Content warning: fire, PTSD, anxiety, trauma
I almost died in an apartment fire in July 1997. The building burned overnight, the night between July 7th and July 8th. Most likely, teenagers caused the fire (accidentally) by setting off fireworks in the illegally-placed dumpster–the dumpster sitting under the apartment buildings, next to parked cars. The dumpster caught fire and then the spray-foam insulation on the ceiling–the foam that was also against fire code and acted as an accelerant–caught fire. Then the gas tanks of nearby parked cars exploded.
My apartment was right above the parking area, right above where the gas tanks exploded, right above the dumpster.
It was a four alarm fire. Firefighters from four stations rushed to the scene. When the first firefighters arrived, they estimated the fire was burning at a temperature of 2700° and spreading at a rate of 10 feet per second.
I woke up when my windows exploded from the heat to find my apartment surrounded by fire, front and back.
I don’t need to go minute-by-minute through the rest of it. I was trapped. I was convinced in every atom of my being that I was about to die. I didn’t die. I managed to get out. Firefighters are fucking heroes, man, and if it weren’t for their quick response to the scene, I would not be here.
I have PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I was diagnosed six to eight months after the fire by a thoughtful, humane, person-centered doctor of internal medicine who realized my physical symptoms of stomach upset, heartburn, and throat constriction were the somatic symptoms of PTSD. If she hadn’t asked all the right questions–not just questions about my body, but questions about if I felt safe in my life, how I was sleeping, if I was experiencing anger or threats–if she hadn’t probed, I don’t know how much longer it would have taken me to get help. I am thankful for her.
I have gotten help. Over the past 21 years, I’ve seen several therapists and done intense work around the fire. I’ve done EMDR therapy which was, for me, very beneficial. I’ve healed and grown tremendously.
But you know what? PTSD doesn’t ever actually disappear. I can usually manage my PTSD very well–I’m seldom triggered. I no longer think about the fire every minute, every hour, every day, every week, or maybe not even every month. That’s a huge change from the years immediately post-fire. I can light candles! I now cook on a gas stove! Our new house has a fire pit and we made a fire the other day and I didn’t freak out! I watched fireworks over Memorial Day without tears streaming down my face, without my body shaking! (I even enjoyed them!) I recognize, notice, and label my PTSD when it pops its head out of the depths of my psyche.
This is the time of year, folks. These last two weeks of June, when my animal brain recognizes the scents on the breeze, the slant of the sun, the feel of the air.
Something’s wrong, my amygdala whispers. Danger is coming.
Danger is coming, my body echoes.
I feel jittery all the time, like I’ve had a whole pot of coffee. I feel restless and I struggle to focus. I’m hypervigilant. I can’t relax. My muscles tense. My stomach clenches. I feel sick, but also hungry, but also sick. I feel like a constant lump is stuck in my throat. I feel like the other shoe will fall. Will another shoe fall? Am I okay? Is everyone I love okay? Who’s not okay? What’s not okay? Something is not okay.
Breathe, Sarah. Breathe.
It’s okay to feel like it’s not okay, I remind myself. This is PTSD. This is your old friend, your old enemy, your old familiar haunting sneaking back into the forefront to recognize this anniversary.
But what if I always feel this bad? What if this time is different? What if I’m losing my mind? I ask myself, hating the frantic tone in my voice.
Today is June 15th, I answer. Every year. Every year you feel this way. Every end of June is hard. Every Fourth of July is significantly awful, as the fireworks explode everywhere. And every year it goes away again. Every year it recedes after you move through it. Every year it clears again as you survive.
Twenty-one years, this July.
Thank all the gods I’ve been alive these last twenty-one years. Thanks to the firefighters. Thanks to the doctor who first said, “PTSD.” Thanks to the four therapists who’ve given me strategies to cope. Thanks to the friends and family who empathize, who listen, who seek to understand, who stay calm and remind me that my calm will return.
And it will. I will be okay.
But these next few weeks are hard for me, folks. They are hard. I will treat myself with care. I will remind myself to breathe. If you see me in the next weeks, please be extra gentle with me.