After the flood: Running on empty and why “So are things back to normal?” is not the right question

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He asks the question with a smile, as a casual opener before we move on to “real” issues, and is shocked and appalled when I burst into tears because, well—I don’t cry.

“Are things back to normal?” he says and immediately wishes he hadn’t said it, and doesn’t know where to go from there. And I’m shocked too—I don’t know where the hell those tears have come from, because I’m fine, we’re fine, everything’s just fine.

Except, of course, it’s not.

We had this flood in YYC and Southern Alberta back in June, you may remember (my flagship post about it was unLessons from the flood: We are amazing, and if you want facts, visit the evolving Wikipedia entry  or the Calgary’s Herald’s The Great Flood of 2013 page), that devastated my neighbourhood and so much of our city. An army of citizen volunteers turned out in the tens of thousands to respond to the crisis. It was amazing. It was euphoric. It had us walking on air and out of crisis mode in a couple of intense weeks.

People were asking a week, two weeks after the flood—as soon as the rivers receded, as soon as most of the debris that was our basements, our houses, our possessions, our lives, was taken off the streets and into the dumps—“Are things back to normal?”

And in late July, August, euphoric, proud, we could smile and say, “We’re out of crisis mode.” And maybe talk a little about insurance, and the Disaster Recovery Program, and plans for reconstruction. And laud our mayor’s leadership and bitch out the provincial government and, you know, do all those “normal” things.

I’m not sure when “normal” got harder to fake. Maybe in September, when we’d reconnect with people we hadn’t seen for a few months, and they’d say, “So—did you have a good summer?”

Funny—we are so socially programmed to be inoffensively happy and placating, the autoresponse to that question, which the mouth starts to form before the brain has a moment to reflect, is, “Yes. And you? That flood thing? A minor inconvenience. Moving on. Going to Disneyland!”

I did not have a great summer. We did not have a great summer. And things are not back to normal. What does that mean, anyway?

I look at him as if he can give me the answer, but of course he can’t. And he’s never seen me like this before, or under stress before, but he’s spend the summer ripping out friends’ basements, and they’re none of them quite “normal” right now either. But they’re not talking about it. “We’re fine, everything’s fine.” So what’s going on? What’s up with us, what’s tearing us up, as we move into month five after the flood?

I struggle to put it into words.

The obvious answer is that reconstruction is not going well. The rip-outs, it turns out, were the easy part. Putting things back… Well. We’re all at different stages. Sunnyhill’s probably further behind than many others because of our need to rehabilitate all 41 damaged units simultaneously. But I don’t know anyone who was affected who’s totally “done.” Most of us—all of Sunnyhill—have been back home for a long time. But we’re living in reduced, scarred spaces. An eternal mess. That’s hard. I know every time I walk in and out of my front door, every time I see the ripped door casings, the dismantled walls, the hole where my hall closet used to be, my jaw tightens.

So. That kind of sucks. But—really—I’ve been through renovations before. Who hasn’t? We are, I tell him, the mildly inconvenienced. We know this. Bitching and complaining about naked joists, drywall dust and “what the hell did the contractors do now?” seems like such a First World Whine. And that’s the other thing.

We feel bad—guilty—over feeling bad. Because. India. Colorado. Fuck, High River.

That sure doesn’t help.

He refills my glass. He tells me about his friend, whose house is fine but whose rental property was devastated, and how guilty she feels that her own personal loss wasn’t greater. That she was, ultimately, only financially inconvenienced, while her tenants lost—everything.

Stupid, I say.

Human, he counters.

I start crying again. He gives me his napkin to wipe away tears, snot. I hide my face.

We’re exhausted, I say when I can talk again. I’m the mother of three young children who all went through severe insomniac stages—and I’ve never been this physically exhausted. And it’s not from physical labour, the way it was during the crisis. We were entitled to be exhausted then, right? But now—others are doing the work (or getting paid to do work the results of which we’re not seeing, I snarl, and I laugh, and he does too, because that’s “normal” for me, much more normal than these uncontrolled tears). We’re just doing the everyday stuff—well, a little more, and so much of the everyday stuff is more difficult, but… Not entitled to complain. Not engaged in heavy physical labour. And, frankly, letting a lot of the everyday stuff go. Never did one thing to the flooded garden this year. Cleaning windows? Ha. I barely clean the kitchen. And my kids have never eaten so much take-out, ever. So what are we exhausted from?

