It's been a week since the floodwaters finally crept out of Bellevue, and if you squint your eyes, you can almost pretend things here are back to normal. Ignore the mud still covering our parking lots and major roadways, turn away from the curbs piled high with the contents of houses, and try to overlook the donation stations set up on street corners, and it'll seem nearly identical to the rugrat-ridden Bellevue you've made fun of for years. You'll want to bring along earplugs for your visit, though. We can't stop talking about what happened.
That's not surprising, considering everyone here has a flood experience that will be told and retold for decades to come. Some assisted with the birth of a baby in a home lit only by flashlights. Others were rescued by helicopter from their rooftops. And all of us know someone — more accurately, lots of someones — who lost a home in the flood. Coming to terms with this new post-flood reality isn't easy.
"I don't know what's wrong with me," I overheard a woman tell her friend this morning. "I just feel so gross inside. I'm exhausted worrying about people. I'm so worn out worrying about and crying about everyone."
I paused when I heard her words. She could have been describing me.
"My friend told me I had survivor guilt," she said.
Survivor guilt, according to Wikipedia, is a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It's "a mental condition that occurs when a person perceives himself or herself to have done wrong by surviving a traumatic event. It may be found among survivors of combat, natural disasters, [and] epidemics."
Sound familiar? It certainly did to my friend Margie when I mentioned it to her.
"Survivor guilt," she mused. "That makes sense. I've been so emotional over the last few days, and I've had a lot of anxiety. I think it really hit me yesterday when I was at the Kroger in West Meade. Everyone was acting so normal and I got really angry. I wanted to say, 'People! Do you not realize there's suffering going on right down that street?!' "
It occurred to me that the true experts on survivor guilt had to be the many survivors of Hurricane Katrina. I called my friend Diane, who moved with her family from New Orleans to Nashville shortly after the hurricane devastated her hometown. Diane said she experienced her own survivor guilt shortly after she evacuated the city and began watching the aftermath of Katrina on television.
"I had terrible survivor guilt," she recalled. "While people were starving at the Superdome, I was at my aunt's house in St. Louis."
Diane says what we're all feeling now is only the beginning. "It's going to get worse for people," she said, "especially those people who lost everything. They're going to grieve. Alcohol sales will go through the roof. Things will happen here that we'll realize are flood related."
Psychiatrists recommend that we deal with our survivor guilt by talking to someone about our feelings. But I quickly realized that for me, talk wasn't going to be enough. And so, last Saturday, I went to River Plantation, one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the flood, and spent the day in my own kind of therapy — gutting the house of a frail 84-year-old woman.
Uncharacteristically, I didn't have a lot to say to the volunteers around me; I needed to face my emotions alone. For the first few hours, I worked as if possessed, frenetically pulling up linoleum, ripping out insulation from the walls, and carting out endless wheelbarrow loads of floorboards, drywall, and debris. After a few hours, though, fatigue set in and my tears dried up.
Every muscle in my body ached — and it was at that point that I began to feel a profound sense of relief. My feelings of guilt and anxiety were being released in the sweat and agony of heavy labor. I was doing penance for coming out of the flood unscathed, and the physical pain I suffered as I worked made me feel strangely ... forgiven.
Many who lost everything in this flood have expressed awe over the aid that has come from friends, neighbors and total strangers. They don't realize that our supposed generosity helps us as much as it helps them. It is an act of atonement — a ritual of sacrifice that stretches back through generations of ancestors who made us what we are today.
And somewhere within that age-old give-and-take, a community now wrecked and broken is being made stronger than it ever was before.
Read more Suburban Turmoil at www.suburbanturmoil.com.
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