My husband and I host a podcast called My Coffee Break. On this week’s episode, we talked about some lessons we took away from waiting out Hurricane Irma from our home in Central Florida. I wanted to share a few personal thoughts I had about our experience in Hurricane Irma that didn’t make it to the podcast this week.
The thing about a storm – whether it’s a named hurricane or a metaphorical storm: an illness, a failure, a big move, a relationship struggle, a project falling a part – is that they have a way of putting your life on hold. It’s hard to handle, do, or think about anything else, because the storm is all-consuming.
The storm leaves you feeling powerless (and sometimes literally without power) because there is nothing you can do to stop the storm. As much fun as it was to joke about telling Irma she didn’t need the land, blowing fans, or restoring her heart Moana style – the storm was going to hit land somewhere, and while we could prepare to mitigate the damage and repair once it was over, there was absolutely nothing anyone could do to change Irma’s course.
For that reason, I feel like Hurricane Irma has taught me some lessons that I would like to hang on to, now that the storm has passed.
Lesson 1: Fight or Flight instincts have a purpose
A hurricane is a real threat. There were real things I could do about it – I could put up hurricane shutters, stock up on gas, make sure I had shelf-stable food on hand, get a generator.
This means that the fear and anxiety I experienced in the week leading up to the hurricane wasn’t meant to torment me, it was a signal to action. Some people took that signal, got in their cars, and headed out-of-town for a “hurrication.”
And that is a totally valid response.
Some people bought a generator and a bunch of food, and boarded up their house.
That is a totally valid response.
What would not be a valid response would have been to not do anything, close your ears and pretend the hurricane isn’t coming. Because that is a sure way to get blown away by the storm.
Lesson: Your stress is telling you to do something, and you should use the stress not be paralyzed by it.
This can be hard to do when the threat isn’t quite as easy to identify. Maybe you’re afraid of losing your job, your home, your family, your health – that stress can stay with you for a long time. In that case, it can help to identify what you’re afraid of.
Lesson 2: Identify what you’re afraid of.
We had initially told our 4-year-old daughter that we planned to evacuate from the Hurricane. But, as the forecast put Irma hitting south Florida instead of the east coast and traffic out of Florida got crazy, we decided that we would probably be safer waiting it out. It wasn’t that we didn’t believe there would be any risk – but we felt that the most likely scenarios – heavy wind and rain at a category 2 or 3 level, were threats our home was built to withstand. Our home is not in a flood zone or close to a coast. We felt like we could handle it.
But, when we told our daughter that we changed our plans, she was terrified! She cried and said, “When there’s a hurricane, there are stayers and leavers. We need to be leavers!”
There was a part of me that wanted to honor her fear and get out of dodge. But, I didn’t think that was the best decision this time. I believe that fear is an important emotion, and I wanted to help my daughter learn to experience and wrestle with her fears – rather than run from them.
Instead of being a “leaver,” I told her: “It’s okay to be scared. When you’re afraid, it’s your body’s way of telling you that you need to prepare for something.”
Fear is a call to action.
The action we took was to think about exactly what we were afraid could happen and what ALL the likely outcomes of the hurricane were. We put our predictions into four camps:
- The storm took a different path, we had a rainy day and nothing happened.
- Our home experienced mild to moderate damage to the roof, our screens got damaged, a tree fell in our yard, things like that. The power went out. We didn’t have water for a few days.
- We experienced major damage – like our roof getting blown off or our house flooded.
- We experienced a catastrophe – someone in our family was severely injured
We felt like the first two were the most likely outcomes and the 3 was significantly more likely than 4. Again – this was our situation, with our home. We live in Florida, but we don’t live on an island or on a body of water. The water is always with us, but we had no reason to believe based on the forecast or where our house is situated that we were at increased likelihood for a catastrophe.
Giving our fears a name helped keep them under control. Knowing what we thought was likely to happen helped us prepare for those situations, and as it turned out, we were basically right. We did spend some time huddled in our closet while there was a tornado warning in our area. But, we were lucky, it passed us by.
We had to clean up some water damage and fallen branches; we didn’t have power for a few days, and it was pretty unpleasant. But, basically, we’re fine. I feel really blessed, but I’m also not surprised. Because…this is what I expected would happen.
There are people out there – whether they’re friends, family, well-meaning strangers on the internet, or know-it-alls – who will try to use shame to get you to do what they believe is best for you. And this is hard to deal with. Because, I think we all seek other people’s approval.
I saw someone comment on a friend’s Facebook page: Be sure to write your social security number on your arm so they can identify your body.
There’s no reason to say that to someone.
Each day, I struggle to remember that I am not responsible for other people’s feelings or actions. Even my husband and children – the people who I am closest to and care the most about in the whole world – are responsible for their own feelings and actions. And if I can’t do enough to make THEM happy, how on earth could I make a random stranger on the internet happy?
Many emotions come with the storm – fear, stress, anxiety, anger, shame. Our feelings blow around like the wind and rain, and there are projectiles that get picked up from other people’s “yards”: a rude comment from someone at the store, fear that gets out of control, tornado warnings blaring at you from your phone and send you into your hurricane fort to hide throughout the storm. And, you’re supposed to remain calm and cool through it all?!?!
Tips for getting through a metaphorical storm:
1. Don’t make it worse
Don’t go outside in 110 mph winds and try to start cleaning up. Sometimes, it’s better just to wait until things have calmed down and then clean up.
2. When you’re ready, clean up.
When it’s over – there’s a MESS to clean up. For us, we had a tree down in our yard, a little flooding at work, and no power for a few days.
3. Recognize that we’re all in this together.
With a hurricane, it’s pretty easy to empathize. You know your neighbors, friends, and co-workers are all going through the same thing. You know they’re worried, and you know why. But, with other storms in life, it’s not so easy to see that we’re all doing our best to keep it together.
It doesn’t matter if some other place got hit harder or is in a more direct path, you can still be worried about your home and your family and your community.
Suffering is not a competition. A friend told me this week: life isn’t a competition, it’s a marathon. We’re all just trying to make it through.
If you’re afraid or stressed, your body can’t really tell the difference between category 3 or 5 hurricane, layoffs at work or being eaten by an alligator. You have the same fear and anxiety that we have to live with and deal with.
We’re ALL in this together.
4. Accept help
I did something really hard for me this week. I asked my daughters’ nanny if I could use her electricity and charge my phone in her house. This was difficult for me.
I love being a helper. It’s one of my favorite things to do. But asking for help? That’s a different story.
It drove me nuts that I didn’t have electricity at my taekwondo school for a few days because I wanted to provide the place where people could come, charge their stuff and leave their kids to have a fun day while they went to work or clean up their homes.
Instead, I was the one without electricity or air conditioning – and it was really hard for me to accept that help and love back. So, I decided on Tuesday that if my power didn’t come back on, I was going to take a shower at someone else’s house. Because…I had been sweating for two and a half days, and I smelled bad. And I’ve found that I can handle discomfort a LOT better when I’m basically clean.
We all go through storms of one kind or another every day.
This week, the metaphor of the storm was very available to me. I had a LOT of things I wanted to do this weekend and this week that just had to wait. There was a storm, and I had to deal with it.
I hope that you know you’re not alone in the storms your weathering, and that you have the courage to ask for the help you need to make it through!