About 6 or 7 years ago I was listening to a late-night call-in show about sex called “Love Line” with Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew. If you’ve never listened, the show was about as bad as it sounds except for this: Adam Carolla seemed mostly intent on making fun of the people who called in (most of whom didn’t have sex problems per se, but relationship problems), while Dr. Drew showed some compassion for the callers and tried his best to help. At times, their two roles moved beyond the specific circumstances of the show and became almost Shakespearian: one taunting and belittling a caller who clearly couldn’t get out of his or her own way, the other listening, asking questions, offering sympathy and advice. It was as if they were giving voice to the two basic impulses we all feel in the face of human folly: mocking judgment and a feeling of self-superiority on the one hand and, on the other, compassion and a desire to relieve suffering.
This particular night, a young woman called in who said she was in school studying to be a mortician. “A mortician?” Adam Corolla asked. “What the hell makes someone wake up one day and say, ‘To hell with it, I’m going to play dress up with dead people?'”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Growing up I experienced a lot of loss, a lot of people really close to me died. This seemed like a good way to help people going through similar situations.”
“That’s very common,” Dr. Drew said. “People who’ve been through traumatic experiences will often find ways to recreate the trauma in a different form to gain some control over it.”
And that’s when the lightbulb went off.
This is going to sound terribly dramatic, but possibly the most traumatic event of my young life was a move my family made from Connecticut to Massachusetts in the middle of my sophomore year of high school when I was 15 years old. I remember the moving truck ( an orange Allied van), and I remember the music I was listening to at the time (the 70’s band Boston), and I remember my mother crying so hard as we drove Interstate 84 toward Massachusetts that we all had to pull over and give her a chance to catch her breath. I had just started dating my first girlfriend, a sweet blond-haired girl who made me feel exactly like I imagined the teen-agers in movies felt as they mooned at each other in summary shots of courthship on the big screen. It seemed to me that, maybe for the first time, something really big was happening in my life.
Then came the news that we were moving and everything seemed to stop, suspended as if in mid-air. I don’t really remember any good-byes at all, not with my friends or even, really, with my girlfriend — just a feeling of paralyzing sadness like quicksand up to the neck.
After my mom pulled herself together, we made it up to Massachusetts and the moving crew unloaded us into our brown colonial on a dead-end street. Snow was piled in mounds 8-feet-high at the end of the driveway when we arrived, and it seemed like it never stopped snowing that whole winter. I started school and discovered myself to be a painfully shy new kid, unable to make friends or even talk to strangers. I didn’t talk to anyone in class, sat by myself at lunch for weeks and months on end, and felt more alone and isolated than I ever hope to be again. I was in absolute despair but I couldn’t tell anyone. Is there any suffering worse than suffering you can’t speak about?
I have no idea why I became a mover, and why I keep on doing it, and mostly enjoying it, in spite of the weeks away from home, the painful heat in summer and even more painful cold in winter, and my increasingly cranky left knee — Dr. Drew might be right, I could be reenacting the trauma of that move I made with my family 25 years ago to give myself a feeling of mastery and control. Who knows?
I do have to say this, though. One of the strangest moments I have in my working life is when I drive my tractor trailer, full with a customer’s worldly possessions, past that very exit where my family pulled off to give my mom a chance to stop crying so many years ago. It’s happened lots of times. Sometimes I don’t even notice. And other times I remember to glance to the right and just acknowledge the place where something important happened to us many years ago, a moment in time when we were a family adrift, and all our worldly possessions were on a truck somewhere, speeding 70-miles-per-hour through the dark night. It’s as if that one little exit in northeast Connecticut is haunted by the memory of my whole family’s sadness, mine, my mother’s, my father’s, my three brothers’, two of whom, over 18 already, we left behind in Connecticut.
Mostly the moment is just filled with an interesting irony — oh, there’s the place where a move brought my mom to tears and me to a mute numbness that lasted for months. And here I am now at the wheel of a 75-foot-long vehicle moving a family hundreds of miles from their former home. How strange that the spot still exists, unchanged. How strange that I still exist, so dramatically transformed.
Then there’s this tiny feeling too: How good it feels in that moment to be me, covering 600 miles in a day with ease, able to do a dozen moves in two weeks between Durham, New Hampshire and Pasadena, Calfornia, at home in Iowa or Massachusetts or Maine. How good it feels to no longer be that scared teenager almost undone by a move 120 miles away who, at least for me, still haunts a highway exit in Connecticut.