Paul Bunyan, Willy Wonka, Starsky & Hutch: Caricatures and Hurricanes:
As a mental health person, I’ve discovered that the most fruitful activity for me with regard to introspection is writing, journaling to be more specific. After completing my two-week deployment to hurricane-stricken Florida as a Red Cross volunteer, I returned home with a nondescript restlessness that needed sorting out. The following is my sorting-out process. Consider it thinking out loud, except that the thinking was written. Note to reader: if my references make no sense to you, laugh anyway (my therapist said I could use the self-esteem boost.)
It seems appropriate and necessary that after a period of compressed emotional experience, a period of emotional decompression would follow. Such was the case for me. Incidentally, in mentioning this to my Mom during one of my many calls home from Florida, she commented that athletes coming home from the Olympics likely experienced something similar. Aside from being impressed with Mom’s insightfulness (you go girl!), it occurred to me that the defining event does not necessarily have to be negative. It’s the kid that cries at the end of summer camp because of the separation from all of his/her new friends. No traumatic event, but definitely a piece of life carved out from the ordinary, partitioned by easily defined beginning and end; and, perhaps most importantly, defined by a compression of enhanced emotional experiences. This was me in Florida.
Regarding this decompression, I suppose it’s a seamless process, but mine fit and fretted over the course of a couple days before it hit its full stride. The first part started as I initially left the mobile kitchen sight where I had been working for the majority of my time in Florida.
I was primarily stationed in Punta Gorda, where Hurricane Charlie hit. We had a fleet of 15 Emergency Response Vehicles (ERVs) operated by about 60 workers, later reduced to about half that. My job was to provide mental health support to both victims of the hurricanes and to Red Cross Volunteers. I covertly embedded myself in the operation, disguised as a Mass Care worker handing out food, loading and unloading trucks. I learned early on to avoid identification as a mental health technician. There’s the personal stories volunteers spontaneously share with one another, and then there’s the stuff they tell Mental Health. It’s sorta like the difference between an unedited R-rated movie and its made-for-primetime TV version. Not that I was all about uncovering personal secrets, but I just liked being part of the group. Also, Mental Health folks are known to be …well … of a special breed. Kinda like a Chihuahua puppy: loving and compassionate, but a little weird, maybe even not-entirely-normal looking. (I can say this only because I am one.) So it was best to keep my function on the down-low.
My final day started as all of the days had: with a morning briefing. But on this day, my thoughts were less on the newly re-configured ERV routes and more on the fact that I was done. Beginning hints of sadness and a separateness surfaced. I was no longer in the game and no longer in line to experience either the good or bad of the day.
Waiting for everyone to arrive on that final day, I went thru my own internal slide show of the images that seemed fairly fixed in my memory. I suppose the good news is that I was spared witnessing loss of life. It was mostly destruction of homes; the mobile home parks looked like a Paul Bunyan version of Landscape Make-overs. Pieces of giant-sized aluminum origami could be seen hanging from trees, floating in canals and scattered across fields.
After the morning briefing, I said my goodbyes.
Blessings come in many different forms. For me they came in the form of co-workers. There was David, a fellow Mental Health volunteer from Missouri. He had been on a couple previous national disaster responses including “9/11”. David quickly became an invaluable source of information and support for me. We were Mental Health’s version of Starsky & Hutch, minus the good looks … and the car … and the sex appeal. (Okay so maybe we weren’t anything like Starsky & Hutch.)
Then there was Utah Terri. She was the first person I met shortly after I arrived in the Atlanta airport. Being the first national disaster for both of us, we were mutually delighted to find another person to hang with. Terri was one of the few who understood and appreciated my off-the-beaten path humor. That’s probably because she had the same bent sense of humor. And Bill the firefighter from the Midwest. He did the job of twenty. The day I was leaving, he signed-on to extend his time another week. Tthe ordained Catholic nun known affectionately as “Sister”. You couldn’t help but love her. After spending time with her you felt cleansed of the heaviness of the disaster: a human antibiotic. Charlotte from Wyoming – she was a fireball; a squishy, loveable fireball.
