It’s January 2017. Just after New Year. Thursday the 5th. Last year, Thursday was the 7th and on that night, around 1020 p.m., we had to escape as the river deluge hit the bridge and a wall of water entered our home. Right now, I’m scared. And telling myself that when we wake tomorrow and the river is still (as it is as I type) peaceful in its bed, I will feel fine. But a voice in my head is telling me ‘no – it is only when you wake on Sunday (the 8th this year) that you will believe it has not happened again – and be able to relax’.
I know, of course, that the river is no more – or less – likely to burst its banks on the same day each year than at any other time. I know that the combination of circumstances that came together so dramatically last year are unlikely to occur again. I know that the flood barrier has been repaired and strengthened. But what I know is not what controls how I feel.
I feel scared. I feel vulnerable. I feel that I couldn’t cope if it were to happen all over again.
And I’m sharing this reflection, Raindrops on the skylight, that I wrote last year, because of the effect of the flood on my mental health. I want the people who say that climate change is not happening, or that flood defences are too costly to understand the anxiety and distress that is felt.
I wasn’t ill; but neither did I feel well. My mental health was affected by something outside of my control. And my thoughts and feelings are still affected by it.
If you continue reading this article, you will see how much help I received; how much support I needed, and was given. I felt – and continue to feel – vulnerable. But that has not been all bad; indeed I will say that the experience of relying on others and of feeling vulnerable has been good. I have learned and grown because of what happened. What I went through, and continue to feel the effects of, has helped me to discover in my daily life what my faith had already taught me: that us humans were created to need others – to be inter-dependent with one another and dependent on God.
Within this week’s fear, therefore, I feel both vulnerable and well. Mentally well. Because I have learned that feeling vulnerable is ok – that needing support is ok – that asking for help is ok. It’s ok for me to ask you for help. And ok too for others to ask for my help.
In my vulnerability, I feel more able than before to be alongside others in their vulnerability. More ready to be patient, to listen, to try to understand. Realising more clearly that helping one another towards well-being is not about ‘the well helping the ill’ or ‘the strong helping the weak’. (I understood this in theory, but now know in my heart and mind how true it is). The journey to well-being is about each of us, within our own experience of wellness or illness, recognising our own vulnerability, seeking the help we need when we need it, and doing what we can to help each other when they need us.
Raindrops on the skylight
In bed. Cosy. Warm. Dry. Listening to raindrops on the skylight. Content. Safe. Enjoying listening to the wildness in the security of home.
Not anymore! Panic! Heart-beat too fast. Pulse racing. Lying in bed afraid of the sound of raindrops on the skylight. ‘Calm down’, I tell myself. ‘It’s okay. The worst is past. Try to relax’. As I try to convince myself that there is no need to worry, the sound suddenly stops - too fast. Like someone has switched off the rain. And I realise that someone has. Not rain after all, but the sound of a late-night shower has caused me to wake – terrified again. As I re-live and re-live again that terrifying moment.
Water close. Too close. Again. Like Monday. Almost in the road in front of our house. Almost: but not quite. And on Monday, there was the reassuring presence of the police. Checking. Every half hour. ‘Still okay. Try to sleep’. And now, it is Thursday. The water is back: just as close. But no police. Because they know it’s safe? Or because they’re needed elsewhere? No way of knowing. Try to sleep. Tomorrow the worst may be past. Tomorrow – this will feel like a dream. Or a nightmare.
Can’t sleep. Look outside. Oh no! What’s happening!? A huge wall of water hurling across the car park. ‘Quick! Get up! We’ve got to get out. Now!!’
Down the stairs and open the door. Cold water hits me on the thighs. ‘Let’s go. Hurry!’ The door resists closing – water pressing hard against it. Eventually I pull it closed. Lock it. Start walking. Wading. Freezing water. At the end of the street, neighbours shout. ‘Keep walking. Steady. Climb inside. Hurry.’ We’re in the back of a pick-up truck. Shivering. Wondering ‘what now?’ Taken to friends who’d said ‘come if you need to’.
‘We need to’, we say, shaking and shivering on their doorstep. Hot shower. Dry clothes. Bed. Heart pounding. Pulse racing. Is this real? Did it happen? What now? Whatever do we do – now?
Sleepless night: almost sleepless. Want to get up – do something. But what? What can be done? Want to stay in bed: hide for ever. Can’t face this. How to go on?
We’ll need some clothes. Toothbrush. Anything else? – can’t think. Back to the house (will it ever feel like home again?). But stopped by a fireman – keeping watch. ‘Sorry. Not safe to go in yet. Come back later…..’.
…. Later. Weeds and mud cling to the walls; the door; the garage. Was the water really that high? Gone now from the garden; until we look round the back. Cannot go into back garden: water would still come over wellies. Inside to look. Disbelief. ‘That was in the kitchen’, I think, as I look at debris on the sitting-room floor. ‘How did it get there?’ Dirty marks indicate clearly that water had flowed over the window-sills. Further exploration reveals sodden napkins, floating beakers, fridge full of smelly, muddy river.
The river I love to walk beside – or is that now ‘loved’? Will I ever enjoy its beauty again? Watch out again for its wildlife? Dippers. Goldeneyes. Goosanders. Not their fault. They’ll be suffering too – forced to leave the nooks and crannies where they found safety before.
