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I took a First Aid and CPR class last fall.  It was a good class, better than the half a dozen or more that I’ve taken over the years.  My advisor told me the class was required for graduation.  It turned out it wasn’t, but I’m still really glad I took it.  My certification had expired in April, so, for personal reasons, it wasn’t a waste of time or money.

The instructor highly recommended following it up with a Disaster Preparedness class he taught at the other campus over forty miles away.  That wasn’t doable for me, but it piqued my interest.  It was something I’d love to be able to do.  So, when I found out the University of Pittsburgh offers an online Disaster Preparedness course, I jumped on it!

I’ve honestly had a hard time focusing on the specifics of disaster preparedness though.  I keep correlating it all to divorce involving domestic violence.  And, it correlates perfectly!

The four phases of disaster preparedness are Mitigation (Planning), Response, Recovery, and Mitigation.  It reminded me of the process of extricating my abuser from my life.

The Mitigation process required getting involved with the local domestic violence support group.  I was trying to follow the rest of the recommended steps:  getting out of debt, finding work, making copies of important documents.  However, my health crisis ran up debt and made work impossible.  Unfortunately, or fortunately, my abuser left before my mitigation phase could be accomplished.  He, on the other hand, had completed his.  He had a private bank account loaded with money.  Bills were all in my name.  He’d stolen all of my passwords and our social security numbers over the course of several months before he left.  He had secured a place to live and people to help him in his attack.  He had legal papers ready.

Then, BOOM!  Disaster struck!

The instructor of this course defines disaster as an event that overwhelms all available resources.  By its very definition, my divorce was a disaster.  It overwhelmed all of my available resources.

The second phase is Response.  The goal of this phase is to “survive disaster as best as possible, to save life, limb, and property.”  And, that is certainly all I could try to do for two years:  survive as best as possible.

A lot of people tried to “encourage” me to jump immediately to the third stage of Recovery.  Some even chastised me for being seemingly unable to deal with or cope “appropriately.”  They falsely believed that the best thing for me to do was ignore the Response phase that had been thrust upon me and just start trying to Recover.  I knew though that was absolutely impossible.  This course teaches that it is impossible.  There is a very clear and specific path, and phases cannot be jumped or skipped.  It just doesn’t work that way.  You must clear the rubble before you can rebuild.

One of the Powerpoint slides gives the heading “Recovery.”  It then states, “The long slow process of returning to Normal?”  It also lists the five needs to be addressed following the disaster:

  1. Housing
  2. Services (Clean up)
  3. Financial Aid
  4. Businesses
  5. Physical and psychological help (Decompressing)

Following my disaster, I needed to know if I could continue living in my current home.  Or, I needed to find another place to live.  I’m grateful that I’ve been able to stay here and didn’t end up homeless, but my housing is HIGHLY inadequate and substandard.  Truly, it is still an issue that needs addressed.

The clean up stage of the second phase was protracted for me because of my abuser’s insistence on keeping us embroiled in a court battle.  We also received poor counseling.  Some counseling was so bad that it set us back.  Some damaged my children, and we are still suffering those consequences.  The services we received were not in line with the goal of preserving life, limb, and property.  We lost nearly all of our property at the cost of increased debt, and our lives were placed in greater jeopardy by uncaring court and counseling systems.

There were countless individuals who gave and gave and gave financial aid.  We were and are still blessed with some extremely generous people in our lives.  However, there were a few people in our lives who thought they could tell us what our needs were without taking an assessment of the situation.  There were some who disregarded us with comments like, “Aren’t there government programs to help people like you?”  Some kindly gave help that wasn’t really help.

This other group of people would be considered untrained.  A panel discussion in my class addressed the problem they’ve seen repeatedly throughout their careers in emergency response.  They noted that they have to ask groups not to send stuff that isn’t needed.  That only creates more problems.  Unasked for stuff goes to waste and creates more work.  Assistance needs to be organized and requested, and the group needs to do the work themselves.

There have been well-meaning people who’ve dropped off bags of clothes and toys to us for us to go through, mend, or “just throw out what you don’t need.”  When I was already overwhelmed and exhausted, the last thing I needed was more bags of stuff to go through.  I didn’t have the time or energy to sit down and sew torn clothing.  I didn’t have the time or the gas to donate what we couldn’t use (clothing for the wrong gender for instance) or the money to pay to have the garbage man haul away what they didn’t want to throw out themselves.  It only created more problems and more work.

Businesses being able to come back in, offer employment, and reestablish themselves in a community is the FOURTH stage.  This can be compared to finding gainful employment.  Many, many people thought that should have been my TOP priority following our disaster.  Honestly, I’m not a lazy person, but that just is not even possible immediately following a devastating event.

The final stage listed is physical and psychological decompression.  People have a need to decompress after a traumatic incident.  We humans need to talk to someone, perhaps everyone, about what we’ve just been through in order to process it, understand it ourselves, and cope.  We need to be heard, to be truly listened to.  We also need to be given the opportunity to physically decompress.  We need a break in time to rest and heal from the effects of the horrific stress we’ve just experienced.

Unfortunately, survivors of domestic violence don’t have such luxuries.  Frequently, we’re silenced by the courts.  My oldest daughter recently commented that she can see growth in me because I “no longer talk about the same things over and over.”  The reality is, people don’t want to hear us tell our stories.  They get tired of listening to us.  They incorrectly judge that we’re bitter, unforgiving, or not moving on.  No, we’re simply processing some horrific events that many people obviously can’t even begin to comprehend.  We’re verbally working through our trauma.  We also, most often, are left in poverty that typically isn’t seen in the Western world and, therefore, can’t just jet off to the islands for a little R&R.  We’re required to jump back into life with both feet and a weary body.

The question that pleads to be asked at this next point is:  What is the new normal?  My instructor states that we must ask ourselves some hard questions.  Can and should we rebuild?  What protections can be offered?  Who will pay for rebuilding?  Will we rebuild next time this occurs?  (Or, should we leave this particular area?)  How can we improve our plans to mitigate the effects of another event?

Each of us will answer those questions uniquely according to her own situation.  I’m not even sure I can honestly answer those questions yet for myself.  Taking this course has allowed me to see that I’m truly still in the Recovery stage.  I’m still trying to secure housing, pay off marital debt, determine a source of stable income, and find opportunities for decompression.  The most important thing I’m taking away from this class is that Recovery is a long, slow process.  It’s okay to give myself time to work through these phases and stages appropriately.  A sound recovery is the solid foundation upon which New Normal will be built.