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Community After Disaster, a Therapist’s Musings

Here in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, the entire community experienced prolonged and extensive hyper-arousal – days on end of watching and wondering where the fires would burn next, and far too many sleepless nights. According to the literature on disasters, what follows is a brief honeymoon period, characterized by community cohesion and gratitude. Sonoma County showed up for each other in major ways in the past couple of weeks, and the outpouring of gratitude to the first responders was tremendous.

Following the honeymoon is a period of disillusionment and despair. As we here in Sonoma enter it, I am noticing the following:

All the things that felt so important before the fire were put in perspective in the last few weeks. The details of life: deadlines and bills, parking and traffic, etcetera, are minute compared to life itself and gratitude for continuing to live it.  But it turns out the tensions that existed prior to the fires are still there. The internal tensions, the familial ones, tensions with neighbors and co-workers. And they are being amplified by our collective state of hyper-arousal. For those of us lucky enough to be housed, those small things seem even bigger than before, as our reactivity is so intense, and our ability to use our higher brains to pause, breathe and reason currently so compromised.

Also, those of us lucky enough to have homes long to feel safe in them again. But we don’t, not yet. And that inability to control our surroundings triggers deep, primal, implicit memories of the first times we felt unsafe at home. Few, if any, of us exited childhood without having some experience of lacking safety in our homes, back when we were too helpless and vulnerable to protect ourselves. While those experiences varied widely in intensity and extensiveness, the feelings engendered are impacting all of our actions, causing many of us to escalate situations that increase vulnerability, even as we consciously desire to feel secure.

One of the most important lessons I have learned in my training with Dr. Bruce Perry is about the critical importance of community in recovering from acute stress. As Dr. Perry says: “A community that has relational wealth is able to tolerate stressors and heal from past stress. A community that has relational poverty: no program, no amount of money, no infusion from outside can make that happen. Healthy communities have rhythm, healthy communities have relationships, healthy communities have respect. Those 3 things create a climate of safety where people can meet their potential.”

Dr. Perry talks about studies that compared the recovery of children who survived Katrina to those who survived the Thai Tsunami that same year. The Thai children had less resources to begin with, and the destruction and loss of life was far greater. The American children received all sorts of support from crisis management and mental health experts, and from FEMA. But they were sent into a diaspora, isolated nuclear families occupying trailers in strange cities. The Thai communities moved together into refugee camps, and returned together to rebuild their former homes. And it is the Thai children, not the Americans, who are doing better today, with less PTSD symptoms and less long term impacts of toxic stress.

We need healthy communities to recover and thrive. We need respectful relationships as we all seek to return to the natural rhythms of our days. But how do we engender healthy communities here in America, where our relational threads are already so frayed, our families already so isolated? How do we, a whole region of fire scared people, maintain the respect and thoughtfulness and care needed with our neighbors and within our homes, when each of us is still so sensitive and shaken?

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