If I had fallen out of bed last month and fractured my arm, doctors would have assessed the damage, set the bones and put me in a cast in time for lunch. I would have left the hospital knowing what to expect, how to take care of my injury and how long I would take to heal.
As someone who lost almost everything in the Tubbs fire, I can assure you that something was broken in me the morning of Oct. 9. But unlike a physical fracture, a psychic fracture cannot be X-rayed. I couldn’t see what was damaged, and I couldn’t put a cast around it to protect it. And although I am a mental health professional, I couldn’t assess myself. I wanted to know if what I was experiencing was normal. So I got on the web and did some research.
What I learned was that everything I was experiencing — even the weird stuff that I felt embarrassed about — is normal. Here are some common reactions to natural disaster from The Disaster Handbook 1998 National Edition, University of Florida, along with some examples of my own experiences.
Shock, feeling dazed or numb. Wandering through the aisles of Pacific Market like a robot with dying batteries, the shelves a blur of shapes and color.
Disorientation, confusion. While making the next appointment with my physical therapist, staring at the calendar on my iPhone screen, I looked up helplessly at the practitioner and said, “I can’t remember how to do this.”
Disbelief. When I was 8 years old my father died, but I couldn’t believe he was dead until I held the urn in my hands and felt the weight of his ashes. Fifty years later, I felt the same resistance over the loss of my home. I had to stand in front of the ashes to comprehend it.
Feeling on edge, easily startled, alert to any sign of danger. Traveling in the passenger seat felt like riding on a roller coaster. Every dip and curve, every pothole, had me gasping, “Watch out! Slow down!” My husband wasn’t driving recklessly, my senses were just telling me that he was.
Feeling scattered, difficulty making decisions, difficulty concentrating. When I walked into Macy’s two days after the fire, I stood paralyzed faced with all the choices. When a sales person approached, I asked her to pick some out for me. “You want me to pick out your underwear?” she asked. When I told her what had happened she gave me a hug, and we stood there crying together right in the middle of Macy’s.
Fatigue. Returning to my favorite spin class a couple weeks after the fire, I felt like a beginner. My body seemed so heavy, and I got winded almost immediately. Even now, six weeks after, activities I used to handle with ease can exhaust me.
Feeling guilty about the losses of others or receiving help from others. So many people have reached out with support, giving clothes, cooking meals, offering every manner of condolence and support. As someone who is most comfortable in the role of healer and giver, being on the receiving end can be challenging. “Do I deserve this?” I’ve wondered. At times, I feel like I’ll have to pay it all back.
It helps to know that so much of what is happening to me is normal. I don’t have a cast, but I have the love of others and this amazing community that has buffered me. And as time passes, I am in awe of my own natural ability to heal.