Resilience and coping skills that prove handy during disaster are pretty much the same that work for any unfortunate life circumstance. One way of building this general resilience is to think through potential options for handling times of distress: “Plannin’, instead of frettin’,” as Horace so aptly put it. We can’t be completely prepared for the unknown. But thinking ahead which strategies we might try can relieve some of the sting.
The following exercises are your opportunity to further explore the real life concepts incorporated throughout the telling of Keepers Saving the World. You probably won’t always come up with a perfect definitive answer. But by considering possible options, you will be further ahead in the game, for both day-to-day and major disaster.
But the most important thing I’ve learned about people and disaster is this: when disaster happens, people rise to the occasion, no matter what their level of preparedness.
In the opening chapter of Keepers Saving the World, Sarah finds herself abandoned on the street corner of a big town, with her best friend’s infant in her arms. Everyone else has taken off down the road to help at the site of a mysterious explosion. She’s had training for this type of mental health emergency, and such expertise will be in short supply. But she can hardly justify taking an infant into such a volatile setting. With the phone system overwhelmed, she can’t get in touch with others.
Suppose you were Sarah. How would you sort out potential benefits or pitfalls of either choice? What does the situation bring to mind regarding your own disaster preparedness?
In Chapter Two of Keepers Saving the World, Paulson immediately dashes in to help those injured by the explosion. He intends to put to use his substantial training and experience in disaster. The deeper he gets into it, however, the more it appears he may not have everything it takes for something of this magnitude. He is overwhelmed, at times even frozen in place. But he’s concerned about the friends who disappeared in the chaos, as well as the many injured surrounding him. He allows himself to be pulled further in.
If you were Paulson, how would you handle finding yourself in the middle of an incident like this? Nobody knows for sure what their personal limits are until they reach them. What cues do you think would tell you it was time to step back—feelings, thoughts, beliefs, or behaviors?
In Chapter Three of Keepers Saving the World, Sarah is assigned the task of telling her best friend that her husband has been seriously injured. Since she’s a mental health professional, she has ideas of how best to go about it. Even so, it’s not going to be easy. The situation involves people she cares about.
Suppose there were a disaster in your community. In the thick of it, you run into someone who has not yet heard information that could well mean her loved ones had been in harm’s way. What considerations would guide whether or how you give her the information?
In Chapter Four of Keepers Saving the World, Sarah is distracted by chaotic memories while trying to drive to the hospital. Not wanting to get into an accident, she tells herself to be “mindful” – in other words, to settle and focus on the present.
Though most don’t typically think of this circumstance as a form of distracted driving, emotional issues – both pleasant and unpleasant – can interfere with safe driving practices. What cues do you use to establish that your emotional state might temporarily interfere with driving, or other important decision-making?
When have you tried this as a solution to feeling overwhelmed? What did you notice afterwards? If taking a long walk is not an option at the moment of stress, what other physical activity might better fit in with your typical routine?
In Chapter Six of Keepers Saving the World, Sarah and Paulson discuss concerns about the “worried well.” They are referring to those who have become unrealistically worried about possibilities of hazardous substances in the environment.
Suppose a major disaster occurred in your area. You have a loved one who is so fearful of possible toxins in the atmosphere that he refuses to leave home. What might you say to him, or do to help him? Where do you think you might go to find the best information about risk of environmental contaminants? What problems might you anticipate, both for an individual and the community, if the concerns of the worried well were not effectively addressed?
In Chapter Seven of Keepers Saving the World, Sarah gives in to a belly laugh after listening to Chet’s superstitious beliefs. Afterwards, she realizes the angst she’s been experiencing over the last few days isn’t quite as bad. She notes that laughter truly is the best medicine.
Think back to when you’ve had a good belly laugh. How did you feel afterwards? Why do you think it makes a difference in feelings of wellbeing?
In Chapter Eight of Keepers Saving the World, Paulson’s anxieties give him gut discomfort. Many different physical reactions can turn up because of stress: nausea, jitters, numbness, feeling foggy headed, headaches, backaches – as many different possible symptoms as there are people experiencing anxiety.
How does your body physically react when you are stressed? Noting the physical reaction as it first occurs can be a cue for recognizing you are becoming overly stressed. Knowing this allows opportunity to address feelings or stressors, before they get out of hand.
