For the first few months after the fire looking at photos of my old house and even of the aftermath of the fire did not bother me. Now they do.
My professional work is in traumatic stress. I specialize in the effects of helping on the helpers who care for people who have been traumatized or have experienced great sorrow or crisis in their lives. We have learned over the years that the amount of exposure to trauma has a strong effect on the negative effects on the helpers themselves.
It used to be, and still is in some places, that people were seen as weak or useless if working in horrible situations was distressing or taxing. They were seen as weak. The old expression, “If you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen” was a core cultural belief among rescue workers. Thankfully that has changed. Helpers who have no feelings left may be shut down and may expect that others should behave similarly. The turning point in the United States was 9/11. As the television news broadcast live the public safety personnel coming out of the building having seen horrible things and knowing that they could do nothing to change the situation, we saw them being embraced by their fellow workers. We heard newscasters talking about “Compassion Fatigue.” We heard that being horrified by terror was normal. In the weeks and months and even years following the event helpers were recognized for their contributions to reducing the pain and agony people felt as they struggled to live with the aftereffects of what happened to their loved ones and what they experienced.
It was important for those responding to the crisis not to spend all of their off duty time watching and re-watching the newsreels of the event. Laurie Pearlman, an important researcher and clinician in the field teaches us that being flooded with terror without having any moments of safety and comfort changes negatively the way one views the world.
All of these things are also true for people who experienced the trauma as the direct victims.
These days as I comb through the more than 1 terabyte of photos we have if I encounter a series of photos of the aftermath of the fire I scurry on by saying to myself what I have said to others, “you don’t need to see that.”
I cannot account for the shift in my reaction to the photo other than to hypnotize that as I became more aware of the normal, post-disaster world, I recognized that those pictures represented something bad that happened to me. I was not traumatized by the experience but I was deeply affected. It changed my world view. First, it changed me into tears and sorrow and grief. I think the next stage was rational recognition of the fire without having the feelings that go with the loss. I think after that I began to return to some sort of normalcy. I see that my world has changed. I see that what I believed to be true, that my home was a safe haven and that I could pass that on to the next generation is not. I see that I was strongly attached to my things, not because I was a toy-gatherer but because they served a function and they belonged in my daily routines. I now see that those are replicable in many ways.
The loss of my brown sewing box was one of the deepest wounds. I managed to find one like it on ebay. The other night I was sewing and stopped to study on the fact that I had merged my old brown sewing box with this new one so that there was no real difference.
Of course, not all things are without difference but I have learned that I can find the same normalcy in new things and in things that were replacements for our old things. I can find my life among the ashes. I do not need to dwell on the loss. I need to know it and I need to recognize it is part of my life but it is not the definition of my life.