So how ‘bout that rain this week? A good chunk of the United States was hit by Hurricane Ida, causing enormous amounts of wind and water damage not just where it made landfall in Louisiana, but even over a thousand miles away in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Thousands of people, more, are picking up the detritus of trees blowing down, floodwaters pouring in, and tornadoes whipping through. Houses are damaged; cars are crushed; power is out and staying out for days or weeks some places. In the way of storms, though, the weather here is absolutely beautiful now. The heat and humidity we’ve been sweltering under has been washed away. I stepped out in that rain on Wednesday and thought I might nearly drown if I tilted my face up but today, my windows are open and I’m enjoying the freshest air I’ve breathed in months even as I worry about friends who are picking up the pieces strewn in Ida’s path.
It’s not dissimilar to what it’s like to emerge from any life-threatening, life-changing situation. When a crisis ends, there is a moment of blinking confusion. There is an uncertainty that it’s really over, that you’ve really survived. And then it becomes time to continue with the business of living. Some of that is dealing with the practicalities of moving on: cleaning up messes, fixing things that need fixing, replacing things that need replacing. Some of that is connecting and reconnecting with the people who will help us do that. Some of that is dealing with the emotional fallout that might occur. It’s this last part I want to talk a little bit about, because it’s universal to natural disasters, painful romantic breakups, traumatic accidents, violent self-defense encounters, and everything in between.
You may be incredibly distressed by going through one of those events. You may be frustrated and mad – angry that you’ve been hurt whether by an individual or by the forces of bad luck or nature, possibly mixed with guilt or regret with how you responded. You may despair that you will ever recover, perhaps feel ashamed that you’ve suffered this thing, feel vulnerable to more of the same. You may be anxious and afraid that it will happen again. Perhaps you are stuck in a state of shock and dismay, that it happened at all in the first place. These are all normal, whether one or many and even if what you feel changes from moment to moment.
But what if you don’t feel any of those emotions, or if they’re mixed up with more positive ones? What if you experience an incredible sense of relief? Feel powerful and triumphant because you survived? Hopeful because surviving means the option of living remains open to you? Free, liberated, ecstatic at escaping a difficult circumstance? Eager to attack the rest of life now that you have made it through this bad thing, inspired and optimistic that other struggles will go well too? What if you feel like you are now breathing the freshest air you’ve ever breathed in the most beautiful version of the world you’ve ever experienced? These, too, are all normal, whether one or many and even if what you feel changes from moment to moment.
Allow me to be extra touchy-feely for a moment. Your emotions, whatever they are, are valid responses to what you have gone through. How you choose to publicly act on those emotions is another matter, but having them? That’s okay. Go ahead and feel them. Let them roll around in your head and your heart and your soul. Name them. Express them in safe settings where you can scream and cry and yell and dance without judgment. You might need to consider matters like privilege if there are legal issues at play, as in when you have acted in self-defense, but either way, finding someone trustworthy who you can vent to confidentially is important so that you won’t be distracted by a drive to be “appropriate” yet. That comes after you have sat with and through those emotions, and can come to a space where you can decide more rationally, why do you feel this way? What will you do about all that you feel?
That processing – which is what going through all of those steps is called – is vital to your mental health. You must allow yourself the mental and emotional space to feel whatever it is that you feel, even if that means you are happy about what someone else might consider a tragedy, even if you are saddened by a positive outcome. There might be no rhyme or reason, and there doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t matter if the event is big or small, and the emotions that come up for you might feel outsize or wrong. They’re still okay. You’re okay.