I’m the former chief operating officer of the Texas Department of State Health Services, the state’s public and mental health agency. In 2005, I helped coordinate the state’s response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. During those terrible days, I learned firsthand what tens of thousands of men, women, and children were going through as they struggled to create new lives, many with little more than what they could pack into a car or pick-up. But most of what I understood had to do with the loss of physical possessions and the trauma of forced relocation. I gave little thought to the effects of mental illness that many would face: sleeplessness, anger, depression, substance or alcohol abuse, or—in the worst situations—suicide or abuse of a loved one.
While my book describes what it’s like to lose a home and a cherished natural environment, it is first and foremost a story of how I found gratitude, strength, and the will to persevere through the treatment of my PTSD with the help of my wonderful therapist.
Mental illness is often talked about in ways that are ostracizing, shameful, and alienating. It’s the phrase on the lips of politicians and journalists when a mass shooting breaks out or someone commits an unspeakable deed. But it is rarely spoken of in a way that conveys respect and compassion for the millions of Americans who have it.
I have tried to do exactly that in Hail of Fire. I am a middle-aged man who is not ashamed of the mental illness I acquired from the wildfire and that I expect to live with for most or the rest of my life. In Hail of Fire, I open the door into my therapist’s office so that others—but especially self-satisfied and successful men—can understand in a personal way what it means to seek mental health services and benefit from them.
Through my book, I have tried to do what so many have paid lip-service to: begin a positive, empowering, and de-stigmatizing national conversation about mental illness.
In the book’s final chapter—the Afterword—I provide several short lists of practical steps that a family can take to lessen the risks and impact of a natural disaster. They’re tips for what to do, and what not to do, before and during a natural disaster, and during the first days of clean-up and insurance filing.