Living? he says, gently.

I shake my head.

Frankly—I look at him through the wine glass, and it’s the refraction of light through liquid that blurs his features, not the water still swimming in my eyes—frankly, we’re exhausted from being so fucking positive and amazing. We know we pulled off a miracle. We were awesome. We were strong.

And now we’re really tired, and we’re done—except, of course, we’re not done.

Because things are not back to normal.

But tears aren’t swimming in my eyes anymore and I heave a sigh of relief.

Jesus, that felt good, I tell him. And then—I’m so sorry. We were supposed to talk about…

He interrupts me, waves my apology away. And he tells me—how he’s been struggling. Trying to figure out how to be a good friend to his floodster (we don’t do the victim thing in YYC, and survivor’s a rather dramatic term, don’t you think?) friends post-crisis, and feeling at a loss. And how he needed to hear this as much as I needed to tell it. And how he will never ask anyone in any of the affected Calgary neighbourhoods “Are things back to normal?” ever again.

We laugh. Order dessert. More wine.

In this moment, although things are not back to normal, I’m fine. We’re fine.

Or, at least—you know. Functional.


The writer engages in overt emotional manipulation, both to achieve a level of release and to communicate that which is hard to articulate. My family and friends won’t finish reading this post—they’ll be texting me in a panic before they get to the end of the first paragraph. Chill. Although things are definitely not back to normal—and for the love of any and all of the gods I don’t believe in, do not ask your flooded (or otherwise whacked by life’s events) friends and neighbours if things are back to normal, ok? Just don’t—life is unfolding as it must. And in my own beloved little corner of the flood plain, we are all doing what must be done. And—because we’re a community—we’re helping each other through it. (And possibly drinking too much wine, but. So be it.)

But if you’re on the hills and edges of the flood plains—if you’re on the edges of any life affected by a traumatic event—and you’re struggling to figure out how to help your friends who are clearly post-crisis but equally clearly not-ok, do this:

  • Listen. Don’t tell us how strong, wonderful, amazing, or lucky we are. Just listen. Let us feel bad, sad, frustrated, furious. Tired. We know we’re amazing. We kind of need permission to be… whiney.
  • Connect us to help. If you’re a local reader and you need to help a local floodster, a good starting point is the resource list provided by Alberta Health Services here. But babe, remember how I was telling you during the crisis to see the need and fill it, how saying “How can I help?” isn’t enough when people are in shock? Sending your friend the link or telephone number may not be enough. Walk the line between empathy and obnoxiousness as best as you can, but a “May I call and make an appointment for you?” is likely more helpful than “Here’s a link I thought you’d find helpful” email. For your hard-core entrepreneur friends who don’t want to do stress-relief acupuncture and roll their eyes at sacrocranial therapy etc. etc., the Canadian Federation of Independent Business has some hard-core resources—that include getting connected with counsellors if that’s what you need.
  • Recognize that we’re not as… full, or resilient as we used to be. And so—take less. In a way, take more—we’re not as patient or tolerant as we used to be either. Nor necessarily as rational. Deal with it. And, if you can, look for ways to fill us up. (Preferably not just with wine. Although that sometimes does do wonders.)
  • Invite yourself over. Our scarred houses are difficult to love right now. Sometimes, company is difficult to seek out. But isolation really sucks. Come on over.
  • Invite us over, or out. Our scarred houses are a little oppressive right now, but suck us in with all their demands. Get us out.

For my neighbours, who are awesome, and doing all the things. But who are also exhausted and running on empty, and need to have those feelings acknowledged and respected. (Especially my beloved L. So much love and appreciation for all that you’re doing.)

For my friends, who helped so much, and who are always trying to help. In the most creative, occasionally disturbing, ways. (Yeah, I’m talking about you. I’m not saying it didn’t work… but that was really weird. Still. Thank you.)

And, for myself. Cause I really needed to cry.


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Sat., Nov. 2nd P.S. You’re breaking my heart but also feeding my soul with what you’re sending to my in-box. Yes, you are free to share this piece wherever you think it needs to be heard. The private place to cry is Much love. J.

