Traumatized

It starts innocently enough, as these things often do on social media. I have posted a response to a thread on a friend’s wall, where a discussion regarding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and potential long-term impacts on a sufferer is occurring. I post the following, based on both anecdotal and factual evidence showing the incidence of PTSD in our community following the wildfire in May:


And out of nowhere comes a response that leaves me somewhere between enraged and heartbroken, because the individual posting it clearly has no idea what he is talking about when it comes to an experience that impacted tens of thousands of people:


Perhaps most troublesome is that when I creep his profile (which I freely admit I often do – whatever is in the public eye is fair game, in my opinion) I discover he has listed his Bachelor of Psychology degree. I am now not only enraged and heartbroken, but aghast.

I have blacked out his name, because as easy as it would be to identify him I always believe we should focus on the words and actions of others and not on their persons; I have no desire to “release the hounds” on this individual, but I do find myself in desperate need of commenting on his premise that “watching insured material possession burn is not trauma”, and how he minimized the experience we endured.

Trauma, as defined in every resource I have found, is “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience”. Often, the definitions also include potential risk to life, and natural disasters are clearly indicated as a potential source of trauma.

I recall May 3 very clearly. And I recall one moment when I stood in a field, watching flames leap into the sky, and feared not only for my own survival but for the survival of members of my community. I recall finally reaching Edmonton that night after a journey of over eight hours, and watching anxiously as people I knew checked in on Facebook to indicate they were safe. I remember the phone calls – dozens of them – checking in with every person on my contact list to make sure they and their families had made it out. I remember thinking it would be a miracle if everyone survived the experience, and I remember the phone call from one of my closest friends telling me that two young adults had been killed during the evacuation on May 4.

I broke down in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn Express after that phone call, sitting on a parking curb and crying; we had been denied the miracle. The narrative of all of us – every person – surviving had ended.

For days I continued to fear the worst, news of a friend or the spouse of a friend or a stranger who fell asleep after a long shift and didn’t wake up in time to escape; that this did not happen is truly a miracle in itself as I have lost track of the near misses that day, the pounding on doors to wake a sleeping neighbour.

I remember the drive away from Fort McMurray. At around 6:30pm I headed south, and as I drove I watched my city burn in my rear view mirror, flames and black smoke all I could see. I remember thinking I may never be able to return home again; I recall wondering if I would even have a home to return to.

I remember all the uncertainty of the early days, checking satellite photos and having my internet provider ping my modem, desperate to know if my house stood or had fallen; and I remember counting how many friends had already lost their homes, stopping when I reached the number 35 because I couldn’t handle any more.

I remember wandering Edmonton in a state of shock and disbelief; how could this happen to us, to me, to my community?

May 3 was not about “watching insured material possessions burn”. And even if it had been, no one looked at their house in flames and thought “well, there goes the toaster”. No, they thought about the family photos, the quilt grandma who passed away last year had knitted, the Christmas ornaments the kids made, the memories tucked into every corner; insurance would never replace those “things” or quell the pain their loss caused.

May 3 was about families who had minutes to escape, their back yards on fire as they leapt out their front doors; it was about people trapped in neighbourhoods abandoning their vehicles and, very literally, running for their lives. It was about watching everything you knew and cherished and held fast in peril; and it was about the deep fear you feel when you know life would never be the same again.

Trauma? Of course we experienced trauma. Some of those who lived through it may feel it was not traumatic, and I am both happy for them and deeply envious. But no one gets to tell someone else whether or not they experienced trauma, and nobody gets to minimize or diminish our experience or what it is taking for us to recover from it.

I must admit that when this individual posted his response I sort of lost it for a bit. I fired back with several posts, each more angry than the last, and my friend, sensing this was headed in a dangerous direction, put an end to it by blocking this individual from commenting further. But he managed to get in one last comment, and one in which he stated that an event that I personally knew had occurred during evacuation had not happened; at that moment I knew that this person spoke not from a place of knowledge and understanding, but from a place of ignorance and callousness. To summarize, he simply didn’t have a clue about what he was talking about.

But we do. We lived through the kind of experience few will ever encounter; and here we are today. And I am so very proud of all of us, because we got through it together and we continue to do so. We share a common bond, one that will last the test of time, and I suspect one day when meeting someone new the question will be: “were you here on May 3?”. Those that were will always be connected through an experience none of us would ever wish to repeat and that changed us forever, but that strengthened us at the same time it traumatized us.

Nobody who has not lived it will understand it; and some will seek to minimize it, most likely for their own reasons as acknowledging it somehow disturbs their own narrative. Fortunately, these people are a rarity, and we have instead been embraced by the vast majority who may not have lived the experience with us but who empathize and understand the impact it has had on every member of our community, from the youngest to the oldest.

And for this individual, the one callous enough to suggest we did not experience trauma? Just as with everyone I encounter, my wish for him is that he never experiences what we have and never has to learn what we have learned about trauma, survival, PTSD and the slow and painful recovery of an entire community.

