I have been asked to write a scholarly journal article that combines my experience of being a fire disaster victim with my professional background as a specialist in traumatic stress. I am to take that middle path where one is totally cut adrift by trying to respond to our disaster while at the same time being an expert on disaster recovery. What could have been difficult in the time soon after the fire that burned our home to the ground is not so hard now that I now have a comfortable distance from the personal experience.
Regardless, even now, two years and two months after the fire, it is hard for me to separate the fire-brused self from the professional self. Perhaps it is related to the fact that my traumatic stress work was largely with the volunteers and professionals who respond to disasters. It made my personal place in the environment of the disaster complicated. In those early, confused post-disaster days I found myself worrying about the insurance adjustors who were faced with viewing the devastation and working on claim after claim of people whose lives had burned away in the Western wildfires of 2012. Our hotel housed both fire victims and major claims adjustors. Because of the agony they had to address, I knew they were at risk for the negative consequences that can occur when one is trying to help others who have been traumatized or experienced great sorrow. Taking interest in their situation, I found myself talking with them about the negative and positive aspects of their work, that is, Compassion Fatigue and Compassion Satisfaction (see my ProQOL.org website).
At the very same time I was concerned that the adjusters were suffering from responding to the suffering of fire victims across the West, I was suffering. About a week after the fire I remember one evening standing in the hotel lobby with some adjustors giving a mini seminar on Compassion Fatigue and self-care (I later used these experiences to develop podcast for SAMHSA on Understanding Compassion Fatigue and Compassion Satisfaction: Tips for Disaster Responders.) When we turned to go to our respective rooms I felt physically and psychologically disoriented and set apart from my professional knowledge. It was as if the fire divided me into two: the professional self who knew about disasters and the personal self who was overcome by a disaster. Both of me were totally present and appropriate for the situation.
Two years post-event, I have come to the conclusion that being a having professional knowledge about disasters only predisposed me to understanding seeking mental health and social support resources for our family was important. Nothing had prepared me for the reality we faced and certainly my cloak of professionalism did not protect us from the horror of those first days after we lost our home and all our possessions to a wildfire.