Spring Fever in the COVID Era

I just watched two people get into a shoving match on the sidewalk of my bridge. Apparently the masked one felt that the unmasked one had gotten too close. But now the cautious one just touched the incautious one with his hands. That was probably not the best idea.

I’ve also seen two women get into a shouting match over the last bag of flour at the grocery store. I thought they were going to throw down right on the spot. I beat a hasty retreat before the flour had a chance to fly.

I’ve had several absurd misunderstandings with friends on social media this past week. Some were a matter of me losing patience with ignorance that I’d normally let slide. In some cases I suspect alcohol was involved, and there’s no reasoning with that. Still others were the result of me shooting off my mouth and having to apologize afterward. It’s as if everyone’s nerves are on the surface of their skin.

This year’s spring fever is more about the fever and less about the spring. The usual excitement this time of year has turned into restlessness and frustration. Social distancing is turning into emotional distancing. People are really starting to lose the plot. I don’t know about you, but there’s only so much I can take.

We have to remember that we’re all afraid. Some of us fear for our lives, others fear for their livelihood. Many fear for both.

Many of us realize that the scary statistics only relate to confirmed cases, and not very many of us have been tested. Have you? I sure haven’t. That, and a lot of countries are under-reporting because they feel that the truth would make them look bad. And a lot of people are dying at home, and the health care system simply can’t keep track. No one really has a clue as to how flat the curve actually is.

No matter where you stand on the issue, one thing is certain: we all want this to be over. If only wishing could make it so. If only declarations from our so-called leaders would make COVID disappear. But there’s no happily ever after in our immediate future. This will not be a sprint or even a marathon. It will be a long, heavy slog.

We’re just going to have to make an extra effort to be patient with one another. We’re going to have to avoid shoving matches and flour fights. We need to engage in radical self-care. We need to realize that there’s no force on earth that will make the deniers do the same, so we’ll just have to give them a wide berth and hope that the fittest will survive.

And for those of us who feel we’re not coping by intestinal fortitude alone, there are resources out there, and I strongly urge you to take advantage of them. A longtime reader of this blog (Hi Lyn!) sent me a very useful link entitled COVID-19 and Your Mental Health, and it’s full of a ton of helpful advice and lists of organizations that are waiting to assist you. Please don’t hesitate to reach out.

We can do this. It may not be pretty and it definitely won’t be fun, but we can do this. I promise.

end-of-your-rope

Read any good books lately? Try mine! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Dissociation

I remember very little from ages 11 through 13. I had been through a lot up to that point. Raised by a single mother, never knowing my father, never seeing one penny of child support, and relying on welfare, I always felt the financial stress radiating off of the head of my household in large, turbulent waves. The earth never felt quite stable beneath my feet. It was as if we could all be washed away at any moment.

Then, when I was 7, she married my stepfather, mostly as a financial hail Mary, and it worked for a time. I was uprooted from my life in the projects, a known quantity at the very least, and transported to mansions and vacations and rooms full of presents. It was all very disconcerting, especially while being an outside observer of a mutually beneficial yet loveless marriage.

Then at age 10, they lost everything. And by that I mean everything. My stepfather lost his job, and everything came tumbling down like a house of cards.

We wound up camping our way down the east coast, and going to Florida, where we hoped to find a better life. This was a culture I didn’t understand. I was taken away from everything I knew, everything that made sense to me. We continued to “camp” for 7 excruciating years.

During my whole childhood, I buried myself in books. Books were my shield against the instability going on around me. A recent meme that I saw on Facebook really hit home. It said, “Reading is just staring at a dead tree and hallucinating. This happens to be my favorite hobby.”

Books were my safe place in an unpredictable world. I carried one everywhere I went. Disappearing into a book was good practice for what was to come.

At age 11, the sexual abuse started. I was unable to cope with having my stepfather, an adult who I was taught would always know best and do what’s best for me, do this. So I went away. It wasn’t a conscious decision on my part. It’s just what I did.

Oh, I was still there, physically. Unfortunately. But “I” was gone. I had crawled deep inside myself, where no one could touch me or hurt me. I hibernated deep within my mind. I checked out. For two years.

And the funny thing is, no one around me seemed to notice. In fairness, my whole family had a lot to deal with at the time, but from an adult perspective, I find it exceedingly strange that no one saw that I was just going through the motions that entire time.

