Saturday, March 10, 2012

Sixth Months Later: Learning from Crisis

While March is my month to update “Healing the Whole Person: Ways to Increase Well Being,” today I’m taking a diversion.

For starters, I’m pretty close to having it updated, but more importantly, I want to write about what happens when your community (which could be your own family after learning of someone’s diagnosis with a significant chronic illness) goes through tremendous upheaval, such as the flood my town experienced at the end of August (six months ago).

Even as we were serving food in the shelter and getting work crews into people’s homes, I was aware that this was the peak of the “good feelings.” One person said to me at the time, “I wish we could bottle these feelings and save them for times when we aren’t so generous to one another.” Lovely idea for sure.

We had the usual incidence of ill health and death that seem to accompany communities after a natural disaster. We had two deaths from heart attacks (the incidence of heart attacks for the next three years is much higher in communities having experienced a natural disaster) as well as the deaths of several elderly residents along with one of our youth. Many people have had flairs in their chronic conditions, with some being diagnosed for the first time, and pneumonia seems to have our town’s address on speed dial.

There have been issues about how flood relief money is being dispersed and I’ve become just a bit short tempered by the mental health people, who secured a grant and are being paid to help people deal with “the crisis.” My take is they are working to keep people in crisis so they can be paid.

People watch the weather channel religiously and probably have stock piled food more than usual. There have been a number of robberies plaguing the town-crime really doesn’t take a holiday. And to top it off, it’s “mud season,” that time of year where the ground is starting to thaw, refreezing at night and making it very difficult to get around with out having your feet coated in mud.

There is an upside because it’s “sugar season.” Maple trees are being taped and the smell of boiling sugar hangs in the air, with the promise of waffles and fresh syrup for breakfast. That aroma almost makes mud season worth it. If that doesn’t do it for you, there is “sugar-on- snow” and the food festivals around it.

The studies on loss and grief indicate that those who dwell excessively on negative emotions around their loss are at higher risk of developing depression. Those who recover quickly from a loss, say in the first few months, do not go on to develop depression. How quickly we recover is very much dependent on how many stressors we have in addition to the loss and the type of coping skills you have. Using alcohol and drugs makes it worse; taking a break using hobbies, arts and sports can help significantly.

In terms of natural disasters, which is what my community experienced, the literature indicates that those who got out and helped their neighbors and community do much better emotionally then those who do not. In our town, a high percentage of people where involved in one-way or another. Besides the occasional jab, people are doing okay.

Yes, there is fall out from what went on during the recovery. Our fire departments didn’t cooperate before the flood or during it, so why would we expect them to now? Neighbors that didn’t care for each other before the flood aren’t new best friends today. People do go back to old patterns in many cases. In fact, because of this last practice, I found myself incredibly frustrated by certain members of our community, who continue to miss the point that women are equal to men.

I really let this get to me in a way I shouldn’t, but in truth, I’m feeling that I’m just getting to be a bit old to continue dealing with the same issues I dealt with at the beginning of my career. I found myself growling about it to my husband and friends. In truth, the person that was most miserable about it all was me. It was to the point that I didn’t want to spend time with myself.

Yesterday, I happened to catch a documentary on the importance of forgiveness, which led me to a website that linked to the story of Kelly Connor. At 17, Connor accidentally caused the death of an elderly woman. After a life time of struggle trying to come to terms with what happened, she tried visualizing what her life would have been like if she had never had the accident. It was through that process that she realized that who she was, was because of the accident. This allowed her to begin a healing journey.

There was an important lesson for me in all of this. As Dickens wrote in “A Tale of Two Cities,” it was the best of times; it was the worst of times these last six months. We soared to great heights as a community and we acted less than civil at others.

We all have experiences, some solo and some as a community. Some are extremely positive and some very negative. Regardless, we are the sum of those experiences and they make us who we are, as community, family and individual. Instead of fighting it, maybe the most important thing we can do is embrace it, look for the positive (they’re always there) and forgive ourselves and others for our transgressions. That doesn’t mean we forget, because we really don’t want to have to learn that lesson over again. Instead, we continue to move forward from the most positive place we can.

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