by Ria Ruane, M.A., LMHC
I’ve always been attracted to and captivated by the sea. The therapeutic, lulling sounds of the waves, the glistening sunshine as it kisses the surf and the incredible, fascinating life within, such a gift, an absolute pleasure to behold!
For as long as I can remember, I found peace and serenity in, on or under the water. Swimming, beachcombing, boating, snorkeling, you name it, I’m in.
When I was 5 years old, I crossed three beaches collecting colorful seashells. When my mom called her seven children in for lunch, she realized her youngest was gone and thought for sure I had been swallowed by the sea. In fact, I was in the police station, eating ice cream and waiting for her to pick me up with my new, shiny treasures.
Over half a century has passed and I am fortunate enough to own an awesome condo on the sand in SWFL’s lovely Bonita Beach. So perfectly named as the word ‘Bonita’ translates to beautiful in Spanish and Portuguese. They say, “If you’re lucky enough to have a place by the sea, you’re lucky enough.” On September 28, 2022, meteorologist and Hurricane Ian said differently. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel incredibly blessed. I now have the loss of a home to add to my life experiences. At least, it will help me build empathy for clients and after all, things can be rebuilt and replaced.
September 27, 2022 and Mandatory Evacuation meant take very little and leave. I took a few photos, secured Hurricane shutters and headed inland for hours and hours of 150 mph wind, water and wait. The salty, snappy sea swelled and surged, tore out my shutters, blew out six sliders and took out every inch of my happy place. All that was left was covered in glass, sand and muck.
After the storm, our community took a huge hit with catastrophic damage and destruction. Despite our best efforts to prepare, protect and defend, we flooded. Our homes and the days of our precious lives were overwhelmed and placed on hold by the same sea water that also provided everlasting moments of joy, serenity and peace. Now, like beach sand through an hourglass, we must move on to recover. In fact, we are a resilient community that will overcome and grow stronger because of this experience.
My work as a realtor, leaves me scrambling to help the many displaced residents of SWFL find a place to stay, a place to call home. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs sums up our situation quite nicely. As humans, we need to have our basic physiological needs met in order to survive. Think about it, how can we survive, never mind thrive, if we don’t have a place to stay, to be, to eat, to sleep, to live? It is also a basic human need to feel safe…safe from the storm. These needs are the baseline. Warm soup and a cozy blanket will always trump talk therapy. Safety, security, shelter, food, water, clothing, warmth, even sex rate high on our human needs check list. During this and other difficult life cycles, please remember self care. It is nonproductive to pour from an empty cup. Fill your cup and schedule time in your days (post-IAN daze) for activities that make your spirit soar.
As a mental health counselor, specializing in grief and loss, I clearly recognize the stages and cycle of grief that people are presently experiencing. Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance, it’s all right here in our community. Many think the stages of loss are linear. In fact, the stages are cyclical and like a child’s water spray park, we can’t determine or plan for if, when or where any will pop up. One thing is for sure, it is virtually impossible to avoid emotional flooding when dealing with experiences that involve catastrophic loss.
In addition to the stages of grief, I acknowledge the very real connection between storm flooding and emotional flooding that coexist with this type of trauma. In both instances, there are precautions we could and should take.
An analogy I often use with clients is applicable here. During times of increased physical, emotional and mental stress, imagine a traffic light. The norm is green (Go) as we attend to our daily lives with manageable anxiety. As the storm gates open and the water begins to pour in (a.k.a. emotional arousal), we are signaled to pause. We need to be cognizant of the impending destruction that may occur if we continue without taking a ‘time out’ to consider calming, next best steps. Self soothing is an important part of the amber (Proceed with Caution) stage. Finally, as we near the red (Stop) zone, emotional relaxation becomes a matter of survival. This stage is where flooding is bound to occur. It is very difficult to make good decisions, communicate effectively or make healthy choices when flooded. Senses may shut down to a point where it is difficult to see, hear or even think as you would normally. In the red zone, it is common for people to feel dissociated, fuzzy, extreme anger or fear, etc. Working with couples in crisis, we often see this during our Vacation Counseling Retreats. One person might feel as if they are moving in slow motion. Others might react with Flight, Fight, Freeze or Fawn during these difficult moments. Oftentimes, this is simply our minds’ way of dealing with red zone situations and/or trauma.
When exposed to an overwhelming, high-anxiety situation, we must tend to basic physical survival. It is also imperative to incorporate evidence-based practices to prevent emotional damage and protect our mental health. These calming techniques include deep breathing exercises, guided visual imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, prayer, mindfulness, music, art, positive thinking, etc. Solution Focused Therapy suggests we create an imaginary tool box in which we store helpful techniques that elicit the relaxation response. When one doesn’t work, we search for another until we find one that fits just right for each unique, stressful situation. Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) works best when we simply utilize positive, helpful strategies that have worked in the past and reduce or eliminate techniques that haven’t worked. Which works best for you? My absolute favorite relaxation “tool” is gratitude.
I try to begin my day with a big stretch and count my blessings on the fingers of both of my hands. An example of some of the ten things I am grateful for might include the sunshine, my ability to get out of bed, my health and awesome music. Heck, I might include my toothbrush, toothpaste and flossers! Gratitude is a great way to start a great day even in the midst of storms that life might send our way.
I’d like to end by thanking you for allowing me to share my story. First and foremost, I thank God for all of my blessings. I am grateful to all those that assisted others during this difficult time. I consider them angels on earth. I thank my mom for finding me when I am lost and always being there for me. I thank my siblings, my friends and my children for caring. I am grateful for my clients, for trusting me with their stories. I appreciate being in a position where I can help others who are experiencing grief and loss. It is an honor and a privilege to walk with them even for a little while on their journeys.
If you are in need of emotional support after Hurricane Ian, please take advantage of Cape Coral Therapist Free Drop-In Support Groups for the Community. It helps to know that others may be struggling to get back on their feet and experiencing similar issues. Here at Cape Coral Therapists, you matter! We care and are here for you. We are all in this together as we discover how resilient we really are and move towards Recovery.