Page Two of The No Name Storm
As I made my way through the house, I found the destruction of the first two floors so massive that I again became terrified to think that I was nearly trapped in this destruction. Had I not left when I did, there would have been no safe place for me. After carefully inspecting the stairs for safety, I climbed to the third floor; the damage left holes in walls, shifting door frames, etc. I found the front half of the house, especially my bedroom, reduced to rubble. The back two bedrooms were dry and untouched. Looking at them, I knew I never could have conceived of safety being on the top floor in the back bedrooms. I had to flee from there during the night because I thought the smashing waves were tearing the house off the foundation. Climbing higher appeared much too risky to me. For days and weeks afterward I was obsessed with the thought of where I would have gone in that house. I would have been trapped — I would have gone mad! I kept trying to figure out what I might have done to keep safe, physically and mentally. Finally, my mind uncovered a semi-safe corner, on top of the kitchen counter, out of the "line of fire" of the raging waves and flying debris. Later, when I read a newspaper account of an 80 year old woman in Scituate who sat out the storm playing solitaire in her kitchen, I knew I would likely have done the same. Solitaire is a very centering activity for me that I use often.
It is over a year since the "No Name" hurricane turned my life upside down. My story isn't finished yet, but this is enough for now. In time, the rest will come. The process of healing from the trauma is a story in itself; writing this account has been the beginning of that healing.
It is now almost two years since the No Name Storm destroyed the Northeast Coast. The effects of the storm experience on my life have been profound and far reaching. Like many survivors of life-threatening situations, I measured time from that day — everything was either before or after the storm. While that kind of relationship to time is not as acute today as the first year, I still notice occasionally that I mark things as before or after the storm.
For many weeks, months even, I had great difficulty with my memory and my ability to concentrate. I was unable to stay with a task for more than a few minutes. A naturally calm and peaceful person, I felt almost agitated all the time, not able to stay in one place for very long. This actually worked advantageously while I was struggling to rebuild "home" for myself — there were so many different jobs that needed attention, I could go from one to another, working a little bit here, a little bit there, sort of pecking away at the mountains of work facing me.
Immediately following the storm, I believe I was in a state of shock, overwhelmed by the work of moving and subsequently having to sort through rubble for what was salvageable. There are experiences following a severe trauma that serve to compound the tragedy - now known as "secondary trauma". My first encounter with a massive secondary trauma was the day I moved. Three of my children had come to help and we had taken the first van load of belongings out of the wreckage and over to my garage, about a mile inland. When we returned for the next load, we found the landlady and her crew of six or seven people moving like a whirlwind to clean up the debris and repair the house! It was a more brutal assault on my person and privacy than the storm itself. They had swept clean my bedroom, all my belongings were dumped into her garage: bed, desk, books, files of papers, clothing, jewelry, etc. I found her on her hands and knees, scrubbing the sand, salt, and broken glass off the bathroom floor. When I objected to her take-over of the premises before I had the opportunity to sort and move out my property, she told me she wasn't going to touch my things, she was just getting rid of the junk. I told her that that "junk" represented thirty years of my life and to please leave us alone to do the work of moving. My plea was in vain; they continued, with the aid of a generator, to vacuum up the debris, nipping at our heels the entire day.
Workers from agencies that are designed to assist people in disasters were often sources of secondary trauma. I encountered workers from the Red Cross and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Assistance) who either couldn't listen well ell or who were antagonistic, demanding and even hostile. The IRS had a very kind and helpful person advising survivors regarding their right to claim damages, not covered by insurance, on their tax returns. This turned out to be traumatic in a seductive way when a year and a half after the storm I was audited by the IRS and refused the casualty losses from the storm because I could not produce the small pieces of paper that would show that I actually owned the household belongings I claimed I had lost! Penalties and one and a half years interest were added to the taxes that I then had to pay.
I heard other survivors talk about experiences similar to mine of the added pain that friends, co-workers and extended family members inflicted by minimizing the trauma and/or by their total non-responsiveness. I continue to feel the loss of some relationships since the storm because the wound of non-responsiveness is so deep.
