As Christmas approaches, I am in a period of reflection and gratitude, but you might not know it from looking. This is the first year since 2006 that I haven’t put up a Christmas tree, and the only year I haven’t really bought Christmas gifts or sent a single holiday card. I’m not making Christmas cookies or any special holiday food. On the Autoimmune Protocol I can’t have the vast majority of it anyway, and modifying all the recipes would take more creativity and talent than I have at the moment. V didn’t put Christmas lights outside this year, or plug in our obnoxious inflatable snowman who rose with a wave for the last 15 years to greet anyone who approached our home for the holidays. It’s quite different than the enormous effort I made last year. And frankly all the years.
I’m not sad about it, although I admit it does sound sad. I love Christmas. Every time someone asks me, “Are you ready for Christmas?” with a bright smile, I smile back under my mask and say, “Yes I am.” I don’t say I am conserving my energy because I am exhausted, or it snuck up on me, or I’m busy covering my job and my boss’s job. I was doing all that last year too, and I still bought the gifts and trimmed the tree and cooked the dinner… even with a spinal cord injury!
I say I’m ready because we’re not doing it this year, so there’s nothing to get ready for. Our priorities have shifted: we are in full PCS mode. I have decided to end my assignment in Mexico, and in early January, we will pack out our house and return to Virginia.
If someone had told me after we first arrived here that I would curtail, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. Once I’ve made a commitment, I tend to see it through. A curtailment is not an easy decision, least of all for me. I’ve been struggling with it for months. Losing tens of thousands of dollars in Service Need Differential, and incurring moving expenses and unexpected rent in one of the country’s most expensive areas, on top of disturbing my husband’s career and our lives here, all feels punitive and was not a decision we made lightly.
Foreign Service Officers curtail for a million reasons – a health scare, an emergency with one of their family members at Post, a family emergency back home, a toxic work environment, an unsatisfactory job or host country environment, to align their next tour with their tandem officer spouse’s, to take a “now” position off-bid cycle, or even because they’re resigning from the Foreign Service. There are also different kinds of curtailments – broken handshakes, compassionate, medical, administrative. Curtailments are probably worth their own blog post in 2022. They are pretty common, totally allowed, and if you know a Foreign Service Officer, you probably know someone who has curtailed an assignment. For whatever naive reason, I never thought a curtailment would happen to me.
I’m not going to share all the details for my curtailment request in a public forum like this. It wasn’t the pace of work, or the caseload, or because I wasn’t promoted last year. I also don’t wish to disparage anyone in particular. I am heartbroken to leave this job which I have loved – American Citizens Services work was, after all, my reason for joining the diplomatic corps – and particularly because leaving was a last resort. To be clear, I’m not resigning. I’m just ending this tour and moving on to my next tour.
But the series of circumstances that adversely affected and left behind immunocompromised people as we began trying to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic is something that has contributed to my choice to depart, and that aspect I do want to talk about.
My entire career, I have largely put my work ahead of my well-being and my personal priorities. Several months ago was the first time I looked around and saw nothing left to protect me. I came to understand I had become acceptable loss, and unless I wanted to become collateral damage too, I would have to be courageous enough to stand alone as my own safety guardrail. It’s an uncomfortable position to take, but that’s never stopped me before.
People were so excited in May 2021 when the CDC announced vaccinated persons no longer needed to wear masks. After over a year of disruptions and loss, people were ready to move on and put on their party shoes. Most healthy vaccinated people didn’t stop to consider the less fortunate, whose vaccines were less effective or didn’t work at all.
Over June and July workplaces followed suit, dropping masking and distancing protocols before medically vulnerable people – like those taking immunosuppressant medications or those with cancer whose immune systems don’t make antibodies – were safe. As a result, the four to 10 million immunocompromised Americans (who the CDC to this day advises not to be around unmasked persons indoors with whom they do not live) were more exposed than ever to COVID-19 as the unmasked, able-bodied people took over public spaces and imposed risk upon them.
(I discussed all of this at length in two of my summer 2021 posts, For Immunocompromised People, the Pandemic is Now & How You Can Be An Ally and Suckerpunch. I do recommend you read them if you haven’t already for a better understanding of the foundational issues.)
The message by and large from the CDC to the mainstream was if you’re vaccinated, you’re safe, with not a word about allyship to or helping those with weakened immune function. We were directly warned we weren’t safe, and then left to fend for ourselves. So much for “in it together, until we’re all safe.” It was both surprising and not shocking, considering the selfishness of people even after such a devastating pandemic that should have done more to unite human beings in solidarity.
Unfortunately, when workplaces decided masking and social distancing no longer offered any appreciable benefit to the community, they were also only talking to and about the majority. When I pointed out that this policy was not inclusive of disabled and medically vulnerable people, including the immunocompromised, I recommended a simple fix (if a colleague is wearing a mask to please distance from them). But no one thought it was worth explicitly communicating. Instead, this need was framed as a preference, and an unnecessary one at that. The implication of course being that once immunocompromised people had some time to “wait and see,” they would realize they were being silly. This flew in the face of science and actual CDC recommendations for the immunocompromised, and yet I was the one seen to be making the emotions-based argument which I found infuriating.
