Through the storm

Several years ago I found myself with my family in the middle of a cataclysmic, cosmic shitstorm. Maybe you’ve experienced something like it – a series of crises (and I don’t use that word lightly) occurring as in a domino effect, one right after the other. Any one of which is enough to “test the human spirit,” but together and when taken as a whole lead people -and maybe yourself – to wondering how you’re 1) Still alive if you share your story either mid- or post-storm and 2) still remotely sane. Especially when the stories of those of us who have weathered this storm and made it through, somewhat or wholly intact, sound when they’re recounted, as if they were a plot written by Jerry Springer or some uber dramatic made-for-TV movie writer.

I’ve barely written about my experience in that storm, barely spoken about it to much of anyone, and in some ways, haven’t processed it thoroughly. I’m not going to write about the individual crises I experienced with my family in detail now. The effects all that transpired had on me were/are pervasive and enduring. Among the most notable are the shame that I experienced as a result of my own perceptions, beliefs, and thoughts about those events and the subsequent isolation I wrapped around myself. Naturally, I’m a pretty social creature, in the middleish area between introvert and extrovert and leaning more toward the extrovert side of the spectrum; but, through and after that storm passed, I almost completely withdrew. I told virtually no one what was going on in my life. And afterward, when I was strong enough to share the story of some of what had happened, people asked me why I hadn’t reached out for help?

The answer to that question is both simple and complex. The simple: Fear. Fear of judgment, fear of rejection, fear of more loss when the loss I was dealing with was already so monumental that I could barely breathe through it, fear that those who would pass judgment or condemnation were accurate to do so…I’m not going to get into all the facets of the complex because that relates too much of the details (which we’re not talking about), but some of the complex has to do with the fact that in those times (and I assure you this is not some dramatic exaggeration – I mean this quite literally), it is all you can do to keep breathing. There is too much emotion stirred up by whatever you’re experiencing that you’re drowning in it. But in the middle of a crisis, there can be no room for emotion. The only way to get through, at some points, is to do. In professional crisis management, they talk about assessing a situation and labeling the different aspects by stoplight colors: red, yellow, green. The red are the problems that need to be addressed immediately. These are the ones that literally threaten people’s survival, the greatest impending dangers. The yellow are the ones that are significant problems but aren’t an immediate threat. The green are things that either cannot be changed or over which you have zero control so virtually no attention is paid to them at all. Nowhere in crisis counseling (and I can tell you this with certainty because remember, I went to shrink school and actually studied this stuff and got a degree) do you talk about how the people experiencing the crisis are feeling. EVER. So when all that is going on and you can barely breathe, you learn to conserve the breath you have. You are whittled down to your most basic needs, you have to block out as much emotion as possible to survive the experience, and you return to an almost primal state. As human beings we have evolved from our primal origins and it’s not socially acceptable to act from them. That doesn’t change the fact that everything around you falls into one of three categories: A threat, a tool, or neither. Threats are assessed and removed or dealt with as necessary. Tools are used to the best of your ability. As for the third category of things that are neither threat or tool – they’re ignored.

If someone you know or love has engaged you when they are in this kind of space, you might think they underwent a personality transplant. Especially if you’re able to offer any assistance whatsoever. What you expect to interact with is your loving, caring friend/family member and what you might end up interacting with is someone who seems to have become completely feral. Don’t get me wrong – they’re extremely grateful for any assistance you can provide to ameliorate their situation. But don’t expect an outpouring of gratitude, don’t be surprised when they seem abrupt or curt or ungrateful even. It’s not that they don’t care or love you or that they’re not grateful. And if you’re not able to offer any assistance, don’t be surprised if they then treat you as if you no longer exist. I promise it’s not personal. Right now, they have been depleted of nearly all resources, so unless you have the power to “poof” all their problems away or resolve them completely, you’ll get very little (if anything) in return because they have to use those resources they have to try to find a way to live through whatever it is that they’re facing. All of that might sound dramatic. I assure you it is not. For people experiencing a multitude of crises, it is the plainest reality.

I’m just starting in earnest to reach back out to people from whom I had isolated myself when I experienced the shitstorm (and that happened several years ago). At the time, our family was in ruins, we had been evicted from our home, my wife was battling through severe trauma on top of everything else and had become suicidal. Once things stabilized for me and my family, I prayed with everything in me -down to my last cell – that we would never have to experience that again. My world hadn’t turned upside down. It had imploded and shrapnel went everywhere and into everyone.

