Sometimes a flood destroys a world already made and the people in it; sometimes creation itself begins with the primeval water.
~ Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend
I am not going to over-write or over-think this one.
This is going to be way too long, and under-edited. I give myself permission to not have to be ruthless with my thoughts this week as they float up. Perhaps something valuable will drift in among the debris.
Maybe something that spills out here will help to prepare other therapists and care takers when climate change driven disasters, in one form or another, emerge in their communities.
And make no mistake: they will.
If the weather can disable this fortress of concrete and steel, no one can be assured they are exempt.
According to Oxfam International “last summer the US declared 1/2 of their counties disaster zones due to storms, floods, fires & severe drought after 12 month of record temperatures.”
Katrina already happened, and we didn’t take it in. Increasingly violent and recurrent tornados have devastated whole towns, and we continued to respond with our standard disaster/trauma responses. Drought has devastated huge swaths of farm country, brush-fires, and mudslides, and deadly heat waves don’t seem to change our tune.
These are not mere disasters.
This is an initiation into a new way of life.
These are the consequences of our consumption, our drive for convenience, our wish to accumulate, the speed that is never fast enough.
We need to face the realities we have created.
As therapists, social workers, crisis interventionists we have to take this in. This is not about helping people process an anomalous disastrous event.
This is about helping everyone, traumatized, or not, prepare for a whole new normal.
This is about practicing for storms to come, for profound challenges to an unsustainable way of life. This is about learning to let go of what does not work. This is about looking at our energy dependence, and learning new ways of living that respond to dwindling oil supplies, our fragile power grid, our hungry batteries, and addictive fuel consumption.
This is about understanding something about how easily it can all be disrupted by the wind, rain, water, and heat produced by a wounded planet trying to re-establish healthy homeostasis.
Has it only been a week? It feels like 40 days.
Monday – a day of preparation and fear:
The wind began picking up in earnest late Monday afternoon and we retreated from the park and playground into the house.
My kids channeled all their fear into fretting about Zelda and whether or not she would be all right. Zelda, a wild turkey I had seen roaming in Battery Park, the week before, had fascinated them. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zelda_(turkey) ) They had proudly told their classmates about Zelda, the turkey who had wandered by herself, from north of the Bronx all the way downtown. She had lived, the only one of her kind, in Battery Park for the past 10 years.
We assured them that wild birds knew special secrets to keep safe, and that we too had prepared in every reasonable way.
We told them the truth: a big storm was coming, yes, bigger than Irene. We might lose power. That the weather centers were saying that water was going to flood areas near the rivers and ocean and in neighborhoods nearby, but that our house was high on a hill and no one thought the water would come this high. We explained that many friends had evacuated, and were all in safe places, waiting. We assured them that if we were told to leave by weather scientists – that we too would leave right away – and would do everything we could to keep them safe always.
Most importantly, we treated this storm as part of unfolding new realities. We said that this storm would be good practice and teach us important things about how to take care of ourselves and others through future storms, and that we should use it learn everything we could.
On high ground – we watched the waters rising, engulfing the neighborhood two hundred yards away and driving out neighbors immediately adjacent to us. Red Hook, a few miles away where clients and friends both live and work, was submerged, flooded out before the sun even set.
As the night wore on, and the wind’s howls became more ferocious – I began to check in with clients who still had power, some trapped and unable to evacuate in flood zone A, some who lived on the Jersey shore. Colleagues friends, and clients were on disaster calls, working continuously through the storm, and beyond, in the city hospitals. Others who were first responders I was able to catch glimpses of in news clips and know they were okay, at least at the time of the report.
For a few people who didn’t have access to TV or radio, I conveyed by text, the wind and weather reports as I heard them.
Our home was safe enough. We never lost power, and were able to follow the reports of cars floating down Wall Street near our office, of the East Village- our previous home and home to many friends -waist high in flood water.
As the night wore on and the wind intensified, and the power outages began we retreated to the safest room in our house, and followed the storm as best we could, through our phones – on twitter, facebook, and the NYC office of emergency management.
