I have lived through three hurricanes: Frances, Jeanne and Wilma. Two cat 3′s and a 2. Frances and Jeanne were just a few weeks apart in the fall of 2004. Wilma was October 2005.
I have also lived through some unpleasant life stuff, like getting sober, getting divorced (twice) and losing my parents and dog to cancer during a really awful two years. But nothing – NOTHING – quite compares to the mind “f-bomb” of a hurricane. Millions of people in the northeast know what I’m talking about. Unless you have been a through a catastrophic hurricane it’s hard to describe.
First, there is anxiety as you obsessively watch the Weather Channel in the days before the storm.
All those colored lines showing the different paths the hurricane could take…it starts looking like the meterologists just threw a bunch of spaghetti against a map. The shelves of the soup aisle at the grocery store are bare. Bottled water – Gone. Batteries – gone. Candles – gone. Coolers – gone.
If you’ve never seen your grocery store shelves empty, it’s freaky in a very stressful kind of way. You can’t buy plywood and you won’t find tapcons for miles. I almost got into a fight with a guy at Sears who was pondering the last 18v cordless drill on the shelf when I walked up and grabbed it. Sorry buddy, you snooze, you lose.
Then there is the actual storm. Your windows are boarded up so you can’t see what’s going on out there but you can hear it. Stuff smashing against your house. The walls of your house literally vibrate. You lose the Weather Channel when the electricity goes out so have no idea how much longer the storm will go on. Frances lasted 18 hours. Relentless.
No cell phone reception. The dog – totally freaked out – poops in the house. During one of the hurricanes – I forget which one – I held my front door closed for two hours as the wind pushed it open and water poured underneath. “Mom, are we going to be okay?” “Sure, honey, go back to bed,” said me, the single mom lying through my teeth.
Finally, it ends. You open the door and…it’s like a movie set. Utter, total destruction. Trees everywhere. Electrical lines dangling everywhere. Stunned neighbors hollering – “You okay?” Still numb, everyone starts helping each other. It’s amazing and beautiful and restores your faith in humanity – for awhile. But after a few days of no power or hot water, no coffee in the morning, no cell service, no internet, TV or newspapers and no streetlights at night – you crack. Some people get angry. Some people weep. Some people stare off into space. Gone.
There was a tree on my roof that I hadn’t even noticed until a neighbor asked how I was going to get it off. I was obsessed with getting the hurricane panels off my windows so there was some light in my house. My daughter went to her father’s house but I wouldn’t leave my house at night – afraid that if I left looters would break in. So, it was me and the dog in the dark. I am a journalist so besides clearing debris, righting fences and using my Barbie chainsaw to cut branches, a hurricane also means I work, and work and work at the newspaper.
A week after Wilma, in October 2005 my friends found me sobbing on my front porch. Game over. Within a year I slipped into a major depression – the worst I had ever experienced. Even now, years later, I get very anxious when a tropical depression forms off the coast of Africa. My way of dealing with my hurricane anxiety is to buy batteries. My freezer is full of them.
I’m telling you this because there are thousands of victims of Super Storm Sandy who will experience severe depression. Many people who will go through this have never experienced depression before. Until Sandy, their mental health was fine. They will be completely blindsided by this situational depression. They will not know what it is. They will try to pull themselves up by their bootstraps until their bootstraps break. Some will begin drinking alcoholically. Others will start taking drugs. Some will stop eating and lose weight. Others will eat incessantly. Most will not sleep well. There will be explosive anger and episodes of numbness.
Most of us know our physical limitations. We know we can or cannot pick up that 50 pound bag of dog food and sling it in the trunk because we’ve been in that situation before. You know you can make it through an hour-long spin class. You know you can’t run a mile in less than 7 minutes. Or maybe you know that a flight of stairs is going to leave you breathless. You know these things because you have pushed yourself physically and you know your limitations and when you will bonk.
But most of us have never pushed ourselves mentally to the limit. Unless you are in the military and have been trained to handle long-term stress under fire, you won’t know how mentally fit you really are. You may think you are a strong, tough guy because you can bench press your weight and do dozens of pullups but being physically fit does not necessarily mean you are mentally fit. That does not mean you are a wussy and you should ashamed of yourself. It means you need help.
Have you ever seen those poor souls crawling across the finish line in the dark at the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon? A 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and 26.2 mile run. Do you consider them weak when they collapse at the finish line? Heck no. You may think they are crazy but are they wussies? No. They have bonked – physically. They need – and are very willing – to accept help. We don’t judge them for that.
We should think of those tormented residents of Staten Island, Rockaway, Hoboken and other communities ravaged by Sandy as we would an exhausted triathlete. Super Storm Sandy’s survivors are in week two of recovery. Many will mentally bonk. They will slip into severe depression that stops them dead in their tracks – just like dehydration will drop a runner to his knees. We should not judge them for that.
It is okay to get help. It is smart to get help. You will be able to finish if you get help.
The Disaster Distress Helpline is a 24 hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week national service that offers phone- and text-based crisis counseling and support to people in distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster, to help them move forward on the path of recovery. You may reach the Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 or by texting “TalkWithUs” to 66746. Sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the Helpline immediately connects callers to trained and caring professionals from the closest crisis counseling center in the nationwide network of centers. The Helpline staff will provide confidential counseling, referrals and other needed support services. The Helpline complements the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other disaster response capacities, and is available immediately anywhere within the United States. This service is provided under contract with SAMHSA by Mental Health America’s New York City affiliate.
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Last reviewed: 14 Nov 2012