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  • Writer's picturepamradtkerussell

I am Not Weak, I am Human: Being Emotional in the Aftermath of Hurricane Ida


For years the adjective was my badge of honor. It was my answer to the interview question: “Why should we hire you?”

Because ice runs in my veins. Because I can hear the code for a shooting over the police scanner and order reporters to rush to the scene. Because I can read the raw story about that drive-by shooting without wincing at mention of a grieving family. And then, I can take that story, craft it into something readable and get it to the copy desk in under an hour.

And, because after my mom died in 2005, at age 62, of course, I cried. But six weeks later, the levees failed after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and I left my 18-month-old child with grandparents and went to Baton Rouge to help put out The New Orleans Times-Picayune, because that’s what you fucking do.

As some of my colleagues were breaking down, I didn’t get it. Just move on, solider through, buck up, we had a job to do.

Three years later, my then 4 -year-old was diagnosed with cancer. After a dazed day at the hospital hearing the words “your child has a mass on her kidney,” I got on the computer and started trying to figure it out. And we eventually did (with the help of doctors and friends of course. By the way, September is Pediatric Cancer Awareness month).

I pretty much stopped crying that year. One of the few times I cried in the following 15 years or so years was in church as the music overwhelmed me and I sobbed so hard, my family was worried, and a woman leaned over and said “I don’t know what you’re going through, but I’ll pray for you.”

I had spent years and years putting “doing” ahead of feeling and just being. Not only was I “fine” through it all, I was a woman and a mother and a wife, and so I smiled and said thank you for the honor of doing it, and by the way, here are some fresh chocolate chip cookies I just baked. Anything less is weakness. It’s failure.

But just after I turned 50, I began becoming aware of how this mechanical, robotic drive to continue to “do” at the expense of everything else had left me well —not quite unhappy because I had no time to indulge in unhappiness —but simply numb.

Through therapy, meditation and friendships, I started to unpack the feelings I had been pushing down for decades.

My numbness, I discovered, was anger, covered by sadness, with a mix of shame, loneliness, unworthiness, and a heavy dose of resentment. But also in that mix were feelings of joy and love and beauty I had also pushed down.

And then two weeks ago, Hurricane Ida was headed to Louisiana and I evacuated with my daughters and my estranged husband to his friends' house and then his parents in Alabama.

In the midst of this, unable to stomach the thought someone else would be writing about my city —especially about the electric grid, which I have been writing about for 15 years — I jumped in, reported and wrote, and organized and compiled coverage on Monday and then again on Tuesday.

I spent from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. following what was happening and then woke up and did it again the next day, all the while checking in on my friends and hurting for those who stayed through those winds for hours, generally terrorized and suffering from PTSD because of Katrina.

At about 2 p.m. Tuesday my brain couldn’t function. I recognized the feeling that came over me after Katrina and after my daughter’s diagnosis. That feeling of simply shutting down and refusing to feel or hear anything that would shake my confidence and get in the way of me doing my job. This time, though, I realized my default mode of action was causing me more harm than good.

There are days and weeks I don’t remember after Katrina. I was, with dozens of my colleagues, in a makeshift fluorescent-lit newsroom in Baton Rouge helping to edit and put out the paper. But God help me if I can remember what I was editing, or what reporters on the ground were telling me. I remember reports of people trapped in the water being shuttled by boat to higher ground. I remember daily body counts from the temporary morgue. I remember reports of a makeshift jail at the bus terminal.

There was certainly a collective sense of pride and accomplishment at never missing a day of publishing… accomplishments that were rewarded with two Pulitzer Prizes for the paper’s staff. But at what cost? I won’t detail the breakdowns of my colleagues who lost their homes, those are their stories to tell. I can tell you, ashamedly, that rather than empathize and help my coworkers who suffered so much, I simply further isolated myself because I couldn’t deal with it, even though, superficially, I still thought of myself as unflappable. I was getting my job done.

Wednesday morning after Ida, I chose myself over my job. I realized I am not unflappable or Invincible. I hurt for myself and for all of my friends. I wanted to honor and acknowledge those feelings. I didn't want to steamroll through them by continuing to work.

I emailed and then talked to my editors and said, “I can’t do it.”

It may have been the first time I had ever said those words in a professional setting. Not in the sense of “I don’t have the time” or “I don’t want to,” but more along the lines of, I simply can not continue to function as a normal human being and do my work.

I was afraid of what they would say and that they would judge me for being weak.

Instead they said “of course you can’t do it. We never expected you to.”

And with that, I embraced my flappableness.

I am going to cry. I am going to break down a little. I’m going to be emotional.

Those things don’t make me weak, they make me human.

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