What is this sorrow?

So what happens when the body wants to collapse in the throes of a confusing mix of memory, grief, and the sheer horror of existence?

At work?

My day job is a receiver for a local health food and supplement store. One of my regular drivers (Let’s call him Brian, of course not his real name) came in the other day with his product and a long face. I was in the middle of processing an order, so I looked up, nodded, and finished up.

As I was doing so, he said, “Good move.”

I said, “How so?”

He said, “You didn’t ask me how I am.”

Well, now, of course, I’m going to. After six years of working with my drivers, I get to know them. Treat them well. You know, like human beings. One of them described the receiving bay as a sanctuary, a place of calm in the middle of a gale of daily shitstorms.

So I look at him, and say, “You realize that is a perfect opening.”

“I suppose so,” he replied.

Brian told me a relative died of a fentanyl overdose. He had chronic health problems and all the associated issues with addiction, drugs, alcohol and such.

And no matter how they tried this time, those close to him couldn’t save him. Even the ones who gave the drug to him.

“I could never understand that nyou know.” Brian was truly puzzled. Not a tone of judgment in his voice. “Isn’t there a point where you could say no, a point where you refuse because you know it’s going to harm you? And then why you keep on doing it?”

Yes, it’s supremely difficult to understand, I told him. But addiction doesn’t work with a simple yes or no. The comfort you get from the drug or the alcohol or whatever you choose (or whatever chooses you) overrides the capacity for a reasonable argument against it.

And the roots of that search for comfort are deeper than you know. (See the link below for an interview with Dr. Gabor Maté.)

In most cases that search begins with childhood trauma. And when I told him that, he pointed his finger at me and said, “That’s it.”

I waited.

“His grandparents raised him. His father burned down their house with his mother still in it.”

And that was when the grief of the whole thing overwhelmed me, that combination of horror and sadness, coupled with my own memories and stories of my family: my mother’s memories of the Japanese concentration camps, my father’s stories about the Great Hunger in the last year of the German occupation of Holland, and how that trauma played out as they raised me, my sister, and brother when they tried to make their life in Canada.

More than half a century in the space of a few seconds. The weight of all that nearly drove me to my knees. Add to that Brian’s story.

I found myself trying to support my body by leaning into the top of the chest freezer.

I heard his voice to me, “Ed, come back. Come back, Ed. Back to receiving.”

He knew what was happening.

“Are you okay?”

“Give me a moment,” I said.

And he did.

And I did return.

As I write this in a local café, I am hearing a song by Dan Mangan with the words “What is this sorrow?”


For an excellent overview of what this sorrow is and what addiction is and does, listen to Dr. Gabor Maté here.