WASHINGGTON -- Several weeks ago, an alarm went off at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre during a reading of the letters of John and Abigail Adams by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.,)and his wife, Debbie. An eerie silence followed the bell. The Dingells stopped reading and people looked anxiously around. Finally, after a long pause, Debbie Dingell shrugged, said, "Oh well," and resumed reading.
It was the night the hajj ended in Mecca, and the nation was on Code Orange alert. The air was rife with rumor. We heard that the Cabinet had been told to evacuate, that Reagan National Airport was about to close down, that Code Red was imminent.
A couple I know had been in bed with their baby one morning earlier that week when they heard a loud blast. They closed the windows and ran for cover. It turned out to be thunder. Another time, I was on the phone with a friend when there was a loud noise and both of our houses shook. She asked me to look out my window and see if the Washington Monument was still there.
Call it pre-traumatic stress disorder. For people who spend a lot of time in Washington and watch too much TV, the anxiety level can be as high as the threat level. Once you could count me among them. No more.
After 9/11, I was particularly anxious. I live near downtown and I work downtown, close to obvious terror targets. So I decided to educate myself and get prepared. Everybody laughed and thought I was wildly overreacting. Especially men. Including my husband. Women were more concerned.
Now I'm prepared and I'm the calmest person I know, except for those in total denial. And if we're attacked, I'm a lot better off than they are.
Here's what I've done: I always carry an N95 mask. And I make sure everyone in my family has one. I also have escape hoods which fit easily over the head. Mine are supposed to last for four hours. I have a safe room with plenty of bottled water and food, in case stores are closed or we can't get out of the house. I've also stashed several bottles of good scotch and wine. I have a first aid kit, a supply of medications, including potassium iodide in case of radiological attack and doxycycline in case of an anthrax attack. I didn't want to try reaching my doctor for a prescription after an attack, when drugstores might well be sold out or closed. I do not have atropine, an antidote for nerve agents -- too dangerous.
Also, I've stored the obvious flashlights, battery-operated radio and TV, blankets, plastic sheeting and special chemical duct tape. I have passports at the ready and have sent copies of important documents to relatives out of town. I keep the car full of gas and water and food, and a flashlight stashed inside.
I know the evacuation routes from my house and have maps of places I'm not too familiar with. I have bicycles. I am in the process of installing a HEPA air filtration system on my heating and air conditioning unit. I have cell phones and a communication plan for my family. We have a meeting place in case of emergency.
In other words, I've taken all the measures recommended by the Department of Homeland Security on the Ready.com Web site, and then some. I know that being prepared can save my life and those I care most about. But, equally important, it lessens the possibility of mass panic. That could cost as many lives as whatever catastrophic event might have inspired it.
Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist who has experience working with disaster behavior, says it is particularly debilitating for people to remain for long periods of time in a state of what he calls "autonomic arousal" -- a constant state of alert.
"It is helpful for survival over a short period of time because if you are alerted to a threat you are more likely to survive," he says. "But if you are alert for too long your body pays a price. It causes fatigue, lowers the immune system, activates your heart rate and causes your blood pressure to rise."
Robert Ursano, chairman of the department of psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University's School of Medicine, says that those who have a higher level of "anticipatory stress will have a higher level of post-traumatic stress syndrome" if there is a terrorist event.
"Anticipatory stress," he says, "can be crippling. It is dangerous to be either preoccupied or ignoring. The idea is to plan and then set it aside." Try to forget what you're frightened about "but don't ignore it. Don't feel like you have to carry it around with you."
That calls for another entire set of actions. I exercise an hour every day. I eat well. I get eight hours of sleep a night. I go to more movies, try to read novels and don't watch the news all day.
I watched "Joe Millionaire" -- it was so incredibly, deliciously stupid that I never thought once about terrorism.
Obviously, people with children at home are faced with different issues. I have one child at college and he is anxious about us being here in Washington. But he feels better knowing that we are prepared. Leading a normal life these days is even more important for younger children. Many of my friends' children have been especially anxious after participating in school drills. Their mothers say talking to them about preparedness has had a calming effect.
Paramjit Josci, division chief of psychiatry at Children's National Medical Center, has this advice for parents: Let kids know that you're anxious too, but that you love them, and give them something tangible to do, like stocking a safe room. "Tell them it's one way to keep us safe," she says. "It's something they can understand and will give them a sense of security. It empowers the child."
I'm not hiding from my anxiety or my fears. I talk about them to my friends. I know that by confronting your worst fears you can reduce your anxiety. I know I've done everything I can.
I also stay informed. I understand that the "experts" disagree on practically everything, so I've undertaken to make my own decisions about what is right for me and my family. I know that for the first 24 to 48 hours of any kind of an attack we may well be on our own. I am prepared to believe that this is the way our lives are going to be for a long time.
My plan, assuming I am home when an attack takes place, is to stay where I am unless the government tells me to leave town. My feeling is that it will be impossible to get out. The prospect of panic if we are told to evacuate is what is most frightening.
The gridlock after the snowstorm a few weeks ago was a preview of the horror of trying to move in this city under abnormal circumstances. Your car may run out of gas. The prospect of people stealing not only your car but also your supplies, food, water, masks and such from the car are not unrealistic.
Ann Norwood, associate chairman of the department of psychiatry at the Uniformed Services School of Medicine, is particularly concerned with the mass response to some kind of attack. "People who are trained or prepared do better than people who aren't," she says. "People who listen to the flight attendant's safety drill are more likely to survive a plane crash than those who don't. Mass panic is intense contagious fear."
To prevent that, she says people should practice drills at home, have a Plan A and Plan B. "The important thing," she says, "is to have a sense of security. Taking steps to help protect yourself and your family will keep you much calmer."
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