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Survivor's Guilt, Harvey, and Where Houston Goes from Here

Nonprofits and churches need volunteers all across the Houston area.
Nonprofits and churches need volunteers all across the Houston area. Photo by Jack Gorman
If you didn’t lose something, if not everything, in Hurricane Harvey, then you know someone — or, more realistically, multiple someones — who did. Almost all of us spent at least one night frantically refreshing our social-media feeds for updates on how our loved ones were faring and opportunities to help out. As the recovery process began, more fortunate Texans experienced pangs of contrition. Why were they spared when others suffered so terribly? How can they spread their luck around? Survivor’s guilt.

Only they didn’t experience survivor’s guilt. Not literally, anyway. “Survivor’s guilt” as we use and think of it colloquially is a misnomer from a medical perspective.

Houston psychologist Robert D’Angelo, Ph.D., who works closely with trauma patients, notes that survivor’s guilt as a clinical diagnosis applies to people who have “directly witnessed” a life-threatening or fatal incident – automobile accidents, warfare, assault, and the like. However, individuals “somewhat removed from the life-threatening risks” via social media, word of mouth, only seeing the aftermath, etc. can still experience guilt, he says. Dr. D’Angelo considers these instances more akin to trauma not otherwise specified. The emotions felt aren’t invalidated or any less real as a result of the label switch, he stresses, but the greater intensity of survivor’s guilt requires a different set of treatment strategies.

Making these distinctions sounds like hair-splitting, but it’s still crucial to know. Using proper clinical terminology leads to better understanding of, and therefore compassion for, patients’ needs. It helps struggling individuals better analyze and articulate their emotions, then receive the personalized medical attention they need to heal. Dr. D’Angelo points to the popular dilution of “depression” as a synonym for “sad” and the subsequent stigmatizing as an example of the harm stemming from the term's misuse.

"Offering help can be as therapeutic as receiving it." — Houston-area psychologist Robert D'Angelo, Ph.D.

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Most people who suffer from what they mistake as survivor’s guilt already have a simple, healthy solution to process their pain available. Dr. D’Angelo shares some practical advice on how the lucky individuals and families who lost nothing in Harvey can help themselves and their communities at the same time:

“In these times, it can be helpful to offer assistance to those who need it," he says. "Offering help can be as therapeutic as receiving it. It's also useful to talk to others and to seek professional help for those who feel like their past experiences of trauma have been triggered.”

Wringing hands can’t serve as helping hands. Texans grappling with guilt over their good fortune need only seek out opportunities to contribute what they can, when they can, with what they have. Volunteering, donating money, even brewing a mug of coffee for a friend in need – all of these move the relief and recovery process along. All of these actions, and more, are needed.

Karen (name changed by request), discusses how her guilt manifests as fear of impending damages, as if another storm will sneak back in to claim its bounty on her. This is common. This is normal.

“There's still the uncertainty of wondering if there's still something bad to come," she says. "I don't feel safe in my apartment at night, I feel uneasy leaving my place during the day. Like I don't deserve to be okay when so many others have suffered and still are suffering.”

Her preferred method of coping mirrors Dr. D’Angelo’s guidance on how to handle these situations.

“I'm usually the person who leads fund drives, organizes clean-up crews and recovery efforts," says Karen. "This time my partner's living situation was directly affected and I found myself laser focused on that. I had about 30 saved links in Facebook alone about how to help other people. I felt overwhelmed.”

For her, finding the proper pace is pivotal when mitigating her guilt and ensuring she doesn’t spread herself or her resources too thin.

“I finally had to accept that right now, I can't help everyone a little, but I can help a few people a lot. In addition to helping my partner, I came upon someone who had an immediate need special-needs apartment situation; I stopped right then and passed along information I had received during our search and put them in touch with apartment locators and leasing agents we had met along the way,” she says. “I connected a museum-curator friend with someone unsure about how to preserve paintings.”

All of Karen’s actions aided in healing coastal Texas following Harvey, but they also provided her with the perspective and peace of mind needed to address her guilt directly.

Ashley D’Annunzio expresses similar sentiments. The owner of Best Nest Portraits evacuated her new apartment complex after the common areas began flooding with ankle-deep water, whisking her boyfriend and pets off to her grandparents’ house on higher ground.

“I left having no idea what I would come home to, much as many others in the city and surrounding areas have done,” she says.

“Some of the guilt I am experiencing stems from that, from sitting in a nice warm house with a full belly and the ability to watch the news, and yet still fearing for my personal possessions. I was watching people be airlifted out of their homes in baskets, or rescued via boat and I was so worried about my stuff,” she continues.

“I was already hearing about people who had driven into deep waters and had been rushed away by the invisible current and yet all I could think about was my childhood photos, all of the gear and supplies I have built up for my portrait business, my Shakespeare collection, my comics," says D'Annunzio. "I felt like such an awful person. How could I be hyper-focused on my own problems when I didn't even know for sure if I had suffered any loss?”

