I was 8 years old when the apartment building we were living in caught on fire. That fateful day, March 9th, 1995, was like most others. My dad was on his way home from a business trip. We were getting ready for dinner and Mom was catching up with the next door neighbor in the hallway. All of a sudden, the neighbor’s daughter came running out of their apartment yelling “Fire!”
Our moms went running inside their apartment. I stood in the doorway where I could see the reflection of the orange glow dancing on their dining room wall. A pot of oil had over-boiled and was now engulfed in flames. It could have easily been put out, but the neighbor panicked and was hysterical. Offering no help in locating a lid or something to cover the pot or baking soda to snuff it out. The fire spread into the range hood and by now the downstairs neighbor heard the commotion and came running up with a fire extinguisher. He apparently did not know how to use the extinguisher correctly and ended up blowing the flames from the stove onto the kitchen curtains. At this point the professionals were called.
Bundling up against the brisk Spring afternoon, we headed outside to wait for the firemen to arrive. Thinking, surely the firemen would be able to put the fire out right away, we did not take anything with us–not even the cat. When the they arrived and started dousing the flames with water the explosiveness of the hot oil sent the flames up into the asbestos ridden attic and proved to be quite difficult to extinguish.
Meanwhile, my dad arrived from his trip in the midst of the chaos. This was before cellphones, so there was no way of warning him or letting him know we were all right. I can only imagine the range of emotions he must have gone through in the 10 minutes it took him to find my Mom and learn we were ok. He was not the same after that, or maybe I was more aware of the stress the whole situation put him under.
Almost 2 hours after the fire started, with the help of 6 fire engines from 5 neighboring cities, the flames were finally extinguished. The next door neighbor’s apartment took the brunt of the damage. Our only physical losses came at the hands of the firemen, not the fire. In an attempt to gain access to the fire raging in the attic, the firemen ripped out our kitchen cabinets and threw them out the 3rd story window. Priceless family heirlooms like my great-grandmothers wedding china…destroyed. Anything else of value that did not break in the fall was taken by looters that first night.
I started having nightmares shortly after. Our family dynamic changed drastically as my parents relationship became more strained. My dad blamed my mom for everything; distracting the neighbor, not being able to extinguish the flames before the firmen got there, for the hoops he had to jump through to get our insurance to pay. He also understandably became hyper vigilent about fires safety, any whiff of smoke from burnt toast or popcorn sent him over the edge. We never really talked about the hard feelings we experienced surrounding the fire and the aftermath before life returned to its new normal. There was a lot to be thankful for and that was what we focused on. No one was hurt. We did lose our house, but we did not lose all of our belongings. There was so much good, my feelings of loss, insecurity, uncertainty, seemed invalid and irrational. I learned how to push things down and move on.
Over time the nightmares stopped. Life continued and I never fully realized how I was impacted by this event in my life until Summer 2018. Overnight the Carr Wildfire swept into my city destroying over 1,500 structures and displacing countless others. There were many moments of uncertainty where it was thought the fire would take the whole city, including our home. When all was said and done our home was fine. However, my nightmares returned as well as those familiar feelings of invalidity.
In the days and weeks after the Carr fire I could not shake all lot of heavy emotions or the nightmares. My first reaction was that these feelings could not possibly be valid because I did not physically lose anything. I was not even in town when the fire broke out. So why did I feel like I had been through something traumatic? Because I had.
There were about 5 days of uncertainty where the fire just kept growing exponentially and destroying more and more. The pictures and videos of the mountainside on fire are etched into my memory. I’ll never forget watching the news coverage of the huge fire-nado jumping the Sacramento river and moving into areas of the city where my friends lived. Are my friends ok? Are their houses going to be ok? Would they lose everything? Would I? I woke multiple times a night to check the satellite fire map to see if my city was still standing. Would the brave firefighters be able to contain it? Will it burn through everything. I mourned every loss of life–it could have been me, my children, my friend, my neighbor. Remembering all the precious memories we have made throughout the city and surrounding parks and trails, not knowing if there will be anything left to make more memories. Then on top of that, all the emotions welled back up from my childhood experience. It was a traumatic experience.
My default coping mechanism is to get lost in the motions of life and ignore or numb anything I do not want to confront. I know now what I did not know as an 8 year old girl–the importance of listening to and taking stock of what my heart is trying to tell me. Emotions, while not based on truth, are often indicators that something is going on in our hearts. I do not give myself over to the woes of negative emotions, instead I press in and see what my heart is trying to tell me. I know the importance of giving space to the emotions and recognizing them.
When I finally took the time to process everything surrounding the events of the fire, my heart needed me to acknowledge that what I was feeling was valid. I had to stop comparing what I had been through with what other people had gone through. I had to confront the lie What will people think… (being labeled as “the overly dramatic one” is a huge fear of mine) I could not live in denial, pretending nothing had happened. I was not fine. The pain was valid, the fear was valid. I had to give myself permission to breakdown and cry, vent and grieve everything that happened over the summer as well as what happened when I was a child. Once I did, I felt a weight lift and my gratitude became so much sweeter as I had allowed myself to fully feel the gravity of what we had gone through.
My story is not your story. Unpacking feelings, experiences, traumas is different for everyone. I’ve already done a ton of work towards inner healing, so for this experience I just needed a good cry and someone to vent to. But you might need to talk to a professional for something similar and that is OKAY. Do not fall into the trap of comparing your process to someone else. There is way more going on behind the scenes in other’s lives than we could ever know. A great quote I found on Pinterest says, “Do not be jealous of the beauty you see in another person’s life when you never saw their ashes.”
I encourage you to make it a regular practice set aside time to take stock of your heart and what it is telling you. Putting my feelings into words does not come naturally or easy to me, I have to really work at it and figure out what I am feeling and why. Journalling is helpful to me. Others might need to verbally process with themselves or someone else. Find what works for you.