47 thoughts on “After the flood: Running on empty and why “So are things back to normal?” is not the right question

  1. Thank you for helping to clarify the “line between empathy and obnoxiousness”. People need to read this- we all ask the wrong questions sometimes. It’s nice to have people like you who possess the gift of a voice to shed light on what is happening, and give some pointers as to what words/actions are the most helpful. Beautiful insights.

    • I’m not sure that I clarified it. But I know many of the people who helped us the most, both during the crisis and during these last few mentally just-as-brutal weeks have occasionally crossed the line from empathy to obnoxiousness… and I’m glad they did. Maybe sometimes you have to?

  2. Bitch, cry, whine! You have every right to those feelings. For me, home is the center of my life, where I seek comfort, safety, security, solitude…everything. When it’s out of sorts, I’m out of sorts. I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now, and the amount of strength and energy it requires.
    Sending you virtual hugs and very real positive thoughts.

  3. It struck me as I read this how you could be talking about any hardship. Floods earthquakes, cancer, infertility, depression. It’s a tutorial on how to be empathetic, how to be compassionate, how to be a friend, a human. Thank you for putting it into such beautiful words.

  4. I’m glad you got to cry it out, my wonderful friend. It’s often those cries that catch us all WTF and completely off guard turn out to be the most needed ones. And we speak the same emotional language you and I. I felt I could understand every heart movement described there.

  5. Oh, gosh. Of COURSE it’s not “normal” there. You’re not far enough away from it yet, it’s not a dusty memory yet, it’s still too near, too real. And what the hell is “normal” anyway? A year from Superstorm Sandy here, two years from Hurricane Irene, the Halloween storm that shredded all the trees, plus we had odd human-chewing bugs all summer, the occasional very pissed-off coyote, some deer ate the few flowers that bloomed, first anniv of Newtown massacre coming up, dog’s got an odd wound that vet can’t quite figure out, and Mercury’s in effing retrograde AGAIN!. After awhile, it all looks and feels the same, in spite of the brain saying, “No, of course it’s not, what’s the matter with me, that I can’t get a grip, can’t locate perspective, can’t can’t can’t…” Crying (and wine, and takeout) is what we do to keep from punching the ones we love. Or the ones who inadvertently steer their grocery carts into our achilles tendons (or into our car doors in the parking lot). Of course you’re exhausted. Otherwise, you’d be an interplanetary alien…in which case EVERYTHING could be blamed on you. Re: your pee/coffee cup post. Um, no, thanks, I’ll bring my own vodka if I visit. And cake. You need cake. And a nap. Maybe two. And a long hot bath w/out Short NonAdults knocking on the door. Herein sending cybercake, cybernaps, cyberpeace in the cybertub.

  6. I’m still sitting here among the stacks and stacks of rubbermaids, wondering where everything is, cursing when I can’t find it because all of them look the same and I forget which one I’ve looked in and have to do it again. I have to walk sideways through my house to manoeuvre from one spot to the next. Sometimes I look in a rubber maid bin to discover it was packed with wet flood stuff and everything is nice and mouldy. I wear the same clothes over and over and sometimes I just sit in all the mess unable to function and I’m a highly functionally gal. I didn’t get to the garden this year, my kitchen is sinking, my windows are dirty too. I’m even tired of drinking wine … this is so not over.

    • Oh, Julie. I have boxes of semi-salvaged papers… Who am I kidding, ruined, ruined papers. 20 years worth of manuscripts, letters, journals. Stuck together, washed blank. I can’t even look at them. Except, of course, I have to, every time I’m in my living room because there is no place to hide them. I promised another floodie I would deal with them… Next June. On the anniversary of the flood.

  7. Oh babe….
    I think that people are ignorant to the fact that just because it’s not on the news anymore, that everything is all ok.
    You have every single right to feel like shit. Do not compare yourself to other world tragedies because your situation might be shitter to them. I hope that makes some sense. What happened to you sucks beyond sucks and I am so proud of you for speaking openly about the pain that was left behind and is still present. People need to hear this. xoxoxo

  8. I remember feeling exhausted … our town had a fire, not a flood (I think floods are much worse) that wiped out homes and jobs and mountains full of trees. Afterwards everyone was trying so hard to be gentle with each other, trying so hard not to complain because no matter what you lost to that fire you knew someone else had lost more. What we forgot was that we were allowed to … no, needed to … grieve our own loss without apologizing for it. It wasn’t until more than a year later that I sat down and cried, sobbed, wailed in the middle of my living room floor. No one will understand what you’re going through unless they, too, have shovelled muck out of their basement or tried to salvage kids’ report cards by hanging them on a clothesline. Exhaustion is totally understandable. Crying is healthy. Being gentle with each other is a wonderful thing, but be gentle with yourselves too.

