This started in my wearing tradition of a friend asking me something, and me responding by writing a million times too much, including multiple digressions and impractical tangents. However, a lot of my disaster-preparedness strategies are psychological. They developed out of survival of a variety of crises both acute and long-term. I cover things that most purely logistical advice for natural disaster prep don’t touch on—but I think at the core of responding to emergencies effectively people need, in advance, psychological skills and mental coping ahead.
In addition to the latest hurricane, many people face sudden and ongoing crises. Inspired by my friend Abbey’s masterful post sharing her coping strategies for chronic illness, here are my (always evolving) ways of dealing with disasters both natural and un.
Poverty and Loss Taught Me What I Need to Survive
My disaster planning reflects my survival of a lifetime of traumatic experiences, caring for dying relatives, an ever-evolving approach to emergencies of all kinds, and the experience of falling into poverty and letting go of almost all my belongings.
In selling off and getting rid of home, furniture, belongings (and through survival) I’ve learned what’s necessary to keep my life and keep it worth living. I live in a broken-down (and continually breaking) RV I don’t own. I have no insurance for my possessions, only my car—without which I can’t get food and treatment, so that is absolutely vital to my survival. It’s the prime thing I have to preserve.
I’ve considered ways to protect my car in storms, where I can store it that might afford more protection than parking outside surrounded by a choking cluster of tall slender easily snapped pine trees. The RV is in a custom-built sturdy shelter that has protected it from falling trees for years. Yet my car is vulnerable. If necessary I can ask someone I know with a garage if I can store it there.
I store in a small portable fire box my vital documents, like original birth certificates, marriage certificate and death certificate for my husband, Social Security Card, my name change documents, emergency cash, and a backup drive of my laptop. Since the fire box lock is broken, if necessary I lash it shut with cords/rope and store it enclosed as possible in case the RV is damaged.
My other vital necessities are my laptop plus an ancient back-up laptop, and my musical instruments. I’ve digital copies of my most treasured books. My writing is stored in the cloud using Dropbox, as well as scanned copies of aforementioned vital documents, tax returns, financial and health/legal records. If I ever evacuate the RV I would take the firebox, laptops and instruments in my car.
Psychological Preparedness in the Face of Disabling Mental Illness
For me, living with disabling mental illness challenges, the most important preparedness for me in any disaster or emergency is psychological.
These are things I’m always doing, especially since I’m running out of money from a four-year battle for Social Security Disability, in danger of dying of poverty, and continually facing crises and breakdowns I can’t afford to fix. I constantly must discern what I can control and prepare for, from what I can’t control—such as weather. Then I focus my limited resources and energy on what is within my power.
My most effective response to stress, frustration, powerlessness, helplessness and regular overwhelming psychological decompensation is identifying things that I can do to make ‘any positive change.’ (This is the motto of the Chicago Recovery Alliance, and at the core of harm reduction methods with which I’ve overcome multiple addictions.) Identifying things I can do centers around an ongoing practice of writing down what I struggle with. Besides putting in words what overwhelms me, I can search some of these words on Google and find others struggling similarly, read and hear how they cope. I save what resonates for me into a database of articles and reading notes with author names and website links, even if I can’t always manage to do what they do with my limitations at the time. Storing information offline preserves things that may vanish from the web, makes my notes more easily searchable, and guards against loss of internet access. I’ve decades of such files. I also keep notes from electronic books and borrowed library books.
Speaking of library books…
Sanity Through Writing & Dissociation, and the Perils of Hope
Since so much of the trauma I dealt with as a child involved isolation and captivity, I found validation and solace in Michael Scott Moore’s book ‘The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast.’ He writes:
“The stress of captivity had turned my mind into a cauldron of contradictory ideas—frustration, self-hatred, surprising impulses to violence—and nothing but the discipline of composition could lead me out of the soup. When I thought about it like that, I could answer the criticisms, in his voice, that rose in my imagination while I sat alone under the mosquito tent, these nightmarish and unanswerable condemnations from beyond the grave. Writing is impractical, selfish, narcissistic, and soft. Maybe; but I had found pleasure in it as a young man because it could reframe a scrambled mind. Good writing could be a release from narcissism, a declaration of independence, a way to order and furnish the mental prison.”
“…hope had become a psychological risk, something worse than a frustrating cycle. It was a breaking wheel, an emotional indulgence with a treacherous downwards slope. It could fuck me up for days. I had to detach myself like a Buddhist from my own desire to be free, the way I had to detach myself during a hunger strike for my profound desire for food. I had to quiet my raging thoughts and quit hoping for any future at all. The discipline was monkish but not large hearted; I just learned to adjust to the shifting currents of indignity with as much quiet loathing as I needed to keep myself sane.”