During that period, apparently, I was learning how to multiply fractions in school. To this day, I can’t do it. People have taught me over the years, and what they say makes sense, and I get it, for about a half hour. Then it’s gone again. Fortunately it is a skill I’ve managed to live without.

I remember “waking up”. Suddenly, one day, I became aware of what was going on around me. It was a very abrupt transition. It was like having the lights turned on and realizing, whoa, there are things happening outside of myself.

I think it had to do with the fact that at age 13 I threatened to kill my stepfather if he ever touched me again, and he looked at me and realized I wasn’t joking. I’d have done it.

And just like that, the abuse stopped. (And yes, I told my mother. She told me I was making too much of it, and she stuck to that opinion and carried it to her grave.)

My stepfather and I maintained an uneasy, awkward, uncomfortable and distant relationship until my mother finally wised up and divorced him when I was about 23. They both died within a month of each other three years later. I kind of expected that to be liberating. It wasn’t, really.

To this day, when things get too much for me, I go away. Usually for short periods. Often it’s just a few minutes, so that I can gather myself. Mainly it manifests in the desperate need to be left alone and the desire to pull the sheets up over my head to take a nap. Sometimes it’s just escaping into a game app.

I also attribute my continuing love of books and sleep, my healthy imagination, and my need for travel and all other escapist pursuits to a minor form of dissociation. So is the fact that I thrive while working alone on my drawbridge. I don’t think that’s particularly unhealthy or destructive. No one gets hurt. The bills get paid. For the most part I’m really happy now, which is very unexpected and never ceases to feel like a miracle. I’ll never take that for granted.

As a psychologist once said to me, I was born 30 yards deep in my own end zone, so the fact that I’m playing on the field at all is pretty darned impressive. Dissociation was an effective coping mechanism for me, as such things go. I survived. I doubt I could give up this lifetime habit at this late date.

Dissociation comes in many forms. At the extreme end, you have multiple personality disorder. I’m fairly positive I never went that far. At the opposite end of the spectrum, you call in sick from work, stay in your jammies, and binge watch Game of Thrones for several hours. That’s not so bad, is it?

Now, if I could just shake the feeling that I’m much weirder and more out of touch than the average person. That would be nice. That would be heavenly.

Dissociation.jpg

A big thanks to StoryCorps for inspiring this blog and my first book. http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Hostile Poetry

I will be the first to admit that writing can be very therapeutic. I have vented my spleen enough in this blog to be able to attest to this firsthand. And I highly recommend journaling or expressing yourself creatively when you are trying to work through your feelings. It can go a long way toward helping you communicate assertively with the person or persons who stirred up these emotions within you.

That’s the healthy scenario.

And then there are those who write bitter diatribes instead of communicating. They sit on those feelings for a decade or more, and let them fester and eat away at their souls. They can’t grow up or move on, like 13-year-olds trapped in aging bodies.

I got to read one such poem the other day, in which the author stated that he’d get a vicarious thrill in watching someone else get hurt. It really made me sad about his arrested development and his inability to communicate and get past his pain.

That this person chose to post this in a public forum makes me question his mental health. It’s a cry for help, but it’s an impotent one. It puts the focus on the pain instead of on the healing. The only thing it achieves is making others feel sorry for him.

Yes, there’s no guarantee that the instigator of your pain is going to understand or apologize or make you feel better if you try to talk to him or her. That person may not even be in your life anymore. But vomiting out your emotions for the world to see will only cause you to be pitied.

Write and then communicate. Or write to educate. Or just write. Or just communicate. Or seek therapy.

But don’t wear your wounds on your forehead for the world to wince at and then do absolutely nothing to treat them. It’s not a good look. And it sure as hell isn’t healthy.

Just a little head wound

Read any good books lately? Try mine! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Weird Travel Syndromes

As an avid traveler, I’m not unaware of the inherent dangers of going to countries that aren’t your own. Getting caught up in political tensions. Breaking laws or making a cultural faux pas due to your own ignorance. Getting lost. The inability to communicate. Losing one’s passport. Misunderstandings. Being considered vulnerable and therefore getting targeted by criminals. I even knew someone once who got into a car accident in a third world country and wound up getting hepatitis from an unclean blood transfusion. Years later, she died as a result.

Travel is not for sissies. Do your homework. Take precautions.

But until today I didn’t realize that there were also mental health risks. The fear of losing one’s luggage is scary. But actually becoming psychotic? Yikes.