Over the following weeks and months as I experienced being crowded in the elevators, bathrooms, and even in my own office by unmasked colleagues, I attempted to raise my concerns. I continued masking and distancing the best I could, and for my efforts I received weird looks and a few colleagues even teased me. “Don’t you want to get back to normal?” they’d ask. Even though I became ill with a virus I couldn’t clear for four weeks and suddenly lost more than half my hair, no one showed any particular concern.
Here is a sampling of some of the ways immunocompromised people are being misunderstood in workplaces right now, highlighting the lack of understanding about invisible illnesses:
– “The whole cannot take care of the individual. Your health is your personal responsibility.” (Ignores the fact that the entire workforce sheltered at home for more than a year to take care of one another outside of a formally documented reasonable accommodation process until science told them they were safe. Denies parity to the immunocompromised who didn’t chose who scientists studied and when, and are still waiting to know what vaccination protective immunity means for them. Sets the immunocompromised up to fail in environments where they cannot mitigate by distancing, and doesn’t hold accountable other employees who come to work with minor viruses that have an outsized effect on the vulnerable.)
– “Let’s just focus on our work and the things we can do here.” (The privileged position of a person who has never had to think about disability rights or workplace access, and would prefer not to.)
– “Why don’t you just find a job where you can telework full-time or retire on disability if you’re afraid?” (Translation: Able-bodied people own these spaces and people with disabilities or autoimmune diseases are an unwelcome inconvenience. Disparages legitimate medical concerns as fear and anxiety, puts down people with clinical anxiety, and makes it more likely that people with special needs will hide them and avoid seeking care. Insinuates the immunocompromised should be fine taking risks with their health even though most of the risks they are being asked to take are invisible and unacknowledged, since federal policy does not distinguish between immunocompromised and immunocompetent vaccinated employees and their different risk factors and medical indications.)
– “I’m sorry this is happening to you.” (Translation: I don’t see the role I play in your harm, or could play as an ally addressing this ableist, discriminatory workplace situation. And aren’t you also overreacting a little bit?)
– “Do you really expect everyone to mask just for one person?” (Translation: My professional need to come talk to you in a way that’s comfortable for me is more important than your safety. When everyone was at risk, we all wore masks to protect each other. Now that you’re the only one left at risk, you aren’t worth protecting because you’re only… you. You are acceptable loss. When I was at risk you needed that mask though, because immunocompromised people are incubating crazy variants! You also have less right than others to access the federal workspace, despite federal law saying otherwise.)
What is the impact of these messages on immunocompromised employees? These messages make a professional, competent person feel unwelcome, not credible, and not listened to. They create a toxic work environment that creates barriers to social and professional access. They create a narrative that immunocompromised people “don’t want to get back to normal,” although the definition of normal being foisted on us marginalizes and excludes us by design.
You cannot bring your whole self to work. You cannot take risks, innovate, be creative or brave, because to do those things you need an environment of trust and psychological safety where it’s OK to make a fool of yourself or even to fail. When you don’t have a right to exist in the first place, you draw yourself in tightly and shut down. You’re just trying to be whoever you need to be to get through the day, and the cognitive dissonance you have to engage in, particularly as a manager, just keeps growing.
If continued mitigation away from the public and colleagues isn’t recognized as medically necessary, the only logical conclusion for our supervisors is that we as employees must have performance or conduct issues, for which we must be held to account. Any work you try to realign to stay safe will likely be perceived as you making your team’s or your boss’s job harder because you aren’t pulling your weight, despite any other extra things you do.
That’s really the final stage of this misunderstanding, this colossal bureaucratic failure, isn’t it? That we aren’t actually meeting our work expectations? Because the whole workforce was meeting theirs in 2020 while they were waiting to make it over the immunity wall?
It’s the 2021 equivalent of a workplace deciding to move itself into a room with a narrow doorway and no wheelchair ramp. When an employee who always worked there approaches in a wheelchair, she is told it is her responsibility to widen the doorway and build a ramp. She points out all the things wrong with what’s happening. Everyone nods and talks about the health and safety of all employees, diversity and inclusion, etc. She looks around and can’t figure out what is happening. She repeats herself, again and again, even though she shouldn’t have to make these disclosures. She sends email after email. Most aren’t responded to. She asks Washington what to do. Fingers point in every direction. She’s told she isn’t meeting expectations as everyone leaves her behind. When she says she doesn’t want to do it anymore, at huge financial penalty, everyone nods and says, “It’s good you’re making the best decision for you.” She can barely stifle the anger. Can anyone see what’s just happened? Everyone in the room continues doing what they do, passing Go, and collecting $200.
Ableism can exist in the absence of disabled persons, just like sexism can exist in the absence of women and racism can exist in the absence of people of color and racial and ethnic minorities. As I would go through a particularly brutal day, a cable or email would pop up with a title like “Disability inclusion is the responsibility of everyone, not just those with disabilities!” that would burn my eyes with angry tears. Creating an impossible situation, not acknowledging it, penalizing some of your most loyal employees, and then congratulating them for acting in their own best interest when they see no other option but to put up a guardrail, has left immunocompromised employees in the twilight zone.
