Saturday 7 July 2018

Living with Post Traumatic Stress

I've had this post on my mind a lot since publishing My Bedroom Caught Fire.

I just saw a post which triggered me. It's like my body goes numb and my panicked heartbeats thumping against my chest are the only things I can focus on. But I have to snap out of it, and not let it consume me.

As most of you might know I still suffer from Generalised Anxiety Disorder and depression, it doesn't always affect me, but I've had painful reminders that it's still very much a part of me.

Experiencing the house fire first hand was one of the worst things that has ever happened to me. When I talked to my counsellor the week after the event, she mentioned being careful of post-traumatic stress. In just that week I was having unbearable flashbacks, fire-based anxiety and trouble sleeping.

On top of all of that, I was confused as to what I had actually lost in the fire, I had to go through the things I had at my mums to clarify what was gone. I also spent quite a few months spending money I didn't have to replace a lot of the stuff I lost, I was trying to fill a void and try and go back to before the fire happened.

As if I didn't need any more trauma, in the last two years I've frequently been the punch line to very painful and cruel jokes. I understand that to other people, it can be funny. There's plenty of hilarious fire content to be said. But, I don't want to hear it. I deal with my PTSD symptoms almost every day, I don't need someone else to be reminding me further of my traumatic experience, and to be mocking me as well.

I'm usually in shock when it happens, I can't believe what they've just said. I just ignore it as I don't really want to address it in front of them and usually other people. But also, no one ever stands up for me, they join in laughing.

Is it funny that I lost the majority of my belongings? That it put an even bigger wedge between me and my housemates? That I jump in the air when I hear a siren and it kickstarts my flashbacks? That I can't even look at candles? That people who didn't know about the event gifted me candles that I can't use? Let alone the fact that the Grenfell Tower incident is still very raw, I don't think jokes about fires are funny.

One of my most vivid panic attacks after the fire was when I was on a work placement. I was having the time of my life, I had an amazing opportunity to learn and have a film credit on my CV. When all of a sudden all of these howler smoke detectors were set off. Immediately I could feel my heart doing gymnastics and looking for help or a cause as to why the detectors were going off. No one was reacting. I couldn't hear anything anyone was saying over the top of these shrill fire alarms. I was ushered into an empty room while the crew were sorting out the current scene. I couldn't see or hear anything other than the alarms. I could feel the panic rising and walking around the room trying to figure out what to do, was there a real fire? Has everyone evacuated and left me behind? I walked out to where the crew were which was reassuring that everything seemed to be fine. As I was carrying food (not that I felt like eating it now, I was sick with anxiety) I was yelled out of the room back into the previous one, but other crew members were in there now. I thought that maybe I could calm down, but it was too late.

I needed to get away from everyone and the terrible noise that was not cutting out. I could feel tears welling up and my breathing starting to get shallow, I left the room and tried to get out by not being seen. Unlucky for me it seemed that all of the film's crew were in that part of the building, I ducked into a small room and hid as my eyes streamed and my breathing became out of control. I left the building as fast as I could into the darkness (as it was night) and carried on walking around in a clear state of panic. Even though I could no longer hear the alarms, and there was no immediate danger.

I tried my breathing techniques I was taught during my counselling vigilantly. Eventually, I calmed down a bit and tried to track down my boyfriend, who fortunately was working on the film as well. When he found me we decided that the best thing was to go home. I was still really traumatised from my episode and was in no state to carry on working.

When I told the production manager about what happened and why she was really understanding and said if the alarms went off again to stop what I was doing and just walk outside (as leaving situations used to be my coping mechanisms). When it did happen again, I was surrounded by people so I knew it was ok and it was just a smoke machine that set them off. The issue is that when one goes off they ALL GO OFF. But, the production manager came running in to find me and told me to go outside, but I reassured her that I was fine as I could tell it wasn't real. I was so grateful that she was understanding and cared about my welfare.

I generally don't tell employers about my mental health problems or about the fire. If I thought that it would affect the quality of my work then yes I would tell them, but since I was discharged from counselling I've been handling it myself and referring to my family and boyfriend if I feel like I'm slipping.

Since my first panic attack from an accidental fire alarm, I've managed to improve my coping mechanisms. It's strange that perhaps it needed to happen so that I could try and move on with my life. It's still horrifying when one goes off. Recently I was bed bound by a virus and a smoke alarm went off and the sound sends my body into shock and I freeze and barely breathing. It's like I'm trying to hold the panic in, or if I don't breathe I won't panic. I just had to lay there and listen out in case it was a real fire, whilst giving myself a pep talk that it's probably just the toaster that set it off.

Now, does any of that sound funny to you? I hope not.

All year round my PTSD is triggered by candles, fire alarms, BBQ's, bonfires, sirens, news about other fires and even just a familiar object or smell. I had never experienced such brutal flashbacks in my life until the fire. It's like I'm back there again, in my bedroom in front of a growing blaze screaming the house down for my housemates.

I just want people to understand my side, and how your words can affect me or anyone who might've been through the same and who even might have lost more than me.

Just think twice before making a joke at someone else's expense.

Saffron x

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