I heard someone mention Paris Syndrome this morning. It intrigued me, so I looked it up in the Font of All Human Knowledge, also known as Wikipedia. Now, be advised that none of the syndromes I mention in this post can be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But it fascinates me that they crop up enough to have actual names.

It seems that Paris Syndrome can occur when one visits that fair city and experiences extreme shock when it does not live up to expectations. I do remember that on my first visit, I was disappointed that all the food was not phenomenal, and surprised that most people on the streets were not wearing haute couture. But I got over it.

Not everyone does. Some people experience delusions, hallucinations, dizziness, tachycardia, and perspiration, among other things. It’s like culture shock, writ large. For some reason, it seems to happen to Japanese tourists more than any other group. I have no idea why.

From there, as often happens when surfing Wikipedia, I was led to an article about Jerusalem Syndrome. This one occurs when someone visits Jerusalem and experiences religious delusions. It used to be called “Jerusalem squabble poison”, and it has been occurring since the Middle Ages. Tour guides are trained to look out for it, in the hopes that they can nip it in the bud before the sufferer steals the hotel bed sheets, wraps himself up in them, and then delivers a nonsensical sermon at one of the holy places in the city. Good grief.

And then there’s Stendhal Syndrome. This one happens in Florence, Italy. It’s named after the first known victim, a writer from the early 1800’s. With this syndrome, one is apparently so overcome by the art of Florence, and the presence of the graves of notables such as Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and Galileo, that one experiences ecstasy, dizziness, and disorientation.

For the most part, these syndromes seem to resolve themselves when the tourist leaves the cities in question, but area hospitals are used to admitting patients with these symptoms. It’s enough to make you want to stay home.

Well, no it isn’t. But it certainly makes you think.

220px-Jerusalem_Syndrome

Like the way my weird mind works? Then you’ll enjoy my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Again

Our children are dying. 18 school shootings so far this year. (But it must be noted that this number is controversial, and depends on one’s definition of a school shooting. Still, I think we can agree that even one is too many.) We are not even through February. What’s the magic number? How many have to die, how many have to cower in closets, terrified, before we do more than think and pray?

How many funerals must be held before we decide that there is absolutely no reason for anyone outside of the military to own a semi-automatic weapon? What’s the tipping point when shame will overtake greed and force politicians to act? When will mental health care (and health care in general, for that matter) become a priority in this country?

We need to put the NRA, President Trump, and the US Congress on notice. Every shooting, every single one, is blood on their hands. They are responsible. They need to be held accountable. Their inaction is criminal and should be prosecuted accordingly. Because of them, people are dying.

Oh, and by the way, fuck you and your right to bear arms.

9mm_round

Reach Out

I used to love to sit on my porch swing when I owned a house in Jacksonville, Florida. I could look out on the park across the street and take in a game of softball or lacrosse, or watch people come and go from the public library. I especially enjoyed seeing the various neighborhood dogs as they walked their humans. For such a big city, my neighborhood had a rather bucolic vibe.

One day I was drinking lemonade and lazily swinging back and forth, trying to kick up enough of a breeze to beat the stifling humidity, when this woman came down the sidewalk looking so shell-shocked that I had to ask her if she was okay. She looked at me for a second, and then pointed over her shoulder and said, “A guy… he just hung himself from a tree.” And then she walked away.

Wait. What??? I immediately jumped up. I remember hearing the porch swing chains clank. (It’s funny what you remember at times like those.)

And sure enough, when I looked down the street, about a dozen police cars were descending on a house about a block away. They had to cut his body down. I was never able to pass that tree again without thinking about it.

I didn’t know the guy. That house was a rental, and no one ever seemed to stay very long. But I kind of felt as though we had let each other down.

Clearly, someone within hollering distance of me had been in deep despair. Obviously, he wanted help or he wouldn’t have chosen to hang himself in his front yard across the street from a public library. I wish I had known.

If you need help, you have to ask for it. That was his responsibility. Mine was to keep my eyes open and my heart open to being a force for good. You speak. I listen. It takes two.

I wish he had spoken up. I don’t know what I could have done. I don’t pretend to be anyone’s savior. But maybe he could have sat with me on my porch swing. We could have talked about inconsequential things. Maybe that tiny bit of routine could have made just enough of a difference. Maybe I could have told him about the sliding-scale mental health clinic within walking distance. We’ll never know, now.

