Wednesday, May 17, 2017
Just Keep Swimming
“Attention, you have 15 great white sharks near you. Please calmly exit the water.” This was the alert from the Officials in Orange County, CA to a group of beachgoers – see full article here. Thanks for the heads up, but CALMLY exit the water? But the reality is that when in crisis, in the middle of trauma, in the midst of danger, we are advised to “stay calm.” Why? And what does that even mean? Our hearts are pounding. We are scared. We are possibly hurting. We feel crazy. We think we might die. How are we supposed to stay calm? But somehow we do.
This specific kind of thing may not have ever happened to you. But we have all been surrounded by “sharks” at some point – in the middle of danger, fear, crisis, hurt, pain, and uncertainty. And we panic – naturally. How do I get out of this? Where do I go? How will I survive this?
Last Saturday night my husband and I drove past a truck in a ditch – horn honking and lights flashing. It was obvious the accident had just happened. I yelled to Todd to pull over. And I ran to meet a young boy stumbling out of the truck. I asked if he was okay, and he was crying and obviously drunk. He begged me to stay with him until more help came. I did. Through his beer breath he told me how mad his mom would be, how much trouble he would be in, how sorry he was. He was surrounded by his “sharks.” I asked him to take deep breaths, tell the truth, and keep taking the right next step. I said, “We’ve got to get you to safety first, and the rest will be figured out later.” Police showed up, but I held his hand until his mom came. When we are in trauma, we need the nearness of others. And when his mom arrived, after holding her son, she buried her tearful face on my chest. Her sharks were circling too. I told her she was a good mom, doing a great job, and she would get through this – that more would be revealed. And then I cried too.
Many of my favorite writers and bloggers advise not to write about things you are still processing. We take huge risks to put our mess out there in public when there’s so much debris still flying around from our shit storm. Until the debris has landed and we sift through what is trash to dispose and what is a treasure to repair, we keep the work of the trauma and its aftermath safely close to us and with the people we love. We stay “calm.” We calmly exit the water and turn to our safe people and ask "What the F just happened?” And then we get still and rest for a minute…or the next year or 2. I recently experienced my own shark story. It feels like they are still circling. But I am calmly getting out of the water. That’s the piece I can write about right now.
I started writing a step by step process for “calmly exiting the water.” I am now laughing my butt off, because that’s impossible. We are not going through a checklist as we get out of shark-infested waters. We are just getting the heck out of there. The beauty of our human nature is that we do inherently know what to do in crisis. Even though we go through fight, flight, or freeze, we instinctively do what feels natural to survive. “Getting calmly and safely to shore” for me has been breathing, asking for help, and to keep swimming. Remember good old Dori from Finding Nemo? “Just keep swimming” means I breathe, go to bed, breathe, wake up, breathe, drink coffee, breathe, drink water, breathe, eat, breathe, pray, breathe, connect with a safe friend, and breathe. I keep my vision on the shore as I swim – the place where I feel safe from the sharks – and trust its provision for me there. Decisions do not have to be made right now. I’m not swimming to shore thinking about all the next steps once I reach safety. I’m just getting to shore. And after all that swimming, I need rest.
People who have been through trauma are often asked, “How did you know when you were going to be okay?” The answer to this question is most likely their place of hope and resilience. It’s their “shore.” They have landed safely away from the sharks. And as they reflect on the pain and fear, they can also remember what it was like to land safely – their bodies and hearts lying tired and broken on comforting ground. At some of my hardest places during crisis when I was crying and “swimming,” I remember seeing a beautiful Iris that had just bloomed open in the middle of weeds. I saw a female Cardinal gathering twigs. I opened my puffy eyes to the sunshine outside my window now warming my tears. I got a million messages from people I love offering comfort, love and encouragement. All these places are my shore. So now I lay here and just rest in their comfort until next steps are clearer. That is enough right now. Just keep swimming with your eyes on the shore, and then rest your weary souls there.