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Surviving Harvey, or any catastrophe, in 10 steps - 10/26/2017

Hurricane Harvey stayed for five days in a row. It left anywhere from 41 to 60 inches of rain and multi-millions of dollars’ worth of physical damage. It’s now done and gone, or is it? The days of 24-hour TV coverage of flooded streets and highways, shuttered businesses and stranded people are over. Stores are back to operating. Even though kids have returned to school and every thoroughfare is open to traffic, Harvey left countless emotional and financial wounds that will take a very long time to heal.

I know many are secretly tired of hearing about first-responders, hurricane-related deaths and the never-ending requests for donations. I’ve even heard some go so far as to question why people haven’t sucked it up by now and gone on with their lives. It may sound callous, though that’s the way most of you are wired. Your memories of painful, fearful and depressive events are forgotten or short-lived. It’s what will help you survive the perils you have yet to experience.

That isn’t the case for a multitude of individuals who are referred to as survivors of Harvey: They should, more accurately, be referred to as victims. “Survivor” implies their ordeal was in the past, whereas “victim” suggests their problems are ongoing. It’s a distinction that needs to be made, least their plight becomes invisible to our eyes, inaudible to our ears and forgotten in our hearts. The truth is their problems are beginning.

It’s the difference between a tree that’s been cut back or trimmed and one that was totally uprooted and lost its secure footing. It can survive only if it receives major assistance, is helped up and supported until it’s able to stand on its own. Even then, overcoming the shock to its system, the lost of its previous root system and regaining its independence won’t occur overnight. Healing for the thousands who were similarly uprooted will be equally different and easier physically than emotionally. The fears, despair and disillusionment they experienced will require considerable time to conquer.

I know this personally. It’s 20 years later, and I still recall the shock my wife and I experienced after arriving home one night to find our home still smoldering, covered in black ash and all but totally destroyed. Our reaction was one of confusion, uncertainty and panic. We felt disoriented, physically and emotionally.

The decisions we made were contrary to the advice I had, on numerous occasions, given to patients. It was, “When you’re in a bad place the decisions you make will be equally bad.” Similar to so many others, who have experienced a catastrophic event, we didn’t think; we acted out of our feelings. Instead of figuratively counting to 10 and acting on the basis of our good intelligence, we reacted impulsively and non-constructively.

To all who are victims of Harvey or any other catastrophic event, I strongly suggest you learn from our mistakes and adhere to the following 10 steps:

1) Think before you act. Wait until you’re in a less stressful state before you make any major decisions.

2) Recognize long after a traumatic event passes, there will be residual emotions of loss, despair and stress, which won’t totally disappear. Fortunately, the pain associated with the event dissipates over time.

3) Permit yourself to mourn your loss, whether it’s physical, financial or emotional. It’s your loss, and you have every right to grieve.

4) Don’t adjust your feelings of sadness or depression in accordance with how your loss compares to others. During these times, every individual’s emotions are equal. You don’t have to justify them. You have to own and experience them.

5) Recognize that well-meaning others will attempt to console you with statements such as, “at least you’re alive,” “in the long run you’ll get over it because it was only things” or “let me tell you how much worse the Jones’ loss was.” They may be right, but their timing stinks. Stand up for your right to feel bad, to lament and to want there to be someone who says far less and lends a shoulder to cry on.

6) Having feelings of helplessness, disorientation and fear for the future isn’t a measure of strength or weakness of character. It may be a positive reflection of your emotional sensitivity. Being stoic or displaying a stiff upper lip may appear to be an indication of how strong you are, but I believe it may, instead, be a hiding place for appropriate feelings of upset you have and are entitled to feel.

7) Others, unfortunately, will cling to the misery from Harvey. You will wear your sorrow as a medal, and expect special consideration because of your loss. That’s the opposite end of the stoic continuum. You may deserve sympathy for your loss, but none for the way you’re dealing with it.

8) Know Harvey caused you to lose more than money, homes and possessions. It could have contributed to a drastic loss of confidence, fear over the future, and feelings of insufficiency related to your present inability to support your family, to provide the security of a home or food, and having to accept charity in order to survive. Even though you know the circumstances that brought this about were beyond your control, it doesn’t change your feelings. Thus, you need to accept those feelings and forgive them, rather than punish yourself for them.

9) Although you need to allow yourself to experience your hurts openly, at some point you must start to recover. One of the first steps is to list all the things you need to accomplish. Then, no matter how discouraged or lacking in motivation you occasionally feel, you need to scratch one item off the list every day, even if it’s only to make a phone call, an appointment, or to complete one small chore. With each step, you gain increased confidence and diminish the feeling the future is too overwhelming for you to conquer.

10) Accept your recovery won’t be easy, and your progress will be slow. If you can allow yourself to recognize the extent of your hurt and express your feelings of loss and depression, you will have started to heal. Please note this can be difficult to do. Sometimes, your real feelings will be obscured by bursts of adrenaline, which cause you momentarily to think you can jump over the moon or conversely be hidden behind a veil of anger and resentment toward others who fared better. Once you’re in touch with, and accepting of your true emotions, you can begin the healing process, because you know what’s broke and you can take the steps to fix it.

There you have it. Ten steps you can take to promote long-term healthy emotional healing. To start, take one step at a time, deal with the here and now, and remember; although, you can’t change yesterday, your tomorrows will be determined by virtue of what you do today.

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