I’m not saying what happened was my fault. But it still makes me sad to think I was relaxing on my swing and sipping lemonade while he was throwing a noose over a tree branch less than a hundred yards from me. What a tragedy. What a waste.

Porch Swing

Read any good books lately? Try mine! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Pick on Someone Your Own Size

Of all the collateral damage caused by our Grand Poobah, I have to say I feel the most sorry for Barron Trump. If he’s not being criticized about being sleepy at 3 in the morning, he’s being called “Poor Little Rich Boy” or being accused of mental health issues.

Childhood is hard enough without being bullied by the internet trolls and the comedians of this world. We all have scars from the cruelties we experienced growing up, but there’s absolutely no excuse for this. Give the kid a break. There are some lines that no one should ever cross.

Barron Trump did not ask for any of this. He didn’t choose his parents or the paths they decided to take in life. He had absolutely no say in the matter. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be him. He will never experience the luxury of a normal life. His father is fair game, but he isn’t.

Satire is fine. Criticism is often necessary. Opinions have a right to be expressed. You don’t have to agree with me. I don’t have to agree with you. But direct your slings and arrows at the adults of this world. Pick on someone your own size.

Say what you will, but at the end of the day, this is just a 10 year old boy. And he’s a 10 year old boy who gets to look forward to experiencing puberty under public scrutiny. Can you imagine?

bully

A big thanks to StoryCorps for inspiring this blog and my first book. http://amzn.to/2cCHgUu

The Perfectly Wrong Thing

Without a doubt, the absolute worst part about being a bridgetender is the jumpers. When I see someone attempting suicide, it leaves me feeling sick at heart. I truly believe that life is precious, and that no matter how awful it can sometimes be, the pendulum is bound to swing back the other way sooner or later.

But you can’t work on a drawbridge without seeing someone standing on a railing at some point. I have a theory that people who choose manned drawbridges as their place to end it all are doing so as a cry for help. After all, there are plenty of fixed and unoccupied bridges out there, and they’re usually higher. Why choose one that comes with a bridgetender?

This happens a lot more often than the public realizes. Fortunately, in the vast majority of cases, help arrives in time and they’re able to talk the person out of making this final, irreversible decision. Because the first thing I do, of course, is dial 911.

You see, I’m not a trained first responder. I’m not a mental health professional. And even though I have given it a great deal of thought, and have even written a post about what I’d say to a jumper, it’s the most important moment in that person’s life. Here’s someone who has decided that he or she feels completely out of control, and the only power left is to choose to stop living. That’s the last person on earth who needs to hear my ham-handed opinions.

So generally I call 911 and then gaze out the window, saying “Don’t do it… don’t do it… don’t do it” under my breath, like a prayer. I leave it to the professionals, and hope for a happy ending. And then I feel sick and jumpy until the end of my shift, and often vomit out the adrenaline when I get home. Talk about a bad day at the office.

But there was this one time. A time when I did everything wrong. I still have very mixed emotions about that incident.

I had been having a really bad day. I mean, one for the record books. I can’t even remember what the situation was, but I was kind of at the end of my rope myself. And then I looked out and saw a guy on the railing. Great. Just great.

And all of a sudden I got really, really angry. I guess it all became too much. And I thought of someone I loved who had died recently, and I know if he had been given a chance to live he’d have grabbed it with both hands and never let go. And yet here was this guy on the railing, about to throw it all away.

The last thing you should do when someone is contemplating suicide is yell at them. But I was seeing red. My ears were ringing. And before I even knew what I was doing, I threw open the window and shouted, “Do I need to call 911, or are you going to get your ASS off my RAILING???”

This could have ended very, very badly. This could have turned into something I would regret for the rest of my life. This was an extremely stupid thing for me to do. I still can’t believe I did it.

But just like that, he looked at me, meekly said, “Yes, ma’am,” hopped back down to the sidewalk and left. (When did I become a ma’am?)

All’s well that ends well, I suppose. But I guarantee you I will never, ever do something like that again. It was the wrong thing to do. It just happened to turn out all right that time. The bridge gods must have been watching over both of us.

I hope he got the help he needed.

long-way-down

Portable gratitude. Inspiring pictures. Claim your copy of my first collection of favorite posts! http://amzn.to/2cCHgUu

Empathy vs. Boundaries

The other day, in advance of what was expected to be a catastrophic storm, I saw a woman standing on the sidewalk on the south end of my bridge. She was moaning quietly to herself, and rocking back and forth. I was coming back from doing some maintenance nearby, and was due to walk right past her.

