Houston's Alternate Universe

Harvey Survivor's Guilt: Untouched by hurricane, everything is fine — but it really isn't

Harvey Survivor's Guilt: Everything is fine, but it really isn't

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They say it will take months, maybe years, for the city to return to normal. Maybe by then when someone asks how we are doing we can say fine. And really be fine.   Photo by Catherine Walsh

I feel guilty just writing this. Hurricane Harvey came to Houston, and my home and family and I are fine.

On the Thursday before the storm, my husband told me that his office would be closed the next day, and probably the following Monday. “This is so stupid,” I replied, “It’s not even supposed to start raining until Friday night.”

The whole thing was a bother, even more so when I found out my sons’ daycare would also be closed that Friday and probably the following Monday. That meant I’d have my twin three-and-a-half year-old boys for four days straight! Ugh.

On Friday, the boys and I went to the mall and walked around and window shopped. It started raining lightly around noon.

“It’s not even going to do anything!”

But it did. A lot.

Friday night it began to pour and pour and pour. My husband and I began to worry. We had been in Houston through Hurricane Ike but not in our current home, and even though we had not had any troubles previously, it was becoming quickly apparent that this was different. Like most Houstonians we turned on the news Friday night and didn’t stop watching for the next three days.

Once Harvey made landfall the texts began. “You guys OK?” “What’s going on there?” “We’re watching the TV, is it bad?”

Like many in the city, we are transplants. Our friends and family watched the horrors on the national news with little context of how the city functioned.

But we were fine. Like… fine.

Glued to TV

We spent the next few days glued to the TV, to Facebook, to Twitter, and to our phones. We texted friends, “You okay? What’s happening where you are? Are your kids going crazy? What are you doing? How much junk food are you eating right now? #Harvey15 for reals. Is your house still okay?"

"Hope we don’t run out of vodka before the rain stops, LOL. Yep, we are still fine. You guys? We are still fine. We are still fine. Are you still fine?”

We saw photos of friends in other neighborhoods, the water surrounding their homes, Periscope videos of rising water; some joked, many did not. A friend posted a video of his neighbors being airlifted from his apartment complex, luckily monitoring from the second floor.

We drank wine and tried to entertain our increasingly insane children. We watched too much television and streamed the news on YouTube. We could do that because we never lost power or internet service.

When the kids went to bed we scrolled through the horrific photos of families running through waist-deep water, boated away from their homes, forced to leave their entire lives behind. We read the posts from local officials, “Don’t go in your attic to escape high waters. Go to your roof. Someone will rescue you.” We cried at the thought of being on our own roof with our two toddlers. Levi could handle it, but Jack would definitely lose his shit.

“Check in.” “Are you going to evacuate?” “What’s your plan if it keeps raining?”

“We are fine.” “Still fine.” “WE ARE FINE!”

The urge to help

On Tuesday, it started to let up and some roads became drivable. Houston quickly began to marshal efforts, and everyone it seemed was stepping up to help. “Headed to GRB to volunteer.” “Anyone donating, moms need diapers. Desperately.” “#HoustonStrong.” “Bring extra water to this drop-off location.” “#rebuildhou.”

A mad energy surged through my body. I ripped through my house putting things into piles. Clothes. Granola bars. Water. Baby wipes. Pretzels. Anything we had bought for the storm that was individually wrapped. They only want individually wrapped items. Towels. Blankets. I unplugged all unused electronics and shut off the lights to limit our carbon footprint, which I was being told via the internet was the reason this disaster happened in the first place. That and zoning (which was not presently something I could impact).

“I’m giving all this toothpaste,” I told my husband. “And do you care if we give these T-shirts? Why don’t we have more towels? We need more towels in general. I wish someone could take all these paper towels we forgot to cancel from our Amazon Pantry. Do you think they want them? People must need paper towels!”

I loaded my boys in the car, and we finally got out of the house. I donated a trunkful of whatever I could find. I checked Facebook. I helped a friend without a car food shop. I checked Facebook. I bought more toothpaste to bring to a nearby church. I texted with friends who knew more about what to bring where. I checked Facebook. I posted on others’ walls of what they needed and how were they doing and did anyone need paper towels?

I bemoaned to other parent-friends, “What can we do to help that allows kids?” “How can we help?” “What do people need help with?” “Do you need help?”

I JUST WANT TO HELP!

I watched as others mobilized on social media, leading the charge that I could only follow and like and heart and “Awesome job!” and “Stay Safe!” and heart and thumbs up and Angryface and heart and heart and heart and heart and heart and heart and heart and heart and heart and heart and heart.

Dodged a bullet

We saw friends. Their stories were the same. So lucky. Dodged a bullet. Never even lost power. Can’t believe it. #Blessed. Grateful. Can you believe it? Like nothing happened. A little water but really fine. Fine. Just trying to figure out how to help. And can you believe the pictures? Terrible.

