“Who’s running the water?”
That was the thought running through my head at 5:30am on Sunday, Jan 22, as I stirred from sleep. Truthfully, you always blame that on your spouse- “What is he doing?” As I open my eyes, I notice that the room is kind of bright, like someone has all the outside lights on. “What could he possibly be up to?” Except- he’s sleeping.
That’s when I notice the flames licking around to the window. FIRE FIRE FIRE There’s a fire! THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE! I can still hear myself screaming those words. I run for the phone. My husband grabs our son and the dogs, I call 911 from the front yard as I watch in complete and utter disbelief the 25 foot high flames that have already consumed the garage begin to take my house.
In the time it took for the fire department to arrive, fire moved half way across the house. Everything is damaged if not outright destroyed. If it wasn’t directly burned, the heat, or the smoke got it, and of course for good measure, there’s the thousands of gallons of water the firefighters poured into the structure.
They found the cat. The ambulance crew worked on her. A nice police officer drove me- naked, except for my nightgown- to a friends house so she could take her to the vet. My 4 year old son doesn’t have any shoes. (He doesn’t have any clothes or toys or anything else either, but the lack of shoes was ripping my heart out)
The fire is out. The insurance company is called. We are now displaced. Homeless. If I hadn’t left my purse in the car the night before, we would have had no credit cards, no money, and no way to get any, until the bank opened on Monday. Thankfully, my husband thought to grab the car keys. And I had my phone, though his was gone.
Now that we are almost 7 months out from the fire (still displaced because insurance isn’t actually what you think it is) I have these conversations with people, and it highlights this very interesting blind spot in our language, and therefor in our ability to understand the problem.
When I tell people about the fire, they are shocked of course, and sympathetic. Usually they ask if we all got out, and since in my case the answer is yes, they breathe a sigh of relief. That is usually followed up with some kind of not actually awesome sentiment of- that’s all that matters- what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger- its only stuff- which makes me want to throat punch them, because in their mind the “Trauma” is over. For some people, it’s clear they consider the traumatic event to be over as soon as the firefighters put out the fire. For others, it seems to be when we moved into the house my insurance rents for me. Because we conceptualize trauma using an event based model.
And an event is of relatively short duration, has a discrete beginning and end, then its over and you’re all good right? Unless you have PTSD, which isn’t widely understood by the masses, but it still linked to the idea that it’s caused by a discrete and measurable event.
Here’s the thing- the “event” which is my house burning down isn’t actually going to be over until my home is rebuilt and I am not at the store every single day trying to replace the things that are gone. Right now, making dinner is no longer a chore, it’s now a project, and an emotional event. I used to make that chicken in the pan grandma gave me (grief trigger for both grandma, the gift she gave me, and the practical and monetary value of the pan) So I have to go seek out and purchase a pan. I lost all my recipe books so I have to go track one of those down, or hope that when I call my family member asking for the family recipe they will both have a copy, and make the effort to get back with me, because I don’t have the energy to be the one to ping everyone about everything. Now that I have a recipe, and a new pan, I can see if I can actually make it come out right, because of course the new pan and the oven in the rental house aren’t the same, so it ends up not as good (more frustration, and bad feelings, and of course comfort food should be comforting). And this is true for everything. Everything.
But we don’t really have a word for what it is to live in a continuous state of trauma. When we talk about people who live in war torn countries, when the war is over they were victims (if they died) or survivors (if they lived). If they left during the war they are refugees, but what about the people who aren’t actually fighting the war, but they live in a constant state of trauma?
We have an inkling of the concept, we understand divorce is a process, we understand cancer is a process, we also understand that addiction recovery is a process. Yet- when we conceptualize these processes we talk about them in relation to treatment plans, or the recovery options, not that the person is actually in a protracted state of being traumatized. The traumatic “event” of cancer isn’t receiving the diagnosis from the doctor. The trauma of divorce isn’t filing for divorce, or signing the papers. And the trauma of my house burning down isn’t the flames.
I am actively traumatized by the fire every day. By every physical thing I have to buy, by every argument I have to have with my insurance company, with every conversation I have with a builder, or an architect, and by every conversation where someone breathes that sigh of relief that no one died, and can’t understand why I’m not better already. I can’t even begin to heal until I’m not actively dealing with the physical effects of the fire. Only after I’m back at my address, living in my house, and having my own stuff (rental furniture is a thing- and it sucks) and 75% of my days are not managing the physical aftermath, can I get back to normal, or the event be over.
And without a word, or a conceptualization of this continuous, protracted trauma, I can’t hardly even explain it to people.
This is the people living in Flint who have toxic water. The Water Protectors. The Homeless. Children living with abusive parents, people living with abusive spouses (because while the discrete event of being beaten by an asshole is traumatic, the entire experience of living with said asshole is also the trauma). We need language for this. We need conceptualization of this. We need to understand this. The active and protracted state of continuously living a traumatizing life, because our current ideas aren’t getting it done. And they aren’t recognizing what people’s experiences are, and we can’t help them if we can’t conceptualize their experience.
So, I challenge you to stop thinking of other people's stuff as "events". That it's over for for them after the first responders arrive. Be more open to the idea that sometimes, it isn't an event, it's actually a state. And if you're linguistically talented, help me come up with a word so we can fill this void in our language, which takes off the blinders.
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