Bellevue, where my husband had worked and I had volunteered through 9/11, where we both had many professional and personal connections – had lost power and the hospitals were evacuating. Beyond unthinkable, trying to imagine negotiating those labyrinthine hallways in the pitch black, surrounded by panicking and disoriented patients.
Every harrowing report implicated someone we knew, someone we had treated, someone we cared about, someone we loved.
The wind began to die down around 10:30 pm. The flood waters began to recede around 11:30 and most communities were starting to drain by midnight.
We have lived, and worked in this city a long long time. Between the two of us, we have lived in many neighborhoods, worked in many different communities, and been professionally invested in hundreds and hundreds of people from all over the city and its surrounds.
On my own roster of open cases – I have clients who live in every severely effected area: The Rockaways, Breezy Point, Astoria, Hoboken, Jersey City, the Jersey Shore, Long Island, Red Hook, DUMBO, Coney Island, the East Village, and of course, all of Manhattan below 28th Street.
I, my children my immediate family members were safe and fine, but I had empathic connections to someone in every devastated community. I knew personally, professionally (which are not so separate in times like these) people and their stories of their families, their friends, their neighbors, their associates – I could envision and imagine a woman I never met but had heard tell of with a severely disabled child in a destroyed area of Queens, someone else’s elderly stubborn parents refusing to leave the Jersey shore, the exhausted communities of cops and FDNY and their families weathering the storm without them. I could see in my visual and imaginal memory folks I know and know of living high in towering urban housing projects, cold with no lights, in the dark.
Floods archetypally and collectively represent the washing away of one epoch, and the birth of another: Noah, and before him Gilgamesh, with their big boats, matching doves with tree branches and their same rainbow promises that the Lord of the Universe would abide by a new contract now that the old one had been washed away.
Personally, in an individual dream, floods are symbolic of great waves of unprocessed emotional experience – that floods out our capacity for thinking, for analysis, for strategy.
This flood was symbolically all of this and more.
This was real, happening to real people, in my real extended, personal, and professional community, to human beings and families that I was really connected to, had intimate knowledge of, and attachments to.
There was no opportunity to derealize, to pretend it was happening to random “others” somewhere else. This was happening to my chosen family, my closest friends, my neighborhoods, my clients, my communities, my city.
When you work close and warm using your own Self, in the heat of transference, intersubjectivity and alchemy, cold distancing isn’t an option, even when it might be useful in helping you to keep your bearings, or protect you from getting washed away.
Tuesday – a day of shock and awakening:
In the morning, after little sleep and a little breakfast, we went out to explore what had been lost. We stopped counting downed trees when we lost count on our square block. We went down to the river which, although still swollen, had retreated back to its banks. We traced the waterline by the shattered windows and ruined store fronts that we passed.
My husband and I hiked across the Brooklyn Bridge in the lingering rain to see if our office had taken in water. Our superintendent had spent the night, turning off the electricals to prevent shorting and fires. He estimated only a foot or so in the basement, although we had been in zone A, and Wall Street, one block away, had been completely flooded.
I reached out to several people on my caseload who I knew had been in significant danger, and sent a mass “bcc” email to all letting them know that the office was out of commission and I would be scheduling walking/talking sessions for clients in Brooklyn, and phone sessions for clients that needed to talk on Thursday and Friday.
Responses came trickling in – many who thought they were “fine” with or without power, or “not effected at all” on high ground. And as many stories of crisis, trauma and loss: photos of clients homes destroyed, tales of watching rising waters out of windows, cold and blacked out apartments, people evacuated unable to return to their homes, people trapped in their homes by water, by downed trees, by cold, dark stairwells.
People rescued and assisted by kind neighbors and strangers.
I fell in instantaneous love with every Samaritan who selflessly assisted a client in need.
Wednesday- a day of giving, taking and disconnection:
After a fear-free nights sleep, we woke up activated:
Wednesday was Halloween, and I could not stomach the thought of talking my kids door to door, in fancy costume, begging for candy – when there were people unhoused and unfed and unclothed in our own communities a few miles away.
