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The Importance of Self-Care in the Wake of Natural Disasters

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It’s late summer here in Houston.

I am sitting on our back patio, in my flannel pajamas, drinking a cup of hot tea, waiting for my computer to update.

The cat and I are listening to the “summer days soundtrack” — a mix of rhythmic cicadas and songbirds calling to one another, with the crow of an illegal rooster chiming in every once in awhile. Although I find it soothing, it’s pretty clear my cat finds this joyous song to be taunting.

Meanwhile, the dogs pay no attention to this summer ballad and instead, focus all their attention on hunting down one of the many dancing lizards that are hoping to attract a mate.

In this moment, I almost forget that Hurricane Harvey has pummeled my city and wreaked havoc across the Gulf Coast.

My husband and I live on a bit of a hill and luckily, we were spared much of Harvey’s wrath. Although there is much to be done, we are choosing not to get too overwhelmed this early on. We do the best we can to help our community, while also making time for ourselves to wring out a bit. We’re making the most of this extended summer before school starts back up because, in a way, this little bit of time is like the calm before the oncoming storm that awaits us this school year.

It is my husband’s first year teaching and I am inevitably reminded of my first year teaching, when Hurricane Ike devastated my hometown of Galveston.

I remember many things from that first year, but most of all the aftermath of the storm. Wading through the wreckage and sewage in my rubber boots; the lack of power, food and clean water; the sobbing and hugs after running into familiar faces in the food stamp line; my parents and I luckily finding a small room at the Comfort Inn to live in (as opposed to a cot in Tent City); the relocation of our school and the overcrowded classrooms of students and staff, all struggling with varying levels of displacement, destruction and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The year went on, Ike became a long forgotten story in the national media, and the community slowly rebuilt, now smaller but, perhaps stronger. It took years to finally feel a bit “normal” again — to be able to breathe. And for many of us teachers, it felt much longer.

You see, I find teachers have a tendency to overextend themselves; partially due to external societal and administrative pressures and partially due to their own altruistic determination. Despite what traumas they might be going through, they want to give 110 percent and help everybody at all times, even when there is no time or energy to do so. Teachers also can have a tendency to quickly burn out, but I’m sure there is no correlation there…

I remember after Ike, many of us were so caught up with the unsettling destruction everywhere — the mountain of necessary cleanup and rebuilding, making up the missed class time and being supportive of our students — there was little time taken for self and the stress among the teachers became overwhelmingly palpable. And if you didn’t take a regular step back and a deep breath, this stress often gave way to a bitterness that beat down both the body and the spirit, spreading like an infectious disease. We were acting as chamois: absorbing the stress, fear and sadness of all our children, while also carrying our own. Many, like myself, actually took ill, knowing, regrettably, that since there were no substitutes available in the district, our colleagues would be burdened with covering double classes until we recovered. Although the students had a few tele-psychs available to them throughout that first year or so of recovery, there seemed to be no additional emotional support or resources available for the teachers. Instead, we ended the year with school closures and layoffs.

There are many lessons I taught that year, but even more that I learned — the most important being the need for self-care.

Flash forward to today.

There are tens of thousands displaced from the storm, and countless more with severe property damage. It has been dubbed as possibly the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

There has been tremendous support given to our community, through both individuals and organized endeavors. From these same well-meaning individuals and organizations, I seem to receive a handful of requests daily for both status updates, as well as general petitions for aid. I’m sure I am not alone in receiving these requests.

I want to first address these requests for aid.

Over these next several days and weeks it may be easy to become overwhelmed by the need to help your community. Water, food, money, helping hands, clean up — everywhere you look, there is need, and it will not go away overnight.

It might seem prudent to just gather up some food, clothes and water to donate, but please do not just blindly send or drop off donations. Often times these good intentions are left unused and unneeded, and can actually cause more problems.

And you might find yourself in my situation, with lots of time currently on your hands. Please spend that time wisely. Research what people and organizations actually need, determine which shelters or homes actually need volunteers and then, please, take it in strides. Because, just like in a plane crash, you must put that oxygen mask over yourself first before helping others.

These calls for help will come in waves, just like the storm that caused it. There will be varying levels of need. And if you dive in and let these needs consume you right away, you might not be strong enough to help in the long run. Trust me, there will still be need in the long run.

To those who found yourself luckily spared during this disaster: You cannot do everything. But you can do something. Take time to plan out how you will support your community in the short term and the long haul. Whether it’s through a well-established local organization or reaching out to your neighbors on an individual basis — please remember to take care of your own mind, body and spirit during this time. Remember that perhaps the most impactful aid you can give your struggling community, will be your continuous compassion and support, as well as your strength in your ability to see and spread goodness, beauty and happiness.

This sentiment rings especially true for us teachers.

Take as much time for yourself now, because once we go back to school, we will need to be able to rally strength of mind and spirit that we might not have thought was possible. We will be faced with children and colleagues in need of not only consolation and support, but also inspiration and happiness. There will be a million things to do, and it might never be enough. But this will be a year of tremendous growth and community bonding, and we cannot hope to be as effective in the long haul if we are physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually exhausted.

To those needing help, please do not forget your physical, spiritual and mental well-being. I know it might seem like you cannot take time for self, but every moment helps! Allow those offering to help, to help give you some time alone with spirit, or help provide you with a pleasant distraction. Time to regularly relax and regroup is necessary!

And how do we all manage to stay strong and inspiring and supportive in the face of all this sadness? How do you not let yourself get overwhelmed?

Allow yourself to grieve. Then take it one moment at a time and try to find the beauty, the good and the happiness in each moment.

Because today might not be a great day, or even a good day, but it can be a peaceful moment, a good moment, even a happy one. And if we can find happiness in each moment for ourselves, it becomes easier to get through all of this; and it will become easier to spread that to others in need of a little pick-me-up.

To all of us during this disaster, and the next, there will always be things to worry about. Always. Nothing will ever be perfect. There will always be awful, ugly things going on. But life is still pretty beautiful. Although the beauty outweighs the ugly, this world’s ugliness can become all-consuming if we let it. But if you pay attention to all the sights and smells and tastes and sounds — it’s actually fairly easy to see the loveliness of life.

There will always be reasons to be stressed or unhappy. But with practice, Ike and Harvey, and all the stressful, ridiculous, awful situations that are so easy to be overwhelmed by, become a bit easier to handle. With practice, it can become a bit easier to see and remember the beauty and good in life, and then choose to be peaceful and happy in the moment. Because, in this moment, good is still found everywhere, and this beautiful life still goes on.

Follow this journey here.

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Unsplash photo via Chris Lawton

Originally published: November 21, 2017
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