This is Not a Drill - 6 Ways to Recover From Stress & Trauma
I travel quite a bit for my work, and when I can, I’ll bring my husband or some variation of our four kids with me. On a recent work trip, I went all out and brought (almost) my whole family. Going to Hawaii to create images for a dear friend/client who hosts amazing, intimate, powerful writing retreats eventually grew into bringing my husband and my two youngest along.
What a lovely opportunity to start the new year doing work that I love, with people I adore, and share a beautiful place with (most of) my family.
The trip was nothing short of amazing, I’ll soon be sharing more about the work I witnessed, the work I created, the people I worked with and what it’s like to blend travel, work, and family.
But for now, I feel compelled to share a bit of this unexpected story with you. It was the last day of our beautiful work-vacation. We were pretty blissed out and had a plan for our last morning in Hawaii before we traveled home that afternoon.
We were in our hotel room, each of us in varying degrees of greeting the day, you know - those early morning moments when you’re all quietly together milling around doing your own thing. I love those moments actually, quietly together is a nice way to be.
Then, at 8:07 everything changed. It really can all change in an instant.
The three cell phones in the room simultaneously began that awful sound that we know as an Amber alert.
My son and I saw the message first and immediately told my husband to read his phone.
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL”
As a girl who grew up with many moments of “this is a test of the emergency broadcasting system… this is only a test” I had to read the message twice. But the all-caps “THIS IS NOT A DRILL” couldn’t have been more real.
This was actually happening.
I can’t put words to the feelings that flooded over me. It brings tears to my eyes as I type this.
The next several minutes we put on our best calm-in-the-chaos, hearts, and minds and quickly created a plan, and quickly took action.
We grabbed a blanket and a bag that had a few important things in it, and we sought out the lowest part of the hotel, found a stairwell with a firewall and no windows, and we huddled into a corner.
This felt like the smartest thing to do, and at the same time, I knew my psyche just needed to feel like I was *doing* something about the situation. A situation wayyyy beyond my control.
The stairwell is where we spent the next 30 or so very long minutes, tucked into a corner, huddled together, blanket wrapped around us. Some of us shaking, all of us holding on in the ways we know how.
It’s incredible the thoughts that go through your mind in moments like this; it’s fascinating to see how we each respond.
As a woman who lives and mostly thrives with C-PTSD, I’m no newbie to terrifying moments, but I have to say this one maybe took the cake. I’m sure I’ll have new and different perspectives in the days to come, but right now, just 24 hours later it still feels very surreal.
Never have I felt quite so powerless. Never have I come quite so close to feeling the stripping away of the very basic securities that we take for granted in this part of the world.
We all have our ways that we respond in a crisis, and all of those ways are useful - my gesture is typically (almost always) to take action.
I’m that mama that would lift the car off the toddler.
So what was there to do? A nuclear missile is headed our way.
What was there to do?
We had zero information as to what was happening, I tried making a few calls - 911 wasn’t working, and neither were the other numbers of friends who I thought might have a helpful insight to share.
Were the phone lines going down?
A whole new wave of deep panic attempted to set in.
With one hand on my little girl who was calmly chanting that she didn’t want to die, I posted the photo of the amber alert with an SOS on Facebook in hopes that someone could get us more information than what we had, which was none.
And that was it; there really was nothing else I could do.
I felt myself surrender to the situation.
There was nothing left to do except create as much peace and love within and around me as possible so that no matter what happened - my body, my love, and my children could at least bathe in that.
And so we prayed. I couldn’t reassure them of much, but I could keep telling them I love them, that I am here with them, I could facilitate our asking for peace, for safety, for a miracle.
Collectively we prayed for protection, for a sign that all was well, that we would indeed be OK, that we are OK right now. We sent the most beautiful pink light out to all the anger, darkness and chaotic forces that must be behind the event; we sent all our love to the countries, political powers and technology that held power to destroy, and power to save.
Woah, talk about getting in touch with our collective vulnerability. There are powers at play that hold power to destroy and save. We created a bubble of peace and love in the midst of the terror.Was this really happening?
