So it’s Mardi Gras day. I’m in Rouse’s (a grocery store) looking for something yummy to take to the Biloxi parade, where I will be with my Mom, brother, sis-in-law, Nieces 1 and 2, and the whole in-law clan. It should be a fun day. I am marginally excited (I mean, I am up early and in a grocery store, I’m as excited as I’m gonna GET about that), and then…
I need to call my Mom to get her approval on what I’m getting.
I need to call. CALL. On the phone.
I’m standing there looking at the trays of mini muffulettas, looking for the phone icon on my cellphone, which I have hidden from normal view for reasons which will soon become evident. I see that my hands are shaking. As I look at my phone, a woman comes up and grabs all but 1 of the muffuletta trays, so I panic and grab the last one, then go back to trying to call Mom.
I could go to recent calls and just click that, but that is a facetime, not a regular call. I don’t want to facetime in the grocery store. I’m not THAT girl. So, I figure out how to call her. My anxiety at this point is about a 4 on a scale of 1 to 10. She answers, I say hey, she can’t hear me, we talk over each other. My anxiety is now a 6. OK now we can hear each other, so I start telling her about the mini muffulettas, and then the call drops.
Now I’m at about an 8. She immediately tries to call me back on facetime. I bite her head off (completely undeservedly) and say I don’t want to facetime in the middle of the grocery. I’m sure she thinks I’m just being bitchy, and I AM. What I can’t explain is that I am now at a 9, and my brain has taken me smack-dab back to September of 2005, sitting in a mildewy hotel conference call surrounded by 10 or more phones RINGING OFF THE HOOK, and on the end of EVERY one of those calls is a person with a story I am not equipped to hear.
I get the stuff at Rouse’s, all while reliving those calls and stories in my head. I am thinking about those calls at the checkout. I’m thinking about those days after on the way home to my Mom’s cottage. I am thinking about the worst of those stories. Seeing, in my head, the scenes I can’t ever forget. Thinking about all those people. All those animals…
I can’t control it.
I get to Mom’s, and I’m down to about a 5. My hands are still shaking a little, but I have done some serious soul-searching in the meantime and I have come to some realizations.
1> I’m an accountant, not a psychiatrist, but I think this may be some legit form of PTSD.
2> I very much feel like I don’t have any RIGHT to have any form of PTSD. I didn’t lose anyone. I didn’t lose my house, my business, my car, my school... I didn’t have to deal with insurance companies. It only took me a few DAYS to find out that everyone in my family was ok, not WEEKS. I feel like I don’t DESERVE the knot in my stomach. I haven’t earned it.
3> Then, I think about one of the youtube videos I watched recently, I wish I could remember who, and her words came back to me…
“I feel guilty for feeling this way, but the fact of the matter is, this is still the worst thing that has ever happened TO ME. So, I feel the way I feel."
And you know what? She’s right. Yeah I’m going to continue to feel horrible that I have any stress about the issue at all, but the fact of the matter is this: I was in a situation over which I had no control and I was woefully unequipped to handle. Now, 11 years later, the reminders always bring some certain level of stress. The vacant lots where houses once stood (there is one directly across the street from my house) keep my anxiety present, though at a low level. But the phone. OMG the phone.
For weeks after the storm, I talked on the phone. For HOURS – at least 8, sometimes 12, sometimes MORE- EVERY.SINGLE.DAY. To people who had lost everything. To the woman who climbed in her attic to escape the flood and had to watch her 80-year-old mother drown. To the woman who was staying at a friend’s house when someone else staying there committed suicide. To the man whose dog died along with many others in the back of a semi-trailer full of pets being evacuated when the air conditioning went out in the trailer and the driver didn’t know. To the people who had lost their houses AND their jobs, and maybe did not know if everyone they loved were even alive. To people crying, sad, panicked, terrified. Just terrified.
All day. Every day. And the phone connections were HORRID. Dropped calls constantly. Busy signals, busy signals, busy signals, CALL CANNOT BE COMPLETED, static.....static...
I was not equipped. I broke out in hives from the stress and had to get steroid shots. I looked like I had the measles. That is the only time that has ever happened to me.
My job during those calls, as a Federal Financial Institutions Examiner, was to get these people – these scared, devastated people – to open their financial institution. Sounds callous, right? But it truly wasn’t – their members were also devastated and scared and needed access to their money. We got that job done, and I am still not ready to really talk about that part of it. The point is, people got to their money, we tried to help in any way possible, and we did everything we could possibly think of to do to ease the burden of what we were asking.
Again let me say - I am an ACCOUNTANT. Once, I had to take a personality test for work. It ranked 50 personality traits. Empathy was one of the traits. It was number 49 on my list.
And yes, I supposed that probably APPEARS true, but I think it is actually a rebound result. I think perhaps I have purposely suppressed my empathy as much as I possibly can in order to just FUNCTION. It still peaks through where I can’t control it. I can’t watch anything on TV where an animal gets hurt. I can’t even watch Bambi. It tears my HEART OUT and I can’t take it. I can’t STAND to see anyone in actual physical pain, or even watch an actor pretend to be in physical pain. Any scenes like that just play over and over and over on a loop in my head until I feel like I’m losing my mind.
And as for actual, real-live people being in emotional pain? Well, I’ve just been able to pretty much AVOID that my whole life.
Except for after Katrina, when I had no choice but to talk to people and hear their stories and cry with them and be scared for them. It ripped my soul out, and still does.
The other day I was in a store with Mom and my friend Shannon when the talk amongst the patrons and owners of the store turned to Katrina. After just a few minutes, my anxiety was at about a 6, and I just walked outside and removed myself from the conversation. I can’t always do that.
My point is this: My lingering anxiety about this is real, I can’t control it. Yes, I still feel incredibly guilty for having any anxiety about it at all, but there is it. I was thrust in to a situation I was not equipped to handle, and I did not handle it well. A ringing phone, a bad connection, a dropped call, all bring it rushing back to me and deposit me right back in to the hotel conference room. I can still hear the pain in those people’s voices and see it in their eyes when I finally did get to meet with them. Yes, they were work associates, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t care deeply about each and every one of them. And I still do.
And NO, none of us are “over it yet”. None of us ever will be.
Call me a weenie, a wuss, over-emotional, whatever. You can do your part in keeping my anxiety under control by 1> TEXT ME, for the LOVE OF GOD, just TEXT ME 2> Do not say things like “aren’t y’all over that yet”, and 3> if you do see me panicking on the phone, just pat me on the head and tell me it’s all going to be ok. One of the positive lessons I learned through this experience (and yes, there were many) is that a little bit of compassion really DOES go a long way.