In Chapter Nine of Keepers Saving the World, a government official reviews information cleared for release regarding the mysterious explosion. Knowing what has happened or is happening provides some predictability. Predictability and ability to control unpleasant or stressful events are the two factors that contribute most to how stressed we become.
Think back to a time when you felt overly stressed. Are there appropriate ways in which it would be possible to increase levels of predictability and control in such a situation?
In Chapter Ten of Keepers Saving the World, Sarah visits the neighborhood of her youth. She experiences it as soothing – the sights, smells, sounds, and memories. Even those who’ve had disturbing childhoods have memory facets of early developmental settings that feel soothing or reassuring.
What sights, smells, sounds, or memory cues of your past feel pleasant or reassuring to you? How might you make it easier to introduce or remember such feelings during times of stress?
In Chapter Eleven of Keepers Saving the World, Lacey and Horace meet up at the current disaster operation. They show all in view how happy they are to be working together again. Sarah and Paulson also at times demonstrate “disaster bonding” – the tendency for human beings to quickly bond and function as one during times of high anxiety.
Think back to when you have been in a situation of urgency, or impending disaster. In what ways did you see yourself joining with others more quickly, or see others throwing in together to accomplish joint goals? Why do you suppose we developed this tendency; can you see how it might have first become useful or adaptive for us?
In Chapter Twelve of Keepers Saving the World, Paulson sets up his staff mental health station in a location that allows for considerable privacy. Doing so is likely to help workers feel more comfortable about sharing how they are doing.
Suppose you were working in a high-stress environment. A mental health professional is assigned to the site for those who wish to unload when stress becomes an issue. What might you observe in yourself – behaviors, thoughts, or feelings – that would suggest to you it’s time to unload? Under what circumstances might it be more, or less advantageous to do so with the mental health professional, rather than a coworker?
In Chapter Thirteen of Keepers Saving the World, Sarah encounters a client at the FAC who has become unrealistically suspicious of those whose racial features are different from his own. “Stranger anxiety,” as it is sometimes called, is not unusual in situations involving high threat.
Pervasive traits or behaviors of this sort – that we tend to think of as solely problematic – turn up because somewhere along the line, either personally or species-wide, they were useful or adaptive. What reasons can you think of that could explain why the human race experiences stranger anxiety regarding those who are different? In what ways is it either useful or a problem in today’s world?
Everybody has regrets over the past, and concerns about the future. Are you aware of when these have become excessive and/or ineffective for you? Are there specific times or circumstances when you tend to get too wrapped up in the past or future? How might you effectively refocus when that happens?
In Chapter Fifteen of Keepers Saving the World, Sarah uses the term “vetted” when referring to a support group Lil plans to join. Vetted means making sure someone with appropriate expertise or knowledge has taken a look at a person, program, resource, or whatever and established the legitimacy of what they present.
How do you decide whether an authority or source is reliable? What do you look for, whom or with what would you typically consult, to decide that people and/or information are most likely trustworthy?
In Chapter Sixteen of Keepers Saving the World, Paulson questions Chet about Alison’s opportunities to socialize during down time. Social connectedness is perhaps the most effective answer for healing during times of high stress or disaster. Social connections are also associated with both physical and mental health.
Which of your regular social connections feel most restorative to you? How do you make sure you maintain them? Who would you consult or just spend time with that you believe could provide the most reassurance or release during a time of difficulty or high stress?
In Chapter Seventeen of Keepers Saving the World, Paulson lectures Alison that their job is supporting and advocating for disaster survivors, rather than becoming activists. He points out that helping them become strong for themselves is the ultimate goal. What will help or hinder varies, depending on the individual.
In general, what types of assistance do you think have the greatest likelihood of helping people become strong for themselves? Can you think of efforts, though well-intentioned, that run the risk of hindering recovery, rather than helping?
In Chapter Eighteen of Keepers Saving the World, the disaster operation has succeeded in finding sufficient staff. Sarah considers that friends and family might need her more than the organized recovery efforts.
It’s not easy to let go. Recovery work can become addictive. You see all the need, and you see everything your efforts are doing to help. The personal rewards are substantial. However, your loved ones also need you.