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The floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey unleashed more than just mayhem. They also allowed millions of gallons of untreated sewage to flow unmitigated.
Photo by Jack Gorman
D'Annunzio found out days later that her apartment itself went undamaged. However, she was unable to continue living in it, as her complex retained water following the release of the Barker and Addicks reservoirs. She describes the anxiety of toggling between the frustration of displacement and the gratitude of safety.

“I sometimes feel like a toddler just wanting to scream, ‘I WANT TO GO HOME!’ And then the guilt creeps back in to quiet me… How dare I feel anything but grateful to my grandparents who have opened their home to me unconditionally in this time of need?,” she says.

A close relationship with her grandmother serves as a compassionate outlet for her to parse through these complicated emotions. Like Karen, D’Annunzio found healing in the win-win situation of harnessing her privileged position for the greater good.

She says, “When I discovered that I was going to make it out of this okay, I began looking for ways to give back. I have donated to a couple of charities, like the one manned by J.J.Watt.”

However, maintaining a balanced life is crucial to the healing process. Running ragged while fueled by guilt only leads to exhaustion and burnout, neither of which accomplish much of anything in the way of rebuilding. D’Annunzio sought opportunities to merge her desire to help with her need to get out, set aside the negativity for a while, and feel normal again.

“A local video game store, Insomnia, also has a gallery where they host art shows. This past weekend, my boyfriend and I took a little break from the realities of our situation and had ourselves a date night,” she says. The show also donated the evening's proceeds to the Houston Humane Society, so D’Annunzio and her partner were able to enjoy a relaxing time together while also supporting a great cause.

Refrains like “self care is important!” all too often ring cliché and reductive, but in the wake of Harvey, the platitude carries considerable worth.

Sam Houston State University GIS Analyst Travis Miller, who volunteers with Montgomery County Search and Rescue, agrees. He notes that his viewpoints are not necessarily shared by either his employer or the organizations he supports; he only speaks on his own behalf.

Having spent so much of Harvey taking part in strenuous, dangerous search-and-rescue missions, Miller felt comforted by the returns to routine shared by peers.

“If someone wants to help during any disaster but can’t, I don’t see the upside of shaming them." Travis Miller, Montgomery County Search and Rescue volunteer

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“I found relief in other people’s normalcy on social media. I realize that everyone’s wired differently and that for others this might actually have worsened things; I respect that,” he says.

“For me personally, though, seeing someone in Canada’s awesome hiking photos or a friend in Austin’s lunch photos felt like peering into a window where everything was okay. It helped reinforce the idea that I’m not alone in recovering.”

What he doesn’t appreciate, however, is when people turn the efforts of himself and his teammates into a reason to humiliate others for not participating enough in relief and recovery efforts.

“If someone wants to help during any disaster but can’t, I don’t see the upside of shaming them," Miller says. "It doesn’t help victims out, it diverts public discourse from areas where it might be much more effective in terms of assistance, and it just introduces more anxiety into an already anxious populace. In addition to these negative impacts, needless shaming also reinforces existing feelings of… guilt and can help create it where there wasn’t any before.”

The solution? “Draw[ing] attention to the plight of those who might not have a voice instead of trying to invalidate the voices of others. That seems like a much better use of time and energy than shaming,” Miller advises.

A sense of proportion keeps individuals fighting their guilt regain their focus and move forward. Miller pointed out that the volunteers who sign workers in and out of missions maintain the order and organization needed to save lives; they may not pull anyone out of the water, but those rescues would not have taken place without their actions all the same.

“Every effort helps. Recognizing that, and then making an inventory of those efforts has helped me,” he says.

And these efforts don’t have to be big sweeping displays worthy of news clips and viral videos. Miller lauds “simply assuring others that you’re there for them, or even that you’re okay yourself” as treasured facets of piecing communities back together following a catastrophe. If accessible, investing in a trained therapist or counselor nurtures healthy coping skills, making you a stronger support for the loved ones who need you.

Harvey will remain a specter looming over Houston for years to come. But it’s also important to remember that an inability to donate or volunteer now won’t necessarily indicate an inability to donate or volunteer later. If you still require some time to work through your guilt, there will be plenty of need for you in the future.

Karen plans to donate blood more regularly, particularly during times when it’s “harder to come by.”

She says, “A lot of people are donating right now, but these stores are going to expire in two months. I plan to give in about two weeks, therefore expiration dates will be staggered.”

Not everyone can donate blood, of course, but her example serves as a reminder that you needn’t fling yourself headfirst into helping the community if you aren’t able to work past the guilt yet. Start small. Tell people you love them and slowly explore more involved options from there. What you do is still appreciated.
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