Is it intentional, malicious? No, I doubt it. It’s the result of a lack of diversity in policy-making and not listening to people who are credible messengers on specific issues and then incorporating those lessons into the workplace in a way that makes practical sense. Period. Workplaces are quick to blame employees for a lack of adaptability, but I would argue it’s completely the other way around. All you have to do is look at the mass exodus of American employees from the workforce and the new trend of “stay” interviews vice the more traditional exit interviews.
But what about the expectations of a consular manager overseas? Don’t you have to go into risky situations, like hospitals, morgues, airports, and other places where U.S. citizens need help? Sure. And so what? Every job carries risk. We know that when we agree to serve overseas. We are all medically cleared to serve at the posts where we are sent, including me. Foreign Service Officers assume a ton of risks in our careers. We go without necessary healthcare for long periods. We put ourselves in high counter-intelligence threat situations where we know we are under surveillance. We observe elections and forced labor and travel in places where we can be assaulted or even killed. In my career I have been bullied, harassed both officially and unofficially, detained, followed, searched, pulled over, had my house broken into, and even assaulted. And every single time, my employer – for the most part – had my back. There was a proper response that made sense.
But the pandemic changed the rules, and immunocompromised employees are fundamentally left out, supposed to function at our best in a workplace with less rights and less flexibilities than others. Consider that the entire workforce was able to shelter in place for over a year, not performing most of their essential functions. But now that the majority population that is protected by their vaccines has decided the pandemic is over and we’re now dealing with endemic COVID, any accommodation required by a disabled person has to go through a formal, documented reasonable accommodation process where an employer does not have to allow for the realignment of any essential functions of a position as an accommodation.
In the meantime, in the physical workspace, everyone gets to interfere with the ability of the immunocompromised to mitigate risk of a deadly virus that will have an outsized effect on them. The rights of the immunocompromised are protected under federal law, yet in practice they are subservient to the comfort of the majority. And if you raise an objection about this, you’re likely to be characterized as anxious, reticent to work, or lacking resiliency or interpersonal and adaptability skills. The double standard is evident to anyone willing to notice it.
So how much risk would I as an immunocompromised employee be willing to assume? The sad truth is, up to and including the blank check of my very life in service to the American people, if it were acknowledged and respected in a way to truly prioritize the health and safety of all. But we aren’t there yet, ladies and gentlemen. Hence, the guardrail.
Well, how do you know it’s going to be better in Washington? I don’t. I think it will be better in my next job, because I’ve looked into it. But I don’t really know. I think everywhere will probably be the same, and as long as we have an overarching policy problem and a lack of awareness around the treatment of the immunocompromised in the pandemic, this is not really going to be better. But at least when I take a risk next time I won’t have all this baggage and trauma surrounding me.
I miss the days where we didn’t know so much about our colleagues. Once you know that people around you have closed you out of the bunker, so to speak, you can’t unknow it, even if you’ve managed to scratch and claw your way back in. It’s like soldiers continuing to have to battle alongside one another in combat. One knows he protected the others when it counted, but when it came down to it, they didn’t reciprocate and allowed him to get shot. It destroys the fabric of working relationships, what before the pandemic would have never been asked of us. What civilian could pass such a test? We are all just trying to make it to the other side, and we’ve all lost so much.
We all know that when it really, truly comes down to the end of days, it will be every person for themselves, right down to your immediate circle when everything else falls away. I’ve always understood that intuitively. What I wasn’t prepared to understand was watching it happen in front of me under the glaze of civility. While we’re all still wearing suits. Pretending to care about the things at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Is this what’s happening? I asked myself, after yet another conversation that made utterly no sense to me. Because it kind of seems like the gloves are coming off. Why can’t we just say something real? I answered my own question. Because if we had the constitution to be real, we’d have the constitution to be better to begin with.
In July things had already reached a breaking point for me. I knew as early as August that I should probably curtail. It was excruciating and I was looking for every way not to do so, starting with cutting my three-year tour back to two. But it wasn’t until November when I finally was forced to accept there was no successful way forward for me here that I said enough is enough. Just because you’re “overseas” and everything – your home and entire life setup – is tied to your current assignment doesn’t mean it cannot all be unwound with some effort. When you reach the tipping point of continuing being harder than all that unwinding, it’s undeniable. I deserve happiness and a positive environment as much as anyone else. It’s so sad I have to say that, especially considering the hours and effort I’m putting up to this day.
So in mid-December when the Assignments Panel approved the curtailment and my CDO sent me the message to let me know, the relief was so overwhelming I almost fell off my chair.
I will share more in the future about what will happen next, but on this Christmas Eve I am at peace with this decision, at peace with having no Christmas tree or Christmas ham, and at peace with having no gifts to open. Of course, there are some people here I will miss terribly, particularly each and every one of the incredible local staff from ACS. But overall I am filled with hope for a 2022 I did not expect, but welcome with open arms.