When Crisis Roars
by Jesica Matthews Eames
March 1, 2000, Piedmont Hospital: Brian and I are nervous and excited. My labor is moving along and all seems fine until it isn’t. The room explodes with panic. People crash in, alarms go off, and I am on a gurney being wheeled into an operating room. Brian is left alone in the labor room not knowing if the blood was mine or the baby’s or both. The operating room is freezing and full of people yelling orders. No one speaks to me. Chaos roars.
And then these large, warm hands cup my face. A woman leans over me on the operating table. Huge brown eyes and a surgical mask come into view. I look at her, panicked and crying. She holds my face and says, “Listen to me, sweetheart. We’re putting a mask over your face. We have to get your baby right now. Breathe for me.”
Jack is born a few minutes later, not breathing, unresponsive, and suffering from tremendous blood loss. Teams of people leave with him. They bring Brian to me. And we wait. Those horrific minutes stretch into days as we wait to see if he will live and then if he will recover. Jack did both. A week later they discharge him from the intensive care unit and send us home – shocked and scared and in love with a baby who had a terrifying arrival. The trauma of that crisis lingered with us for months. Years later both of us can time travel right back into that operating room if we’re not careful.
May 29, 2017: As I write this today Jack will turn 18 this year, and we are getting ourselves ready for his launch. This many years later my mind will go back to the woman in the operating room. I never knew her name or saw her again. And she is the one I think about — those strong, warm hands holding my face; her wise, determined eyes and calm voice telling me to breathe while chaos reigned.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, those seconds with her symbolize one way I think about crisis – in my own life and with clients in my office. When crisis arrives we need someone to look at us, to be present with us in our terrified space, and to tell us to breathe. This year is the 30th anniversary of our first date. Twenty-one years married, Brian and I have lived with and through crisis, some out of our control and a few of our own making. People often make their way into my practice because a crisis has ruptured that destabilizes everything: their relationship, life, home, family, friends, community, or profession.
Crisis storms in many forms: illness, death, betrayal, secrets, accidents, violence, divorce, addiction, finances, arrests. Sometimes it’s unexpected tragedy, leaving shock and raw devastation in its wake. Other people describe a slow-burning problem that erupted into damage beyond anything they could have prepared for. No matter how it shows up, what I know is that the path between that moment and what will become a new normal is long and uncertain.
Crisis in every form is an assault. It’s an assault on what we believed until now to be reliable and true, whether it’s health, safety, life, trust, love, faith, stability, or connection. Suddenly what we know we don’t know anymore. Crisis leaves us feeling out of control, often on a course that we cannot slow down or stop. It’s isolating, overwhelming, and lonely.
When people arrive in my office in crisis I begin with what the couple or the person needs now in order to breathe – both literally and figuratively. What needs to happen in the next 10 minutes, the next hour, the next day, or the next week? My initial connection with them is about holding the space – the unfolding tragedy – and guiding some initial decisions so the couple can grasp what stabilizing might look like for the immediate future.
Crisis at its core demands that we exist in uncertainty, discomfort and despair for an unpredictable and unknown amount of time. Try as we might there is no sprint to the finish line. I hear people say I just want “this to be over” “to make sense of it” “to understand” “to move on” “to make it stop” “to go back to normal” “to go back to the way we were before…” The reality is that a new normal is taking root, trying to gain a foothold in a world forever changed. That reality is harsh and it takes time. It’s a marathon, really, that demands many things including pain, stillness, patience, despair, creativity, anger, sorrow, giving-in, action, planning, willingness, privacy, community, courage and possibility.
I sat with a couple recently now two years into an affair recovery. They spent the session reflecting on what transpired in the last two years. Several months after the affair erupted they remember their decision to slow down and get quiet enough to look at what happened, explore how they got to this place, and to sit with what was unfolding in their marriage. “I stopped reacting and started listening first to myself and then to my partner” one of them said. “And then we started listening to the affair,” said the other. They described the choice to step into a frightening and miserable journey. One that ever-so slowly turned from misery into discovery, and then into opportunity, and then to renewal. This couple talks about the affair in different language now. They describe it as “something that happened to us” and not something one of them “did to the marriage or the partner.” The hurt, pain, and fear are not forgotten and those hard places don’t have a grip on the couple anymore. Couples who get to this place often say that while they never want to go through it again they also know that the present connection, intimacy and resilience grew through the roar of crisis.
We all make our own way in crisis. It’s a highly individualized experience and for a long time it’s all consuming. I do, though, see themes in those who work with and grow through crisis. A few things that can happen on the other side of crisis:
- You access an internal wisdom and knowing that love is both resilient and fragile and most of all requires practice and care.
- You own your story, how you got there, and how you made it to a different place.
- You accept that grief, regret, and pain about the crisis will wave in. You respect it when it surfaces. And you trust that it will roll back out, especially when you stop resisting.
- You know that none of us are invincible or immune. All of us are vulnerable. Our lives can change in an instant.
- You have a sense of your own ability in the world – both the ability to heal yourself and others and the ability to hurt yourself and others. Knowing this empowers even when the situation feels powerless.
- You know that joy must be cultivated and nurtured.
When crisis arrives there is no going back. We have choices in how we go forward, even if we had no choice in what happened. And we take our history with us because it’s ours and it shapes how we move in the world. Find the hands that will hold your face and tell you to breathe. Be those hands for someone else in need. Because when you begin to breathe change and choice are ahead.
Jesica M. Eames, LMSW, JD, is a Certified Imago Relationship Therapist trained by Wendy Palmer Patterson. She specializes in working with couples and individuals, creating a safe environment for them to look honestly and compassionately both at themselves and their relationships. Jesica is known for her empathic and interactive approach with clients, working with them to restore connection, repair and recover from crisis or grief, and experience the possibility of transformation.
Jesica has been in a relationship with her husband, Brian, for 26 years. They have three sons together.
For information about our Individual or Couples counseling or workshops,
please contact our office at 404-584-7500 or email Jen at email@example.com
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