If you’re reading this and you’re currently experiencing your own shitstorm, here are some tools:

  • You can survive it if you decide to, but you have to decide. Once you make that decision, consider it done and start looking for tools.
  • Stop asking yourself why this is happening. Right now, it doesn’t matter why. It is. The more time and energy you spend on asking why is time and energy you could be using to get through it. So get through it now and ask why later.
  • As to your pride (that construct that’s opposite humility) – it isn’t Real so stop holding on to it (if you still are). If you let it go now, you’ll be able to have genuine pride in being a survivor after you get through this.
  • Ask for help. It sucks and it’s hard, but the worst that will happen is someone will say they can’t help. Let it go and ask someone else.
  • If you need food, find some food pantries near you. If you don’t have internet access (which I doubt otherwise you wouldn’t be able to read this), get yourself to a public library and use their computers (free). Even though food pantries have different hours and days of the week that they’re open, some of the larger ones will provide you with emergency supplies until you can get to one of their regularly open times. Don’t just go to one pantry. Some are open weekly, some are open several days a week, most of them have a maximum of number of times per month that you can visit them. Find out their information.
  • If you’re behind on your utilities, call them. Explain your situation in brief (these are NOT the people to completely unload on). Ask for extensions or if you can set up an extended payment plan.
  • If you’re behind on other bills, call them, too and do the same thing. It sucks, but most of the time, if you keep the lines of communication open, they’re more likely to be willing to work with you.
  • If your crises is in any way financial, start selling stuff. Use craigslist, use Facebook garage sale groups, use pawn shops. Figure out what you’re willing to sell and what you aren’t. Don’t expect to get the whole worth of whatever it is you’re selling because you probably won’t, but you might get enough to feed you and your family for a few more days. Don’t sell camping gear – if you’re in danger of becoming homeless, you might need it.
    • The Dollar store is your new best friend. A lot of them sell food.
    • If you need cheap meal plan ideas (other than Ramen), let me know. My family survived on homemade chicken soup for over a month (I’m not exaggerating). I can feed a family of 6 dinner for less than $20 (and have leftovers for the next day) and have a lot of other cheap meal plans.
    • Apply for Medicaid. Save yourself the headache and find out where you can go to get help applying for it (ask people that run food pantries – a lot of them will do this with/for you or be able to point you to other organizations who will). You do not want to attempt this yourself as it is the most insane-making experience possibly ever, especially for someone in a crisis.
  • If you need medical care/medications, search the internet for low-cost/free clinics. They do exist and, depending on your finances, you might qualify for free care. If you need antibiotics, Publix pharmacies (if you have them near you) offer a number of antibiotics for free. Walmart also offers a number of very low-cost antibiotics (like, $4). Call them and get the list from them. Go to the ER and get a prescription. Yes, ERs are expensive, but unless it’s a private hospital, they have to treat you and they’ll just bill you. Worry about the bills later, survive now.
  • If you need housing, search the internet for local shelters. Remember that camping gear you didn’t sell? Use it. Search the internet for local camping sites. A lot of them offer very low daily rates. Also, find your local Habitat for Humanity chapter. You’ll need to qualify for a home, submit a processing fee, and volunteer 300 hours sweat equity (150 must be completed before they begin your home) but you could get your own home.
  • If you need a shower, try local homeless shelters or nearby truck stops. A lot of them have showers.
  • If you need a job, scour the local newspapers and craigslist. Look at your skills and don’t get stuck on trying to find something in your current field (if nothing’s available). A large number of skills you have are transferable and would be an asset in a variety of jobs.
  • Even though it may be that everything sucks right now, find things for which to be grateful – even if it’s as simple as the sun shining or a breeze blowing. It may sound silly, but I assure you that it will help you get through this with your Spirit in tact (or at least more in tact) so that when the crisis is over, you can rebuild more easily.

If you know someone who is currently experiencing a crisis, please pass this information along to them.

For those mid-storm, if there’s something I haven’t touched on, let me know, and I’ll do what I can to be a tool to help you through this. In the mean time, keep breathing.

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