Sunday, January 24, 2016

Disasters and emotional fallout

In my disaster novels, I wrap things up pretty well at the end. People (the ones who make it, at least), are safe, healing, and things are looking up. The disaster is safely in the past. Real life is never as tidy as fiction, alas. PTSD symptoms from a disaster can linger for years. I want to acknowledge that in this blog, lest you think I'm an insensitive twit on the topic.

I was jumpy after my major earthquake experience for weeks. There's a horrible thought you have for many days--worse in a way when you're familiar with earthquake science--that maybe that wasn't the big one, it was a pre-tremor to a Really Big One. Big earthquakes have a lot of aftershocks, any one of which could escalate into a 8.0 quake. That made for some restless nights for me. My adrenal gland must have been about ready to scream "uncle!" after two weeks, as often as it was called on. But a year later, I was okay. I knew people who were not, including one woman who was stuck in her bathroom for eight hours when the walls tilted just enough to make the windows and doors impossible to open.

A natural disaster can be a life-altering event. Depending on the person, the experience, and on psychological health at the time of the disaster, a month later a person can be completely back to normal, or five years later he may not be. Sometimes, they are fine for six months, and then they fall apart, in a delayed stress reaction.

From the W.H.O.

Some common reactions to a disaster are:
  • physical symptoms: headaches, fatigue, loss of appetite, aches and pains;
  • crying, sadness, grief;
  • anxiety, fear;
  • being on guard, or jumpy;
  • insomnia, nightmares;
  • irritability, anger;
  • guilt, shame (survivors’ guilt);
  • confused, in a daze;
  • withdrawn, or very still (not moving);
  • disorientation (not knowing their name or where they are from);
  • not being able to care for themselves or their children.

It helps most people to talk about it, but it helps others to not talk about it, to talk about anything else, in fact, but the disaster experience. In my FEMA CERT (Citizens Emergency Response Teams) training, I learned to let the traumatized person decide what is needed and follow his or her lead. He wants to show you pictures of the grandkids at the lake last summer? Great, look at the pictures and don't mention the disaster. She wants to repeat three or six times the story about the noise of the roof falling? Listen to that, as many times as she needs to tell it.

Most people are pretty good at independently fumbling their way to psychological recovery. A few may need counseling or a support group. Those who lost a family member will live with a wound that will never entirely heal. In interviews decades after disasters, survivors still shed tears or express their guilt at not being able to somehow save that person, even when there is clearly nothing they could have done. It’s heartbreaking to listen to them.

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