We went through closets and gathered all of our extra blankets, coats, wool socks, sweater, canned goods, bottled water, hurricane candles, extra batteries, flashlights.
On line I found Redhook.recovers.org run by OWS, and was directed to a church that was gathering supplies and taking deliveries to Red Hook and the Rockaways.
I contacted all the people in our co-op and our neighborhood, sent notices out on email and facebook, asking for donations of batteries and flashlights, blankets, coats and sweaters.
I asked people to drop off supplies in our vestibule, and said that we would be glad to transport any supplies all week.
One family, among our closest friends, responded immediately, ran up to their apartment and brought down their canned goods.
All others stared at us blankly. “I don’t think we don’t have any extra batteries… ” one lied vaguely. Some were more direct: “I am going to keep my own bottled water.” Some offered useless items instead: ” Hmm – I might have some summer clothes…”
No thanks – they need food, warm clothes and coats because its cold outside and their homes are gone, also batteries and flashlights and water.
People looked at me as if I was doing something unbecoming, annoying, impolite.
I tried hard not to judge their response and also not to turn it in against myself. I knew from other disasters and from 9/11, that this was my typical activated response to the devastation around us.
My professional practice as a social worker and a therapist is to imagine something about the core needs of others and cultivate the most supportive, effective response. Its what I do all day – why should others react in the same way that I do?
I’m certain many that rejected my outreach found, and will find in the long weeks ahead their own ways to respond over time – with goods, services, time, money.
Everyone is allowed their own response to shock, me included.
Maybe they didn’t have the opportunity for this to feel real to them, maybe they had no experiences of or relationships to people in the communities that were directly impacted, maybe this didn’t feel personal to them, yet, this time.
Maybe we can’t respond to anything easily or effectively if we haven’t forged a personal connection somehow.
We stopped by our local mini-mart and they donated a full cart of canned goods for us to transport, bless them.
The kids worked hard through the day sorting, bagging and boxing supplies along side of us. They gave generously, appropriately, and I was touched by their maturity, industry, and autonomy. Proud to bursting.
But, at the end of the day, and for the rest of the week, our vestibule would remain empty. Not a single donated can or a battery or an old coat.
And this thought too: I must also consider, and with thoroughness, that my rush to offer up goods and services may not have been particularly helpful at all. Perhaps my boxes of canned goods and rice and beans and coats in all sizes and blankets are sitting somewhere, in a cold basement or the back of a van, or an evacuated shelter – burdensome and unused.
Perhaps I simply created the illusion of being useful, because I needed to be of use.
There are times when the most useful thing is to sit still, and stay out of the way.
And perhaps others succeeded at that where I failed.
By nights end I need to check in with my husband: “Do I seem crazy or off-putting or too agitated when I am asking for donations? Because I feel like people are staring at me like I have three heads? Is anxious impatient energy pouring off of me? Was I inappropriate or demanding?”
“No” he said, “you were asking normally – I think you just have to ask a lot of people and thats how it goes – between our friends, our things, and the mini mart we gave them a lot of stuff, and I’m glad we responded the way we did. You are just always the canary in a coal mine – and remember what happens to them!”
Thursday – a day of gathering and outreach
On Thursday we began hearing from chosen family – our children’s god mothers and god fathers – whose homes were without power. It was growing colder. The darkened parts of the city were feeling edgier, less safe each night. Walking uptown to harvest power was creating irritable crowds at the power outage borders – as hundreds searched for places to charge their phones, buy hot foot and drink, and more batteries before heading back into their darkened homes.
They came to stay until power and heat were restored – which comforted us as much as them. It felt healing, soothing, strengthening to have our tribe gathered.
We were anxious about our clients well-being. Without an office available, I scheduled any client that wanted or needed to talk on Thursday. I had walking/talking sessions for clients who lived in Brooklyn, I had sessions behind the locked gates of our community garden, I had phone sessions in my room while one of the godmother’s turned our daughter’s room into her temporary office. For the first time ever: a half-phone/half-text session emerged as a treatment modality when the cellular system refused to allow our phones to stay connected.