For my final few days, I had been paired-up with John, from Indiana who, interestingly enough, supervises the grounds crew at a cemetery for his regular life’s work. John was also finishing his two-week stint and had agreed to give me a lift from Punta Gorda back to headquarters in Bradenton (about 60 miles away). Sitting alone in the back of the ERV for the one-hour trip gave me the opportunity to reflect on my experiences as Florida literally passed before me. This meant one hour of solitude; fertile ground for decompressive reflection, whether welcomed or not.
In my training as a Critical Incident Debriefer, I learned to ask debriefees what they experienced after going off of automatic pilot. With Punta Gorda fading behind me, I was becoming increasingly aware of my presence in the moment: auto-pilot mode in OFF position. This awakening is evidentially what one experiences as he/she begins to return to normal feeling and thinking. For me, it felt like an existential exhale; the reunification of present experience with self awareness. It included the unpacking of emotions which had been back-burnered so I could be emotionally available to others without distraction. My entire experience became reduced to a single, mantra-like thought: “wow”.
We arrived at headquarters in Bradenton about noon. Headquarters was a new, never occupied office building. American Red Cross inhabited the entire first floor; a quite impressive sight. Each of the different job functions had its own area. There was a full-staffed cafeteria/break room where the free vending machine was located. Thoughts of Willy Wonka spun in my head as I pondered the possibility of free candy to my heart’s content. I wasn’t hungry, but I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity of selecting something just to experience this unique luxury. In my own form of performance art, I had the urge to select one of everything. I abstained. It occurred to me that maybe no one would get it; much like the time I tried to promote the movie Xanadu as the next big cult film. So, one serving of Reese’s Peanut Butter cup was sufficient.
I reported to Mental Health’s area and was quickly put back to work debriefing others as they finished their 3-week stint. Debriefings are basically conversations in which volunteers are asked to talk about their experiences and people like me look for any signs of maladjustment. It’s also an opportunity for the volunteer to process thoughts and feelings. In most cases, the debriefing was no more than a mutually-enjoyed reminiscence. This is my favorite therapeutic delivery mode: two people in what feels like a very natural, spontaneous conversation. But despite this outward appearance, I couldn’t escape that fact that I was back to work.
My decompression had temporarily been suspended, auto-pilot was re-engaged, and a new existential breath began its patient wait for exhale. Much like the more severe defense of disassociation, I could distract myself from the unpleasant, but altogether natural emotions associated with loss by busying my thoughts with the debriefing of others. It is this seemingly safe zone that trained debriefers look for as warning signs that the individual is avoiding potentially difficult emotions. You can’t live there and the sooner one allows these feelings to manifest, the less problematic they become down the road (a bit of Traumatic Stress Class 101 for ya.).
After completing about five or six debriefings, I wrapped up and made my way through the remaining out-processing tasks for myself. I was done and heading for my hotel to spend my last night in Florida.
One more night in one more hotel in one more city. Checking in and out of hotels had become a routine as over the course of my two weeks in Florida, I had stayed in eight different hotels in six different cities. To digress, if I may, when I arrived in Florida, I was actually in Georgia. I was with about 900 others waiting in Atlanta to be deployed to various disaster sights in Florida. Hurricane Frances was still working its way through parts of Florida. We waited three days. Every morning, both in mass and individually, we congregated. Sometimes we grazed. Sometimes we meandered. But basically, we congregated about. (Good thing I wore my congregating shoes.) Occasionally, we heard rumors of upcoming special briefings which created the kind of chaotic frenzy you would expect at a boy-band concert in an all girls’ school. And it would usually only be the instruction to return to our respective hotels and await the call notifying us to pack, check-out of the hotel, and be ready to depart for Florida.
The call finally came and had it not been 5:00 AM, I would have likely been a bit more excited. Reminded me of my fraternity pledging days. (thank you sir may I have another?) But at least we were finally leaving to do what we all had come to do. So we thought.
