winter woes

When it rains, it pours.

When it snows – well, we should have an expression depicting something far more distressing than “pouring” – like maybe “When it snows, all goes to Hell” or “When it snows, the world as you know it ends” or perhaps simply “When it snows, it sucks”.

Seems the planet is trying to get our attention with these “severe weather conditions”. But I think the planet needs a new game plan. Dealing with the stress and strain of winter weather will doubtfully translate into a greater commitment to repair, re-use, and recycle – or inspire less consumption of factory-farmed meat – or incline institutions to stop serving food in styrofoam containers.
I don’t really know what will wake us all up from our dissociative trance, and re-connect us to the Earth and all of its inhabitants.
I do know, however, that the recent storms of snow and ice have indeed awakened me – jangling my every nerve and stirring up the kind of pervasive anxiety that is generally considered a diagnosable disorder.
Unlike my sister and mother, I do not usually panic from morning until night, for which I’m extremely grateful. But I have recently become intimately familiar with what they experience daily.

It began early on a Tuesday, with the forecast of an impending severe snowstorm. I went to work that morning in a state of agitation, knowing something potentially dangerous and difficult was coming, that it would probably be very hard to get back home, and that I might not be permitted to leave while it was still safe to drive.

I am employed at a psychiatric hospital, on an inpatient unit for the treatment of eating disorders. When I show up to work, I am expected to be present, personable, professional, and infinitely interested in the inner workings of depressed, anxious, obsessed, and generally unhappy people. I am supposed to greet their fixations on food, their worries about weight, and their propensity for purging, with an open heart, clear mind, and effervescent energy. This, on ordinary days, takes some doing.
Tuesday was not an ordinary day.

With an unstoppable storm on its way, the whole world seemed eerie and ominous.
The gray sky hovered too close, waiting to open at any moment, threatening to release a foot of snow over the course of the day. The drive to work was marked with radio announcements suggesting that everyone who could stay home should do so. I was not at ease. Traveling down my significantly steep driveway, I doubted that I would be able to make it back up by the time I returned. I wanted to turn around right away, to heed the radio’s advice, and to be among the fortunate few who get to stay home on days like this. I wanted to watch the snow from the relative comfort (and I do mean relative) of my apartment.

But I work in an institution which has strict snow standards. According to their Weather Emergency policies, I am somehow considered an “essential employee”. I find this fascinating. I can safely say that the patients do not generally consider me essential in any way – as evidenced by the not infrequent requests to switch to another therapist, and the trendy tendencies to fall asleep during my groups, refuse to participate, or simply walk out after about ten minutes. Nonetheless, I am expected and required to show up and stay at my job until it is deemed acceptable to go home – regardless of personal safety, stability, or sanity.

And so it was that I stumbled through Tuesday morning in an agitated, anxiety-saturated, aggravated state. As the hours ticked by and my panic piqued, my supervisor made it clear that I was expected to stay through the afternoon, and to run a scheduled group after lunch. I did not feel confident that I would make it home alive if I stayed that long. I did, however, feel confident that no patient would notice or care if I were not there to run the group. With a mix of raging resentment and frenzied fear, I paced the hallways, waiting for permission from the “Powers That Be” to go home early.

I’d like to say a few things about my supervisor, whom I’ll call Ann. She and I did not exactly start out on the best of terms. When she initially was hired, she made a habit of raging at me on a regular basis, for anything and everything I did – or did not do – that was not in accordance with her expectations. This was apparently many many many things. Beyond the bullying, even more devastating was her disdainful reaction to my medical condition. Not appearing to believe its validity, she harassed me with constant cutting comments and outright refusal to allow for my “special needs”, until I had jumped through a variety of hoops which officially established that – indeed – I have a legal right to be reasonably accommodated.

I’ve worked hard to open myself beyond feelings of helpless victimization or self-righteous indignation, and to recognize that she – like all of us – is responding according to her own understanding, limited or inaccurate as that may be. I’ve worked hard to adjust my adversarial attitude, and to approach her with an assumption of good intent on both sides. I’ve worked hard to find that precious point of balance – softening into acceptance, releasing the need for her to be other than who she is, and strengthening into a clear, unapologetic stance of advocating for my own welfare.
I imagine she has worked hard as well, to move beyond initial judgments, to see the person in front of her as a human being worthy of support, and to extend that support.
Thankfully, we have come quite a distance. Things over the past 5 years have significantly improved. But they can turn in an instant, and on days like this – they do.

