~a column by Colleen O’Brien

Last week as Hurricane Dorian crept west from the mid-Atlantic toward the U.S. southeast coast, gaining power by the mile to menace whatever would be in its path, my friend JD took to her bed.

Living in the possible path of the giant maelstrom, she was helpless before her memories. Although her distressed mind knew that going to bed was dumb, it also knew she had time to quake and cry before Dorian hit her territory. She hid under the covers for nearly 24 hours because she knew the old saying, “the body will out,” and she knew what it meant: her body was going into shock because it remembered a hurricane she’d been through, and terror buzzed around her brain and tightened her muscles as if the latest hurricane was at the door.

The weirdly awful thing about PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder, is that it will show up at an automobile’s backfire that sounds like a gunshot. It will wake you in the middle of the night if the wind is blowing too hard. It will send you out of the room if someone is arguing. There’s a lingering helplessness to PTSD that can numb you decades later.

It all has to do with the memories settled in one’s brains and bones from a traumatic event. PTSD, a state of anxiety activated by a car accident, war, mental or physical abuse from another human or an animal, or nature at her angriest will hide beneath the surface of your consciousness no matter the therapy. It doesn’t mean you can’t live a normal life, especially if you get therapy, especially if you can talk about the triggering event; it just means experience lives in us till we are no more.

My friend JD was surprised at the force of her reaction to a hurricane thousands of miles out to sea. But from however distant, it was headed her way, and as her body crumbled, her mind said, “Hide in bed!”

She knew she had time to flee, so she took that time to hit the sheets, sleeping when she could, pushing away snatches of paralyzing details of the hurricane she’d lived through. If in fact this one came too close to her town, she had plenty of time to hit the road. Even if she stayed, she had hurricane shutters and a generator and flashlights and canned food, a battery radio, and a comforting husband.

But she also had the intense fear. It was taking over, and it wasn’t the first time she reverted to panic. Since Hurricane Charley hit in 2004, introducing her to hurricane hysteria, there had been any number of hurricanes that hit her state. But this one, Hurricane Dorian, was hyped 24-7, for days. And, it was turning into a Category 5 tantrum (upwards of 150 mph), stronger and wider than most, even Charley, which had been a Category 4 (130 to 150 mph). Her busy mind snickered at Charley and turned Dorian into the biggest monster in the Western Hemisphere.

After getting out of bed, her solution was to write about it, her fear, talk about it, laugh at some of the things that happened the last time – “After Charley moved on, our house looked like it had chicken pox from all the missiles – roof tiles, flower pots, lawn furniture, tree trunks – that hit the stucco.” A witty metaphor, something to laugh about long after the house was fixed and back to normal, as if nothing had ever touched it.

I was surprised at JD’s obvious discomfort as she talked about the approach of Dorian; after all, her bad experience with Charley had happened nearly 20 years prior. I’d never been in a bad hurricane, deathly car accident, war or tornado that hit near. I’ve been fortunate to have spent little time around angry people, and I don’t watch or read horror tales.

When I asked her if she could describe how she felt to someone who had never had to go there to PTSD-land, she said immediately, “It interrupts normal, to a point where functioning becomes difficult.” Then she paused, pondering. “This won’t even be close, but it is a little bit like when you see the highway patrol car in your rearview turn on its siren just for you.”

We all know that one – the sudden clutch of fear, the wild heart, the dread, however mild in comparison. And it happens every time. Even when we haven’t done anything wrong.
And unless you’re black, it’s nowhere near hurricane panic.

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