Reflections on the Marshall Fire: Trauma is not our Resting Place
While my beloved town burned, while my sky turned black and my sun, an infected, pus-filled red, I found myself in a familiar place. My body knew this story.
It new how to meld itself with chaos, as if swirling into its blinding, ashy wind. To disconnect itself from my head so it could pound out one action after another to survive. To survive as an individual entity and also attempt to survive as part of a collective, the community around me, those I take part in caring for—my children, our clients, the countless individuals I care about whose homes were in the path of wild flames.
My mind, while floating upwards like smoke to my inner fire, nevertheless remained painfully clear and sharp. It remained so until it didn’t, and I found it stalling like a car whose gas and break petals were being slammed down at the same time. This, too, was familiar.
Like so many others in the field of deep healing, I this level of burning chaos feels so integral to my existence it may as well be written in my bones. I would go as far to say a part of me takes comfort in it, as it remains a part of the way my nervous system developed and adapted to the world. A somatic sort of hometown, its details part of dreams and everyday associations, so familiar you don’t even notice their presence in your mind. There have been parts of my life where such chaos was seductive, even pedestalized.
But trauma is not our resting place. To use it as such is self-abuse of the highest order.
It took me many, many years to retrain my mind, body, and spirit to accept peace. To welcome the lack of chaos, relating to it not as boredom but as an alignment with the deepest part of myself that was shivering and scared all those years. To disintegrate the steely walls of chaos around her so that she can warm and thaw in the sun she has missed so terribly.
It took me most of my life to unclench my jaw and slow my pace so that my skull could rest itself on the sturdiness of my spine. There were many years where a single intentional breath led to suffocation, where my nervous system pleaded with me not to look inward, even into the rhythmic tide of my lungs, as there was a very real chance that it would cause the entire system to spiral inward into a never-ending panic attack. Just keep going. Keep doing. If you do enough things it will all be ok.
It is unsurprising that this voice, this desperate vigilante perfectionism, had returned under the black cloud of the Marshall Fire. Flames had literally almost consumed me many years ago when I was trapped in a burning hostel in South America. Carbon monoxide had seduced me back into sleep, over and over, while those outside my door banged and screamed for me to wake up.
The smell of smoke—this kind of smoke, made of burning drywall and insulation and furniture and linens—has the power to hypnotize me, possess me to give up and rest forever. Intoxicated, I had felt myself sinking deeper and deeper into the mattress below me, beckoning my surrender. It took me a lot of healing to thank myself for turning away from it, by some force I thought I didn’t trust. The force of will to live. To live and to heal.
Of course, this memory was present as I watched the wind whip leaves across the backdrop of the hellion sky. This acknowledgment of how a part of me had longed to merge into he chaos of fire so completely that I was willing to be consumed by it, to become part of it. The acknowledgment of such darkness is, in and of itself, a trauma. Not just coming face to face with death, but with the seduction of death. And then there was all of this, this shame in such a reckoning, while in my palms were the palms of my two small children, who, above all else, I desperately wanted to keep from holding this trauma the way I held trauma for so terribly long.
After many days of restless sleep and borderline-maniacal planning—planning donations and support groups and hosting evacuees and frantically helping in any way I could—an acupuncture treatment coupled with an invitation by a fellow therapist to slow down, breathe, and step back into my body, did I realize I had nearly flown away with the hurricane-level winds of that day. Flown back into the illusion of rest that I find in turmoil. That part of me that can finally stop worrying about all that can go wrong because it’s all already wrong; I don’t have to fight or look over my shoulder anymore. I can just give up. Isn’t this what’s at the heart of so many addictions, after all?
I am not going to sugar coat it. Recovery from this place is fucking hard. Once I realized I didn’t want to die in my sleep, sleep became a source of terror for many years, one which my nervous system rejected over and over, even as I trained it as compassionately as I could to trust the world without my eyes on it.
When I realized what my life was worth, it was terrifying to think of all the ways it could disintegrate against my will. And the discomfort of simply placing my feet on the ground and my focus on my breath could, so much of the time, feel like drowning in all the hurt I had suppressed for so long.
My first year of meditating, my lungs grasped at air stiffly like a tightly balled fist, bracing for impact, as if clean oxygen would slice its skin in a thousand shards disguised as the plush softness of deadly smoke. They too, took a very long time to start believing the world was not that kind of a place.
But then there were the other humans.
The other humans who sat in my fire with me, unafraid. The other humans who woke me out of my carbon monoxide hypnosis, who held me, who refused to save me or lead me but who celebrated those little wins of leading myself. And through it all, that’s what gets you through. They are the life force that the seduction of smoke can never offer, that the winds of chaos can never deliver, no matter how highly you fly over the world, telling yourself you’ve found something better than the ground.
Ultimately, this is my where I put my faith in how we will rebuild. How my children will tell a different story than I did, and how the members of my community will survive this without closing themselves off to inner serenity forever.
Because I have seen it.
I have been given food, I have been called, I have been held and checked in on and gifted little peaces of compassion and grace as I navigate the emotional journey of returning to my emotional and spiritual equilibrium. And equally, I have felt a profound longing to offer whatever I can to those who need it more than I do. I have watched my son and daughter shovel handfuls of their legos into bags for displaced kids and seen baristas and servers quietly comp coffee and meals to those who look brokenhearted.
This is who we are. We cannot deny our roots in a fight/flight existence, one we share with the rest of the animal kingdom. But we can watch how our ability to connect and love has the power to elevate us away from that place when it no longer serves us.
This, as much as any progress, is the story of our evolution.