Friday, June 11, 2010

Once Teen Sailor Abby Sunderland is Rescued, Who Will Need Intervention?

Abby Sunderland, 16, has been found safe, floating on her de-masted boat in the Indian Ocean.  Abby's parents had lost contact with her early Thursday morning Pacific Time as she sailed through gusty winds and high waves on her quest to become the youngest person to sail around the world solo.  Shortly after her communications went out, she activated two emergency beacons on her boat, indicating that something else was wrong.  A Quantas airliner spotted her about 20 hours later with the mast of her boat gone.  She appears to be unharmed, and a fishing boat is headed to pick her up.

When this is all over, who in this story do you imagine might show some post-traumatic stress symptoms?  Whose coping mechanisms may have been overwhelmed during these 20 hours of uncertainty?

I'd like to suggest that it isn't Abby Sunderland.  During the 20 hours after her mast snapped, Abby Sunderland knew, the entire time, that she was OK.  She was disappointed, certainly, that her sailing journey was over.  She was worried, I'd guess, about the storms and about how soon help would arrive.  This was close to the worst for which she was prepared, but Abby Sunderland was prepared for this, and she was OK.

The same cannot necessarily be said for her parents.  During those 20 hours, unlike Abby, her parents did not know if she was OK.  In many cases, uncertainty is much more difficult to deal with than the facts, even when the facts are horrible.  When people don't know what has happened or what will happen, they think through all of the possibilities. 

In this case, Abby's parents probably imagined she was dead, she was alive and floating in the ocean, she was seriously injured, and maybe 100 other possible scenarios including the one that turned out to be true.  While they were imagining all of those things, not knowing which, if any, had happened, their minds had to try to cope with all of them at once.  That's an awful lot to process, and might easily overwhelm your coping skills.  It's actually harder than knowing that, say, she actually is seriously injured.  If she were seriously injured and they knew that, they would have to deal with it.  When they imagine that she's injured but also imagine that she's dead, or freezing, or drowning, the have to deal with all of those things, not just the one.

I am reminded of a story my father used to tell about getting separated from his grandmother in Central Park when he was a boy.  When she found him, she referred to him as having been "lost."  He adamantly insisted that he had not been lost -- he knew where he was the whole time.  He was sure it was his grandmother who had been lost. 

Abby Sunderland is most likely not traumatized because she knew she was OK.  I don't know the Sunderland family or how they coped with all of this.  I would certainly want to assess that before deciding they need help.  They are, however, much more at risk than Abby.  After all, Abby knew exactly where she was the whole time.

image: LA Times


Colleen said...

Having read what her family does, and what her parents encourage and allow, and the money issues (rescue and boat towing, and fundraising)...well, words fail me.

Meet the Quarterback

My Photo
Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
View my complete profile

Subscribe via email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Quarterback for Kindle