We uttered the same words in the same hushed tone: Survivor Guilt.

I ran into a friend at yoga (Strike 1) whose house was also fine (Strike 2) and we commiserated over being stuck in the house with our small children for so many days (Strike 3), and feeling so helpless (Strike 4), but what can we do to help, what can we do to help with our kids who are fine and spoiled and never want for anything, and did you hear they might be having a yoga camp next week, it doesn’t seem too expensive for half day programs (Strike… feel free to now punch me repeatedly in the face).

I drove around Thursday trying to donate those damn paper towels, in a peculiar desperation. Maybe I thought they could sop up all of the feelings that I had been having. On Friday, I saw someone posting that they needed strollers at the convention center where several thousand displaced Houstonians were living. So, I went down there with a double stroller I had attempted to sell several times on our neighborhood Facebook page, now grateful that no one wanted it. How selfish of me to have tried to sell it to someone in my neighborhood who could surely afford their own.

They were no longer accepting donations, but I was told just to walk in and see what happened from one of the security guards.

“Where’s the babies for that stroller,” an officer joked.

“In there.”

It’s hard to describe what a shelter of this magnitude looks like. Thousands of people sleeping on uncomfortable cots in other people’s old clothes. I saw a family of four all wearing the same company-mandated 5K Fun Run T-shirt; the shirt was nearly dress-sized on the youngest son. Volunteers were everywhere, too, though. Helping. People just want to help.

I eventually found a mother of two small children and asked her if she wanted the stroller. “It folds right up,” I said like a used car salesman attempting to talk her into taking a lemon off my hands for a sweet price. I tried to demonstrate, but at that very moment I completely forgot how to fold it up despite the fact I had just unfolded it moments ago. “I’m sorry. I know it folds real easy.”

She didn’t care. She put her two kids in, a boy of about four and an adorable, little girl no more than 18 months. They rode off towards wherever they were headed, leaving me behind with the other load I was hoping she’d also take off my hands — my guilt.

The recovery process

I’ve read a few news reports that say Harvey struck along racial lines. This is inaccurate reporting. Of course many of the neighborhoods hit were lower-income. But many of the areas hit hardest, Meyerland, Bellaire, are affluent. In Meyerland, million-dollar homes were destroyed by the flooding waters. This is not to say that all of the folks who flooded were living in mansions; not even close. I have many friends ripping out sheet-rock in their homes. But they are back in those homes, the ability to rip that sheet rock out is an unfortunate privilege.

Where socioeconomics come into play is in the recovery process.

If you can afford a million-dollar home probably you can afford to stay in a hotel while your home is being rebuilt. While your life is being reconstructed, maybe you have a salary job that is still paying you while you get things back to normal. If you are hourly, maybe you have friends and family who have the means to help. You may even have had the foresight to purchase flood insurance. But million-dollar homes or not, losing your life is a traumatic event. Flood insurance won’t replace your family photo album. Your kid’s first lost tooth. The drawing your nephew did of a spider chasing a monkey that was hanging on your fridge.

They don’t need to feel guilty about going out to eat at the nearest open restaurant and drinking too much wine. They deserve it. They have suffered in unimaginable ways.

Not feeling better

According to Wikipedia (I know, bad citation) survivor guilt (or survivor’s guilt; also called survivor syndrome or survivor’s syndrome) is a mental condition that occurs when a person believes they have done something wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not.

I remember feeling a similar way after my sister died. I was Jazzercising a few weeks after her death and left in a panic. I called my kid sister and cried about how unfair it was that I could Jazzercise and Sarah never could again.

“Sarah would never Jazzercise,” she replied. “Nobody wants to do that, in fact.”

Her snark was lifting and true, but it didn’t make me feel any better. That feeling has returned now, and I know that I am not alone. I’ve read these sentiments echoed on social media, with friends across the city, strangers that I’ve met at the park that we are all just so #lucky and #grateful and can you imagine?

I’ve seen it in the frenetic energy of thousands of people across the city trying to rectify anything they can. Surely these efforts come from all the good places in our hearts; it is amazing to witness Houston in action right now. But having worked in fundraising for years, I am no stranger to benevolent efforts. Psychologically, it makes you feel good to do good. It just makes you feel better to make others feel better.

They say it will take months, maybe years, for the city to return to normal. Maybe by then when someone asks how we are doing we can say fine. And really be fine.

Abby Koenig is professor of Communication Studies at University of Houston-Downtown, writer of the kids interactive theater show Garbage Island @recroomhtx, and a mediocre mom with a podcast @handsoffparents.

You can also follow her at http://www.abbyk.info/ or at https://medium.com/@abby.koenig, where this column first appeared.