It was both comforting and exhausting to try to cobble together jerry-rigged pseudo-structure out of the chaos, and brought into sharp focus how much injury the city, its inhabitants – and its infrastructure- had sustained.
When a twitter friend forward me the information that Zelda the turkey had survived, with a photo of fat, happy turkey on top of a dumpster – everyone in the household cheered as though Noah’s dove had just returned bearing an olive branch.
Friday – a day of gratitude and taking stock
The house remained warm, kid- and friend-full, and I spent the day feeling enormously grateful for the reading on ecotherapy and ecopsychology and climate science I had been led to explore over the past several months.
I felt prepared by the reading I’d done, startled by the timing of the events, heartbroken for others, for but not surprised, or stunned.
Even more grateful that I listened to my own inner leading and had organized a study group of smart and thoughtful clinicians that will soon be gathering together to look at the way that our disconnection from a wider awareness, and our denial of the consequences of our collective behavior effects our community’s and our culture’s mental health.
I need more than ever to find words, in the company of a like minded group, to speak to clients about our collective denials, our estrangement from realities, our defenses against science, our minimization of disturbing realities.
It was a day for me to starting waking up to our own disturbing realities and secondary losses as well: two self-employed private practitioners, with our office out of commission, it was becoming clear that we would feel a significant blow to our businesses and household finances.
Many clients have sustained unfathomable losses, and will need pro bono and reduced fee support. Some may move, as many did after 9/11. Others will lose their jobs, some have lost businesses, many have also lost, and will lose several weeks of income themselves. Paying for therapy becomes a low priority or an impossibility.
I have made a policy of never abandoning a client because of financial crisis, I reduce or suspend fees, perhaps reduce sessions if large balances are still accruing, or schedule on an “as needed” basis, until the crisis is negotiated.
I hope I can afford to maintain that policy going forward while also caring for my family.
A weekend of celebration and passing it on:
Saturday with our extended chosen family gathered we had a full day of joyous celebration, and permitted ourselves to forget all that was happening around us.
Because a fantastic force of nature, far more generative and creative and consequential than Sandy, arrived on this planet 8 years ago when our daughter was born, and that deserved to be celebrated no holds barred.
Sunday we returned to reality, and used our car and our gasoline to shuttle donated supplies to Red Hook, the Rockaways and Breezy Point.
Monday and beyond….
This week, we have returned tentatively to work, in a building intact, with power but with no phone, wifi, or heat. The night time view from my window is eerie: One window looks out on buildings filled with light and flickering TV screens. The other window faces a chasm of darkness, pitch black, unlit, unoccupied buildings
Clients seem to fall into four different categories of response
(I have seen similar responses before, including my own, in the days and weeks after 9/11):
1) Those who are totally and directly affected, and know it, but who are very busy coping, and not feeling much yet. They are in the throes of loss of home, loss of businesses, loss of community, loss of neighborhood, loss of place and root. They are wandering through their days, displaced, unmoored. At particular risk are those who have survived trauma and disaster before:
Standard disaster/post-trauma/crisis intervention training is extremely helpful here – and there has been a great deal written about that elsewhere. But it is probably not complete or sufficient in and of itself, as climate-driven disasters are likely to continue to unfold, in some form or another. This is about all of us coming to terms with a new way of life.
2) Those who were not in the direct path, but feel disturbed, disorganized, anxious about what is to come – or guilty and hesitant to permit themselves to “feel bad” when they are so “lucky” – or who sense that everything has changed although they have “no right to complain” because “nothing bad really happened” to them:
For these clients it is important to validate that it is healthy, and normal and appropriate to feel distress when your community is profoundly wounded. Some worry that their non-personal distress is a sign of personal weakness or low grade hysteria rather an expectable experience of empathic connection to those around them.
