The footage from New Orleans reminds me of my own experience at the World Trade Center. The first couple of weeks after the hurricane are just the beginning. So much of the rest of the story is about asking for help, and it 's one of the hardest things in the world to do; at the office, at home, in the community. But the better someone is at asking for help, the less likely she is to need it.
From my own trauma I learned about two kinds of asking for help: the desperate way and the embarrassed way. The first kind is instinctual. People in the Superdome felt like they were in hell and accepted any help whatsoever to get out. I understood this feeling immediately.
I was at the World Trade Center when it fell. I could barely see, hear or breathe. Just before I thought I was taking my last breath, I saw dim light and I walked toward it. I pulled myself into a window of a building where there was air.
From that point, I was totally dazed and unable to take care of myself. I had been too close to the building to see that it was falling, and I thought a nuclear bomb might have hit me. After leaving the building, I walked around aimlessly until I found a person who was not covered in debris. Then I said, “Can I be with you? I don’t know where to go.”
She bought me shoes, because mine were gone, and she walked ten miles with me to her apartment, where she gave me clothes.
As soon as I was clean and my husband had found me, I thanked the woman and left; I felt embarrassed to have taken so much help from her. After all, I was a Wall St. executive.
That's when the second kind of asking for help starts. The kind that is very hard to ask for because we like to think of ourselves as self-reliant. But part of self-reliance is being comfortable asking for help.
The list of people who helped me after 9/11 is huge. The Red Cross provided trauma counseling and I sat in a roomful of executives who never dreamed they would be taking help from the Red Cross. A stewardess sat next to me when I had a panic attack on an airplane. My company laid off almost everyone with no notice and no severance, and FEMA made up the difference.
I remember thinking to myself that I couldn’t take a handout. But in the end, almost everyone I know who qualified, took the money. Money can’t solve post-traumatic stress, but it can give you financial breathing room so that you can focus on stopping the nightmares.
The nightmares last a long time. When you encounter colleagues or contacts suffering from an unexpected trauma, create a workplace– and a world — where asking for help is okay. There are more than a million people who cannot make it on their own for the next several months — either financially, emotionally or both. A nation that accepts a plea for help is a nation that encourages people to ask for help in a wide range of circumstances, not just dire.