August 21, 2018

When you pass through the waters: Reflections on Hurricane Harvey a year later.

It is hard to believe it has been almost a year since Hurricane Harvey rolled through our beloved city and dropped 50 inches of rain, flooding entire swaths of Houston. Even a year later, I still feel shocked when I see the dramatic photographs of freeways and homes and cars submerged, of what looks like all of Houston under water. I feel sad when I see the pictures of homes gutted and belongings tossed in large piles on the sidewalk.



I still remember the feeling of dread when my husband woke me at 5am on August 27th, 2017, looked me in the eyes and said, "the water is coming in." I remember walking on our wet wood floors to wake up my daughters, scrambling to try to move things off the ground and then all of us sitting on our sofa as the waters rose and wondering "What are we going to do now?" I remember moving to higher ground at a neighbor's second story home, and then, when it became clear the rain would not stop, being evacuated from the second story of that home by boat to the Kroger grocery store.

I remember the sense of disbelief when I saw the helicopters, men in uniform, and my neighbors with only the clothes on their backs waiting to be rescued. I remember sitting in the back of a National Guard truck, cold from the pelting rains and weary from the day, packed in tight with strangers we had never seen before and would never see again, and realizing that, just like that, your life can change. I remember the force of the flood waters in front of the convention center blowing the manhole covers ten feet into the air, almost as if they were guarding the space to keep us out. I remember the sense of relief at arriving at the Red Cross shelter and knowing we were safe, and that soon, we would be dry.  I remember every vivid detail as if it happened yesterday.



I hear people talk about how Houston is "getting over it" and "moving on." Those terms always make me uncomfortable because I know that so many people have not moved on. I can still walk around my neighborhood on the weekends and it feels like a ghost town. On the weekdays, it is busy with construction trucks and laborers demolishing and building and renovating. Some people are just now getting money from insurance or cobbling together enough to start to fix their homes.

When we go through traumatic things, the memories can be stored in our bodies, locked away. 


That, of course, is just the physical rebuilding. There is an emotional toll that a natural disaster takes on you, too. Emotional healing is much more difficult to achieve than the rebuilding of the physical structures we occupy. When we go through traumatic things, the memories can be stored in our bodies, locked away. We can't just wish them away with our strength and grit and positive outlook. It takes active work to start to heal.


If you have been through a natural disaster like Harvey, you might be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You can read more about the signs and symptoms of PTSD here.

I remember sitting in a training session at a hotel meeting room off the Katy Freeway when the rain started pouring down. Ironically, it was a training on how to treat trauma with a therapy called EMDR. I remember feeling a sense of panic and wondering if I would be able to get home. My mind was racing with the thought of what I needed to do if the building started to flood. I felt the sense of fear and couldn't stop the tears rolling down my cheeks. I realized my reaction was based on my own trauma from flooding.

That quiet voice inside can tell you that you are not safe, not in control of your life. 


I resolved to do my own emotional work to deal with it. I was able to effectively work through the trauma with the help of an EMDR therapist. I recognized that especially when there was a heavy rain, my internal dialogue would tell me that I was not safe and couldn't control my life. A pretty logical conclusion given the fact that everything in my life was running along smoothly and then, overnight, we lost our home, our possessions, and our community. And there was nothing I could have done to change that.


But through the work, I also came to some realizations. During an EMDR session, the lyrics of a song based on the Christian Scriptures in Isiah 43:2  came to me. The words are:

"When you pass through the waters I will be with you 
And the Waves will not consume you
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you
I have called you by name
You are mine"

I love the water metaphor. When you pass through the waters (which you inevitably will), I (God) will be with you. And I realized that that is enough. It is enough for me to have the sense of peace that comes with knowing I am not alone when hard things happen.



You are stronger than you think.


It's true that I don't have ultimate control over my life. Nobody really does. But I realized that the night our home flooded, I did have control over the things that mattered.  I made sure we had somewhere to go and that we were making decisions to stay safe. And I realized that I am stronger than I sometimes think I am or feel that I am. Most of the people I know who flooded have had to fight to get their lives back in order. They had to deal with insurance companies and FEMA and tough decisions about remodeling or rebuilding or moving away from neighborhoods they loved and risk losing their communities. And they may have struggled and faltered and cried their way through it sometimes, but they keep fighting.

It is enough for me to have the sense of peace that comes with knowing I am not alone when hard things happen. 


People say everything happens for a reason. I have grown to hate that expression in some ways because it feels dismissive of people's pain and suffering. And ultimately, we don't really know if everything happens for a reason. I do, however,  understand the need to make sense of hard things, to redeem them. I think that is a part of how we were created.

As a person of faith, I believe my life is about loving God and loving people. It is a simple command, yet impossible to fully live it out. But it is not about loving perfectly; it is just about showing up and being there for people. Anyone who has experienced deep pain or depression has probably asked themselves, "Is life worth it?"  "Do I want to keep on going?" "What is the point of my life?" For me, I always come back to the same thing. I am on this Earth to accomplish the good works that are set out for me. And I feel that my life has meaning when I do so. I feel that my struggle has meaning when I do those good works. There is some relief in knowing there can be purpose that comes out of the pain.


People who have suffered have the deepest wells of compassion. 


In my experience, people who have suffered have the deepest wells of compassion. I believe it is very difficult to be a compassionate person without having gone through your own suffering. Now, when I hear stories on the news of fires or floods or tornadoes or tsunamis, I think about the individual behind every story. I think about their possessions being burned to ash.  I think about the fear and terror they may have felt when the fires came. I think about the sense of loss and the tears and the shock. I think about the strength it takes to rebuild. I measure the emotional and human cost behind the headline.

I hope that my experience of flooding has made me a more compassionate person. I can find a sense of redemption in that. I can find a sense of redemption in the idea that I can be more empathetic, patient, and more compassionate because of my experiences in Hurricane Harvey. There is hope in that. Especially for someone like me, a professional therapist, whose job it is to guide people through their journey of healing. Empathy is pretty much a prerequisite.


But even though things are redeemed, it does not mean there won't still be sadness and anger and tears.


But even though things are redeemed, it does not mean there won't still be sadness and anger and tears. I want everyone reading this to hear that. It is okay to be sad a year later. It is okay if the tears well up when the barrage of news stories come about the anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. And it is okay to change the channel if that helps you.

Sometimes love and healing comes in the most unexpected ways. It comes in the form of my daughter snuggling up next to me, or an unexpected call from a friend right when I need it, or sharing a joke with someone that makes me laugh with my whole body, or the joy of watching a blue jay chirping right outside my window, or a rainbow crowning the 610 freeway after the summer rain and a hard day at work. Subtle things. If you're not looking, you may miss the chance to commune with this kind of love. Expressing gratitude for these simple things can be a wonderful antidote to the melancholy.

"To love is to want and to want is to want to be here. " 


I recommend you keep a gratitude log and add 5 new things every day that you are thankful for. Gratitude helps you notice and really experience what you love. Scott Erickson said "To love is to want and to want is to want to be here. " When you list out the things you love in your life it helps you recognize the good things that already exist. The things worth fighting for. It can help you feel both grateful and grounded in the here and now. It can help you connect with joy.


If you are struggling with trauma from your past, please reach out to someone. It is a sign of health to get help when you need it. At Wilson Counseling, we have Houston based therapists who can meet with you and help you heal. Please contact us 713- 591 - 3612 or via email at Nancy@wilsoncounseling.org if you have questions or would like to schedule an appointment.



#HoustonRising
#HoustonStrong

I have done two other posts on Harvey which you can find here and here.