This Week in My Sabbatical: Winter Reflections

WP_20150203_004The thing about being on sabbatical during the winter term is that no matter what else changes, it’s still winter! And boy, have we had a reminder of that this week, with three storms already in the past seven days and another one apparently barreling up towards us tonight.

It’s no secret around here that I don’t cope well with east coast winters. Yes, it is very bright when the sun shines on the snowy landscape, and bare branches look better frosted with ice than not. But that’s really not very cheering when you spend your sunny day chiseling out the driveway and hoping the roads will be cleared in time to make it to appointments, lessons, and rehearsals, not to mention just to school and work.

Since I finally gave up on my dream of relocating, I have tried to find ways to make winters here less stressful, and I have actually narrowed down the problem to one main issue: winter driving. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned here before that I am fairly phobic about driving anyway — not everyday city driving, but I experience intense anxiety when driving (or, worse, being driven) on highways, for instance, or across suspension bridges, or on snow- or ice-covered roads. People who never suffer themselves from stomach-clenching pulse-racing anxiety are often disbelieving, impatient, or irritable about it and about the inhibitions it creates. I have struggled with it a lot myself, because I know that my fear leads me to pass up opportunities. Feeling guilty, ashamed, or self-critical has not, however, turned out to help at all (as other anxious people will probably understand). So a while ago I decided to give myself a break and spend less time either facing down or smiling bravely over the fear, and to live as much as possible within my comfort zone. I have enough stress about things that I can’t choose to avoid. Driving long distances, however? Not required. Going over the bridges to Dartmouth? Almost never necessary. The things I miss out on just, for now, don’t matter to me as much as the bad experience I’m spared.

Driving in the winter, however, is hard to escape altogether. If I could get by without driving when it’s snowy, though, I think I might not find winter stressful at all. Unpleasant, sure (I’m just never going to be one of those “take the lid off winter” types, and I don’t think anybody likes shoveling), but not anxiety-inducing. The problem is that walking isn’t a realistic option for everything we need to do, especially since a typical winter mess here is not just fluffy snowflakes but includes nasty ice pellets and freezing rain. (Today’s lovely variation is rain falling on top of 2 inches of ice that formed over about 6 inches of snow: huge lakes are forming where drains are blocked, and pedestrians are clambering precariously over mountains of encrusted slush.) Even if I were OK with dressing like some kind of Arctic sea explorer and sloshing doggedly through it, it’s a bit much to make the kids do the same, and add doctors and orthodontists and music lessons and extra-curricular activities to the basic demands of work and school and we really can’t manage without going in the car, however stomach-clenchingly pulse-racingly awful it makes me feel.

I have been doing better in the last couple of years, actually, and the more times I actually go out and drive in conditions like, say, yesterday’s or today’s, the more I know that it’s really not that bad if you have snow tires (I do) and take it slowly (you better believe I do!). But I still really hate it, and I hate the uncertainty associated with it too: I’m someone who likes to plan, to know what’s happening when, and the combination of unpredictable weather and hard choices between not driving and not going somewhere (or not getting someone else where they want or need to be) … let’s just say it doesn’t bring out the best in me.

There is something different this year, though, and that’s my perspective on winters in Halifax. I have been realizing that this whole mess is a problem that I might, one day, actually be able to solve, or at least work around. For one thing,  the kids are growing up. Owen starts at Dalhousie in the fall, and he’s probably moving into residence; Maddie is almost in high school. As their independence grows, so does mine. OK, so I couldn’t make a lateral career move to Vancouver. I almost certainly won’t be able afford to retire there either, and even if I thought I could, retirement’s a long way away. But eventually things like taking sabbaticals out of town won’t seem implausible, and maybe down the road I can figure out other ways to split my time between here and there. “Halifax is so nice in the summer,” people always enthuse. Well, so are most places, so that’s never seemed like a compelling argument in favor of Halifax in particular! But if I could get out of Halifax when it isn’t so nice (and spend more time, also, with the friends and family I miss so much when I’m stranded out here), I wouldn’t be so grudging about its charms.

