Waking up on a gorgeous June morning, expecting to spend another summer day with my kids, my life was abruptly thrown into upheaval. My friend, Marie, called frantically yelling, “The Teton Dam collapsed. The water is heading your way!”
I was confused. “What! That doesn’t make sense.”
Marie screamed, “Get out of your house and head to higher ground, now!”
I grabbed the diaper bag, threw in a bottle I’d just filled with formula, some disposable diapers, my two- year old’s favorite blanket and drove toward the hills at the end of town. I thought we’d be back in an hour.
The Teton Dam had burst, forcing a 17-foot high wall of water through the Snake River Valley, carrying half of our house, all of our possessions and most of our dreams 100 miles away. The rest of that afternoon, we stood on the hill and watched a huge wave of sand and water, moving through the valley. The massive wall of water swallowed almost everything in its path; houses, barns, trees, farm animals, cars and tractors, leaving a deep muddy trail of destruction behind.
That moonless night, we stood in the same spot and counted twelve burning buildings in the distance; their gas lines had exploded. I was out of baby formula, clothes and diapers. Everything we had was in the diaper bag. I stared into the darkness thinking, “I’m in Hell.”
They happen all the time: natural and personal disasters; violent events, being given a terminal diagnosis, other excruciating losses. When it happens to you, time stops and your personal history changes forever. Your memory gets permanently bookmarked, forever recalling the day you were utterly exposed and vulnerable.
Over the years my clients have shared their disaster stories about unrelenting suicidal depression, unimaginable abuse and devastating loss. Whether it was a terminal cancer diagnosis, the murder of a child, a third miscarriage, a firestorm that consumed their entire neighborhood or caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s disease, the pain ripped their souls apart. Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, wrote that pain is pain. You can’t rank it: Your house burning down gets a five rating while the death of a child gets an eight. Losing what you love, your things, your health, your dreams, or a loved one becomes an all consuming, gut wrenching, life changing moment. Hell is Hell. Amazingly, most of us recover, negotiating our concept of victim or survivor roles, searching for solace and wondering if any part of this loss will ever make sense.
Recounting my flood experience, my clients’ descriptions of their personal disasters and reading how others lived through tragedy, I’ve found that the first six weeks after the initial event, almost everyone grapples with two components of surviving disasters. The first component, physical recovery, the external repair, has an algorithm. The Red Cross, FEMA, emergency rooms and first responders have a system: stabilize the situation, clean up the mess, rebuild and get things back to normal. As the survivor: whether you’re mopping up after a flood, helping the police identify the perpetrator or working with a team of physicians planning your next steps; you’ll spend hours repeatedly telling your story, answering the same questions, negotiating the frustrating bureaucracy and doing whatever the experts’ dictate so you can get help.
Emotional recovery has a blurry blueprint, which adds painful weight to the entire process. People reach out with concern and curiosity, often offering unintentionally upsetting consolation. I was bombarded with friends and strangers saying, “Material things don’t matter. At least you are alive.” Too overwhelmed to strike back, I wanted to say, “The Hell things don’t matter. Let’s trade places. I’ll take your stuff. You sort through this muck and come up with an answer to my two-year-old’s question, “When can we go home mommy?” They were trying to make sense out of the wreckage. My life had been brutally assaulted. Everything in it seemed beyond repair. I was overwhelmed, mad as Hell and terrified, that feeling any emotional pain would kill me.
I had to design my blueprint because nobody seemed to know the way to emotional recovery. Somewhere between anger and surrender, I stumbled upon the three essentials that lead me to recovery: Be Specific, Be Still and be ready for Surprises.
Be specific about what you need and ask for it. Disasters bring out the unhelpful and helpful. The unhelpful are benign voyeurs. Bringing their cameras and asking you to pose and “smile” next to the rubble you used to call home; saying inane things like, “How horrible, I think I’d kill myself!” Ask them to leave but refrain from telling them where to go. Helpful ones ask, “How can I help?” When real help crosses your path, be specific; “I need a gallon of milk and a box of disposable diapers,” or, “I need some time alone, would you watch the girls?”
Be Still amidst the chaos. Taking quiet moments was essential to surviving the first six weeks. Spending quiet time breathing deeply, feeling my grief, anger and sadness shifted me from wishing things were different to accepting my new reality: my new normal. Each day I felt a little more stable and able to inch forward. Quieting my heart and mind opened the way for my inner heroine to emerge, soothing me with short spurts of hope and a daily dose of courage that got me through the next 24 hours.
Finally, expect surprises. Disasters surprise you. You never expected this could happen to you. Walking your way out of Hell is a lonesome, courageous journey, full of unexpected encounters. Some days you’ll be flabbergasted by someone’s stupid, thoughtless words or hurtful acts. Other times, you’ll be astonished by gracious acts of kindness, encouragement and hearing the words you’ve needed to hear all day. Your inner hero and other heroes will show up often, reminding you that, today, you have everything you need and all is well, even in Hell.