Comfort Items

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When we sheepdogs think about our gear, we spend a lot of time on the nuts and bolts: a sleep system, water storage and treatment, tools, defensive equipment, and so on. Those are all important -- often life-or-death important -- but it's also important to stash a few comfort items here and there. It's easy to forget that, in addition to saving lives, we're often in a position to save someone's sanity -- a survivor's, our own, or our team's -- and we should prepare for that, too.

My basecamp bag, in addition to the obvious survival gear, contains a case of decks of playing cards, several kinds of tea, a few chocolate bars, notebooks and pens, a portable Scrabble set (sorry, no dictionary, you'll have to duke it out), a book of bedtime stories, and a rotating stock of trinkets, toys, and snacks. A smaller subset of that (notebook, pens, a couple tea bags, one pack of cards, possibly chocolate) make it into the pack I carry as well. In a world where I'm fussing about the weight of my cookset, the compressability of my sleeping bag, and how many pairs of underwear I can afford to carry, that seems absurd to many people.

Whether I'm working disaster relief, or a missing person, or some other kind of call, there are humans involved. Once the emergencies are handled, the paperwork is filled out, and sleep is had, I, and my team, and (hopefully) one or more survivors has to get up tomorrow and do something. Then the day after that, and the day after that. The experiences we have when SHTF frame that next day, and those that follow. It's amazing how those experiences can be changed by little things.

I'll try to write a bit about processing incidents at some point in the future, but for the moment I want to talk about things -- objects, whether brought along or improvised -- and how they can impact our experience of bad situations.

  • Offering something concrete and familiar to someone who just had their reality shaken can be incredibly calming. Often, survivors feel like they've been whisked away to a bad action movie because whatever just happened or is happening is outside what they believed could happen. Some mundane thing like a cup of tea can be a focus to start the return to normal.

  • We all experience downtime at some point during most disasters. Non-sheepdogs, once treated and corralled somewhere safe, spend a lot of time waiting, and not knowing what to do with themselves. Sheepdogs often have to wait out a storm (sometimes in uncomfortable conditions), or wait to give an after-action report, or wait for an all-clear to go in. Idleness can be maddening, especially for someone who's adrenalized. Keeping folks busy can make downtime more manageable.

  • One of the most difficult parts of an incident for non-sheepdogs is often the feeling that they've lost their feeling of having control. When possible, giving survivors a job to do can jump-start their coping process by giving them the feeling that they've done something about the problem. Something as simple as handing one a story book to read to some kids can be incredibly powerful.

  • Busywork is an effective form of crowd control. People stuck in a confined space with nothing to do while already stressed are prone to conflict. However, passing around a few decks of cards to help pass the time can go a long way toward promoting calm.

  • If you can offer something that a person associates with memories of calmer times or feeling safe, that can often bring them those feelings even in the midst of chaos.

  • Having an interesting object at hand can make it easier for one to divert others' focus from themselves. Oftentimes, being part of an incident can get someone a lot more attention than they can or want to handle while still making sense of things. "I'm trying to focus on my game" can get one needed space without burdensome explanations or risk of offense, or if there's no space to be had "want to play?" can at least keep the conversation on cards instead of a person.

  • Objects not directly related to the incident can be easy conversation starters by providing an excuse for small talk with someone who may be stressed.

All in all, humans are pretty resilient creatures. Bad Things happen, then we get up the next day and make breakfast, go to school and work, and generally get on with life. A little bit of comfort can jump-start the coping process, change one's experience of what happened, or just make a scene more manageable.

Survivors benefit from things that are familiar to them, things that are novel or distracting in a fun way, things that let them do a job, or things to which you confer special meaning.

Sheepdogs benefit from things that help pass the time or interrupt the grind, things that connect them to their team, and things that are part of the routines they use to manage stress.

Supports -- here meaning the people who keep sheepdogs going and put up with our BS, especially our families -- benefit from things that help pass down time, and things that reinforce routine. For example, my son may get dragged along to a callout, but we keep a bag for him in the car with the things he likes to do at base camp. I once had a partner who would have tea and zucchini bread (one of my comfort foods) waiting when I got back. Me sitting down long enough to eat a snack without multitasking became a signal that things were back to normal. If my son's at home, he will pick out a stuffed animal to lend me upon my return, and has usually made off with one of my quilts while I was gone.

A lot of what I've described can be done with words, actions, and routines as well. However, there's something about using objects that makes it easier. I've never had to sum up the will to hand someone a pack of cards or a board game, even when I'm sleep deprived, dehydrated, near muscle failure, and preoccupied with all the stuff I'm trying to manage. "This is my special karate Kermit doll" (yes, I have one) "can you watch him for me and keep him safe so I can help these other people?" is SO much easier than finding something on the spot for a 4yo to do at base camp without getting hurt or being in the way.

Next time you pack up your gear, consider adding a few comfort items as well.