Why Hurricane Katrina changed my life for the better

Story highlights

  • Johnny Chaillot-Louganis experienced depression, weight loss and other PTSD symptoms after Hurricane Katrina
  • He left New Orleans for a new life, trying to start over
  • Slowly he focused less on his family's painful experience and more on helping others
Watch "Katrina: The Storm that Never Stopped" Thursday at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

(CNN)Whispering in her ear as she lay in a coma, a New Orleans man told his mother to go before the storm came.

His mother died that day, August 6, 2005, as a tropical depression was forming into Hurricane Irene.
What Johnny Chaillot-Louganis couldn't have imagined was that he would lose his mother yet again when Hurricane Katrina hit three weeks later. The colossal storm broke the levees in New Orleans, flooding homes and buildings all over the city. His mom's body went missing in the aftermath. The family feared she was lost in a flooded morgue.
    "I cried, but the real grieving process takes a while and I didn't get that," Chaillot-Louganis said. "It was all about survival after Katrina hit."
    For eight awful months, the family had no closure. They searched hospitals, morgues and even the tents where Katrina victims' bodies wound up. It wasn't until Mother's Day 2006 that Jane Alice Bernard Chaillot's body was returned.
    Johnny Chaillot-Louganis
    Her death rocked the family, but it hit Chaillot-Louganis especially hard.
    "It was the loss of not only my mother, but a good friend and a confidante, a keeper of my secrets," the 54-year-old said.
    From a young age, Chaillot-Louganis said his mother adored and protected him. He was her baby boy, the sixth youngest of the family, sandwiched between two older and two younger sisters.
    "I came out to her first. She was the first person that I told I was gay."

    Always mom's little boy

    Chaillot-Louganis was one of eight siblings raised in the Cajun household. He was always around his mother, offering to tie the perfect bow on her kitchen apron. She used to run her fingers through his hair and she always wanted to hold his hand. He could talk to her about anything. Whenever he needed guidance, he went to his mother.
    "We all look toward our matriarch for guidance. Johnny was really close to mom. Without her being here he was lost and we were all lost," explained his sister, Suzanne Chaillot Breaux.
    After her death, Johnny spiraled into depression, crying frequently, balling up on the couch and losing his motivation to go to the gym and go to work.
    "We were in mourning when we lost Mom and we lost our favorite city and it was just a lot of loss. A lot," Chaillot Breaux told CNN.
    The law firm where Chaillot-Louganis worked was boarded to prevent looting.
    Meanwhile, the storm had wreaked havoc on their lives; Chaillot-Louganis found himself moving 11 different times in the month before New Orleans residents were allowed back into the city. More than 400,000 people were displaced after the storm, according to the U.S. Census.
    The stress of his mother dying, plus all the moves, manifested itself in an ugly way. Three weeks after Katrina, Chaillot-Louganis developed painful sebaceous cysts on his forehead, which had to be removed surgically.
    Yet Chaillot-Louganis was lucky. His Creole cottage sat next to the Mississippi River on high ground. It survived the flooding that inundated parts of the city. Despite the depression and his family's loss, he persevered and stayed in New Orleans for a year and a half after the storm.
    Life in New Orleans post-Katrina was about day-to-day survival, he said. He was busy helping rebuild his office, which had been vandalized, and trying to get back to "normal" life.
    Chaillot-Louganis had been working as a paralegal at a law firm in town when a job opportunity in Los Angeles came up. The Louisiana native knew he had to leave.
    "I was willing to do anything just to relieve the sadness," he said. "'Maybe it's my time now,' I said. Hurricane Katrina, the job opportunity and my personal life really encouraged me to go."

    Was moving the right call?

    But when he got to Los Angeles, life got tougher for Chaillot-Louganis.
    He couldn't sleep, he couldn't eat and he lost 20 pounds. The outgoing New Orleanian "shut down," withdrawing from his family and friends, his sister said.
    "We were so connected to our mother that when she passed, we didn't know who we were anymore," she said. "We felt like orphans and then Johnny was an orphan from his city and his job."
    Chaillot-Louganis said he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in late 2007.
    He wasn't alone in his struggles. Cases of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder spiked after the hurricane. Katrina survivors in the city had a PTSD rate of over 25% and a mood and anxiety disorder rate of 35% in the year following the storm, according to a 2008 study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
    The chaos and disorder he thought he left behind in New Orleans had followed him to Los Angeles. He found himself in a normal place, a place where life wasn't all about Katrina.
    "I thought that it was going to be great. It was going to be this whole new beginning and I fell apart," he said.
    He sought treatment for three years before he started to find himself again. He credits therapy, medication and prayer for helping him in his recovery.
    Slowly, Chaillot-Louganis focused less on his family's painful experience and more on helping others.
    "I got involved in the community, began to help others and finally after a lot of hard work began to find happiness. A wise man once told me that 'each loss will be replaced by rewards' and I know that to be true," he wrote on CNN iReport.

    A match on Match.com

    In 2010, a friend suggested he go on Match.com. The first profile that popped up was that of Olympic diver and gold medalist Greg Louganis.
    Chaillot-Louganis thought it was a fake account until he received a message from Louganis. After months of chatting online, the pair went on a date at a David Sedaris book reading -- they tell the same "when we met" story in great detail.
    Louganis was running late, so Chaillot-Louganis texted him asking what kind of car he was driving. Chaillot-Louganis spotted him parking and told him to look up, where he was standing on the bridge.
    "I looked up and saw this handsome man with glasses and a bow tie," said Greg Louganis. "I hoped that it was him. And it was."
    Chaillot-Louganis and Louganis on their wedding day in 2013.
    Both in their 50s, the men say they knew they had found "the one" very early on. A year and a half later, in October 2013, they were married.
    "I'm grateful that I found a man and fell in love. It just happened to be Greg Louganis," said Chaillot-Louganis. "We were the same age and his mother was from the South, so he got my Southern idiosyncrasies."
    Chaillot-Louganis and Louganis met well after the New Orleans native struggled with PTSD. When it came to talking about his Katrina experience at first, Louganis said his husband talked about it in a "casual, nonchalant way."
    The men share a bond over the struggles they've experienced and how they've faced hardship, Louganis said. Chaillot-Louganis survived Hurricane Katrina. Louganis confronted his own traumas, being one of the first openly gay, HIV-positive athletes in the 1990s.
    "The thing that attracts us to each other is living life on life's terms. It is what it is," Louganis said. "You live with what you're given."

    'The sunshine came back to him'

    After meeting Louganis and settling into life in Los Angeles, his friends and family were delighted Chaillot-Louganis had finally found happiness.
    "He met Greg in 2010 and I've never seen him look better. I think they've been so good together," said his sister, Chaillot Breaux.
    Living in New Orleans was rough after Katrina, and so was making the transition to Los Angeles, she said.
    "In L.A., it's all sunshine all the time. When he first moved out there, he felt totally out of place and then little by little it's like the sunshine came back to him," his sister said.
    "I think he had to remove himself from the city for a little while to realize that life can go on. You can rebuild your life outside of the city of New Orleans, which a lot of people couldn't do. I was proud of Johnny that he could."
    Los Angeles is home now, but Chaillot-Louganis will never forget when Hurricane Katrina hit, what the last decade has been like and what it took for him to find happiness.
    "I miss New Orleans, the food, the easiness of life, the fun of living, my friends and family," he said. "But I have found that life is what you make it -- if you believe and have help, anything is possible."