Those who were not directly victimized by the storm were supported in minimizing its' effects by the media. Newspapers and TV continued to report it as a "storm" (winds 70-80 mph are usually classified as a hurricane). Coverage of the storm and its' devastation lasted only two days. By Sunday, all coverage had disappeared from TV and newspapers. As I later described this phenomena to a friend, I gestured with my thumb and forefinger to indicate a small strip of land from Maine to North Carolina that the storm/hurricane had destroyed, but that people a mile or two inland didn't even know was happening nor did they learn about it from adequate media coverage. She said "It's just like people who live on the margins of society; people of color, gays and lesbians, the poor, the homeless---the painful reality of their lives is never adequately acknowledged by the dominant culture". 1
The other side of the debilitating effect of secondary traumas is the healing and energizing presence of friends, co-workers and family who were good listeners and supportive companions. I needed to talk about (and weep over) my experience, not once, but time and time again, to help me come to terms with the reality and help me grieve through and begin to heal from, the terror and pain of loss. It all seemed so unreal——but I had jarring evidence. I had to go over and over the evidence to make it real—to integrate it.
There are several significant parts to my coping/healing process that stand out for me. Within a week of the storm, I received several phone calls from friends offering help. Still in shock, I was so bewildered that I couldn't even imagine how to begin to use their services. When I related my confusion to one caller, she said she would organize the cleanup work, that she was good at that—and she did! The relief I felt was astounding!
One day I came home to hear a message from a woman in South Boston who had been a participant in a life-skills project where I had once been employed. She said that the mothers from South Boston wanted to throw a party for me to celebrate my survival! These mothers knew what it meant to survive overwhelming life circumstances and they were able to connect with my situation in ways others could not.
I knew from my previous life and work experience that I needed an on-going group support structure to help me process the effects of the trauma on my life. I did not want to "bury" it only to have it return in more destructive ways in the future. After a few false starts, I found and remained with a small group of storm survivors organized by the Storm Aid Relief Project. The therapist and the other women in that group were critical to my healing. We continued to meet until the funding ran out just after the first anniversary of the storm.
In the early weeks following the trauma, a woman suggested to me that I might want to write down my story. She had done a similar writing project following a severe traumatic event and found it to be a healing experience. I didn't pay much attention to the advice until the day came - some four months after the storm when I innocently sauntered out onto a dock in a seacoast town in Maine. Suddenly, I was gripped with terror. My heart pounding at the sight of the water! The day was not stormy but the wind was out of the Northeast and gave the water an iron-grey color. I came to understand the meaning of the word "trigger" as it relates to trauma. It was the color of the water that triggered my fear reaction. I had been experiencing a moderate uneasiness whenever the wind would pick up or howl but didn't attach much importance to it. However, the fact that I was now afraid of the water convinced me that something inside of me had been profoundly disturbed. I had been brought up on the water and loved being in it, on it or near it. I had never been afraid of it. It was then I decided to attend to my need for healing by spending one weekend a month at a safe, nurturing space, waterfront, in order to write my story. By the fourth weekend I was able to join my host, a kind, compassionate and capable sailor, on his schooner for a few hours sail around the island.
I shared my preliminary written account of the storm with family and some friends. I knew my motive was for my benefit - to gain understanding for what had happened to me. Surprisingly, I found that the responses I received from my readers actually helped diminish the isolation I had experienced getting out of harms' way - their responses made me feel companioned, after the fact. What also surprised me was the response of some who had lived through their own life-threatening events different from mine. My story helped them along on their healing journey.
Some of the sustained, life-changing effects on me are similar to others I have heard or read about. I no longer put off doing some of the things I want to do. I've had several claustrophobic episodes - a new experience for me. I have no patience or tolerance for doing things over again, once I thought they were finished. (I believe this relates to having to rebuild "home" from scratch, when I thought that job was finished.). I have no tolerance for working in isolation anymore. (This is unrelated to solitude, which I treasure). My relationship to my adult children has changed; the tables have turned. Once a source of emotional support for them, I now require from them emotional support and validation. . Also, I find that I can no longer trust my ability to judge the gravity of a situation. I seem to be cut off from my normal emotional response to serious situations.
