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Mind & Mood

Wait Until Dark

Wait Until Dark


Uncertain times—like a massive blackout caused by a hurricane—give us an opportunity to remember our resiliency

Life is full of many twists and turns, some dreaded, others hoped for, and still others that seem to just fall out of the sky. For those of us who got hit with Hurricane Sandy last year, falling out of the sky has a special meaning.  

I live in New York City, lower Manhattan to be exact. If you were watching the news on October 29 and in the days and weeks that followed, you know that this area got slammed with what meteorologists call “the perfect storm.” I was sitting in my apartment alternating between trying to read a book and looking out the window at the howling wind and rain.  
My lights dimmed a few times but kept coming back on. And then it was dark. And it stayed that way. 

The next morning I sat on my couch, kind of half asleep. The storm wasn’t so strong, but my apartment was cold, and there was definitely not going to be any hot coffee. “This can’t last more than a few more hours,” I said to myself.  “I’ll read my book and shiver until the power comes back.”  

And it did.  Five days later.  

During the days that I was without electricity, I received a lot of email messages and texts from friends asking me if I had my “power” back or if I was still “powerless.” Now, I guess this is what members of my profession tend to do, but I couldn’t help but think about the use of that word power. It’s a loaded word, right? Especially for someone like me, who is often talking to people who are feeling powerless for reasons that have nothing to do with electricity. Clients who are facing a situation that they can’t make go away. Like being diagnosed with HIV. 

The week before Hurricane Sandy socked us in, I met with two new clients who had recently been diagnosed. “I would like to make this go away, but I know I can’t,” one of my clients said. “I sat and cried for a while, and I kind of stayed alone for a couple of days. Then I decided I needed to start doing things to take care of myself. I got up and started moving.”  

Hurricane Sandy was a reminder of the lessons we have learned from the other perfect and not-so-perfect storms that we encounter: We don’t have control over everything that happens in life. We don’t always have the “power” to keep bad things from happening. We like to think we do, but life shows us otherwise.  

But I was also reminded of what it means to be resilient.  

Resilience, as defined by mental health professionals, is the ability to recover or adjust to misfortune or change. To get up and start moving, as my client described it so well. My clients who are facing chronic conditions such as HIV often talk about how their diagnosis helped them to recognize their own resilience. They were able to move beyond feeling powerless.  To tap into sources of strength. To be resourceful. And in ways they never thought possible.  

Being a resilient person starts with believing in your potential to face a challenge. If you’ve faced up to an HIV diagnosis, you know what I mean. Focusing not on your “powerlessness,” in whatever form that takes, but where you do have power, and taking action. For me, that started with getting up off the couch.  

The hurricane also reminded me that I can’t do it all on my own. I had to call friends and ask for help with the basics, like a place to take a shower and get on the Internet. I needed some human contact, especially during those long evenings in my cold, dark apartment.  
Optimism helped me get through the storm. I tried to focus on what was going right in my life. I found a new appreciation for the simple pleasures, like a cup of hot coffee and a few words of encouragement from someone whose life had also been turned upside down.  

It reminded me of how a stressful event can be an opportunity to see life in a new way. Life never stays the same, and refusing to accept uncertainty and change is setting up a battle that is not only unwinnable but also unnecessary. Accepting that life is about change helps you see more clearly what you do have control over and to take action.  

So, my lesson from Hurricane Sandy: Recognize your ability to solve problems. Get connected with your support network. Stay optimistic. Resilience is power. And the real power is in your hands.

Gary McClain, Ph.D. is a counselor in New York City with a specialty in coping with chronic health conditions. His books include The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Breaking Bad Habits and Empowering Your Life With Joy.

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