Last week was the 20th anniversary of the East Bay firestorm that swept through the Oakland-Berkeley hills on October 20, 1991. Many of us who live in the East Bay remember where we were that day, and have friends who lost everything.
Some people seemed to have found the resilience to start over. We have a friend who stood on his roof with a hose long after the hills around Broadway Terrace were evacuated. When he and his family lost everything, except his cat who miraculously re-appeared several days later, he said, “Oh boy, I get to start over and build a new house.” He not only had the skills, but he was at a stage in his life where he didn’t count on the external stability to feel safe inside. For him, it was a house, and his foundation was inside of himself.
This was not true for many other people. Some lost their trust in life even if they escaped without physical harm. Even those who didn’t lose their homes often felt a sense that life had betrayed them and was too unpredictable. They had trouble sleeping and lost their confidence for a while.
I heard a woman on the radio who said she was initially proud of how her children “soldiered through” that difficult time. They seemed so well adjusted. But by the time her daughter got to college, signs of post traumatic stress and strain took a terrible toll on her life.
Our capacity to push through difficult and even catastrophic events is part of our flexible, adaptable nervous systems. But whether the loss occurs in a war, a home, with a family, a pet, or a dream, this emergency response is meant to get us through the time of trial. When the crisis is over, we need to open the locked compartments and give ourselves a chance to review, feel, digest and integrate.
We have learned so much about trauma from the men and women returning from war in Iraq. They felt in control while in the midst of a very unstable situation, but back home, many feel out-of-control of their own feelings, memories and behaviors. My contemporaries from the Viet Nam War were largely ignored, and more died after the war from neglect, homelessness, addiction and post traumatic stress than during the actual fighting.
Please forgive the political tone of today’s blog, but I am so grateful that we are beginning to understand the longer trajectory of trauma. We can bring these lessons and the new tools of recovery to all people, including those whose were left with childhood wounds that never got transformed and remain obstacles to true peace of mind.
As I write about my mother (in The Woman in the Photograph), I see so clearly how strong she became to cope with her childhood and then her escape from Nazi Germany. But her experiences got frozen, photos buried in the back of her closet, stories buried in the back of her mind. She had courage, but she also got brittle, cynical, lost her capacity to dream.
I once heard a Buddhist teacher say that when you free yourself, you free nine generations back. I hope as I uncover my mother’s story, I release her from the wounds of her past, release her parents and ancestors, and most of all, send forward a faith and trust in life for those wonderful new generations who have a world to build.
Maybe healing doesn’t happen in one generation. We are part of a bigger arc. What is your part? I’d love to hear your comments.