Survival Mode: Flash Floods, Trauma and Childhood Sexual Abuse

COMMENTARY: We can openly talk about natural disaster trauma. The typical victim of childhood sexual trauma has no one to talk to.

Natural disasters and childhood sexual abuse are both life-threatening events.
Natural disasters and childhood sexual abuse are both life-threatening events. (photo: Unsplash)

A few weeks ago, we had a flash food in Lake Charles. Going through (yet another) natural disaster brought to mind many parallels with childhood sexual abuse. 

Natural disasters and childhood sexual abuse are both life-threatening events. People respond to trauma in understandable ways, regardless of the specific circumstances of that trauma. And people with no direct experience of trauma tend to misunderstand the traumatized. I think I’m learning some things that may be of help to the Church in our quest to deal with the tragic legacy of sexual abuse. 

May 17 started as a normal rainy day. Adults went to work and kids went to school as usual. Sometime around 11:30am, the situation didn’t look so normal. We watched the water overflowing the drainage ditches. We watched our yard turn into a lake. We started to think the water might come into our house. “Honey, there’s water coming in the front door!” Within 20 minutes, the entire house was filled with at least three inches of water, more in some places. 

(Just to recap our Apocalypse Pre-Game Warm-up Show we’ve had in Lake Charles: Hurricane Laura on Aug. 27, 2020, Hurricane Delta on Oct. 8, the Southern winter cold freeze in February 2021, and now a flood on May 17.) 

Going through a natural disaster is a life-threatening experience. A flood can kill you. So can 150 mph hurricane winds. So can a fast-moving California wildfire.  

I have learned a bit about trauma in the course of my study of childhood sexual abuse. People’s minds go into “survival mode.” Our attention becomes narrowly focused on the most immediate issues of life and death. 

During the aftermath of Hurricane Laura, I noticed myself zooming in on very basic survival needs. Do we have water to drink? Can I get to the bathroom?  Oh, wait. We can’t flush the toilet. Is the food in the refrigerator fit to eat? How are we going to prepare it, without electrical power? 

Not to mention that everyone is hot, sticky, crabby and scared. 

I had also learned, in the abstract, that people need to talk about their experiences in order to process them. My dear friend Sue Ellen Browder wrote and spoke about this here, starting about the 22-minute mark. She relates how her husband’s older brother had abused him. He only revealed this to her after 38 years of marriage and their conversion to Catholicism. She recounts how her husband finally confided in a sympathetic priest. 

Father Bruce said to me: “Sue, here’s what I want you to do: I want you to ask Walter to tell you what happened when he was 7 years old. He may not want to talk about it. If he doesn’t volunteer to talk about it every two or three days, I want you to ask him about it. Just listen. Get all the details. But don’t get all emotional. Remember Joe Friday on Dragnet? I want you to be like that: ‘Just the facts, Ma’am.’”

Eventually, Walter experienced a profound healing from this simple process. 

During the aftermath of Laura, I experienced this aspect of trauma. I felt myself and my family members trying to process the situation by talking about it. I felt the urge to recount my hurricane story again and again. Every time I spoke about it, I felt a little bit better. I even recorded a video of myself during the early days of Laura-recovery, so I wouldn’t forget it. 

People who haven’t been through a comparable trauma, don’t really understand what you’re going through. They may try. But honestly, they don’t get it. “You only had three inches of water in your house.” But when you’re watching the water rise, and it’s still raining, you don’t know that it is going to be “only” three inches. During that waiting period, people perceive their lives to be at risk, because they are. 

Likewise, well-meaning people will sometimes say to childhood sex abuse survivors: “Why didn’t you tell anyone?” “Do we really have to keep talking about this?” “Can’t you just forgive and forget and move on with your life?” Well, no, actually, they can’t exactly move on, until they truly deal with it. 

Where I live, chatting about natural disasters has become a standard topic of conversation. People ask, “How did your house do?” And then they listen respectfully to the answer, pretty much as long as the other person wants to talk. People don’t get uncomfortable and try to end the conversation, the way they might when someone can’t stop talking about their latest surgery.

I had very similar conversations with the produce manager at the supermarket, with my friends after church, and with nurses in New Orleans who survived Hurricane Katrina 15 years ago. Everyone instinctively gives their fellow survivors a whole lot of space, and time, and attention. I guess we intuit that these conversations are necessary and constructive, not self-absorbed and destructive. 

All of which brings me back to childhood sexual abuse. My colleague Father Paul Sullins did a thorough study of clergy sex abuse, including the first-ever statistical analysis of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. On page 13, he reveals that the average length of time between the time of the abuse and the person’s first revelation of it to anyone was 28.7 years. 

When I first read this number back in 2018, it was a mere abstraction. Today, it breaks my heart. I think of those children, going through a life-threatening, psyche-threatening event, and keeping it to themselves for decades. 

What my neighbors and I have gone through is minor compared to what these children went through. I can talk about my natural disaster trauma. The typical victim of childhood sexual trauma has no one to talk to. 

What would their lives have been like if they could have talked about it sooner? How much less drug addiction and depression and loss of faith might there have been? Even if no laws or Church policies changed, I can’t help but think these kids would have benefitted from a socially acceptable context in which to tell their stories. It is powerful medicine to have someone say, “Tell me what happened to you,” and then listen. 

Traumatized people really do need to talk. I needed it. Everyone in my town needs it. Maybe, someone near you needs it, too.