  9. Thank you for this heartfelt and honest description of what it is like to be a victim of a flood. I live in High River and you have touched on every emotion. Thank you-it is comforting to know that there are others who feel the same. xxx

  10. I am one of the unaffected hill-dwellers. I have been witness to the ravaged Mordor known as High River. The catholic elementary children are still in the community centre and teachers are burning out from being on duty constantly, though the water has receded. I cannot understand your struggles, yet thank you for this post. I will share it and possibly help illuminate for us, the Unaffected.
    I may not have known flood damage, but I understand pain, exhaustion, struggle, being overwhelmed and days where existance is work. Shalom and just because, God bless.

  11. I’m so glad to have read this. You are brilliant and amazing and I’m glad that you cried because you needed it and we all needed to hear that “is everything back to normal?” is not okay. We get that a lot here…as if my son will just magically “catch up” one day…and there are days when I warrior on and days when I need to cry. I adore you. And? You should write an Our Land post. If you want. 😉 xo

    • One day soon, I promise I will, my beautiful friend. And what the fuck is normal anyway? We got news today that the Red Cross is coming next week to see how we’re all doing. Crazy humbling, that, you know?

  12. Made me cry – in a good way. I am a resident of High River and caught your post through Facebook. Thank you for articulating what many are feeling. Although my home was damaged, I am home, and realize that I am lucky to be here. But your observation is correct; it’s not the same. I don’t know that I would ever have described my life as “normal”. I have a husband who works shift work in emergency services, two children who are 12 years apart in age (because I’m nuts), a full time job, a home based business, and care for my elderly mother and Downs sister (their home flooded worse than mine).

    What has struck me as most difficult is the endless chaos and constant guilt. It makes us do and say strange things. I have found myself alternating between reaching a point where “I’m done” and taking on yet another thing because “I’m luckier than most”.

    In the morning, I go to wake my children whose bedroom doors are partially blocked by a mattress and boxspring. I am frustrated until I remember that it’s there because we were able to get a good deal on a new one, so the guilt sets in. I check on the cat we’ve adopted (because I need another living thing to look after) who likes to hang out in the torn-out-to-the-studs, once-beautiful walk out basement. I am overwhelmed by the lack of progress until my conscience reminds me that I have a basement I am able to salvage, someday. I leave by walking past the dining room full of salvaged items. There aren’t that many things left, but it’s enough to make me apologise to everyone who comes thought the front door, like I’m the only one whose home looks like this.

    I then get into my car to drive to work. It’s a new car, since mine, like many, was lost to the water. It looks like I live in it, which makes me no different from any other mom on the planet, but I feel awful that I’m not able to keep this new vehicle looking pristine. More guilt.

    Then I drop my child off at “school”, which is held in our community centre. Classes are in temporary accommodations, and blended with different grades. She doesn’t notice the chaos, but every time I walk in I note that it still smells of mould, and worry that I could be exposing her to some toxins that have yet to be identified, some new strain of bacteria or virus that was brewed up in the stew of fecal matter, fuel, dirt, and generations of possessions. No guilt there, eh?

    Then there are the insurance claims. I’m into double digits when you combine the flood damage with the hail (a.k.a. “brimstone”), since my mother isn’t able to handle her own claims (the flood acted as a catalyst for her until then undiagnosed dementia). I lament often, but then feel guilty because at least I have coverage and should come out all right in the end. Some people are waiting on DRP.

    I am sorry to rant; I even feel guilty sharing this, since we have been so lucky. But I’m tired. I miss feeling whole. I miss being able to give my kids a weekend at home where we sleep in instead of organizing the boxes in the garage. I want to have Sunday dinner in my dining room. “Normal” stuff. And no one seems to get it, even those who live here. We’re all tired of hearing the stories. We’re tired of comparing insurance companies. We have no patience for everyone else’s chaos. Which makes the guilt sets in…

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