My partner Duke and I spent half of New Year’s Day in at the Park Avenue laundromat, washing our mattress pad, sheets, blankets, comforters, towels, and essential clothes.
We tried to make it festive with some Christmas bread, hardboiled eggs and a thermos of chai tea. But the truth is, we’ve had a rough month since December 16.
That was the day a skunk dug into our basement.
We were blissfully ignorant at first. We smelled skunk, but assumed it was outside, and thanks to the phenomenon of olfactory fatigue—where you get used to a strong smell—we succeeded in fooling ourselves that it was getting better.
Except it wasn’t. After four days we called our wildlife guy, Greg. He and Duke found and removed the skunk, which was close to death. By then the damage was done. The skunk had emptied its entire store of spray on the floor. The furnace, which was on constantly due to the bitterly cold weather, had efficiently dispersed the airborne skunk oil through every nook and cranny of every room in the house. Everything was perfumed with skunk: furniture, clothes, pillows, drapes.
The day he removed the skunk, Greg said we were on his top five list of worst skunk disasters he’s seen in 30-odd years in business. A week later, he awarded us the number one spot.
Why am I telling you all this?
It’s not for sympathy, though believe me, I’ll accept any you care to offer. It’s because I’ve learned a lot from this experience, and I want to make lemonade out of these smelly lemons we’ve been handed by passing on that learning to you.
As a sensitive person, I’m incapable of not pondering, even in the midst of this month’s nonstop blur of activity. I’ve observed, wondered, and meditated on the whole situation and my reactions to it. I’ve watched how I seem to be holding up. And to my amazement, I’m holding up well.
This is true even thought I’m exhausted from the sheer onslaught of work. We’ve removed most of our portable belongings from the house out to the garage to be “de-smelled” (clothes, luggage, coats, etc). We’ve sprayed and aired the house multiple times, cleaning up after the spraying, which left a sticky residue from floor to ceiling and everywhere in between. And for ten days, we moved into rooms at a retreat center here while I did my client work from multiple different borrowed locations. I had to choreograph each day on paper to make sure I ended up in the right place at the right time with the right keys, wi-fi passwords, files, and food I needed.
No doubt, this has challenged me to the limit at times. We both work from home. As HSPs, we each need a peaceful orderly home environment to thrive, so this hit us hard. We’ve yelled at each other; I’ve collapsed into tears and lapsed into self pity; I’ve watched myself go into “control mode” under the stress of complete discombobulation. With my keen sense of smell, I’ve found the odor a torment. And we have a cleanup job that is going to take months, in addition to the laborious, expensive work of repairing the basement foundation and setting up preventive structures so we aren’t running an Airbnb for critters.
But through all this, to my astonishment, I have felt an unshakeable core of peace and well-being, even at the worst moments. My mother commented on it (in the midst of all this, we drove to the midwest for Christmas, where my parents kindly tolerated us running through 20 cycles of wash trying to get the skunk out of the clothes we had packed.) She said she admired the “equanimity” with which we were handling all this.
Where did this equanimity come from? it’s a a big change from the past when I felt like I lived over a vortex of anxiety which could suck me down at any moment. I felt peace at times, but it was precarious. What changed? The answer, I realized, lay in my long-term effort to create a sturdy yet flexible infrastructure for myself on three levels.
The “three pillars” of HSP well-being
Do you remember the free article, “How to love yourself as much as your dog loves you,” that you downloaded when you subscribed to The Listening Post? In it I talk about the three “pillars” of HSP well-being, which together can provide you with stability just as the legs of a three-legged stool do. The pillars are personal infrastructure, inner relationship, and intent, in the Inner Bonding sense of ” the intent to learn” as opposed to ” the intent to control.”
To relate them clearly to each other, you could call them external, internal, and spiritual infrastructure. Here are some ways these infrastructures supported me in this skunk crisis:
External infrastructure: your physical self care, from food to exercise to sleep; your personal and professional environment; your schedule; your relationships.
In this skunk crisis, we made sure we had good food to eat. We were offered a peaceful, quiet place to stay at the center where we go to meditate, and we stayed there for ten nights. I made sure to do something physical most days, from exercising to scrubbing floors. Friends helped us. Family helped us. I relied on my organizational systems I have in place for client records and communication. All these are forms of external infrastructure I’ve worked hard to cultivate.
Internal infrastructure: your inner relationship with yourself.
I consciously chose to keep a sense of humor through this ordeal. except when I couldn’t. When I couldn’t, I tried to have compassion for myself and Duke. I used my Focusing and Inner Bonding skills to get my head back on straight. I asked myself what I could learn from this, listening for guidance. I tried to discern what was under my control and what I wanted to do about that. Likewise, I tried to discern what wasn’t under my control and find a way let go of that.
Spiritual infrastructure: your spiritual practice, your relationship to your spiritual Source, and your spiritual community of support.
The first object I sprayed when we got our anti-skunk enzyme stuff was my meditation cushion. And I made sure to meditate every day and to set my intent for the day: what was important to me? There were actions on each day’s list, but mostly I focused on how I wanted to be with myself, Duke and others.
For example, I consciously chose to be polite to the guy from whom we first ordered the spray for the house who failed to overnight the stuff to us as agreed. This was a serious blow: because of the timing over New Year’s weekend, it meant we couldn’t start the odor reduction process for five more days. As a result, I had to find temporary office space for a week. I was tempted to make scathing comments, but I knew I’d feel bad, he’d feel bad, and it wouldn’t change anything. So I just calmly asked for my money back. That most assuredly would not have happened if I hadn’t sat down and set the intent in advance.
All this infrastructure did not happen overnight
Reflecting on this, I’ve realized how much time and care I’ve put into my infrastructures: systems and routines, inner work, relationships, and spiritual practice. As stressful as this skunk thing has been at moments, there has been an unexpected reward: I see clearly that my time and care have paid off in a dramatic way. With patience and perseverance, I’ve built infrastructures that are sturdy and flexible, allowing them to hold up under this kind of sustained stress.
This is deeply satisfying to me as a teacher and facilitator because I have a central value of practicing what I preach. And if you’ve worked with me, you know I emphasize infrastructure. We need Inner Bonding and Focusing, and we also need sleep. And snacks. And so on.To be happy and fully functional, we HSPs need all three “pillars” in place.
So for 2018, I send you my very best wishes for peace, health, and an ever-sturdier infrastructure in all areas of your life.
Happy New Year!
I had to laugh out loud when I read this because the evening before my dog had come into the house, while my husband, daughter, visiting granddaughter and I were playing cards, having been thoroughly sprayed by a skunk! The smell of fresh skunk oil was disgusting (and lingers still). Reading your story put the whole incident into perspective :). Thank you for sharing your pain, strategies and victory.
Mary, I’m glad this gave you a laugh. It is definitely one of those unforgettable life experiences! I’m sorry you had to deal with it with your dog…hope you got the spray out. It is awfully persistent!
Gosh Emily! Living “down under”as I do, all of the above is thankfully not an issue for us. I had no idea one little critter could cause such havoc. After reading of your stinky horrors, I’m glad to keep it that way. All the best for a sweeter smelling time ahead 😀
Jude, thank you for your kind wishes.
The experience gave me an entirely new level of compassion and empathy for the millions of people around the world who are refugees or “IDP’s” (“internally displaced persons”). This was a non-life-threatening, temporary situation and it was still really, really stressful. I just can’t imagine how people are living who are in camps, etc, with no hope of change anywhere on the horizon.