Cambrian: Slice of Life

In traumatic times, try these tips to get over feelings of helplessness

Being a reporter can be traumatic. Journalist Kathe Tanner reported on this July 2003 fire, which killed a close friend, Cambria rancher Bill Warren.
Being a reporter can be traumatic. Journalist Kathe Tanner reported on this July 2003 fire, which killed a close friend, Cambria rancher Bill Warren.

Why am I exhausted 24/7?

I was baffled. There’s no obvious medical cause. I eat “good” foods (most of the time, ahem!). I exercise, although not enough. I’m surrounded by natural beauty, upbeat music and people I love. I’m your reporter only one day a week now, so overwork shouldn’t be the cause.

I do sleep but wake up frequently after weird dreams, most of them in the feeling-helpless, out-of-control “can’t find the schoolroom” genre.

I’ve dreamt I’m back at the bakery and forgot to decorate a wedding cake or prep food for a big catering. Or frequently, I’m in a city and can’t find the car, my traveling companions or where I’m supposed to meet them.

Then I chatted recently with Shirley Bianchi. Her analysis helped put our situations into focus.

“These days, I’m always tired,” the former county supervisor said. “I’m sure it’s because I can’t do anything about all the bad things that are happening.”

Shirley said she can’t fight devastating wildfires, or stop hurricanes, floods and earthquakes. She feels as helpless as any of us about rampant misogyny and sexual harassment in our culture, and nobody seems able to fix digital hacking or what’s wrong in Washington.

She concluded that we’re both short on energy and enthusiasm “because of that total feeling of helplessness.”

And maybe we who have survived similar traumas — even events that were much less extreme than the major tragedies — may have some post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


Frank Ochberg, psychiatrist and trauma-science specialist, wrote at, “The basic concept is this: You were a perfectly normal person and then something dreadful happened,” leaving you with a recognizable pattern of difficulty that lasts at least a month.

He said that some trauma memories are so intense, uncontrolled and “in the present” rather than in the past that they’re “likely to cause physical and emotional consequences.”

Those can include recurring, distressing dreams (hmmm!), recollections of the trauma, or feeling as if the event is happening all over again, and “intense psychological distress at exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event.”

So, if I see horrifying photographs of raging wildfire storms in Northern California or Orange County, it brings to my psychological foreground the memories of watching as our own home went up in flames?

It makes sense.

Reading about the Mexican earthquake, I remember temblors I lived through, and recall vividly how close I came to disaster in some major shakers. For instance, when a magnitude-6.7 quake hit Southern California, I was to have been in the hardest-hit areas just a few hours later that day.

Reports about alleged sexual harassment by Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men dredge up painful memories about some sexual predators in my life. For a time, those men obliterated my sense of self-worth and made me feel damaged, soiled and, yes, helpless.

There’s also relentless stress from news about all the above, plus evil mass shootings, the threat of nuclear war, foreign interference and unbridled dysfunction in Washington. Then my mind switches to local tragedies and disasters, crimes and governmental fiascos. I was the journalistic messenger seeing, experiencing and delivering the bad news.

Exhausting, yes. Helpless? No. Not entirely.

Shirley shared her mantra.

“You can only do what you can, where you are, with what you have. That’s all you can do. You can do no more, but you can do no less. … God doesn’t see if you succeed or fail. All God sees is how hard you tried.”

So, while I can’t stop the fires, hurricanes, floods or earthquakes, I can donate to help those who lived through them.

I can speak out against the horror of sexual harassment with the voice of someone who has experienced it and prevailed.

When I think legislators are wrong, I can tell them so. I can take on local government issues — even pesky little ones, such as shushing people who stage-whisper, mumble, talk, shout or cause upheaval from the audience at a meeting, thereby preventing others from hearing what they’re there to hear. So rude!

And when all else fails, I can scream or punch away on some unsuspecting inanimate object.

I can’t change what happened. But I am not helpless! If I react positively and make a difference, maybe I won’t be so tired anymore.

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