It’s not a lot to hang on to, but when things are grim here at least I can keep playing with different scenarios, trying to figure out how I could make them work when the time comes. For now, though, I guess I’d better go see if I can clear any more ice away while it’s mild outside, because it’s supposed to drop to -14 again overnight (-26 with the wind chill!) and if all the stuff that’s melting now just freezes in place, I might never leave the house again.

4 thoughts on “This Week in My Sabbatical: Winter Reflections

  1. litlove February 5, 2015 / 4:04 pm

    You know you have my full sympathy. It’s hard to describe to anybody else the rocket-fulled compulsion NOT to do something so ordinary and everyday (as it seems to others), as one’s body descends into a hellish symphony of symptoms all ferociously protesting against whatever the activity might be. And then trying to keep the lid on all that in front of children, friends, colleagues, etc. I’ve always found that pushing myself to keep doing something that brings about a phobic reaction just makes that reactions worse over time, not better.

    The best advice I read suggested breaking down the activity into its component parts, tackling them one at a time, very very slowly. It’s important in fact to frustrate yourself, to always do less than you feel you can. Gradually, you work up to doing more and the old bad memories are replaced with reliable safe ones. Of course this is well and good until we have to factor in jobs and families! But in any case, I would fully applaud your choice to keeping to the tried and tested wherever possible. We have to build our confidence up where possible. I also think that this sort of anxiety attacks people who really DO want to do the very best they can, who work hard to please others and who are bothered by any limitations. We can end up behaving in quite a hostile way towards ourselves, just to do something that fits cultural expectations. I’ve actually found it liberating to say, well forget that! I’m going to look after myself and not put myself through hell unless someone’s life depends upon it.

    We’ve had snow on and off this week too (not like you! pathetic snow) and I hate it too. Oh roll on the spring! And here’s to being inside in the warm with some good books until it comes. 🙂


    • Rohan Maitzen February 5, 2015 / 6:06 pm

      I knew you were someone who would understand, since you’ve written so well about your own anxiety issues! The idea of replacing bad memories with better ones makes a lot of sense. I have also done well with some of my general driving issues by really studying routes ahead of time and things like that, so I don’t have the extra panic of feeling lost — and I’ve focused on places I really do want to be able to get to as incentives to push myself. When we finally got a big bookstore, for instance, but they put it in the business park outside of town, that helped motivate me to conquer the small stretch of highway it takes to get there! But add in ice and snow and nope, not doing it.


  2. Miss Bates February 7, 2015 / 1:21 am

    Oh, I so sympathized with your winter driving fears. I feel exactly the same way. Living in Montreal is no better than Halifax as far as deluges of ice, snow, pellets, drops, fluffs, name it and it shall fall from the sky. The city is also built around a “mountain” … okay, not much of one, but it still makes for eek! hills, of varying degrees of steepness, when driving, or at least trying to grind one’s way up them, or slide down, or veer across, depending on the nasty coating the surface. Shudder … black ice. As far as highway, or bridge driving is concerned, I don’t do it at all. I’m so anxious about driving the night before a snow or ice fall that I barely sleep, which only makes the drive the next day even more difficult. We have an excellent, but terrifically crowded, public transportation system and I use it when it all gets to be too much. I listen to an audiobook and let someone else, in a huge, secure vehicle, do the driving. I love winter: the dark, the snow falling, the white and the quiet. The burrowing reading months of it are lovely, second only to sublime autumn. It’s the driving I can’t stand.


    • Rohan February 7, 2015 / 12:50 pm

      That’s me too, lying awake worrying! We aren’t far from one bus line, but it runs rarely and we’d have to transfer at least once to get most places. I suppose we should have thought more about public transportation when we bought the house, but my experience taking buses here has always been bad, and every time there’s a storm you hear endless reports of buses stuck or rerouted, and long, long delays, so I don’t know how much that ‘option’ would really help. Oh, for a subway system!

      I puzzle every that we haven’t made any technological advances in de-icing or snow clearing. The city seems helpless in the face of the ice pack we currently have under the new snow: all they can do is wait for it to warm up.


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