This put me on the horns of a moral dilemma. Everyone should have been taking shelter at this point. And clearly this woman was in distress. But we have a history, this woman and I.

Due to the tragic underfunding of mental health services in this country in general, and in this state and city in particular, more and more mentally ill people roam our streets. And for some reason they often are attracted to our drawbridges. This woman is one of our regulars.

We call her the suitcase lady, because usually she has two large, unwieldy suitcases in tow. Oddly, this day they were not in evidence. But she was. And she scares me. She has cursed me like a sailor in the past, and lunged at me. I had strong reason to believe she wouldn’t welcome any offer of assistance from me.

So I walked on by, giving her the widest possible berth. And then I went into my warm, dry tower. And I watched her from the window as the rain continued to fall on her ragged raincoat.

What to do. Should I call 911? I’ve done it before. Several times. They have made it abundantly clear that such calls are not appreciated. She was not breaking any laws. And while she may pose a danger to herself, she is just one of the thousands who wander around Seattle, posing a danger “only” to themselves every day. Usually by the time the police get around to responding, the person in question has moved on. I suspect that’s intentional.

While I was contemplating my next move, a jogger came by and stopped to talk to the lady. They talked for quite some time. Then the jogger put her arm around the woman and they walked together off the bridge. I’ll probably never know what happened next. I hope it ended well for all concerned.

So which of us did the right thing? Me, or the jogger? I struggle with this on a daily basis. I can’t shake the feeling that perhaps both of us got it wrong. Surely there must be a point where compassion and self-protection can intersect in a healthy way. But how does one find that point?

I would love to be able to save the world, but it’s also important to set boundaries. I’m pretty much all I have these days. It would be foolish to put my life at risk. But I ache for the human condition. I feel helpless to hold back the tide. I want to make a difference. I just don’t want to die trying.

boundaries

A big thanks to StoryCorps for inspiring this blog and my first book. http://amzn.to/2cCHgUu

It Takes All Kinds

I used to work with someone whose anxiety came out in the form of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). On really bad nights, she’d actually walk up to the bridge on the roadway, on the dotted yellow line, because to her way of thinking, encountering a 4,000 pound vehicle was vastly preferable to walking on the germs of the sidewalk, or stepping on the places where tires had touched the roadway (because, she reasoned, most tires had gone over road kill at some point).

I felt sorry for her. I really did. It must be exhausting to live under the weight of such stress. Her world was full of illogical rules that she absolutely had to follow, or disaster would surely strike. For example, under no circumstances could she wear her glasses into the bathroom. And all her dirty dishes must soak in bleach for at least 12 hours.

I also worked with someone who was a compulsive hoarder, which is also considered by many to be part of the OCD spectrum. To see the way he lived was heartbreaking. I’d say 90 percent of his home was full of garbage and useless junk. And he’d come to work and just take the place over. He wasn’t comfortable unless he was surrounded by possessions. In fairness, though, he’d take all his stuff with him at the end of his shift. That must have been tiring, too.

It was always scary to see him walk into the roadway to retrieve something that had fallen off a passing vehicle. It didn’t have to be anything of value. It just had to exist. If it existed, he had to have it. That bridge had the cleanest roadway on the face of the earth, despite what the OCD lady thought.

Actually, that’s probably not true, because for some reason I’ve worked with quite a few bridgetenders who were OCD and/or hoarders in my career, so there are probably quite a few picked-over bridges out there. I have no idea why these types of individuals are attracted to this job, but it seems to be very much the case.

Maybe it’s because as a bridgetender you tend to have more control over your environment than you do in a lot of other jobs. You work alone. You have your own way of doing things within a narrow field of requirements. And the job is, for the most part, predictable. (Except, of course, when it isn’t. But those are stories for other days.)

And maybe there’s another way of looking at this. You actually want bridgetenders to be all about the rules. The safety of the traveling public depends upon bridgetenders not cutting corners or getting too complacent. And if you have an anxiety disorder and yet still have to earn a living, it’s probably better for all concerned that you work alone.

I’ve never met a bridgetender who wasn’t unique in one way or another. The same could definitely be said about me. As the saying goes, it takes all kinds to make a world.

diversity