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A 100 Year Flood, Pandemics…What the…?

By Deborah Westervelt

While living in St. Louis in the early 90s, I found myself in the middle of an “100-year flood.”  It caught us all a little by surprise as the Mighty Mississippi slowly rose up and up and up.  Back during that era, the focus was on the New Madrid Fault leading to an earthquake that would make the Mississippi run backwards: North not south.  An earthquake on the fault indeed did this in the 1800’s.  We didn’t think of a flood.  Instead, we focused on earthquake preparedness and how to turn off the gas mains in our buildings.  Every tremor reinforced that the “Big One” was going to crumble our red brick city.

So, the slow, ceaseless rise of water and the crests that took forever just didn’t register: until houses started floating away, riverboats lost their moorings and crashed into bridges, whole towns floated away, and, grotesquely, caskets popped out of the ground and joined the macabre flotilla of slow destruction.

This may be the closest I have come to living through a slow, growing disaster until this pandemic.  I experienced hurricanes (before climate change) that felt like disasters from which one could recover. The “100 Year Flood” felt different, because I was working while the waters rose, filling sandbags. I was rubbing shoulders daily with people rendered homeless by this calamity, while also on my shifts trying to calm patients at the state hospital.  It was before all of our cellphone and internet infrastructure, but we had the 24-hour news cycle on TV.  My grandmother called often concerned that I had been swept away. I saw Vice President Al Gore cruising down a street in a boat.  Clinton flew over us. Their presence gave a sense that “at least there’s a captain”.

After work, I would go home to an old brick building that housed six families in the city, but the river just didn’t let up.  It chased rats uphill.  They seemed big enough to throw a saddle on.  They invaded our old building. My German Shepherd, Truman ate a whole wall one day trying to get at these critters. Down below one of our neighbors who was in the final stages of pancreatic cancer called out for help and we had to get up close and personal to remove one of these devils from his apartment.  So, at this time, I would have spit up in my Wheaties if anyone suggested I get a manicure or pedicure to sooth the stress of going through an “100 Year Flood.”

Today, still working as a clinical social worker, I kind of feel the same about our usual list of self-soothing or self-care activities during this pandemic.  Healthcare workers in this pandemic are trying to wrap our minds around what is still happening while, at the same time, holding space for others’ anxiety and grief.

This is compounded by no real uniform leadership on the national level.  If there was, we’d also direct our clients to take comfort in some type of plan to mitigate the losses we are experiencing as a people. Personally, that would be comforting for me, but we just don’t have that available.  So how do we find comfort?

I think first it’s important to validate the roller coaster and range of emotions you and I may have experienced as the reality of the pandemic has set in: Disbelief, denial, anger, frustration, and grief are paramount and necessary. These feelings are not linear and tidy.  They are a big, big mess and that’s okay.  Early on, we did not know what to expect. Now, we find there is no discrete ending and the timelines are always shifting.  The ideas about what is safe and not safe also change.

 In critical incident debriefings, we talk about the “new normal.” We encourage folk to not make major decisions for 6 months after a traumatic event. This debriefing after incidents or disasters used to be pretty prescribed, setting forth an orderly step by step method. My critical incident trainer was one of the PAN AM flight attendants who responded to the Lockerbie bombing that killed 270 people in Scotland.  Since that time, we clinicians, and research bears this out, have found the older models to address traumatic occurrences, be they natural or man-made, or a combination, just don’t apply.  The problem is there just doesn’t seem to be a discrete end to what is happening in the wake of the disaster.

Therefore, we as clinicians (and as a people) have to reach deeper. This does not mean that self-soothing activities are useless. I love my hot baths, reading, movies, and camping as ways to take care of me; however, we are likely going to find some solace in the practice of ‘Finding Meaning’ in what has happened to our world. We can look at Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning.  The late Dr. Frankl wrote about his experiences as a concentration camp prisoner that led him to discover the importance of finding meaning in traumatic experiences.  Try to imagine his environment in the Nazi death camps. One could smell and see death on a daily basis as sadistic camp leaders would lie to the inmates and develop new ways to add to their prisoners’ pain. Starving, lice-ridden humans were asked to do all kinds of horrors at the whim of their captors. They went years not knowing the course of the war or if there would be a future for them.  So, in the face of this, one might reject a ‘new normal’. There was no foreseeable chance to establish a life back to civil, safe society.  Dr. Frankel had to find meaning in all of this.  Here are a few of his famous quotes:

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the man who walked through the huts comforting others and giving away their last piece of bread. They were few in number, but they are sufficient proof of one thing that everything can be taken from a man but one thing the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

It is interesting now, on this roller coaster of emotions how some feel angry that ‘freedoms’ are taken if they are asked to don a cloth mask for their safety and the safety of others, while some folk cannot say “good-bye” to a loved one in person or grieve in the way of their tradition due to travel and safety constraints.  Others wonder why their medication and usual coping skills don’t work as well to handle anxiety.  Let’s face it, we’re all in this and it’s a big hot mess.  One might see the divisions between people and the outright denial of some as just indicative of the fact we have been served something we as a people have no experience in managing!

Remember the context as Dr. Frankl learned about loving others while in a Nazi concentration camp: he really believed we could all learn to act with human dignity and kindness in the most horrific circumstances. He says, “The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself . . ..” 

 

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

 

Heavy stuff indeed, but it might help during this time to know we have other ways to view our world at this unprecedented time. I am hearing of “Tornado Fires” in California and Oregon and thinking there is no way to escape climate change.  Moving here from the Midwest, I thought I could escape tornados that seemed to grow massive in recent years.  Long ago, I ruled out returning to the South as I watched hurricanes devastate my own family.  The season prior to Katrina, Florida had 3 hurricanes that crashed the housing market and had folk living in FEMA trailers for many years.  So now one part of our country does not seem to have time to recover before our next climate disaster is upon us.

I think it is time to look for the meaning in this.  Personally, I also have to practice and radically accept “I can’t move away from climate change.” Nor can we move away from a pandemic.  Sometimes the most radical thing is to just stay in one place and to search for our own meaning. This could be revolutionary my friends.

 

Mind Travelers says: Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or mental disorder. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this site.  

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About the Author

Woman with two hounds
Deborah Westervelt, a 2011 St. Louis Regional Art Commission CAT Institute graduate, a writer, and social justice advocate, has worked in community arts beginning in the 80’s with the St. Louis City Detention Center’s volunteer theatre workshop with Don Ellis. Later projects include co-Producing Peace Out!, a collaborative social justice and arts event that staged poems from around the world. In Tennessee, she worked to pioneer the first agency-based voter registration program. After serving a congressional internship, being awarded a Truman Scholarship, she was able to complete graduate studies at the Brown School of Social Work, Washington University. Missouri highlights include developing a statewide public defender alternative sentencing program funded through a public/private partnership well before such innovations as “drug courts.” Deborah served as past St. Louis Chapter Chair of the Missouri Coalition Against the Death Penalty and Missouri N.A.S.W. PACE. As a practicum instructor, she taught for both Washington and St. Louis Universities graduate schools of Social Work. Currently, semi-retired, Deborah enjoys Colorado life with Sue Westervelt, her partner and their two rescued hound dogs, Emmy Lou and June Carter.