most of us, we bask in our moment of self-pity and then snap out of it again, wash our hands and walk away.
If only it were that simple for everyone.

Postscript: As so often happen, things picked up after hitting the low point. I tried calling some friends again and got an answering machine I hadn’t gotten before, meaning they must have power restored. I reached them on their cell phone (back in the day when people were by no means glued to their cell phones like nowadays) and lo and behold, they were on their way back home with their own four kids. I moved in with them for the next couple of days, kids, sopping bear, and all, Noisette joined us there that night, and we had a blast, all twelve of us. I’ve always been particularly grateful for these friends of ours and their opening their doors to our rather large family without hesitation. 

To paraphrase what I remember as Scarlett’s words from the end of Gone with the Wind, when all is lost: “I will try again tomorrow. Tomorrow will be a better day.”