I have discovered that I have an "anniversary" reaction to the stress of the storm experience. I have found too, that the storm is a metaphor for another, larger life experience that I now name as traumatic. In both, I felt times of terror. I was alone, isolated from others going through the same experience. I almost lost my self.. Had I been trapped, I thought I would have gone mad.
But I wasn't trapped. I did get out in time. People have asked - "why did you wait so long?" I agonized over this question for weeks. I am not a "foolish" person, I don't take unnecessary risks. I evacuated my family, my guest and myself when Hurricane Bob approached the New England coast only two months earlier. I responded to the media information and the towns' evacuation alert at that time. There was no such information this time. My all- weather radio had reported a northeast storm with the possibility of coastal flooding——not such an unusual event in my neighborhood. . When I tried to check out my neighbors perceptions, since they had lived on the coast much longer than I, an answering machine took my call. I had never heard of people having to evacuate for a "storm".
The question itself borders on a "blame the victim" attitude that prevails in our culture. It covers our fears and denies the reality of sudden, unexplained or random violence. "That could never happen to me because I would never......!" (fill in the blanks). We would like to believe that if we could just figure out what the victim did wrong to cause their own victimization, we could keep ourselves safe from similar harm. As the outreach worker noted, when the information came to me that spelled "danger", I got out fast! (crashing and booming noises). I later learned that many other people vacated their homes about the same time as I did. Even the police and fire departments failed to comprehend the danger until it was upon us. Miraculously, there was no loss of life attributable to the storm/hurricane. I and many others escaped physical injury; however, we did not escape the injuries that go deeper into the psyche and spirit.
Whether traumatic events of hurricane, fire, flood, accidents on the road, accidents at home or the intentional trauma of war, rape, murder, incest, battering; life-threatening situations produce effects on the individual that are both unique and commonly shared with other survivors. "Despite the dissimilarities of their ordeals, survivors share a certain understanding". 2
Survivors of trauma need to acknowledge the reality of their traumatic experience. In order to do that, survivors need others, outside themselves, to help name the experience as traumatic. This ideally includes loved ones, family, friends, the media, therapists, etc. Survivors need others to listen, non-judgmentally to their stories, sometimes, over and over again. They need both individuals who will listen, taking seriously their trauma story and its' damaging effects, and group experience with other survivors of similar trauma. Survivors need time to heal; they alone will know when the time for healing is finished. Survivors may need others to do the everyday tasks required of life until their own concentration and capacity to deal with the everyday frustrations of life returns. Survivors of disaster need an advocate to companion them through the maze of dealing with the agencies and bureaucracies involved in the recovery process.
As relational beings, "we are emotionally held together by our environment. If the environment is dangerous and unpredictable, it cannot serve this supportive function. If our external world falls apart, we fall apart and our usual ways of coping no longer work. Enough stress can make anyone 'fall apart’. Victims in crisis are neither weak, immature nor crazy. They are reacting in a normal manner," 3 to abnormal events.
By making public this very private account of my experience of life-threatening trauma, I hope to deepen our understanding of one another and increase our support for one another when sudden, uncontrollable violence impacts any of our lives.
The Patriot Ledger 10/31/91
Scituate Mariner 11/7/91
Boston Globe 4/27/92
1 Monica Styron, private conversation
2 Barbara Kaplan, Aftermath of a Shooting; The Emotional Impact of Violence*. 1982
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Elizabeth, a retired psychotherapist, has downsized to an apartment in Bristol, RI. She raised six children in Scituate, MA as a single mother and now has seven grandchildren. Elizabeth did some writing in graduate school when the children were young and returned to writing as a result of her RV trip to volunteer for Katrina disaster relief. At the age of seventy, she plans to continue her travels seeing the beauty of the US and Canada. You may email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org