“I don’t have time to think about how I feel.” The disheveled woman gestures at tornado-ravaged debris that once had been her home. “Look at everything we’re contending with!” Her family members are aimlessly stumbling, poking at this or that. She spends the rest of her day dabbing away grime from salvaged silver.
How do we help those in such circumstances? This week our hearts go out to those learning about destruction and personal loss due to flooding in South Carolina. Where do their feelings leave them? How do we comfort, and help them move on?
When circumstances are overwhelming, it’s easy to get stuck. There is so much to attend to immediately following disaster. Especially if the damage is personally catastrophic:
- The entire house is gone, and most of what it held.
- What about the all that paperwork, the ID that tells the world who I am?
- Where are my insurance papers?
- What about my job?
- How do I still get to work?
- Is my place of employment still up and running?
- My parents! Did they make it out okay?
- Are they injured? Do they have their heart medications?
- Where are they, anyway? Did they find a place to stay?
- Where will my family and I sleep tonight?
- How will we get food, or changes of clothing?
- What do we do about money?
- What about Suzie’s big test next week—her schoolbooks?
- Is the school even open?
Disaster is like that. Trauma often is, as well. It’s like the rug being pulled out from under. All that seems solid, all that props up our self image, our routines, the view of our world and our place in it, is suddenly no longer there. We are vulnerable, protective coatings somehow stripped away.
How can we go on, in the face of any adverse life event that has left us feeling so exposed? How do we regain a sense of safety, and wholeness?
An adversity’s rightful place on the shelf of our recollections shifts throughout a lifetime. Still, there are ways to coax back a present sense of wholeness and wellbeing, even after disaster. Continue reading
If you’ve had anything to do with disaster over the past decade or three, you’ve no doubt run across something called “debriefing.” Critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) started up among firefighters. They used it after especially traumatic responses as a way of tending to unpleasant emotional reactions. They typically got together with their teams and followed a specific discussion protocol, delving into feelings about the incident, then moving toward coping or resolution. They found debriefing very useful for avoiding burnout. Over time, other emergency responders began using the debriefing process.
Eventually groups of disaster and other trauma survivors were collected together and given debriefing. The hope was that it might help them similarly resolve related emotional issues.
Unfortunately, when science caught up and measured the outcome of practicing it among such groups, it found no improvement. Surprisingly, at times it identified more emotional issues among them than among survivors who did not go through debriefing. How could this happen? Continue reading
“You’re an angel.” The woman nodded, her certainty smiling back at me. “I know you are. I can see it in your eyes.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d received such a whimsical compliment after an interlude with a disaster survivor. Not that I ever fell into believing I’d donned some form of celestial avatar. I’m your usual mortal, bludgeoning my way through common inadequacies and annoying life foibles, the same as everyone else.
My new friend’s star-struck observation did strike at a chord of truth, one that resonates throughout the realm of addressing disaster needs. Contributions to recovery go beyond the feeding, sheltering, and other concrete resources typically thought of following disaster. Just as important is the intangible. Continue reading
“Why do I always feel so worked up? Why can’t I just relax?”
Our bodies are blessed with a “fight, flight, or freeze” response system. It’s a chemical chain of events that kicks in during times of urgency. Animals in the wild most clearly demonstrate its value. Engaging a foe, running from a predator, and freezing to become invisible are all practices that increase longevity. They are essential to survival. Such physical activity also uses up the chemicals that pump up the response.
With human beings, how it might be funneled into survival is not always clear-cut, especially following disaster. At first a course of action may be obvious, like gathering up loved ones and/or possessions, getting out of harm’s way, or helping with sandbags or rescue efforts. At other times, it means a lot of sitting around: hunkering down in a shelter, anticipating news of what happened or if you can go home, and waiting for relief resources to move in.
After the storm passes, additional considerations emerge:
- How widespread is the damage?
- What happened to the rest of my family and friends?
- How are our lives going to be affected by this?
- Are we going to make it?
- Is it really over?
- Will it happen again?
Such worries pump up our bodies for action. It’s the same as a gazelle out on the savannah, running from a lion. During disaster there generally isn’t any lion for us to run from, perhaps not even an idea of what could be done at the moment. The result is that dealing with disaster can turn into sitting and stewing in our own juices. Doing so brings about a host of physical, mental, and behavioral ailments. Those of us who go through severe trauma during a disaster are especially at risk. Continue reading
“Will things ever be normal again?”
“Normal” is a relative term. Some even argue it’s a figment of our imagination, merely statistical shorthand somebody thought up to more easily make sense of the world. During disaster its slippery nature is glaring.The rug may be repeatedly pulled out from under in ways never imagined possible.
What is normal? Exactly what is it we’re trying to get back to? The murkiness of this dilemma rears its head following any major crisis, no matter whether the disaster is community-wide or singularly personal. There are as many different answers to what it requires as there are people who ask questions.
Does normal mean having things back to how they were before the crisis? Even if all physical consequences and other external trappings of disaster were returned to their unaltered state, this rarely happens. We are no longer who we were before. We experience the world differently. We see vulnerabilities previously ignored. Large boulders roll into our path. The way around them may not be clear. Continue reading