As the storm picked up speed, my need for flexibility seemed to increase in direct proportion with Ann’s need for structure,order, and consistency. The more I made it known that I wanted to leave, the more angry and rule-enforcing she became – both of us escalating in our own private Hells. In moments of merciful mindfulness, I recognize that Ann is filled with anxiety, and that she does her best to manage that anxiety by compulsively managing everything and everyone in her environment. When I step back far enough, I can even see a piece of myself in her, can feel compassion, and can recognize that she is my spiritual teacher.
Unfortunately, when my own anxiety is skyrocketing, – I can’t get quite that far back.

By the middle of lunchtime, she came to me and gave me the News: The Head Hospital Honcho said I was permitted to leave. Halleluyah!!!!!! She informed me tersely that it would be counted as an unplanned half-day absence, and that I had already had a recent unplanned absence on my record (also due to snow and safety). She told me I would need to be very careful to not have any further episodes, or I would be at risk for some kind of remedial action. Grateful for perspective at moments like this – getting home alive versus avoiding accumulated absences – I left immediately.

The drive to my apartment usually takes about 7 minutes. On this day, it took over an hour. And let me say – for a generally anxious driver who learned how to drive in her thirties and never quite got the hang of things like merging, or changing lanes, or making left turns on two lane streets, or driving on sheets of slick slippery slide-y slushy snow – it was quite an experience.

I’d like to mention something here about the parking phenomena at my current apartment. There is a lot behind the building, with assigned parking spaces. Each tenant has a space, designated by lines painted on a wall, within which we are expected to park. The landlord instructed me when I moved in: “If everyone stays straight inside the lines, it works out fine”. (This pre-supposes so many things such as: my landlord’s accurate reality testing – which I have come to seriously question; the ability to actually make my car enter the space in a straight manner – a skill I am apparently lacking; and the faulty notion that we are all sharing his definition of “fine”, which goes something like this: –“If everyone pays their rent and does not identify any problems in their apartment, it works out fine.”)

When my neighbors have parked in their designated spots on either side of mine, I am unable to get my five feet tall body in and out of my car without scrunching myself up and squeezing in through the teeny tiny crack that appears when attempting to open the car door. The paint all along the sides of my previously perfectly-painted car is now like a work of abstract art, made up of scratches going in all directions – created by the door of my neighbor’s van crunching into my own little car whenever she gets in and out of her vehicle. And then there are the many minutes of maneuvering it takes for me to ultimately get my car into the teeny tiny space in between the vehicles on either side. I believe I’ve gotten it down to an average of 9 forward and backward moves – and that’s progress.

Snow and ice storms add a nice twist to the parking process. Seems the landlord does not find it necessary to salt the driveway, or to plow our little lined up lot spaces. When we all are shoveling our cars out from under a foot of snow and ice, there is no place to drop the shoveled snow, unless we were to drop it on the car of the neighbor next to us. If/when we magically manage to shovel ourselves out, the amount of maneuvering required to enter and exit the space goes up exponentially.

And if we happen to arrive home late in the day when the snow has been heavily falling, and we are unable to make it up the slippery slushy driveway, and we therefore have to leave our car parked on the street where it will be plowed in and stuck for what could be the duration of the winter – then the teeny tiny space that would have been our parking spot will become a frosty field of foot-high snow all piled up with nowhere to go. That is precisely how my afternoon unfolded. Like the inches of snow on the ground, my agitation level was still steadily rising.

As nighttime rapidly approached, I reached out in various directions for help in planning my Wednesday transportation. One such outreach was a call to the man who had briefly been my realtor, when I was seeking a new place to live. I’ll call him Ben.
While Ben never did find a new home for me, what he did provide was a delightfully delicious distraction in the form of a giggly, giddy, girly, googly-eyed crush, which I did my best to keep under wraps while he was showing me apartments. I generally had no interest in the places he was showing me, but I happily went to look at them, so I could happily look at him.
I loved how he would use my name when he called me for daily check-ins, greeting me with “Good morning, Judy”, to which I would gleefully reply “Good morning, Ben”. I loved the illusion of instant intimacy afforded by our realtor/client relationship. I loved how he started to share personal details of his life with me, which sparked glimmers of hope that perhaps we might one day be more than realtor and client to each other. I loved how he offered ongoing encouragement and support in a time of great despair and despondence. And I loved discovering that my heart and body were still capable of giddy, girly, giggly, googly-eyed infatuations.