If you were involved with a local disaster operation, how would you make such a decision? What factors or observations would you consider in deciding whether you should stay on, or be with friends and family who could use your support?
In Chapter Nineteen of Keepers Saving the World, Sarah considers the ambivalent feelings many experience regarding memorial services held for them after they pass. Some even insist that they do not want their friends and family to hold one for them, even though such ritualistic practices are healing for those left behind.
Why do you think this is so? What are your thoughts on it? What might we say to loved ones who suggest we refrain from having memorial services for them after their passing?
In Chapter Twenty of Keepers Saving the World, Paulson and Sarah discuss the problem of inadequate collaboration planning among the many agencies and organizations that provide mental health services during disaster. They try to think of ways they might improve upon it.
How about you? What do you think you might be able to offer friends and family in the way of psychological first aid following a disaster? Where in your community would you go to find such information?
In Chapter Twenty-one of Keepers Saving the World, Paulson makes casual reference to Alan being a “disaster junkie.” He is referring to disaster workers who get so caught up in the adrenalin rush of disaster work that they participate for longer than is good for them.
Suppose you were helping out with a local disaster recovery operation. What would you look for in yourself to decide that it was time to step back a while?
In Chapter Twenty-two of Keepers Saving the World, Sarah considers the benefit of getting Lil back into old practiced routines. She knows that doing so will probably speed up Lil’s recovery from disaster trauma.
Why do you think this is so? What do you notice about old practiced routines and behaviors; what do they do for you? Which ones in your life might come in handy when feeling overstressed?
In Chapter Twenty-three of Keepers Saving the World, Paulson mulls over how much of his inner life would be appropriate to share with his disaster buddies. He is concerned that knowing about his odd inner experiences might ruin their confidence in his professional capability. With that trust no longer in place, they might not turn to him if they needed assistance, perhaps even go without.
Other conflicts of interest can arise when considering whether or not to share a personal situation or feelings with others. What sorts of boundaries can you think of that would affect what you do or do not talk about with a friend or loved one about something difficult?
In Chapter Twenty-four of Keepers Saving the World, Paulson talks Damien into directly confronting one of his fears. It leads Damien into regaining the self-confidence he’d lost during the trauma of the disaster.
Sometimes confronting a difficult situation is beneficial. Yet there are other times when they’re better left alone. “Let sleeping dogs lie,” as the saying goes. How do you decide which is best for a given situation?
In Chapter Twenty-five of Keepers Saving the World, Sarah deals with Lil’s sarcasm by not “taking the bait.” In other words, she recognizes how Lil has punched her buttons in the past. Now that she’s taking into account the reinforcing nature of taking the bait, she decides not to react.
Do you have buttons that are easily pushed? How has that been problematic for you or others? How do you think you might resist “taking the bait” when people affect you this way?
In Chapter Twenty-six of Keepers Saving the World, Paulson notes how difficult it is to be objective when a situation involves somebody you care deeply about. Feelings have a way of clouding better judgment. We’ve all done this at times – given unquestioning benefit of the doubt to those we care about, even in the face of information suggesting we’re overgenerous.
At times, this is appropriate. Everyone needs someone in their corner when the going gets rough. At other times, our support can become enabling. Well-meaning support can actually end up reinforcing a loved one’s maladaptive behavior.
How do you tell the difference? What would you need to see or be aware of that might mean it was time to ease up on benefit of the doubt? How can we accomplish this without rejecting the person entirely?
In Chapter Twenty-seven of Keepers Saving the World, Paulson comes to an epiphany. In other words, pieces of his past connect with current experience in ways that help him clarify some of his ambivalent attitudes and feelings. He experiences it as healing.
Has this ever happened to you, or someone close to you? What was it like? What did it change about your life or worldview?
In the final paragraph of Keepers Saving the World, a shadow passes over, swirls gently, and disappears into the skylight. These images could stand for any number of things: what might have changed for Sarah and Paulson; what their experiences have done for their worldview.
All of us were impacted by The Events of September 11th. We each have our own recovery journey, as individualized as those of the characters in the story. Where are you in your journey? Did you see things in Sarah’s and Paulson’s journeys that remind you of your own recovery?
What would you like to see happen next?