News and Tribune

March 1, 2013

STAWAR: The New Normal

By TERRY STAWAR
Local columnist

— What a difference a year makes

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the violent tornado that cut a 700-yard-wide swath through Southern Indiana, causing extensive damage and loss of life. 

This killer storm was given the second highest rating possible on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. It had top winds between 166 mph and 175 mph and was on the ground for almost 50 miles. Henryville, Marysville, Pekin, Borden, Daisy Hill, Salem and Chelsea, were among the communities hardest hit. Debris from Pekin was recovered as far away as 160 miles in Pleasant Plain, Ohio. Amidst the vast devastation, statewide 13 Hoosiers lost their lives during this storm. 

My wife Diane and I were on the ground at Marysville and later Henryville with the state mental health disaster response team the day after the storm, and we will never forget the twisted and broken trees and shattered houses in the tornado’s path. It looked as if a monster had rampaged through the heart of town, destroying everything in its way.

Even more amazing were all the stories of the heroic efforts of so many of the people involved, including Henryville teachers, school bus drivers, first responders and so many others. The outpouring of help and volunteers in the aftermath was remarkable, 

In September, a number of area churches and organizations acknowledged the six-month anniversary of the tornadoes with a moment of silence at 3 p.m. to remember the storm-torn communities. Church and other bells were also tolled six times, once for each month since the tornadoes. This event was sponsored by March2Recovery (march2recovery.org), which is the official long-term recovery organization serving the residents of Clark, Jefferson and Washington counties.

Anniversaries have a special significance for us, since we human beings are uniquely attuned to time. Our lives are generally organized around a yearly cycle of events, as if somehow we automatically synchronize with the earth’s orbit around the sun. Canadian writer Stuart Mclean likens it to riding on an unstoppable train. This train pulls out on New Year’s Day and passes through the seasons, holidays and various personal milestones, both positive and negative. 

In one of Mclean’s stories, Dave, his everyman protagonist, is guilty of not pulling his weight and failing to “get aboard,” as it were. Dave is worried that his wife might eject him from the train altogether for being that “guy sitting in the club car having a drink” while everyone else is working hard to keep the train moving. Mclean doesn’t say it, but the train goes faster every year as we get older. 

Each stop that we revisit represents a different anniversary and each one of them possesses its own special kind of baggage. Anniversaries are usually thought of as times to celebrate, whether it’s a birth, a wedding, the beginning of a new job or perhaps a graduation. 

Of course, everyone has two biographies. One is a list of all these pleasant and joyful experiences, while the other is the melancholy inventory of all the disasters, tragedies and heartbreaks we have endured. The most intense of these events get added to our annual cycle of anniversary dates.

John C. Flanagan, a clinical social worker from Portland says, “We remember these as well, but we don’t usually celebrate them. However, we may have some ritual that we observe to acknowledge the day, for example, taking flowers to the grave of a loved one.” 

Many people may feel distress just anticipating such anniversaries. Social scientists, who have studied this phenomena, called this distress the “anniversary reaction.”

Amy Chow, from Hong King University, who specializes in this area, says that “anniversary reactions refers to psychological, somatic and behavioral responses that occur at a specific time, usually the anniversary of a significant trauma or loss.” Her review of the literature shows that anniversary reactions are commonly seen in response to situations, such as natural disasters, accidents, deaths, homicides, suicides, child abuse, combat, terrorists attacks, divorces and separations and other highly stressful situations.

Although quite common, not everyone experiences anniversary reactions. These reactions may range from feeling mildly upset to a response complete with psychological or physical symptoms. Some people are distressed because they feel taken by surprise by an anniversary reaction that they don’t understand. For these folks, knowing what to expect can be very helpful. Our unconscious mind is exquisitely sensitive to the passage of time and may start responding to an anniversary before we are consciously aware of the origins of our feelings. 

The most common anniversary reaction is re-experiencing the feelings and thoughts that occurred at the time of the traumatic event. This may take place in the context of memories, images, thoughts, feelings, flashbacks or recurrent dreams or nightmares. This repetition is the mind’s way to try to work through and process intense emotions. 

Grief and sadness are common as people remember and mourn for lost love ones, pets and property. Anger and frustration may also be experienced as survivors confront the glacial pace of recovery with its countless bureaucratic hassles. People who are still in the process of financial recovery and emotional healing may be especially vulnerable.

Many survivors may avoid people, places, or events associated with the original traumatic situation. Alcohol or drug use may also be a way to evade the situation. Still others may embrace the opportunity that anniversaries bring for remembrance and reflection, as they work toward resolution and closure. 

Finally, many people with an anniversary reaction display a heighten state of arousal. This may manifest itself as anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, the inability to focus attention or conversely hypervigilance. All of these are part of the natural defense mechanism that tries to protect us in the event of future disasters 

Many experts believe that anniversary reactions are best addressed preventatively through means such as proactive coping designed to prevent and modify future potentially stressful events. While anniversaries can be very stressful they also can offer opportunities for healing and growth. Attending commemorative events, learning more about how anniversary reactions work, engaging in meaningful volunteer activities and accessing support from family, friends and neighbors are some of the ways to prevent or diminish anniversary reactions. 

During disaster anniversaries, parents can help their children by modeling calm behaviors, maintaining routines, limiting traumatic media exposure and providing extra attention and support, especially at bedtime or times when children go off to school. 

Since communities perceive disasters differently and have their own unique coping strategies, each community must decide their own best way to observe anniversaries. In Henryville this year, a flag dedication ceremony is scheduled at 1 p.m. Saturday at the New Washington State Bank. This is followed by a parade at 1:30 and a commemorative service at Henryville High School at 2:30. The Kiwanis are then sponsoring a spaghetti supper at 4 at the Community Building. Pekin and Daisy Hill are having a tree dedication and balloon release in Pekin Park at 3 p.m.

Finally if you or someone you know needs help during this time, you should contact your physician or behavioral health care provider. If you are in crisis, you can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the National Disaster Distress helpline at 1-800-985-5990. Locally, you can also call the LifeSpring hotline at 812-280-2080.

Much progress has been made, but much work is still to be done, as people adapt to the “new normal” of their post-tornado lives. With faith, a strong sense of community, support and determination, there is a unique opportunity to not only survive this ordeal, but to prevail. 

 

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com