In sobriety, there are many seasons of survival. It’s funny how that word has evolved over time. For many years I was just surviving. Going to sleep at night and waking up to see another day during active addiction was like playing Russian roulette. During early sobriety, I thought, “finally, I am not only surviving, but I am truly living.” I put intention into my days and my actions. I felt grateful for the first time in my life and coping with daily life seemed doable.
What I didn’t think about when I got sober was surviving other types of trauma. I knew life was going to throw shit at me once in awhile, but I never thought about how it would deeply affect me and my sobriety.
Cue Hurricane Irma. I have to give a bit of background on my fear of natural disasters. I have always said they’re one of my worst fears because there is nothing you can do to stop or change them. They are the epitome of the power of nature and even with the latest technology no one really knows what path they will take and what destruction they will leave behind. It’s all based on estimates and spaghetti charts.
I’ve lived in tropical environments several times in my life. In Ocean City, Maryland I experienced a tropical storm that was nothing more than a bunch of wind and rain and a reason to drink. During my 5 years in Cancun, I experienced a few hurricane watches and tropical storm warnings that turned out to be nothing serious. Fer and I had a few “compras de pánico” (panic shopping trips) in case the power went out, but we never ever thought about boarding up windows or evacuating. We never had to make those kinds of decisions.
On Labor Day, we got word that Hurricane Irma was coming towards Florida. Right away it looked like it was going to be a doozy. 400 miles across, category 5, it would cover us no matter where the direct hit was. The panic started almost immediately, a week before the storm was even scheduled to hit. Stores were out of ater, canned goods, gas lines were long, and there was no cash at ATM’s. We began the search for aluminum hurricane panels for our windows since we have the settings already and could only find random pieces, not anything that actually fit, or enough of them. Lines at Lowe’s and Home Depot were out the wazoo for plywood. Then there was the task of actually using power tools and the time and sweat it took to get the house ready, luckily we had great help from my dad and some CrossFit friends.
As the preparation continued we learned that Irma would indeed be heading right for Southwest Florida. Friends from around the country and the world were filling my inbox with messages asking if I was ok, if I was going to evacuate and telling me that they heard “Cape Coral” on the news and were terrified for me.
That’s when my real anxiety began. My mom told me we needed to put all of our important documents into a plastic container - mortgage, passports, birth certificates, wedding photo album - things that can’t be replaced. Then we needed to pack a bag to be ready to evacuate or go to a shelter at any moment. There is nothing compared to the feeling of looking around your house and thinking about what you can take and what you have to leave behind and you may never see again. I felt paralyzed. I felt helpless. I did not want to deal with it.
We were faced with decisions we didn’t want to make. Should we stay or should we go? Stay at the house or go to a shelter? Stay in the safe room or roam the house? Keep the cats in their carriers in preparation to flee or wait until the last minute to corral them?
When Irma hit Florida it was a category 2 storm that went right down the middle of route 41 from Naples through Fort Myers and onto Lehigh Acres. We hunkered down in our house with my parents who had mandatory evacuations in their zone. We made a safe room in our master bedroom closet where we went when the eyewall was hitting Cape Coral. My mom was ordered to wear a bike helmet by my sister (a PA) because of her blood thinner medication. We had pillows to put on top of ourselves if the house began crumbling to the ground or stuff started coming off the shelves.
In the hours leading up to landfall, I could barely sit still. I was walking around the house, looking out the window, checking on my sister via text, reading one or two pages in a book, and around again. How are you supposed to prepare for the worst, keep anxiety at bay, take care of your loved ones and pray that Mother Nature doesn’t rob you of your shelter and all of your material possessions?
I just wanted it to be over. I wanted whatever was going to happen to happen so I could start healing. The power went out mid-afternoon and we stayed in the safe room for an hour during the worst of it. We survived. Our house survived. In the morning after not sleeping a wink we surveyed the damage outside. We had several trees and branches down, our metal fence that we share with a neighbor was laying down on the ground, and we had a small leak in the master bedroom closet where water was coming in, but other than that we had minimal damage.
I hear everyone talking about how grateful we should be it wasn’t worse, but I want to make an important point and say that what we just experienced was a trauma. We should not minimize that experience. We spent money we did not have securing our house and then, cleaning up the damage. We spent 4 days without power. We threw away hundreds of dollars worth of food in our refrigerator and freezers. We were unable/without work for days. Then we had to spend more money on food after the power was back. Gas lines and stores still had nothing to offer us days after the storm.
Following the storm, Fer looked at me and said, “I can’t imagine drinking alcohol at a time like this. What if something really bad happens? I want to be able to help.” And he’s right. Being sober during this storm was hard AF. Alcohol has always been my go-to during natural disasters, and for fear in general. I ran and hid and pretended it wasn’t that bad. In the past all I cared about was numbing my pain away in the moment. Irma taught me that even with fear, I can prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I can experience anxiety about the unknown, be uncomfortable, and still able to help at any moment. But in order to do this, in order to live my best life even through the storms - I have to be sober.
Carly Benson and I recorded a special Regroup podcast episode about Hurricane Irma, how we felt before and after, and the importance of processing traumatic events. Listen here.