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    Thursday, September 17, 2015

    How Hurricane Katrina Affected One Journalist's Life

      PTSD isn’t just about combat vets. It affects many of us for many different reasons. Let me share with you this column written by a friend of mine, Charlotte Porter, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.  At the time, Porter was chief of bureau in New Orleans for a major national news organization.

    I know the anniversary (of Hurricane Katrina) is over, but I wanted to share this. There are a lot of people out there who may think they should "get on with it" after a natural disaster. It's not so simple.

    Here's my story:

    I lied.

    When anyone asked how I survived Katrina, I replied that nothing happened to me. My house didn't flood; no one I loved was hurt or killed. I wasn't even in town when the streets filled up with toxins and bodies. I got out soon afterward for a new job far away. I was lucky.

    Now, 10 years later, I can say Hurricane Katrina is the worst thing that ever happened to me. Under the weight of depression and what I later came to realize was post-traumatic stress disorder, something in me broke. After struggling with guilt, shame and withdrawal, I've started to understand I'll never be quite the same.

    It's taken centuries for people to come to grips with the fact that soldiers are often victims of "shell-shock," or PTSD, and it still carries the sting of stigma. PTSD can happen to people who have survived tornadoes, or childhood abuse, or being mugged. And the journalists who bear witness suffer as well.

    By August 2005, I had lived in New Orleans for 11 years and was no stranger to tropical storms. As we had before, I and many of my co-workers at a major news agency moved our essential operations out of harm's way, leaving a small group behind to gather on-the-ground detail.

    When Katrina's storm surge drowned much of New Orleans, I was watching it on TV miles away, my heart cracking, wondering if the city I loved was gone forever. It was days before I knew if my home had survived. It was weeks before I could go see for myself.

    Friends and colleagues who evacuated, as I did, sometimes spent days trying to find places to stay, locate open stores and gas stations, get calls through to loved ones, make sure elderly relatives had shelter and power. Those who stayed in the city saw bodies floating in the streets, children screaming for lost families, houses stinking of things decomposing inside, people -- so many people -- without help, with no sign that help was even coming.

    Some of these colleagues broke, hard. They found comfort in drugs and alcohol. One, in despair, tried to get police to shoot him. One had an elderly relative who killed himself when he returned to town and saw the ruins of his life.

    I was lucky. Nothing happened to me.

    It was years before I told even those dearest to me that Katrina had been a soul-shattering experience. And it was more years before I admitted my own soul was still damaged.

    What right did I have to feel sorrow? What right did I have to pull away, cocoon in my new apartment, keep contact with people to a minimum? I didn't suffer the way that my beautiful old city did, I didn't have to beg housing from indifferent bureaucrats or distant cousins far from home, I didn't have to rebuild, search for missing relatives, identify loved ones in the morgue. I hadn't patrolled the streets in a rowboat, looking for people stuck on rooftops and finding corpses. I hadn't sweltered for days in the sun on an interstate overpass, the only high ground for miles. I hadn't fought for space or food or a working toilet in the Superdome or the Convention Center. All I had done was worry, fight down fear, try not to cry and pretend I was holding together. I had a good job and friends and family who loved me. What was my problem?

    I grieved for New Orleans, the place I adored and had hoped to spend the rest of my life in. I grieved at my weakness in coping. I grieved for the hardships my friends went through. I grieved because, a few months after the storm, I left them behind.

    It's funny how grief works. There's no "deserve" or "not deserve." You grieve, or you don't. But if you feel you don't deserve to, shame piles on. And then, for some of us, comes withdrawal.

    I finally stuck my head up after about five years and realized how small and cold my life had gotten. I began making amends to friends I had long neglected, began trying to re-engage with life, find something besides pain to fill my days. It's a work in progress. Some days are easier than others, and there are still some apologies to be made.

    There's a Japanese aesthetic called wabi-sabi that celebrates the imperfect in design, finding beauty in flaws. Another involves mending beloved objects with gold or silver, making beautiful the damage that occurs over the years.

    I'd rather not have been damaged. These past 10 years would have been so much happier. But as the great poet Leonard Cohen sings, "There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

    Charlotte Porter's intensely personal account of the emotional damage inflicted on her by Hurricane Katrina is an object lesson for all of us. We're accustomed to link PTSD to combat, but it runs much deeper than that.

    I talked with a soldier a few years ago who couldn't understand why he had PTSD because he'd never been in combat himself; when I asked him what he did in the army, he told me he was a mortuary specialist, stuffing pieces of dead soldiers in body bags. So soldiers can experience trauma second-hand. We also know cops and deputies can suffer from PTSD. Drone operators who kill people a continent away can suffer a similar trauma. And their families can also suffer from second-hand PTSD.

    But now Charlotte reminds us that journalists who feel powerless in the face of disaster are equally at risk. That's something all news organizations should address, if they already haven't. Reuters has a counseling program in place for its war correspondents, according to an editor with whom I spoke a few years ago while we were judging Pulitzer Prizes together at Columbia University.

    Grief, guilt and shame are all part of the mix. A lot of soldiers suffer from what I call the "wounded soul syndrome," caused when actions that they took (or didn't take) violate the moral code they were raised with.  There's a huge emotional wound caused by killing others, or failing to prevent a buddy from being killed.

    That's true for journalists, as well. In addition to being impartial observers, we're also human. And it's not easy to walk away from people who are suffering. We know that experiencing a disaster like Katrina can be life changing, but we also know that the trauma is cumulative—it builds up over the years.

    Charlotte's account of the progression of that disorder is fairly typical. Grief, guilt and shame create depression. Depressed people hide out and lick their wounds. Isolation is common because you don't want people to know about you what you know about yourself.

    One of the things I've learned from the vets is that atonement is a huge part of healing. A lot of vets feel better about themselves when they reach out to help others.

    Recognizing the problem and dealing with it are critical, and I applaud Charlotte for reaching out to those she'd been hiding from. I also applaud her for her honesty and courage in writing about it.  But then, as her friends know, that's just who she is. 

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     This topic brought to you from psychologytoday.com
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