I knew something was wrong the moment I walked in the door. I had about three steps in the hallway to feel that sense of impending dread, and then I saw him.
My husband was sitting on the couch, head hanging down, eyes closed, with his hands in his lap. He was holding a napkin. I knew he was hurt. Because of the napkin, I assumed it was his hand. “What happened? Did you tear off your thumbnail?”
“No, it’s my eye,” he replied, and it was almost like a lever switched over inside me into Action Mode.
There were just a few problems: I was pouring sweat because I had just come back from my workout; it was dinnertime; and our dog had apparently been extravagantly sick in the bathroom.
The other set of problems: I was scheduled to teach back-to-back workshops at a conference the next morning, and I had planned to spend the rest of the evening running through my slides.
What I do in crisis situations like this is to start talking to myself. I ran through the next obvious steps and made sure I had them in order. Call advice nurse. Find health insurance card. Take dog out. Give him a dose of metronidazole. Cut the pill in half. Clean up disaster on bathroom floor. Microwave quick dinner, feed man. Take shower and get dressed. Write down instructions from nurse. Make sure we both have our wallets, keys, and phones. Call Lyft. Most of those steps hit the list in random order, as I thought of them, and I mentally shuffled them into their correct place in the task list. Somehow I had accomplished all of it during the 40-minute hold for the advice nurse.
I did a perimeter check and two bag checks, grabbed a protein shake for myself, and we were off to the emergency room.
My husband was effectively blind. He couldn’t even open his eyelid, it was so swollen, and if he tried to use his good eye, the injured eye tracked with it. When the admittance nurse asked him to rate his pain, he gave it an 8. “He has a very high pain threshold,” I added, because we had both had a casual discussion about the pain scale recently and we agreed that a 9 was “involuntary screaming.” I knew he would never claim an 8 unless he had to.
We got to the ER at 9:00 PM, in the midst of flu season. An injured woman took one look at my husband, leapt up, and offered him her seat. I found us two adjacent seats around 12:30 AM. Until 2:00 AM, I was still thinking about how I was going to make use of this experience as an anecdote to introduce my workshop on “The Organized Leader.” We got to see a doctor at 4:30 AM.
By that point, my dreams of glory had been let go. I was prepared for a series of outcomes, including an admittance to the hospital; emergency surgery; the loss of my husband’s eye; and permanent damage to, or loss of, his vision. I had run through fallback plans for each of these, thinking of next steps and calls to make. Of course I had the good sense not to tell him any of that. I know him well enough to know that he was doing the same, and also thinking, of course I would never tell my wife any of this. We wouldn’t want to scare each other.
We’ve both learned many of these planning skills together, through life lessons and by seeking out information for the advanced scenarios. We spent three weeks backpacking through Iceland together; we took first aid and CPR classes together; we went to martial arts classes together. We both recognize ourselves as leaders, and leadership only really matters in emergencies, such as Someone Might Lose an Eye Tonight.
It turned out okay. My husband had a corneal abrasion, quite large, and I got to see it enhanced with glow-in-the-dark dye under the special lamp. Oddly, both our dog and I had had the same type of injury in the past couple of years! What I had, compared to my husband’s, was like a small paper cut versus scraping all the skin off one’s knuckle. Our dog had to wear a cone for a week. In this situation, I had true empathy, because I had literally shared his experience.
It helped me deal with the frustration of having to let go of my big opportunity.
We got home at 7:00 AM. The sun was already up. I helped my temporarily blind husband up the steps and got him home, just in time to take our dog out again. The veterinary medicine had worked, so at least we had that going for us. Then I emailed everyone on my team and texted my director to alert them that I wouldn’t be attending the conference. We finally got into bed at the time I would have been finding my seat for the keynote.
I knew I would be missing a lot. I had scheduled a planning meeting and a group photo with my team, all of whom were volunteering in various slots. My workshops were the result of a month of campaigning to include a new category of topics on the slate. Not only had I succeeded in making my case, but I was chosen to teach them myself. Plausibly I would be called onstage for a minute for one reason or another. It was the four-year anniversary of my foray into public speaking, and I had looked forward to celebrating this, vanquishing a fear and turning it into a strength. I’d stride confidently into a ballroom and deliver the material I had been polishing all week. I’d change lives! I’d send my audience out, transformed and inspired to tackle tougher problems!
Instead, I graduated into a new level of leadership. I passed the test. I demonstrated the value of everything I had put into my slides. It’s not our stuff or our calendars that we are “organizing.” It’s our relationships and our values. I was able to keep my head on straight and get us to the hospital largely because I keep an orderly home and manage my mental bandwidth. I strengthened my marriage. I even remembered the dog.
One day, I’ll present my workshop. Maybe I’ll be asked to teach it more than once. The material will only be improved by this experience, and my motivation will only have intensified. Being organized isn’t about making pretty binders or choosing just the right paperclip tray. It’s not about getting promoted. It’s about mastering the situation, about knowing what to do even when everything feels impossible. Leadership is about realizing the infinite power you have to help others and work toward a better outcome.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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