And perhaps most of all the experience of the last ten months has taught me the power of forgiveness and of letting go; and with this post I do exactly that, moving on with what truly matters, which is my community and our collective future.

Keep your eyes on the prize of our recovered community, my friends, and do not be deterred or detoured by individuals like the one I encountered; our wisdom has grown in ways others may never comprehend, and if there is  any good to come of the experience, perhaps it is that.

I am so very, very proud of all of you, every single damn day.

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15 thoughts on “Traumatized

  1. Theresa, sadly there is nothing you can do to enlighten that pathetic creature. I agree with your PTSD thoughts. Think you are being conservative. We are all a little damaged whether we lost material things, jobs , security or just feel a little less safe.
    Don’t let anyone’s lack of compassion put a dent in yours!

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  2. It’s so hard to read stuff like this and try to understand that not every being is capable of love and understanding and companionship and encouragement but rather ignorance and judgement and idiocy. I’d never wish it on my worst enemy, the lost feeling about where to go and the scare I got not for myself but for my baby and my family, and not so much for what we were leaving behind us. High five in the face to the guy who likes to leave moronic comments on people who just try to go about their day after going through something like that. And thank you to the writer of this article to clarify that not all of us are alone in this healing journey 🙏

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  3. Great post. It’s not every week that I don’t mention the evacuation once, mostly in a way of outward thoughts and memories of “I had that once” or “I wonder if I remembered that”. I was in the process of moving out of Fort Mac. I came back from Edmonton the Sunday before the 3rd. Some of my possessions had been salvaged because of this, but the things that I held most dear to me could not be. They were supposed to be the last things to go. To leave with me. My boxes of books. A few pairs of shoes. Clothing. Photos, and a memory box which held the flower I received for my graduation and the journals I kept as a child. Those are gone.
    Nowadays, when I look out the window of my Edmonton apartment, as the wind blows and the chilly air never seises to stop. I still keep hoping we’ll get more snow, because, although some people may never understand it, I don’t want to have to go through that again.
    – K

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  4. Our home may not have burned, but I fled RMWB with a 3 and 1 y/o, along with a giant St. Bernard. My oldest was lucky, he slept through the fire as we made our way @ midnight from Fort McKay through our burning city and towards Edmonton. My youngest, my now 2 y/o baby girl, is both fascinated and scared of fire. Her obsession or moreover, her PTSD, flares at every sign of fire. The torches in Stoneycreek, the candles at a birth party, the controlled burns we are having to “breathe” through. Each persons/child’s PTSD will be different, maybe this individual is also suffering from PTSD? Minimizing others feelings maybe to diffuse their own. Who knows. It makes me sad though, because we have all been through a terrible time, and we all deserve to talk through it and try to find happiness…without judgment.

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  5. I have seen so many ridiculous comments that I don’t allow myself to engage in them. That day for me was pure hell. Getting a phone call from my son who was at school telling me we needed to evacuate and he had woken me up because I was working night shift. I can easily go back to that moment and my heart still races. Trying to get through grid lock traffic to my son, running 4 police barricades because I was not leaving my other son behind. Praying that I make it back to him and was prepared to die trying. I prayed to God that as long as the 3 of us were together, I was prepared to possibly not make it out. I drove on a half tank of gas that coasted into grassland @ 1am after being in the car for almost 12 hours. I remember my body aching. I do suffer from PTSD, some days I’m good other days I’m not. Trying to heal. Children feel it too, it’s just harder for them to express. I thank you for standing up for us. And you are right learning to let go was the biggest lesson in all this. We made it through! The fire that burns inside us, burned brighter then the one around us. #FortMacStrong

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  6. That is disgraceful! I would’ve thought that someone with a Psychology background would know better. I’m from Cold Lake but I was in Ontario when the fire occurred and I watch every single piece of news there was about the whole horrifying situation. I can’t imagine what it was like to have to flee your home with very little notice, heading you don’t know where and not knowing what will happen while you’re gone. My heart went out to you all at the time and it still does.

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  7. My 4 year old plays “evacuation” with her friends. She wakes up at night and comes to check we are all safe and refers to our rental as her borrowed home. She tells strangers her stuff got fire on it and will retell more details about the evac than I truly thought she had been aware of.

    I watched the fire come down the hill and my fiancee got to us just in time to drive us through flames to escape. The image of the police officer at the intersection by Burger King haunts my dreams…
    I remember the moment I recieved the text photo of my smouldering ashes. But more, I remember the fear that ran through me that first night parked at the Fish Pond, my baby in my arms, and my 3 year old on the other side of the RV in her Daddys arms. I laid awake jumping everytime the wind shifted the RV, jumping at any noise. Worried about desperate people… Terrified. When the sun came up I snuck outside to let my tension out a big ol ugly cry out of sight of those I must be strong for. On our pilgrimage east I worried about tornados and more fire. I bottled up every other bit of emotion all summer, no weakness.

    If the trauma of the fire was not enough the torment we have been put through since returning is enough to aggravate it. Anyone who discounts our experience has not thought it through.