What to do? What to do?! I can’t think!! What to think? Insurance; clean up; find accommodation. How? Where? Who can help?
Rescue. At ‘The Legion’ [The British Legion hall]. People who care. Understanding. Trying to understand….the confusion, the pain, the uncertainty: the terrible darkness of what lies ahead. Boxes. Bottled water. Cloths. Tea – a cup of tea. Sit down. And – oh, the relief – to talk and talk. What to do? ‘We’re here to help’. And they do. Listen. Make phone calls. Listen again.
And, all the while, our friends’ home is ours. ‘Hear this’, I’m told. ‘You’re here. No questions asked. You’re here. Until temporary accommodation is found’. Oasis. Calm. Warmth. Food. Acceptance. Without these – could we have carried on?
And then, confusion. Go to library. Read email - circulated round dozens of people. Telling of our plight. Asking that readers send cards. Why?! I don’t want this. I didn’t ask for this. Didn’t give permission: wouldn’t have given permission. Anger. Just who was this supposed to help? Not me. The sender? With a need to ‘do something’. Please don’t. I try to be polite – and grateful – in my response. I could really do without this.
Now what? Insurers. Visits. Who does what? When? How? Will they come? Who to phone? What will happen? When? Days of anxiety. Sleepless nights. Hours of uncertainty.
Everyone helpful. Very helpful. Patient; understanding; compassionate. And yet…..we remain anxious, uncertain.
New home. Temporary. Safe. Warm. Furnished. And – best of all – so close to all our friends and all our usual activities. Thank you. Thank you. How can we ever say ‘thank you’ enough? Yet – strange; unfamiliar; confusing amongst our existing confusion.
Close to home (will it ever really feel like home again?). So strange to see it so dark; with skips outside. Sad. But – with familiar people around us and familiar routines possible – so good. Will the familiar be possible again? In theory – yes. But not yet in reality. Shaking. Aching. Hungry when I don’t eat: feel sick when I do. How long will this go on? How long can I cope?
And yet…and yet….Praise be to God! We have a new ‘home’. We have friends who care. Who listen. Who try to understand.
Lying awake – ‘is that more rain?’ – I tell myself how fortunate I am. Rain it may be: bullets it is not. Morning will come; and when I open the front door, I will see snowdrops – tiny bells of white by our new front gate. The robin may be back. No gunmen. Or soldiers. No threats. No need to be afraid. Not now.
But – for so many in the world, the fear goes on. And on. Lying awake to the sound of gunfire. Huddled in a cupboard as another family member is taken away. To who knows where or what. Enduring days, weeks, months, even years of terror. Escape to where? How? Who will help? Nobody?
Here. For me. Terror: but also – compassion.
The worst is over. The dreaded happened. What now? What next? It’s time to settle in our temporary home. Meet neighbours. Get on with life. As usual. Normal. What is ‘normal’? Our ‘back to normal; ’ or the normality of those unaffected by the flooding? Who do I relate to? Those who share the terror: who talk of what happened; how they escaped; how they’re coping – or not coping? Or those outside that experience: strangers to the terror?
To both – of course. We need each other. Support when it happened: support as life goes on. But we need normality too – time spent with people who don’t even know what we’ve been through, let alone have any idea what it felt like – or feels like, now.
Almost relaxing. At last! Almost – but not quite. Uncertainty. Guilt. ‘Is it okay not to be worrying?’ ‘Relax’, I tell myself. But it’s hard to switch off; to wind down. Panic mode is alive and well!!
Then – into the calm (the ‘sort of calm’) comes a minor hiccough. Minor!?!? Back in ‘normal’ it is maybe ‘minor’: but not now. My laptop’s ‘died’. Plug in. Switch on. Nothing. Panic!! How to communicate!? What to do?! Oh no – all the dreaded feelings wash over me again. How will I cope? Is this the famous ‘last straw’?
Mustn’t let it be. [‘Be bold; be strong; for the Lord your God is with you’. Yes indeed; but - oh help - it doesn’t feel like that]. Repair shop is close by. It may be fixable. Or maybe not. A friend can lend her old one. So: what’s my problem? The problem is – another problem. When is ‘too much’ too much?
Again – I think of those in faraway places. Far from home. From family. From compassion. For how long? How much longer? How much can any human endure?
And then, this evening: meeting of our street. To plan. What now? What is needed? To prevent more floods. How high should the barrier be? When will the bank be rebuilt? Experts among us: builders, surveyors who know and understand what is required. Ready to help. Support. Without these – we are lost and alone.
But later. Later in the darkest hours, when sleep evades….memories come flooding back. That wave. The wet. The cold. The fear.
And it all begins again. In my mind. Raindrops on the skylight. Will the terror ever end?
Postscript: January 2017
“Will the terror ever end?” is what I asked, almost a year ago. Will it? Has it? My answer now: “yes – and no”. Terror without help and support can only remain as terror. Terror with support – with caring support and understanding – that terror recedes. Because others care. Others are there. I need them – that’s ok. And I hope that when they need me – I will be there for them. And God is with me: with all people. Not preventing the terror, but helping us to live through it, whatever that terror might be. Praise be to God on whom the whole world depends.