Acupuncturists Without Borders -  Hurricane Katrina Relief Effort
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Untitled Document

Hurricane Katrina: One Year Later

A couple of weeks have passed since I have returned from New Orleans and I have now had ample time to settle back into my life here in Santa Barbara. I must admit that I was unprepared for the amount of decompression time that it would take to look unequivocally at my experience in New Orleans. I had heard accounts of people returning from N.O. who could not immediately acclimate back into their routines because they were so profoundly affected by the tragedy that is N.O. that they were overcome with sadness and depression so strong that their everyday lives felt, in a sense, pointless. In no way did I anticipate being one of those individuals who would feel lost in returning to 'ordinary' society feeling that I was 'strong' enough to control any feelings I might have. Part of the surprise that surrounds the realization that I was one of those individuals profoundly affected comes from being desensitized to the experience while being immersed in it. One can see the devastation all around but there is no perspective in which to evaluate the experience, no neutral space in which to gauge the level of intensity experienced. Being part of it one simply reacts to next crisis, next situation, without registering how the culmination of those situations emotionally affects you, so that when you finally remove yourself from the scenario there is an entourage of experiences, a gumbo if you like, that requires digestion. And, like most things New Orleanian, healthy digestion takes time and accounts for the immensity of the experience as well as the complexities, subtle and overt, that constitute a visit to New Orleans post-Katrina.

In New Orleans post-Katrina many of the victims of Katrina have not had the opportunity to step out of their experience and out of the chaotic aftermath of the flooding to evaluate and process the significant emotional impact that the storm and subsequent reorganization has had on them psychically and, in many cases, physically. Headaches, fatigue, depression, achy joints and muscles are all physical symptoms which are indicative of lengthy exposure to high stress environments and are often seen in a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnosis. And while the number of people who are suffering from PTSD in New Orleans is astounding the capacity to address those people’s needs affected by this disorder is far from being realized. Fortunately, there are an increasing number of groups in New Orleans and nationwide whose objective is to address the immediate needs of the people of New Orleans including a handful of groups whose sole purpose is to treat those residents of New Orleans affected by PTSD. One group, Acupuncturists Without Borders (AWB), has been treating the residents of New Orleans with an acupuncture protocol specifically designed for the treatment of the symptoms associated with PTSD since shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck the region and has continued to offer acupuncture treatments, free to all, to the community of New Orleans. Joining AWB, I visited New Orleans on the one year anniversary of Katrina hoping to provide the people of New Orleans a healing space in which to address any physical and/or emotional changes affecting them since Hurricane Katrina.

I was very anxious about arriving in New Orleans as I knew any expectations or preconceived ideas that I might have about what I would be doing while there would probably not be accurate. At first I could not believe what I saw: blocks and blocks of residential areas, as well as industrial areas, completely devastated by the waters of the Mississippi. Ghost towns that, to this day, one year after tremendous flood damage, remain completely unchanged. I had seen remarkably graphic images on the news and on the internet which showed the areas of devastation but one can not grasp the scope, the complete thoroughness of the devastation until one sees it first hand. No amount of film or video can convey the immediacy, the magnitude of the destruction, so relentlessly unremitting, until one sees it for oneself. Immediately I began to doubt my decision to come to New Orleans. How could acupuncture help heal this city and its people, people who have lost loved ones, family members, houses, their own self sufficiency? What this city needs, I thought, is organization, money, massive amounts of rebuilding. I felt that acupuncture was like treating a cancer with a band-aid. But then we began to visit venues and my opinion gradually started to shift. People, whether it was displaced residents who now lived in a homeless shelter or police and firemen who had been serving the community with limited resources for the last year, or jazz musicians at a church, were genuinely happy to see us and were lining up to receive acupuncture treatments.

Acupuncture creates a space for people to sit, slow down and tell their story as well as giving them an opportunity to check in with their own body and process some of the trauma that has affected it. While the needles are in we ask the people to remain still and quiet and, at the same time, focus on deep breathing which allows the body to return from the fight or flight mode that a high stress environment creates. For many people these acupuncture treatments are the only opportunity in their lives to achieve that calm, relaxed space. Even though the treatments are relatively short, 20-40 minutes on average, that time is essential for creating and maintaining homeostasis in the body. After receiving treatment people comment on feeling more relaxed, more calm and less stressed with less difficulty sleeping and a reduced amount of negative emotions. In addition, the feedback we received was full of gratitude and appreciation towards our very presence there: that people as far away as California would come to New Orleans to, literally, touch their lives and show genuine concern for their well being was a gesture indicating a larger, global recognition of the need to continue assistance towards rebuilding New Orleans post-Katrina.

Upon returning to California I was at a loss with how to emotionally deal with what I had just experienced in New Orleans. I wanted to drop everything here and return back to New Orleans where I felt the deep sense of purpose and meaning that comes from providing a necessary and meaningful service. My life here, in a way, felt pointless and without impact. Being part of the whirlwind that surrounds rebuilding projects is exciting, invigorating, and demanding. I lived for one purpose: hearing and learning the stories of the people from New Orleans and finding any way possible to provide a comfortable, safe space for them to ‘check in’ with themselves. After the first couple of weeks of being back, as I readjusted to the complexities of my life here, the feelings of pointlessness and inadequacy started to lift and I realized that now I was beginning another avenue of service, another opportunity to help the people in New Orleans. That now is the time for me to educate myself as well as others as to what can be done for the people of New Orleans. The rebuilding process has just begun there and will take time and patience and caution, caution that the steps taken to preserve this beautiful, historical city are in the best interest of the individuals who live and work in New Orleans. Learning the history of New Orleans and what a rich and complex history New Orleans has is a very important step to take for anybody interested in assisting New Orleans. Learning the history involves, most importantly, hearing the stories from the people themselves for it is those stories which make you a part of New Orleans and when you feel that you are a part of something it becomes special to you. I feel so lucky to have heard the stories from my friends in New Orleans and look forward to returning there and am honored to have been given the opportunity to help create a space where people could participate in their own healing. Hopefully, we can all continue to give ourselves adequate time to process and decompress from stressful situations by being our own safe, comfortable space during turbulent times.

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