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  8. That is the problem with social networks. People can write any kind of uninformed and callous statements somewhat “anonymously”. I remember following the news posts about the fire during that time. I live way over here in Ontario but my heart was with you all that day and continues to be with you all. I can’t imagine being in a line of cars trying to flee while your world was burning around you. (one of the videos we saw.) The pictures and videos were bad enough without actually being there. There will always be people who like to go against the grain and think they have something intelligent to say. Please don’t waste your time and energy on them. There are many more who know you are hurting and allow you that space to not only hurt but also to recover from it. Wishing all of you all the best in the future! God bless you!

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  9. Reading this , the tears came back , my heart will never be the same… hopefully the pain will not be wasted and I will become more compassionate, more loving and more whole in the end. God Bless Fort McMurray once again, I pray believing
    🎶❤🕊❤🎶

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  10. I fully and entirely agree with you on all your talking points.

    We’re this individual a judge (or a senator) and made those remarks, they would stand a very good chance of becoming judged by their peers and organizations of governance and found wanting.

    I lived and worked there for 7 years., and am so thankful that we never had to go through that living Hell and its aftermath, which continues even now.

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  11. I am also at a loss for words by this individual but only that it was very traumatic for me…. The day was very intense and i have very vivid memories of leaving work and thinking how am i going to get my kids and fur babies out of this. Once reaching my area i was greeted with plums of smoke and flame, then realizing that i was separated from my children and not knowing if we were going to be together for the long trip down highway 63 which i did make on my own and spend countless hours waiting for them to show with my best friend who picked them up from school. I have a hard time reading or looking at photos from that day. I am so thankfull that my family made it though this and my husband experience this first hand and is definitely my hero. I sure my children worried a great deal if i would be ok as i them.
    Its is very sad that any person would make that sort of statement of others misfortune.
    We all have some sort of PDSD big or small. Some handle it better then other it make so difference in the end. We are all stong in oir own way. #strong

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  12. After reading the reply to your Traumatized blog post…I have to say I’m shocked and appalled at such an ignorant response to your heartfelt post. My son and daughter-in-law went through those fires, and were among the last to be evacuated. Still whenever I see them relay their horrific experiences I see their eyes glaze over and they are re-living the terrifying experience over and over again. My son says whenever there is a fire truck siren, the smell of smoke, or fire….the eeriness of STILL comes over the community wondering if they need to flee again. And this fool has the audacity to say THAT is not PTSD?? My question to the responding ignoramus what qualifies YOU to access another person’S PTSD? Have you found yourself in a situation where you wondered if you would survive being surrounded by walls of flames that towered over 3 and 4 story buildings? Have you had to sit in miles of panic stricken folks all trying to escape and filled with fire….frightened parents much less frightened children? Now picture that scenario with 80 thousand other people…all trying to escape…all wondering if they have enough gas, food and water to sustain themselves until they can escape the hellish inferno? My son said it was as though he was in a movie…he couldn’t fathom what he was seeing…..So Mr. genius instead of being insulting about another’s TRAUMATIC experience. TRY empathy and understanding. You armchair critics quite frankly sicken me!

    To you Theresa…THANK you for bringing up the subject of PTSD for those in The Mac…it’s high time someone spoke of this publicly!!!

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  13. I’ve been noticing lately the feelings of panic I had last may are resurfacing now especially that the weather is changing. It seems that I am reminded of that day and the days following. Though my house was still standing I still had fear of all the what ifs from that day. I can’t imagine what the people who lost their homes are going through still. It’s not fair for someone who hasn’t gone through what our community has to even judge us. So I think idiots like that have no heart and lack the capacity to sympathize with others in the first place but for those who did they showered us with donations and support and for that I will always be grateful.

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  14. Some people are beyond assholes and it looks like you ran into one. It angers me greatly when some ignoramus starts beaking off like that and I sometimes find myself shouting at a computer screen because of the idiocy contained therein.

    I think I can reasonably say I had one of the -least- traumatizing experiences of the fire but I can still remember creeping through downtown with all of Abasand Hill on fire across the lane. At the time, I couldn’t really process it but the thought “We’re all going to die here” couldn’t help but press itself on my mind. I remember forcing myself to repeat “Don’t panic, stay calm. If you panic, everyone dies.” and just hoping no one else cracked up either.

    Long and short of it, the jerkwad who started this is an ignorant ass. On one level, I wish he could be made to understand just how crashing, unforgivably wrong he is but I doubt that’s even possible with someone so devoid of empathy.

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  15. There will always be trolls who try to yank your chain. Don’t give them the satisfaction of knowing they affected you. That’s what they seek. This dingbat may even be “experimenting” with social media. Most people will know that when they read his pathetic attempt at inflammatory influence.
    Your points are all valid and true. Tens of thousands of people share the effects of last May – it was an experience that binds us and strengthens our community.
    Keep doing what you do, and feeling what you feel, and writing about it. And trust in most people to spot a troll when he crawls up out of the sewer.
    Peace. Love.

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