“Go easy on yourself. You’re doing great. This is just really hard.”
I’ve seen this quote, author unknown, all over the internet lately– on Instagram stories, Pinterest posters, and Etsy t-shirts. The “this” the quote refers to is left open to interpretation– it could be the loss of a loved one, parenthood, the relentless Covid-19 pandemic, or for those of us in Southeast Louisiana, Hurricane Ida and its aftermath.
As simple and somewhat cliched as this quote is, the last part of it– this is just really hard-– has become my Hurricane Ida mantra. I’ve repeated this phrase in my head multiple times a day over the past few weeks. Deciding to evacuate from a category 4 storm with two kids and dogs hours before landfall? Hard. Surviving a 9 hour car ride to Florida that got us to our hotel at 2:30am? Also hard. Pleading with the hotel front desk to lower the cost of the room, due to the need for an extended stay. Hard again. Coping with days upon days without power in our New Orleans home from afar, even though the Entergy map insisted we had electricity? Yep, more hard. Filing for FEMA assistance, home loans, and starting a homeowner’s claim, knowing that our homeowner’s insurance will likely cover none of our evacuation expenses? Very hard.
Hurricanes have forced Louisianans to go into “fight or flight” adrenaline mode increasingly often. This is just really hard, and not natural for human beings. Neuroscience tells us that mental health suffers when the amygdala, the reactionary part of your brain, fires off too often.
Southeast Louisianans’ amygdalas have been rocked for weeks and counting. Stress amps up with the amount of serious decisions major hurricanes require. Should we ride out the storm or stay? Will my elderly parent be okay? How do we keep our cats alive if we leave? How should I prep my freezer to lose power? Can we afford a generator? Do I move boxes of heavy photo albums to the second floor in case it floods? How will we escape if the levees break or pumps fail? Where do we evacuate to– which route has the least traffic? What hotels allow dogs? Decision fatigue causes even the simplest choices— what to eat for dinner, where to buy gas– to turn into major events.
Experiencing a potentially life-threatening event– or evacuating from one– is a trauma. In the best case scenario, those who ride out the storm cope with the stress of the event itself, followed by the oppressive heat no electricity (almost assuredly) brings. At the worst, there are injuries, loss of life, and/or loss of a home. Those who evacuate become suddenly, unexpectedly displaced. You’ve fled home. You don’t know when you can come back, or if you can. If you do return, you’re potentially greeted by a rotting fridge, damaged house, or worse. In either situation, there’s constant worry (Is our house okay? What if we don’t find gas?), rising debt (These hotel nights are adding up; A generator costs how much?), and uncertainty (When will our kids go back to school?).
This sudden interruption of “normal” life — where one is overcome by decision fatigue, hurricane trauma, and nagging worries– is what I call “storm limbo.”
I recently attempted to describe “storm limbo” to my therapist. I compared this stressful existence with another natural disaster: earthquakes. 15 years ago, when my husband and I lived in Central Japan, we experienced minor earthquake tremors on a fairly regular basis. While the shaking of everything around, without warning, is definitely amygdala-firing, it’s the ground that’s disturbing. In an earthquake, and in storm limbo, the ground feels fluid, like water. It’s impossible to get steady footing. Many things around you seem normal (the sun still shines and cicadas continue to buzz loudly) but nothing feels like it should.
If you’re like me, Hurricane Ida is one of many recent stressful events. In July, I got Covid-19 and my entire family quarantined for 2 weeks (the entire time fearing I would infect my unvaccinated daughter). I was still recovering when I started setting up my classroom for the new school year. Two weeks into the new year, my daughter’s class had to quarantine, so I stayed at home with her and taught my class from home. I recorded hours of videos, slideshows, and plans for the substitute teacher and students while assisting my daughter with her own work. And on the Friday of that week, Hurricane Ida became a category 4 storm.
While explaining these recent stresses to my therapist, my chest felt tight, my heart rate was elevated, my head pounded. Cortisol, the stress hormone, was literally taking over my body. No wonder I had been struggling to write a coherent blog post for days. No wonder I kept having nightmares about hybrid teaching and hurricanes. She said she could hear the stress and breathlessness in my voice.
“You need to take time for yourself,” she said. “Do what you need instead of what you have to do.”
Her words brought me back to the beginning of the quote, which I had basically ignored. Go easy on yourself. I had weathered many storms but hadn’t given myself a single moment or space in time to process any of it. Most of us haven’t.
My family and I are among the lucky ones in Hurricane Ida. Our home suffered little damage, we evacuated with family, and friends stepped up to feed our pets and shelter us when we needed it. Still, I suffered from decision fatigue, worries, and stressors daily. It’s incredibly easy to downplay the severity of events and emotions when the causes aren’t truly life altering or devastating. The “It wasn’t Katrina” mentality invites us to push aside feelings we need to sit with before they snowball into a boulder of stress.
I can’t begin to imagine the loss suffered by Louisiana’s coastal communities and parishes west of Orleans. I’m encouraging all of Louisianans to go easy on themselves, to slow down for our own betterment and health. It’s not about how big or small your storm experience is– it’s about taking time to nurture yourself in the present so you can grow into a stronger future you. By taking care of ourselves, we also free ourselves up to care for others in need: neighbors, strangers, and Louisiana communities experiencing severe devastation.
In my version of slowing down, I’ve shortened the to-do lists, started ignoring the debris piles in the yard, and am postponing school lesson planning until I’m back on campus. I’ve forced myself to take naps, meditate, read, and watch more Schitt’s Creek. “Going easy” can be as simple as planning nothing, or making time to just be. It can also take the form of a phone call with a family member or good cry with a friend. This “self love” prescription can be hard for some, but it’s so necessary for all of us dealing with just too much.
I’m still working on the “you’re doing great” part of the quote. I don’t really feel like I am. I’m… doing okay. But today I didn’t feel my chest or head pounding at all. I made time to look at the stars at night and was finally able to write words that (hopefully) make sense. Maybe that is doing great, or at least heading in the right direction?
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and need to talk to someone:
The Disaster Distress Helpline, 1-800-985-5990, is a 24/7, 365-day-a-year, national hotline dedicated to providing immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster. Call or text this phone number to be connected with a trained crisis counselor,