Greg Smith

Greg Smith

F5
:

• Incredible tornado.

• 261-318 mph.


• Strong frame houses lifted off foundations and carried considerable distances to disintegrate; automobile-sized missiles fly through the air in excess of 100 meters; trees debarked; steel reinforced concrete structures badly damaged. (tornadoproject.com)

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We had a strong storm front come through the southeastern United States yesterday. Of course, this was not the first time this happened, and it will certainly not be the last. It was fascinating to watch it march inexorably across the country, showing up on my weather app as a ragged green diagonal slash from Gulf to heartland to northeast, moving slowly and relentlessly across the landscape. In the center of the ragged slash was a well-defined, hard, bright yellow-orange-red line of destruction. Pretty on the screen, destructive on the ground. Destroyer of worlds.

Texts began to trickle in from my daughter, who lives in Spartanburg, of an apparent tornado that touched down not five miles from her house and destroyed a shopping center. A coworker who sees patients at the mental health center by Telehealth Connection also reported frightening noises that drove her to her basement to hunker down until all warnings were lifted later in the day. Both reported the loud, surreal wail of tornado warning sirens, something that I have never heard in real life but that I am sure must be quite distressing in the midst of gray skies, howling winds, pouring rain and lightning flashes. Not an F5 but terrifying nonetheless.

When I hear about such stressful situations and see evidence of the destruction they bring, I think of my friends, family, acquaintances and patients have who struggled with cancer, financial stress, persecution for various reasons, and other stresses that lead to anxiety, fear and emotional upheaval. My aunt who succumbed to ovarian cancer when I was a boy. My mother, who is a breast cancer survivor. My friend, who tragically committed suicide. My patients, who tell me stories of unbelievable trauma, neglect, abuse and hopelessness. Like an F5 monster tornado, these life circumstances can drop on any of us unexpectedly from the sky. Pretty colored X-rays and scans reveal the destructive power of the cancer underneath. Sirens go off. The mind screams, "Take cover, take cover!" The body sometimes is only grazed, shrapnel cutting but not killing. Other times, the impact is devastating. Nothing looks as it did before the storm. The landscape is flattened and only rubble is left. We return to a place, time or set of circumstances that we expect to be familiar, only to realize that all of our old landmarks are gone, destroyed. We do not know whether to drop to our knees and cry, run headlong into the pile of rubble, or turn and walk away.

Is there anything good about F5s, cancer, abuse, trauma and destruction? What an odd question, I hear you asking me.

These scourges, while leaving city blocks, body parts and psyches in absolute ruin, are often coldly surgical in their devastation. That is, a few hundred yards away, or a few inches outside the margins, or in some other part of the emotional us, the sun is shining, the tissue is healthy, the coping is reasonably good and life goes on. Friends rush to help. Prayers go up. Communities – wonderful, supportive, dynamic communities form. Support is not only offered but insisted upon. Rebuilding begins immediately in the aftermath of the siren's wail, the surgeon's knife and the abuser’s fist.

When the horror and the shock and the denial and the anger and the tears and all of it subsides, victims become empowered survivors.

Strong!

The chorus goes up.

We will rebuild.

Life will go on.

We're still here.

Gregory E. Smith, MD, serves as Chief of Psychiatric Services at Aiken Barnwell Mental Health Center. He has been practicing psychiatry for 30 years since he finished a residency in psychiatry at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta.