Surviving the Burn

Amazing how your life can change in a moment. As I write this, it’s been six weeks since the wildfires began, six weeks since my family and I fled Glen Ellen at 2 a.m., six weeks since we learned that our home, and nearly everything we owned, had gone up in flames. Sadly, it’s a story that thousands of us share. What was once unimaginable has become a new life chapter, one that might be called “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

Coping with this catastrophe and recovering from it began the moment we heard the sheriff’s bullhorn telling us to evacuate. In my confusion, I put on shoes, got the dog into the car, grabbed clothes and a few photos. My wife Jill, our 17-year-old son Larkin and I spontaneously prioritized and coordinated with each other, calling out – “I’ve got some photo albums,” “I grabbed important papers,” “I’m taking the cat out to the car,” etc. We had about 15 minutes before the bullhorns grew even more urgent, “You need to evacuate immediately!” That’s when we fled.

Since that night, all things considered, we have had a surprisingly soft landing. For the first six weeks, various friends in Sonoma and Marin welcomed us without hesitation. Countless other friends and community members got in touch to offer material and emotional support. The generosity we have experienced has been deeply touching and humbling and has brought us closer to many people. In the face of such loss, the strength and resilience of the community revealed itself. In the midst of the devastation, our connections with each other shone through. I have always prided myself on being pretty self-reliant; but right now my lesson is about gracefully receiving. I feel strangely lucky, while keenly aware that for many people the wildfires brought much more tragic and difficult consequences.

Which isn’t to say it’s been easy for us. I describe my emotional state as “up and down.” There have been tears and times when the smallest decision seems overwhelming. Many nights I’ve awoken despondent over the mountain of things that need to be done – filing insurance claims, making a decision about whether to allow the Army Corps to do the debris removal, finding a contractor to rebuild… At such moments I just want to go home. Somehow when dawn arrives, I find a willingness to begin putting one foot in front of the other again. It is a journey into the dark guided by a star of hope.

I’ve always enjoyed stories about people finding a way through seemingly hopeless situations – like Apollo 13 or Ernest Shackelton’s Antarctic expedition in which his ship Endurance was lost to the ice. Somehow they had just enough resources to make it through. And while they had to be impressively clever with their outer resources, it’s the inner resources that draw me to these tales.

About the time we were able to return to Sonoma Valley, I realized that I had experienced a trauma. So has nearly everyone in the county. I knew that to avoid long-term effects, trauma should be treated as early as possible. I was experiencing “disaster brain,” having a hard time remembering things and getting motivated. I made an appointment with a counselor who specializes in trauma. As she describes it, during a traumatic event, the right side of your brain takes over and initiates the fight or flight response. The left side goes dark. In a life or death situation, this is appropriate. But once the situation has passed, the left side is needed to provide narrative and context. Without it, you are left with a raw, unintegrated experience. If this imbalance persists, as it does in PTSD, the brain undergoes physical changes that can be hard to treat and lead to long-term disability.

The treatment is designed to connect the right and left brain. As I told her my fire story, I held a small device in each palm that alternately vibrated, left, right, left right. Then I was told to imagine the whole experience as a movie. At the first emotionally charged moment – which for me was hearing the bullhorns – I held that memory and followed a horizontal bank of lights with my eyes as it moved back and forth. I could feel the emotion of that moment as a physical sensation that rose from my gut and passed through me like a long, almost unbearable wave. When it finally subsided, there was a profound sense of relief. By the time we finished our first session, I could feel something inside had shifted. The warped quality that the world seemed to have taken on since the disaster was diminished. Things felt more familiar.

Telling our stories may be the most important thing we are doing right now. It’s the way we’re all getting our bearings back, finding ways to make sense and learn from what happened. It’s also been important for me to not tell my story when I didn’t feel like it. It’s important that we each follow our inner promptings to recovery. It is going to be a long process and each of us has a unique path to follow. It seems essential to give ourselves, and each other, the time and the space to heal. In the end, we will be stronger as individuals and as a community. We already are.


[This is the first of a series of bi-monthly columns by Glen Ellen resident Arthur Dawson. As he says, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Future columns will address other aspects, including insurance, rebuilding, etc.]