From my early teen years to college years, my parents and I used to go out once a week to the Rustler Steak House as our big night out.  It was one of the few places where Dad and I could gorge ourselves on the salad bar, and Mom would be satisfied with her little baby-sized steak and dessert.  The places we could go that were comfortable for us as a family were few and far between, so once we found a place that worked, at least most of the time, we were like homing pigeons.

Most of the time, things would go fine, because we had developed a little routine.  We would order our steaks from the greeter, collect our trays, and roll down the cafeteria-style line.  First came the salad bar, which Dad and I would pillage like conquering Vikings.  Then would come the desert section, where Mom would get her cheesecake.  Then it was the drink section, where we’d get sodas and coffee cups to be filled later.  Next, we’d roll past the grill, where they were usually running a little behind, and finally up to the friendly cashier and off to find a table.

The place wasn’t as popular with the high-brow crowd as one might think from the enticing description above, but was more filled with middle-class and working families like us.  We’d try like hell to find a table that was a little isolated from others already settled, but there were no guarantees.  We also, unconsciously, worked our way towards quiet tables.  This wasn’t just a preference, it was a survival skill.

Most of the time, the evening was fine, even fun, with Dad and I talking and joking about the events of the day or whatever we saw on tv.  However, from the time that we sat down, waiting for the main meal to be delivered, to the time we finished our last “relaxing” sips of coffee, my Dad and I were quietly clenched up inside, waiting for something to go wrong.  Since my Mom was diagnosed as paranoid-schizophrenic from the time before I was born, waiting for the other shoe to drop, and for Mom to “go off”, was as much a part of the Rustler night out ritual as the little plastic triangles that told the cook if your steak was medium or well-done.

Sometimes it would be a person laughing across the room that would infuriate Mom. Despite the futility, Dad or I would explain to Mom that the laughter had nothing to do with us, that they were simply enjoying themselves.  Depending on criteria only she was aware of, their laughter would eventually be forgiven, or her anxiety and complaints would continue to rise until it became a forced march getting through the end of the meal.  I think that Dad and I always stubbornly insisted on staying until we were done, determined not to let her win, but we soldiers chewed our way through the end of many a miserable steak dinner there just to hold our ground.   

Oh, there were plenty of nights that we made it all the way through dinner without incident, and actually enjoyed ourselves, so that’s why we didn’t give up this one excursion out into the world with Mom.  Still, every time, on some level, Dad and I were on alert for signs that something would set her off.  Were the people at the other table looking over towards us too much?  Did someone keep laughing across the room, and God forbid, did it sound like sarcastic or mocking laughter?  Was there an unruly child running around?  Did the young lady who delivered our steaks act a little too friendly towards Dad?  Oooh boy, that’s another whole blog in and of itself.  Just suffice to say that there were certain predicable complaints, but they came at unpredictable times.  We pretended to enjoy ourselves, but Dad and I were always on patrol, scanning the room for possible signs of irritation and unexpected fall-out from Mom.

Of course, the really twisted part of it all was that someone may really be staring at her, or laughing at her.  Since Mom was mentally ill for many years, she, like many schizophrenics, stopped maintaining her physical appearance, and when she paid attention to it, she overcompensated by wearing garish makeup, and walking with a peculiar gait.  Ever tried to convince someone that the people laughing really weren’t laughing at them (when indeed they probably were)?  To be fair, if I saw my Mom walking down the road during the super black eyebrow pencil and red rouge cheek years, I’d stare too.  We became so used to it, it didn’t phase us anymore at home, but my teenage shame over how ridiculous my parents looked (or at least my Mom) was another fun ingredient to the evening.

Getting all tensed up at the first signs of trouble became so routine, over such a long period of time, that I became finely attuned to the subtle changes of mood in whomever I was with, mentally ducking for cover at the first signs of anger, anxiety or discord of any type.  After years of this training, it is still ingrained in my behavior to be an emotional sponge, taking in moods of others and working overtime to smooth out any uncomfortable moments.  Even with both of my parents long dead, I still struggle to divorce my own feelings from those of others, but it’s nearly impossible. 

The pro- side of this early Rustler Boot Camp training ground is that I have fairly strong empathy for others and can read people’s mood rather well.  The con- side is that I feel other people’s fears, anger and heartbreak to a level just short of being an empath. The more erratic someone’s behavior or mood, the less I am able to tolerate their company.  This has made for many unhappy hours at work, or other situations where you cannot choose the company you keep.  As much as I fight against taking on other people’s moods, there are still times when a sarcastic laugh from across a room will make me clench up, and in a tiny little part of my brain, I expect my Mom to wig out.

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