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.