“…mirth came and went on its own. Which told me that human creatures had the power to thrive in foul circumstances precisely because of the consciousness bubbling up from our limpid core.”
“…prayer did help me articulate my most self-destructive emotions, so it became a way to balance my brain and remind myself of the forces raging overhead. It let me sort out what was, and wasn’t, within my power.
Writing in notebooks had the same effect, and I remembered that the poet Derek Walcott had once compared composition to prayer. ‘Any serious attempt to try to do something worthwhile is ritualistic,’ he said in an interview. ‘If one thinks a poem is coming on—in spite of the noise of the typewriter, or the traffic outside the window, or whatever—you do to make a retreat, a withdrawal into some kind of silence that cuts out everything around you. What you’re taking on is not really a renewal of your identity but actually a renewal of your anonymity, so that what’s in front of you becomes more important than what you are.’
…‘Renewing my anonymity’ maintained my sanity. Epictetus meant nothing else when he wrote about removing your self from suffering. ‘If you regard yourself as a man and as part of some whole,’ Epictetus told his students, ‘it is fitting for you now to be sick and now to make a voyage and run risks, and now to be in want, and on occasion to die before your time. Why, then, are you vexed? Would you have someone else be sick of a fever now, someone else go on a voyage, someone else die?’’’
I used writing as a child to dissociate from a situation in which I had no agency. I created a Walter Mitty inner landscape. I could navigate and control my experiences in words, in self-exploration, in dreamlike fantasy fiction—and give myself my wishes in fantasy. (This was a strategy I read in ‘How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk’ during an “I need to reparent myself” phase.)
The dissociative and selective-attention states I developed during abuse, or providing in-home care for my dying husband for months, or during an accident where I had to haul the 300-pound driver out and administer CPR until the paramedics arrived—these states may have been responses to trauma, but I believe they’re skills that emergency workers must surely practice. I find myself automatically shutting off awareness of emotions.
When the crisis is over I must release them all (to the distress of those around me) with an intense emotional breakdown sometimes involving my punching bag or cutting off contact with everyone. I delay my flipping out until it is safe to do so. This becomes a problem when the emergency doesn’t end and it’s never safe—such as my current situation of fighting for Social Security Disability, living in an unsafe unhealthy unstable environment with deteriorating financial and psychological stability. Without surcease and expression, my feelings become septic and add to my psychological instability and overall high arousal state.
In neverending crises like this, writing and music have become necessary ongoing practices for me. They are my pressure release valves, helping dumping some of my gunked-up psychological tanks—much like the weekly maintenance on the RV’s wastewater tanks to limit buildup from completely filling them and rendering them unusable. As well as breaking irreplaceably expensive parts the system and causing sewer drain fly infestations. I’ve become desensitized both to human waste and the ferocity of my emotional buildup, made more intense by the symptoms of my mental illnesses. This is why my computers and musical instruments are as vital to my survival as my car.
Practical Needs: Fortunate Misfortunes
Concerning basic survival supplies, I am fortunate that, because of the age of the plumbing in the RV, I don’t have potable water and continually stock up on water, since the first thing everyone does in a crisis is clean out all the stores of water. I’m fortunate that I stock up on canned goods regularly with my food stamps and have a rice cooker donated by a friend.
I’m fortunate that the RV is connected to a back-up generator. I’m fortunate that my disabilities don’t leave me vulnerable to death if, say, refrigeration or power fails or I can’t get to a hospital because of downed trees all along the eleven-mile two-lane overwhelmingly rural drive to civilization.
Some Psychological Skills I Use
I’m fortunate that I know I have survived many emergencies and disasters and have explored how I did so, and how others have. I’m fortunate I practice coping skills (particularly Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) on an ongoing basis. I’m fortunate that I know for certain what I need to live and continually shore up those things as a way of dealing with the continual existential anxiety of struggling to survive year after year.
I know I can’t control nor predict what will hit me day to day (including mercurial weather), nor my ongoing legal battle for Social Security Disability (beyond everything I’ve done to educate myself, comply with all Social Security’s demands promptly, lawyer up until I found the right one for my case and complied equally promptly with him, and solicit the assistance and support of those treating me). So I use mindfulness to turn thoughts of any dreadful fantasies of what could happen toward, “What can I actually, practically do to prepare against that nightmare eventuality?” I assess my resources and limitations, research and ask trusted professionals, and then make any positive change, no matter how small. I cope ahead daily. If the answer is that there is nothing I can do, I turn to skills to help regulate overwhelming emotions and my psychological pressure release valves. I read, write, or play music to combat feelings of powerlessness that might otherwise throw me into paralyzing psychological chaos.
