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  • Writer's pictureSherri McCarthy

Unexpected Anxiety Strike

Spoiler Alert: I don't say explicitly, but you can probably guess what happens in the movie A Star is Born, so you may want to skip this post if you have never seen it and plan to.

Trigger Warning: This post deals with end of life issues.

A Star is Born. I didn’t see the original. Didn’t know the story. Didn’t realize what a trigger it would be to watch that movie. Until I chose it as the movie to watch for a date night a few months back and a certain scene brought on a full-blown panic attack right there in the luxury theatre sitting next to my husband. I used every bit of strength I had to implement some breathing exercises to calm myself, ground myself, and bring me back to the present. But for a minute there, I felt like a teenager again, with all the raw, unfiltered and untamable emotions that define that time of life.

When I was 16, my grandmother found my grandfather hanging from the rafters in their garage. The memories of that day are not good: it was the first time I have ever seen my father cry a deep, guttural, heartbreaking cry that only comes after an incomprehensible loss. To watch my dad, who was my rock and my safety net, fall to pieces was terrifying. It’s not like I’d never seen him cry before. On occasion when he was drunk and got into lecture mode (he pontificated on life a great deal when he was drunk as hell), he would shed a few tears about being in his 40’s and “never having accomplished anything,” to which I would always reply, “The four kids you created are a pretty great accomplishment.” But I was home alone with my dad. So I got the full brunt of his emotion and his desperate cry. In hindsight, I can see clearly that my dad's sorrow was too big for me to carry. I struggled under the load.

I wasn’t close with my grandfather, George. He was loud and exuberant, calling me “my little share-dee,” which made me absolutely crazy. In fact, I didn’t even like my grandfather much at all. He laughed off my request to “please, just call me Sherri.” His laughter felt dismissive and it made my cheeks burn. He also smelled of bourbon. Always, with the bourbon. (Note: I learned it is not a real turn-on to say to a date, “you smell just like my grandfather” when having drinks before dinner. Just trust me on this one. I know things).

Anyway, Grandpa Boone was gruff and unpolished, and I didn’t know him well. I knew some things about him, but not a lot. I knew my dad and his siblings had it rough as kids. I knew my grandfather had a big personality and had strong opinions. And I knew he had been struggling recently with an unidentified disorder that caused him to itch relentlessly and eventually led him to blame colors in fabric for the itching. He started wearing only white, putting white sheets over the furniture and made trip after to trip to specialists to try to determine the problem. But no one could find the true cause of the itching. So, he ended the itch himself in 1985.

Years after his suicide, PG&E was found to have covered up the risk factors concerning Chromium 6 usage in water tanks. A 40+ year employee of PG&E, my grandfather was around Chromium 6 every single day, adding to water tanks to fight algae growth. He touched it with bare hands, inhaled it, probably ingested it. Every day. For decades.

But because my grandfather was cremated no testing was ever done to determine how much of that substance had invaded his body. It would be inaccurate for me to point the finger at that substance as a cause for the itching that drove him mad. But I’m willing to risk being inaccurate and point the finger directly at that substance for exactly that. Call it a strong hunch, but since my grandfather was tested for every damn thing under the sun and was not ever tested for Chromium 6 exposure (why would they test for that?), I strongly believe it was a key factor in his ailment.

Others in my family who were exposed to Chromium 6 had adverse health conditions associated with it and were a part of a lawsuit against PG&E and Betz Laboratories. As a kid, I remember my father not being able to drive without a window open or he would gag uncontrollably. There are other family members with even more serious health problems linked to Chromium 6. When the movie Erin Brockovich came out and I learned what it was about, I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. And I still haven’t. I have the memories of how my own family was affected so I don’t need to see it on the big screen.

I find it fascinating that a movie can do so many things inside us. Open our eyes to a new way of thinking, help us to identify with a character, show us truth, fiction, fantasy. They tell stories of heroes, of villains, of everyday people who have overcome insurmountable odds. They recount history, redefine history in some cases. And sometimes, they trigger a memory that brings something long forgotten to our minds and our hearts to be examined again.

My dad never got over the death of his father. The fact that my grandfather's remains were never interred and, in fact, no one knows what happened to his remains, meant there was not a "place" for my dad to go to grieve. This bothered my dad for more than 30 years. So, when my dad died and we kids decided to bury him with his mother, we also included our grandfather's name on the new marker as a way to honor both my dad and my grandfather.

I think my dad would approve.

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