It was excruciatingly beautiful and horrifyingly real.
Texts started rolling in in response to my FB post; my oldest son was able to call us and was doing what he could to find out what was actually happening, the truth is I was just trying to give him something to do that would get him off the phone with us lest he hear us when the bomb hit.
More texts were coming in, friends started saying that some tweets and posts were stating the Hawaii alarm was a mistake.
Eventually, one of our stairwell neighbors came in and said he had received a text which stated that this might have been a mistake.
Little bouts of hope and yet - no official release from the terror.
Eventually, (38 minutes later) we received another Amber alert which read:
"False Alarm. There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii.
Again, I had to read it twice.
"False Alarm. There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii."
And so shaken, and uncertain we headed back to our room.
Was it really a false alarm? I couldn’t imagine that a *mistake* of such magnitude wouldn’t have been caught and corrected wayyyy faster than in 38 minutes. I felt confused, relieved, emotional, angry, grateful and still very concerned and not totally trusting.
So now what? What do we do? I took a deep breath and asked my family to do the same. I passed out water, calming herbs and a little rescue remedy, and I took a few minutes to write out some of the thoughts that went through my mind as we sat in the stairwell while they were still fresh.
Then, we did what any family would do under such odd circumstances, we went to the overpriced hotel buffet that we had avoided up until now, and allowed ourselves to eat and say and process whatever we each needed and wanted.
And then, with a little encouragement from my partner - we hopped on the pool slide and played in the water for our last hour before heading to the airport.
We made a choice to not let terror rob our joy.
For anyone thriving with an anxiety disorder, this is a regular practice.
Choosing joy over terror is something I’ve done many many many times, but anxiety is usually a solo game. Sharing it like that was profound and one little gem in the muck.
We dried off, loaded up, and headed out, and then because I know that a traumatic event can have a lasting impact even when it's a false alarm, I made a list of ways to help heal, integrate and recover from a traumatic experience.
The reality is we all experience traumas, some imagined, some real and some turn out to be a false alarm.
Over a lifetime we all have moments where everything changes (or appears to change) in an instant, a devastating diagnosis, the moment she asks for a divorce, a car accident, a broken bone, an unexpected pregnancy, an unexpected death of a loved one.
Life is full of complicated moments, unexpected opportunities and tragedies, and unforeseen situations.
There is so much that we can’t control, but we can continue to learn how to best care for ourselves and others, and that may just be everything.
My short list of simple practices for complicated moments…. (all of these are great for kids as well)
1. Once you know you’re out of danger, do something joyful. It may feel really weird and counter-intuitive, but it’s incredibly healthy and a signal to your nervous system that all really is well. - Bonus if you have access to a pool slide.
2. Water, lots of water. Stress and trauma release all kinds of hormones to help us take action and do what needs to be done. Those hormones are healthy and helpful unless they get stuck, (much like anger) then they get toxic. Water helps us clear those hormones from our system.
3. Make art. A simple photo, or list, or poem of the feelings you experienced or a drawing or painting. Any artistic expression helps to move trauma out of our body and psyche.4. Talk about it to someone who is a good listener. Let them know you need to talk and you really just want them to listen and empathize. Let them know that making light of it or re-framing it isn’t helpful right now - unless it is for you, in which case let them know that.
5. Get help if you need or want it, a body-worker, trauma-informed coach or therapist may be just the thing you need (or want). Don’t deny yourself this essential, good care. Consider this your permission slip if you need one.
6. Give your self time to integrate the experience and treat yourself with tender care. Soft blankets, lots of cuddles and hugs, or lots of space, staying hydrated, comforting food, sounds, smells, don't judge what you need, simply give it to yourself.
I wish for you endless days of peace and joy, but life is long and full of wonderful and terrible. If you do find yourself up against a traumatic experience, I hope you will find comfort in this little list.
We are all unique and have our own ways that work best for us in terms of healing and self-care. Take my list and make it all yours by changing, adding or editing as serves you.
And for those of us passionate about making this world a better place, remember that choosing to not let terror rob of us our joy can be one of the greatest acts of resistance and rebellion.