Almost fifteen years ago, I experienced perhaps the most traumatic event I had ever been through. I was living in New Orleans at the time, and a hurricane came up into the Gulf of Mexico then clobbered the city. What unfolded was the worst possible scenario that could have happened, and the city was demolished. Before it hit though, I evacuated, which seemed quite routine. I had done so already for other hurricanes that had threatened the city. I went about life as I normally would with the expectation that I would return to my life there in a few days. But after a few of those days passed, it became pretty evident to me that what I had come to expect as “normal” at that time was not going to return.
The following weeks unfolded, and I found myself at times getting upset for no reason at all. Some days, I would be sitting around feeling quite normal, then the next minute I would be overwhelmed with grief that I could not explain, sometimes even in tears. This behavior went on for a while. It was strange at the time, but after I had spent some time reflecting on it, it dawned on me that I had just experienced extreme trauma. I had witnessed huge loss of life, complete and utter desolation of a city, anxiety, uncertainty, and fear.
The difficulty of the matter is that those around me had no idea. Life was going on as normal for them for the most part. There wasn’t an event that one could point to like the loss of a loved one or something like that. I was alive. I was well. I should have been happy. But in reality, I was suffering.
The last few days have precipitated many sudden changes in the lives of all of us, including myself. And as the days have passed, I started to notice some of the same sorts of emotions I had back in 2005 come up again. I didn’t think about it much at first, but then it began to really dawn on me that what is happening around us, while it is not anything like a hurricane destroying a city, does have some parallels:
Abrupt changes, but life goes on with a new “normal” – Anyone who has school age children has been impacted hugely by this. I’m fortunate enough that I work from home and my wife doesn’t have to work, so we don’t have the additional stresses of figuring out jobs and childcare, but even so the abrupt changes in life induce stress factors, but life must go on.
Anxiety induced by interruptions – I thrive in routines because it brings stability and predictability to life. When this all gets turned on its head, life gets derailed and I feel like a train wreck.
Fears of shortages – I’m used to seeing the shelves at the grocery store well stocked with food but today I went and many of the most basic things were gone: milk, bread, eggs, cheese, pasta, rice, beans, and the all-important toilet paper. The slight impulses of fear set in on me and it was strange indeed. I asked, “Maybe I should buy two of those instead of one – just in case”. This is fear, even if it is subtle.
Isolation – Where are my friends? – When Katrina hit, this one was huge. Social media was in its fledgling state, so it wasn’t like I could just go on Facebook. The questions of who was affected, how they were doing, and where they were loomed over my head for days and weeks that followed.
Worry – What about those who I love? – With something like a virus going around, I worry about those who I love dearly, especially those who are particularly vulnerable. I want to be with them, but I can’t out of fear that we may infect them even though I feel fine. It’s a paradox.
More anxiety because it’s hard to make plans because of uncertainty – Everything in life is on hold right now. I don’t know what is going to happened tomorrow, so it makes it hard to plan anything or prepare for anything. And another announcement could mean more abrupt changes, so you can’t plan anything.
I’m no psychologist — far from it. But when I noticed these things starting to creep back into my life in light of everything going on around me, I was able to give myself a little bit of grace. It’s okay to have these feelings, and they are quite normal. And even when this is all said and done, some of this will still be affecting me as I attempt to pick up the pieces and move on with my life.
But it’s not the end – far from it. For me, Katrina was a beginning. I found that the most therapeutic thing I could do was to help other people in whatever way I could. Whether or not this is normal, I don’t know, but it was helpful. Maybe I’m just wired that way. But even so, helping others who had been through what I had been through helped me as much as it helped others. I worked with my church in Georgia, my church in New Orleans, relief organizations, and anyone else I could help. And the blessing from that to me were immeasurable.
So in light of what is going on even now, I believe that the best thing I can do and that we all can do is help one another. I have seen pictures of teachers and kids packing lunches and taking it to people who need food. I’ve heard stories of folks giving money to help other folks who are out of work. For me, even something as simple as installing an app on my computers to help researchers out was therapeutic in a way.
Paul says in Galatians 6:2, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” The Law of Christ is simply this: to love God and to love others (Mark 12:28–31). So, give yourself some grace. Realize and own the emotions that come with these changes. And if we can bear another’s burden, then let it be done.