“I felt a great disturbance in the force, as if millions of voices had cried out in terror….” Obi Won says when a distant planet in a nearby galaxy explodes. The quote is resonant and memorable collectively – as if we too can imagine sensing such massive, collective, disturbances with Ben’s sensitivity. How much more powerfully do we feel such disturbances when the millions crying out are those we encounter every day, when we have been seated side by side with them on the broken commuter trains and subways?
3) Those who were not affected, or were secondarily affected, who are involved in advocacy, who are working to assist others and those actively grieving the injuries to their community and environment:
– sometimes to the point of burnout or exhaustion.
These clients first and foremost need their perceptions validated and their grief supported. This is particularly difficult for therapists struggling with their own estrangement and denial. These may, or may not need help discerning their own limitations, their need for self-care, and managing survivor’s guilt.
Too often, these responses are pathologized as mere activations of events or injuries from childhood, when they are a healthy, appropriate and related response to real events in the present.
4) Those who were not directly externally affected, and who are not internally affected by the disaster either:
Some might report that they had a relaxing time away from work, might describe the city slow down as a “vacation”, some might even describe having a good time partying and see the event as having little or nothing to to with them.
Some may have cursory awareness of the losses around them, but are not moved, distressed or upset for anyone else, or for the community – beyond being glad that they themselves were not in harms way.
Others among the unaffected, living just miles away, may have paid no attention whatsoever to the disaster around them, have not read a paper and ignored, or avoided coverage of the event, and do not even know what has happened all around them.
To be sure, some of these have marshaled panicked defenses: flung themselves into manic hedonistic binges, strapped on their narcissistic armor or thrown up walls of primitive denial to manage their own fear.
And many who imagine they are truly “fine” have suffered from (or will suffer from) other, displaced symptoms, stemming from the lack of sufficient relatedness to others to their communities and the planet. These are often clients who feel anxious, estranged from meaning in their lives, friendships and in their work, who have significant difficulties forging and sustaining empathic and reciprocal relationships.
These are clients who often don’t seem to know what other people are “for”, what their own central purposes and values are, and sometimes seem at a loss as to what it is they want from therapy itself.
How disassociated have our lives and our culture become that we can imagine that it is normal to be unaffected by devastation in our community a mile or two away, or by a feverish planet creating recurring superstorms?
Denial prevents us from preparedness, prevention, and harm reduction with regard to climate change- exacerbating the toll in disasters like these.
Why didn’t people leave evacuation zones?
Why did people stay with their children in harms way?
Why do we want to rebuild in flood-zones when the water levels are rising?
Why have we not listened to the obvious, clear scientific consensus and mounting evidence?
Why do we ignore every warning?
Just like addicts and their cohorts living in collective denial – clinging to short term comforts while accruing disaterous long-term consequences: our culture, communities, and individuals need to begin to face painful, grief-filled realities in order to reduce harm to ourselves and the living world.
Addressing, confronting, and working through treacherous resistance is the therapists purview.
This IS our job. We do this everyday. We know how to work through and around unhealthy defenses.
We need to offer up our skill set to help our culture and our clients respond to reality or our clients will continue to suffer.
More than they have already.
For myself and my practice:
I want to support my clients’ and the planet’s attempt to heal from the injuries our inflated consumption and denial has inflicted.
I want to mourn with my whole community when we are brought low and humbled with profound losses of life, of our way of living, of property, home, rootedness and place.
I want to appreciate the dark and painful relief that comes when we are reminded that we are not so powerful and we restored to our proper place and size on a planet that lived and thrived for thousands of epochs before humans and will spin and live richly far past us.
I want to cultivate gratitude for and strengthen the resilience and health in others, in my community, and the world around me.
There are people doing amazing good for each other.
There is one kooky, wild turkey happily roaming free in the middle of a concrete jungle.
There are birds, bearing olive branches, all around us.
There is comfort and empowerment in that.
Please help Hurricane Sandy victims in NYC by donating to New York Cares www.newyorkcares.org
or by donating to The Red Cross.
copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford