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Coping with Post-Harvey Trauma

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Experts say 50 percent of survivors will experience mental-health symptoms.

By Kim Hogstrom

For Angela and Ellen, a lesbian couple from South Houston, the mere memory of Tropical Storm Harvey is a nightmare.

“The water was scary as hell,” Angela says.

The couple, who asked that their surnames be withheld to protect their privacy, said floodwaters gushed down their street and knocked a large oak tree onto their house, taking out a chunk of the roof.

“Our house was drenched inside, and both our cars flooded,” Ellen says. “I was so disorientated. I lost my sense of time and day. We made it through mostly by watching Houstonians in dire situations on the news. The memory is a nightmare—literally.”

Angela says that after the storm, every time she saw a flat-bottom boat being pulled behind a truck, or a loose dog, she began to cry.

“But the worst part is probably now—this feeling of being overwhelmed,” she says. “It’s like there’s a double dose of gravity dragging me to the Earth.”

What the two women are describing is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and experts say 50 percent of those who experience natural disasters will exhibit symptoms.

However, if you think PTSD is limited to those who lost property in the flood, think again. Almost every one of us lost something to Harvey.

The Healer

Legacy Community Health, with clinics throughout Houston and southeast Texas, has been serving the LGBTQ community since 2005. The agency accepts most insurance plans but will provide care for anyone, regardless of ability to pay.

Legacy had specialists in shelters at both the NRG Center and the George R. Brown Convention Center from day one—and the agency continues to provide help.

Dr. Chad Lemaire says mental-health symptoms typically surface in the first several months to one year after a disaster.

“Many of the people that we normally assist are either marginalized, have significant socioeconomic strain, or have limited psychosocial support. For some, all apply,” says Dr. Chad Lemaire, Legacy’s medical director of behavioral health. “These are the people who we are most concerned about, as far as recovering from the significant losses presented by Harvey.”

Lemaire cites a number of debilitating sinkholes associated with post-Harvey trauma, including depression, anxiety, hypervigilance, difficulty sleeping, risk for self-medicating and increased substance use, and fear. In the case of fear, it’s often associated with water or rain, and other reminders such as hearing a helicopter or seeing a boat. Harvey may be in the rearview mirror, but Lemaire suggests there could be more suffering to come. A cluster of symptoms can present in a delayed reaction to the event.

But there is hope.

“As people recover from Harvey, some will develop PTSD or depression,” he explains. “However, for the majority, the waves of grief and anxiety will go through stages and eventually get better. Symptoms usually peak in the first several months to one year, and the vast majority of the time, survivors get better.”

The Helper

Experts agree that the degree of exposure to a disaster is related to the risk of emotional problems. At highest risk are those who go through it themselves. Next are those who are in contact with victims.

One example from this second tier is Kris Banks, the former president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus who serves as mayor Sylvester Turner’s special assistant for government relations.

After Harvey, Banks served as the night manager at the George R. Brown Convention Center’s shelter, where he was responsible for 10,000 men, women, and children.

Kris Banks, who works in the Houston mayor’s office, says he felt “overwhelmed” after serving as night manager of the Harvey shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

In a recent Facebook post, Banks wrote that his most memorable moment came during a 3 a.m. walk-through, when he spotted a 5-year-old boy in a vacant corridor outside the dorms. “He was frantically tugging on the door handles to get back in,” Banks wrote. “He was small for his age, and wearing shorts that were too large. It is likely the boy came into the shelter wet and was assigned the ill-fitting attire.”

When Banks asked whether the boy needed help, he shook his head no without making eye contact. “Do you want me to walk you back to your cot so you can find it?” Banks asked. “The child nodded yes. As we proceeded, I noticed the front of his pants were wet and realized what happened: he woke up and had an accident. Old enough to be embarrassed, he panicked and ran through the first door he saw, not realizing he would get locked out and isolated from his sleeping family. ‘Do you want some new clothes?’”

The boy shook his head “no,” again without eye contact. Together, they made the long walk back to the child’s cot and family. Then Banks stopped, knelt down, and made sure the two were eye-to-eye. “Are you sure you don’t want some fresh clothes? I can get you some—it’s no big deal,” he said to the child. “We can bag up what you’re wearing and just put it in the laundry.”

The boy nodded yes. Then the two went through the clothing to find something that would fit. Banks stood outside the bathroom as the little boy cleaned up. “I keep thinking about that kid,” Banks reflects. “I think about how it must have felt to be displaced by a huge, life-threatening disaster, and then move into a cavernous shelter with 10,000 strangers. I think about what it must have been like to be isolated from his family in a strange, dark place in a state of shame.”

How is Banks feeling about Harvey today? Normally a decisive, eloquent man, he has difficulty answering. Finally, he responds.

“Overwhelmed,” he whispers.

The Human Toll

Christian was a 21-year-old junior attending the University of Houston and living with his family when Hurricane Harvey devastated their home. The water was waist-level when the family of five packed up and squeezed into a small house with an aunt, where they remain today. The repair of their home is under way, but completion is months down the road.

The young man, who identifies as gay but is closeted to his family, is putting himself through college by working as a barrista, and had been having a tough time prior to the
hurricane.

“I am really a private person,” says Christian, who asked that his surname be withheld. “I have experienced depression many times before, and I have always dealt with it myself.

“Being private has also helped me with dealing with my family,” he adds. “I have gotten very good at suppressing being a gay man. You get better at suppressing it with practice.”

Christian’s family is religious. He was considering coming out to them this fall, and he suspects that some of them would eventually accept him. However, his current circumstances do not portend a positive outcome. “It would not be a good idea at this point,” Christian states.

The student also acknowledges that his living situation, combined with the financial and intellectual stress presented by school, have acted in concert to produce a rogue wave of depression that consumes him. “I am doing what I always do when this happens: I am trying to get through it. I know where the dangers are. I know I must stay active, because I know it can catch you and pull you out of motion. It produces an inertia, and when that happens, it’s not easy to move forward again,” he explains.

“Maybe this time I will call Legacy or tell someone at school. Maybe I will reach out with a request,” Christian says. “Maybe this time, it’s a little bigger than I am.”

This article appears in the October 2017 edition of OutSmart Magazine. 

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John Wright

John Wright is the editor of OutSmart magazine. He has spent two decades in the mainstream and LGBTQ media. Most recently, he served as senior editor of Dallas Voice, and covered LGBTQ issues in the state Legislature for The Texas Observer. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Wright earned his bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Florida. He resides in the EaDo area of Houston, where he is currently remodeling a 1930s row house.
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