Atlanta copes with stress after the storm

It took Lisa Anders 14 hours to get home on Tuesday. It took her 48 hours to get back in the car.

“I literally did not go out of my house Wednesday or Thursday,” she said. The executive director of Explore Gwinnett, she left her Duluth office at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday and got to her east Cobb County home just before 4 a.m. Wednesday. About 12 hours into her journey, approaching an iced-over Johnson Ferry Road bridge, she took off her jacket, put her iPhone in a plastic bag and rolled down the windows. If her car went over, she reasoned, she’d need to be able to wriggle free.

“I might lose my car but I’m not going to drown,” she assured herself. Two hours later she walked into her house and stayed here.

“I would not go near my car,” Anders said. “I was allergic to my vehicle the past two days. I was totally freaked out and completely exhausted. It feels like PTSD.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder is the term Wendy Hsiao, who got to her Marietta home 24 hours after leaving her Buckhead office, uses as well.

“I burst into tears the second I saw my house,” said Hsiao, who spent part of Tuesday night in a friend’s office building and caught a ride the rest of the way home. “During the trek home, I was thinking, ‘Dear Lord, please let me make it home in one piece.’ I texted my dad, ‘Please pray for us,’ because I was literally terrified.

“We drove by so many cars that were abandoned on the road, I lost count at about 100. After I actually got home, it was just relief and happiness that I can’t even describe. I honestly have never experienced a more draining, emotional, traumatizing experience.”

Leah Hughes, a nurse at Northside Hospital, can relate. She left work at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday and got to her east Cobb home at 9 a.m. Wednesday. After a couple of days off, she was back at work on Friday. Although the sun was shining and traffic was moving, getting behind the wheel triggered her nerves.

“Coming to work caused anxiety,” Hughes said. “I took some deep breaths. Knowing things were going to be better got me through it.”

Atlanta’s 2-inch blizzard not only managed to paralyze the metro area this week, but it also seemed to give many of us a collective nervous breakdown. Although temperatures passed 50 degrees on Friday, most metro area school systems remained closed. Teachers, students and parents needed “a bit more time to recover,” Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Erroll Davis explained.

Lots of us did.

“I was on the verge of tears all day (Wednesday),” said Andrea Holland Rizk, who flew back from a business trip on Tuesday and landed about 5:45 p.m. “It took me two and a half hours to get to Langford Parkway. I saw 10 cars crash into each other. People were just standing out there and there was no one coming to help.

“It looked and felt post-apocalyptic, like something you see in the movies when you realize the end is near. There was not a police car in sight. There was not an ambulance. There was nobody helping people except each other.”

She managed to make it to her brother and sister-in-law’s home in the Old Fourth Ward area and reached her home in Johns Creek by midday Wednesday.

“I did as little as possible. I was asleep at 7:30 (p.m.) on Wednesday and I slept for 12 hours,” she said. “I didn’t know if I felt like squeezing my kids or bursting into tears. I felt shell-shocked.”

Tim Hawks left his Midtown office at noon on Tuesday and pulled up to his west Cobb home at 10:15 p.m.

“For the next 24 hours, I was just watching coverage,” he said. “It wasn’t until I got home that it sunk in how bad it really was. At the time, you’re so focused on paying attention to the road and looking for ice. To realize you were part of something of this magnitude, it’s something we’ll remember the rest of our lives. It’s now part of the history of Atlanta.”

And it may be part of some drivers’ bad dreams for a time, said Dr. Karin Smithson, a prominent local therapist and author.

“What made the snowstorm situation here so difficult was the sense of powerlessness,” she said. “Stress and anxiety spike in our systems when we do not feel like we have the resources to match an oncoming or ongoing stressor. From Tuesday afternoon into Wednesday, there was literally nothing that we could do to fix what was going on and so there was a collective experience of helplessness. This can lead to situations of acute trauma and desperation, which can have long-lasting emotional effects on people.”

Stress was particularly acute for parents unable to reach their kids’ schools or travelers who wrecked or ran out of gas. After-effects and coping mechanisms vary depending on each person’s situation, she said.

“Symptoms can range from mildly stressful to very distressing,” she said. “What helps you recover is decompressing, talking to others and trying to tend to yourself for a few days. If you were in a dire situation, symptoms could be so severe that the person has nightmares about the event and is unable to drive because of anxiety. In this situation, talking to a counselor would help to facilitate working through the trauma.”

She recommends taking advantage of nicer weather to come, to get out and about and reconnect.

“The silver lining is the togetherness that we can feel as Atlantans, knowing that we got through this together, helped each other and came out the other side a bit wiser,” Smithson said. “I will bet that as we go into our neighborhood bistros and dog parks this weekend, we will feel an energy of communal survivorship with each other and the feeling will hang around a lot longer than the snow.”