The Habits of Enduring Survival
I live on the edge of a metaphorical black hole. This means a daily striving to push myself beyond the event horizon and not be sucked in and crushed to death by inaction. My inadequately treated disabilities worsen each year. Medicaid rejects my repeated applications on the grounds that Social Security has not deemed me ‘disabled’ even though I meet the financial threshold for Medicaid eligibility. (One of the worst injustices I face is that benefits meant to support and sustain the disabled are denied to anyone to whom Social Security is currently denying benefits—making other benefit programs even more essential to survival.) It’s possible I could die of poverty, physically unable to reach food and necessary care. It gets harder as money and health dwindle in the absence of income, a safe healthy place to live, benefits or safety nets that won’t abuse my vulnerability and reveal conditions and expectations beyond my ability and safety.
Yet I persist. I can still write and read and listen to or play music. I can remove my self from suffering and ‘renew my anonymity’ in my own ritualistic ways. Art is my spiritual practice. It has always been there for me in the most acute as well as lengthy crises. Art is my form of prayer and meditation. Sometimes I can forge meaning and build identity from the smallest inspirations anywhere.
Prolonged Trauma Permanently Crippled as Well as Taught Me
I forged value as well as crisis survival techniques through decades of exhausting, overwhelming, time-consuming work and basic skill-building. These burdens can seem bewildering and unnecessary to those raised in an environment absent of inescapable varied traumatic abuse, control, neglect, invalidation, misuse, and indoctrination.
Despite how it may seem I’ve ‘made lemonade from lemons,’ it’s crucial to remember that while one can build shelter from rocks that have been hurled at one for years, it does not make a prolonged campaign of rock-throwing legal or acceptable. Also, being hit repeatedly with rocks can cause permanent damage and constant pain that may never heal, even if external signs of injury fade to invisibility.
My disabilities and crisis-coping are invisible—but like gravity and air and time, their reality is constant and their impact profound.
In ‘Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror,’ Judith Hermann writes:
“People in captivity become adept practitioners of the arts of altered consciousness. Through the practice of dissociation, voluntary thought suppression, minimization, and sometimes outright denial, they learn to alter an unbearable reality.”
“During prolonged confinement and isolation, some prisoners are able to develop trance capabilities ordinarily seen only in extremely hypnotizable people, including the ability to form positive and negative hallucinations and to dissociate parts of the personality. …Thinking of the future stirs up such intense yearning and hope that prisoners find it unbearable; they quickly learn that these emotions make them vulnerable to disappointment and that disappointment will make them desperate. They therefore consciously narrow their attention, focusing on extremely limited goals. The future is reduced to a matter of hours or days.”
“…recovery, like a marathon, is a test of endurance, requiring long preparation and repetitive practice.”
Even before the fourth edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, Hermann advocated for and outlined the criteria of a new diagnosis labeled ‘Complex PTSD.’ Survivors of long-term captivity and abuse they were powerless to stop, particularly children raised in such environments and subsequently maladapting at crucial developmental stages, display persistent treatment-resistant symptoms far above and beyond those with a PTSD diagnosis whose traumas were more singular or short-term. Complex PTSD sufferers display observable profound personality alterations, disordered social functioning and/or avoidance of human contact, failures to adapt to ordinary stress or new situations, numerous physical and psychological dysfunctions such as overproduction of the stress hormone cortisol and malfunctions in the measurable sympathetic nervous system that controls the ‘fight or flight’ response.
Hermann’s proposal, though advocated for and and endorsed by many therapists struggling to treat such patients, failed to be included in the DSM-IV or the more recent DSM-V edition. Why is this important? The DSM is the ‘bible’ of standard criteria for diagnosing mental disorders. It’s relied upon by everyone from clinicians to health insurance and pharmaceutical companies and Social Security. This single book has profound medical, financial, and legal consequences for the enormous percentage of the population living along the spectrum of varying degrees of psychological distress and mental disorders. Adequate research, treatment, support, benefits and rights for the most severe and disabled suffering can fail in large part because of how much this book influences individuals and systems with power.
One of Judith Hermann’s final notes on the subject stayed with me the most, and came to mind often as I read Michael Scott Moore’s book about his years of captivity. Hermann wrote that naming the syndrome of Complex PTSD
“…is an attempt to learn from survivors, who understand, more profoundly than any investigator, the effects of captivity.”