By now we had been separated into groups based on disaster locations. I was part of the two hundred or so heading to the west coast of Florida. We did some more waiting in a hotel lobby, on a chartered bus, and in the airport terminal, about 12 more hours of waiting. But eventually, ninety-eight of us made the flight from Atlanta to Tampa and then on to Bradenton the next morning for orientation training. The best part of orientation was the food. It’s interesting that on that first day, I felt pretentious taking any of the free food, including items from the Willy Wonka vending machine. I think I felt that I hadn’t earned it. So I suppose the fact that two weeks later I had no inhibitions about selecting what I wanted meant that my sense of pretense had been extinguished. Somewhere during the preceding two weeks, I had become a veteran disaster responder.
In my hotel room in Tampa, I stared out my 10th floor window watching nothing. Decompression had resumed.
Punta Gorda felt a million miles away. And the people seemed like distant memories. But it was only a few hours ago and less than 60 miles away. I think I had been emotionally disengaging from the experience, including the people, as early as the night before I was scheduled to leave. So now, continuing with my decompression which began in the back of the ERV earlier that morning, I reflected. Reflection is the vehicle inside which emotional closure occurs. I felt detached from my most recent life in Punta Gorda, and even more detached from my pre-Punta Gorda life. This is part of that disorienting aspect people experience after participating in emotionally compressed events. You feel a bit lost between your very recent past and your more distant past. But you’re in neither. Your focus seems magnetized back to the past with little interest in your future. I felt profoundly lonely. Adding to the loneliness was that I was, in fact, alone.
I welcomed any interruption to my decompression. It came as a telephone call from another Red Crosser telling me of dinner plans with three others who were also returning home in the morning. “Count me in.” I replied. I knew that I would eventually have to face the feelings that kept surfacing every time I was alone, but this taking-it-in-small-dosage plan was working quite nicely for me. Of note, during dinner, I kept some emotional distance with the others, not wanting to know more about them and not wanting to disclose much about me. Looking back on this now, I think it was the result of not wanting to have more people and experiences to add to the growing list of things and people I was already beginning to miss.
That night in bed, my thoughts were of Punta Gorda,
The next morning, I found myself sitting alone in the Tampa airport, thinking. For two weeks I had been in the constant company of other Red Cross volunteers, rarely a moment alone. But returning home, the wait at the airport and the subsequent four-hour flight back to Los Angeles; there was no conversation, no talk, just a lot of reflection. The contrast was heartbreaking.
I arrived back in Los Angeles on a Saturday. That night, in a grocery store, I found myself thinking quite a bit about Florida as I picked up basic items like milk, bread, and Jiffy Pop popcorn (it’s a long story, but trust me that Jiffy Pop stands as an essential food item in Kevin’s Food Pyramid.) I felt a vague sense of sadness; something disturbing. It was related to the seemingly mundane act of getting items for myself versus the past two weeks of providing essential food to others. I don’t think it was guilt. I believe perhaps it was more of a reminder of the difference between my usual life and the life I had been living for the past two weeks. I mentioned to a friend that it felt a bit odd being back home especially in light of the fact that most of the people I had been working with were still in Florida, still doing the work.. The feeling was not easy to discard. And in the absence of external focus, my thoughts habitually took me back. Decompression was still occurring. The first few nights back home I dreamt of Florida.
After providing an account of my experience in Florida to friends, family, and co-workers, I discovered that every time I spoke of my experience positively, I felt guilty. When daily life offers few opportunities to experience the hero inside, humanitarian relief efforts provide fertile potential for heroic deeds. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that relief workers feel a sense of invigoration and “aliveness” when doing this work. But then to acknowledge this feeling occurring in concert with suffering and loss creates a unique sense of guilt. I heard mental health professionals who had worked in New York after “Sept. 11th” speak hesitantly about enjoying the opportunity to see the sights of New York city while they were there to provide crisis counseling and support. Was it insensitive of them to speak of such things? Does that diminish their heroism? For me, the answer is “no.”
With regard to the friends that I made, the impression left by the experience is deepened by the fact that one is witnessing the inspirational acts of others invested in their own commitment to the service of others. The bond amongst the workers seems to be sewn from the fabric of love and compassion. For me, this resonated from the depths of my soul in way that few other activities in my life had. Of course it left a mark, but one that I cherish.
Kevin Rice, LCSW