As it turns out, Ben’s efforts in the realty business were just as unsuccessful for him as for me. He gave up on it not long after working with me (This was an opportunity to practice affirmations, such as: “I am a good person. My needs are reasonable. I do not cause people to lose their minds and quit their jobs.”)
Ben and I kept in touch over the months that followed. (By “keeping in touch”, I refer here to my practice of leaving voice mail and email messages on a regular basis, and his practice of regularly not responding.) Every so often, he would actually answer the phone when I called and he would update me on his life. This is how I knew that he had embarked on a new business venture of running a car service. Grateful for a legitimate reason to call him, and grateful for the possibility of utilizing his service to get to work, I called and he did hook me up with a ride for Wednesday morning. (I skillfully silenced my disappointment when I realized that he himself would not be the driver. A girl’s gotta dream…)

Another outreach effort was an email message that I sent to Ann, asking if she could possibly give me a ride home after work. This took some courage. She answered “Yes”.
And so I made it to work on Wednesday (safe, if not exactly sound). My co-worker, Celeste, offered to help me dig my car out when I got home. And Ann greeted me with wonderful information about a local bus I could take to work when needed.

Grace appears – over and over – in the form of generous neighbors and compassionate colleagues and courage that rises up from somewhere and nerves that settle down in the midst of the storms. And even when – especially when – it looks like life is about to turn you upside down and drop you on your head, Grace appears again.

Toward the end of the workday on Wednesday, Ann came a-knocking at my door, in what seemed to be a hurried harried huff. She brusquely told me to come with her, for a meeting with the HR representative and the Hospital Head Honcho. This is not the kind of thing that puts a person at ease. Heart pounding, doing my best to dismiss dismal dramas instantly playing out in my brain – I followed her into the meeting room.

Seems a flu epidemic had broken out in the hospital, and now it had spread to my unit.
The unit had to be quarantined, which meant that no outside visitors were allowed to enter. Prior to this, the hospital had required all staff to get flu vaccines (a subject I won’t bother belaboring here, but I was not a fan of that policy). I, however, was able to avoid the vaccine thanks to a physician note explaining my history of severe reactions to it. The other hospital mandate is that any staff person who was not vaccinated must wear a face mask throughout flu season. Again- I had a physician’s note explaining that due to nasal airway blockage, a mask is not a safe option because I would be unable to get enough air to actually breathe. The hospital had approved my exemptions. (While the patients might not notice my asphyxiation, lack of oxygen is apparently considered a legitimate barrier to conducting psychotherapy.)

The quarantine situation presented quite the dilemma. I could no longer be allowed to go onto the unit because I could not protect myself or the patients from the spread of this illness. I could take unpaid leave, and they would get a temp to fill my position for as long as necessary. Or – I could change roles and take on the job of day treatment therapist, running all groups with the day patients, off the unit. This was a wonderful solution to what seemed a less than wonderful problem. It meant that not only would I be able to continue working, but that I could actually get a break from going onto the unit that reeks of corrosive chemicals. Sitting in the back seat of Ann’s car on the ride home, as her husband calmly and confidently drove me to my destination, I began to breathe just a little more deeply.

Here is where I will pause to praise the angel of my co-worker, Celeste, who lives in the building next to mine. As you may recall, she is the one who valiantly rescued my clothing from the candle contamination crisis. She is also the one who kept an eye on things for me when I was visiting with my family in Florida, managing my mail and performing pest patrol in my absence. On Wednesday evening, she came through yet again, helping me rescue my car from its position of being stuck on the side of the street. She demonstrated the heroic feat of literally pushing my car up the small mountain of our driveway, as I helplessly sat behind the wheel and tried to avoid careening into the tree on the lawn. To add a twist – she had gallantly shoveled out what she believed to be my parking spot behind the building while I was working on uncovering the car from its street-side stuckness – but it turned out to be a neighbor’s spot. Thankfully, the neighbor gave me permission to leave my car there for the night. Celeste later told me that she couldn’t have imagined that my spot was an actual parking spot, due to its diminutive dimensions, which is what caused the confusion. She added that she would gladly shovel out my own parking spot while I was at work the next day, so I could have a safe easy place to park when I returned.

Happy to be able to transport myself again, and eager to have a work day without constant chemical contamination, Thursday started out well and got even better. Able to avoid the unit completely – it was the first day in 6 years that I did not spend the day at work fighting to stay alert, conscious, and alive. It was the first day in 6 years that I did not have to immediately hang my clothes to air out from the toxins they had absorbed.
In a bizarre twist of fate, a flu outbreak somehow turned into yet another Gift of Grace.

The quarantine was lifted before the end of the following week. I am back on the unit.
The snow and ice and sleet have been unrelenting.
The bus does indeed stop on my street, and although it does not come in any discernible relationship to its printed schedule, it has been taking me back and forth safely.
And Ann spontaneously gave me a bunch of bus tokens to assist with the expense.

It’s all so fascinating to observe – how the players in the story of my life weave in and out, how the challenges of one moment become the triumphs of the next, how fleeting both the challenges and the triumphs truly are, how a little outreach goes such a long way, and how Angels appear again and again.

And I’ll be glad when Spring comes. Except for the return of the Gnats.

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