I recently had a traumatic event happen. After fighting a fire at my cabin. I realized that it triggered PTSD. I never would have thought to make this connection but now I can.
My upbringing as a young child was incredibly traumatic. There were already signs showing that I had PTSD. Memory problems, always being on guard for danger, trouble concentrating and being easily frightened or startled. Immediately, when my friend came running in and said, “You have to evacuate!” I went into a hyper vigilant mode. My heart pounded faster, my blood pressure rose, my senses became very sharp. A mental list of what I needed to bring to survive appeared in my mind. Sleeping bags, blow-up mattresses, pillows, sheets, blankets, clothes, food, camping equipment, tents, water, toiletries, flashlights. My mind was racing and my physical movements were quick. But as the stress kept compounding day after day, my concentration began to falter, my memory started to fail. I also had troubles with words when I spoke and the right words were slow to connect to.
Every time airplanes started to come down low above my cabin, that triggered it. Seeing the plumes of smoke or fire near my cabin triggered it too. It took awhile after I returned to Seattle to calm down, to feel safe again. When I would see a plane, I slowly started to not be in fear and wonder “Oh my God!”
It made me see that my childhood had led me to react to the fire as a traumatic stress situation. The times when my mother ran after me with a knife, the times when she would drive a sports car with me in it and drove us both into a telephone pole. Put me on constant alert as a child because I would never know what kind of battlefield would be behind the front door of my house when I came home.
Now I know why I am the way I am. I want to be able to balance myself when stress triggers me again. Even in a small way. I want to be able to concentrate. To be able to speak clearly and controlled. To be able to retain memory. To be not in a hyper vigilant mode of behavior. To be normal.
This summer I traveled to the cabin that I built with my husband in 1977 in a remote area near Fruitland, Washington in the Huckleberry Mountains. It is an amazing eight sided log cabin that sits in an open pasture with large pines, tamarack and fir trees surrounding it. There is a ravine behind my house that has the Orapakin creek running through it. When I look back, I feel blessed. One year ago we were trying to figure out the water situation on our property- to dig a new well or to try to re-connect an old shallow well or since we have water rights to the creek to pump from it. We looked at the old shallow well but no water was flowing. My husband and I tried to carry the pump down the ravine to the creek but it was so awkward and incredibly heavy. We both said, “No way that we are carrying this pump up and down this ravine every year.” We chose the expensive option. Fogel Pump drilled sixty-five feet and hit ten gallons a minute. We arrived this summer excited to attach the water to our cabin. What a joyous moment to have running water again after over 30 years of hauling water. One thing I did notice about the water was that it had a lot of silt in it and we talked to the guy who had put in our well. “Keep running it. Put sprinklers out and run it constantly,” he said. With these wise words, we went back to my cabin and proceeded to run the heck out of the pump. Every day, we watered a 50 foot area around our eight sided cabin. On August 13th, we were returning from Spokane after picking up my brother from the airport. His plane had been delayed, so we were driving back in the evening as tremendous thunder storms and lightening burst across the night skies. We “oohed” and “ahhed” at the spectacle. Closer to our place we noticed a fire to the south on the Spokane Indian Reservation and hoped that someone was on it. On August 14th, a Friday evening, we had a wonderful dinner with friends of ours that live on the Coyote Canyon road. Not even an hour after we had returned to our cabin, our good friend Martha Kraus with whom we had dinner, opened our door and shouted, “We are being evacuated.” The fire that started on the reservation was neglected and now it had taken hold. My mind racing like a racehorse, I managed to pack my car and get to safety at Don Dales’s farm in Hunters. Shaken by this immediate exit, we laid our heads down and hoped. My husband and I awoke very early on Saturday and our eyes said it all. We got up, got dressed, and drove back to our cabin. It was a very strange site seeing smoke billowing near the Fruitland Bible Camp and up a ridge above it. When we approached our cabin, half the sky was clear and the other half was smoky. I held my breath and steadied my mind as we traveled up the road. No fire had come that night. I immediately was in a hyper vigilant mode. My husband and I dragged everything plastic away from the house and relocated any building materials and firewood as well. We re-positioned the sprinklers. We unplugged a ten foot swimming pool so it would saturate the earth. We brought lounge chairs back into the house. We only had two hours. What else to take out of danger? Pillows, foam for the blow up mattress that we were camping on, canned goods, my son’s old drawings as a child, love letters, writing books, a Mother Mary plaque, my granddaughter’s cowboy hat for her September 11th birthday. I kissed the center tree trunk that is the central foundation of our cabin. From it, logs form the spokes of a wheel shape for the upper floor supports. I hugged that tree and asked it to keep our home safe. A level three alert kept us from returning that afternoon, and no one was there to protect our homes. There were no fire fighters that Saturday, no helicopters or planes dousing the advancing flames with fire retardants or water. There were no fire lanes yet dug. It was only us and our neighbors that kept watch. There was only the few instructions that I kept repeating in my mind. Water 50 feet around your property, take all plastics and any kind of wood away from around the house. That evening, one of our friends, despite his and the community’s efforts couldn’t save his house from the fire that exploded across Coyote Canyon. In spite of his family’s loss, Lorne Brunson continued to work valiantly round the clock for days to help save our home and others and to make sure they were protected from the continuing threat of the fire.