When I was eight years old our house burned to the ground. I lost everything I owned except a few things I had left at my best friend's house, like a Barbie doll that could be pregnant and a plastic Dalmatian with moving limbs. I can't imagine how devastating this was for my parents (especially as I'm almost the same age now that they were when that happened), but even with my limited comprehension of the big picture, this was a traumatic experience to go through.
I remember my mom seeing black smoke outside the window, calling 911. My dad, who had gone to check it out, came back yelling my little brother's name -- he was napping upstairs on the side of the house where the fire started. Mom told me to run to the neighbors while she went to grab my brother, while I sprinted across the lawn, knocked on the door, and not knowing quite how to act asked the neighbor "can we be here for a while?", my usual greeting when coming over.
My next memory is me and my brother standing in their living room window watching our house burn with our mom crying loudly behind us. I had tears rolling down my cheeks, but was quiet. There wasn't any room for my feelings in that moment.
Too young to understand?
This was the first day of a long weekend, so I was sent to a friend to spend the next few days camping in their yard. I'm sure they thought it would distract me and keep my mind off of what had happened, but every time I closed my eyes I saw our burning house, my first experience with flashbacks.
I don't remember my parents ever talking to me about what happened, except for asking me to fill out a list of my lost toys and clothes for our insurance company. Of course they were dealing with a lot, but it seems really weird to me looking back that we were treated like this didn't affect us, like we were too young to understand what we had lost. My brother, sure -- he was just three years old. But I still have very clear memories of this to this day, and I was afraid of fire for many years.
I was also feeling incredibly guilty, because I thought it was my fault. Not for any logical reasons, but because half a year earlier I had been upset about something my mom did or said, and because I cried when I was angry or upset I ran to my room, slammed the door, and hated that I reacted that way and couldn't regulate my emotions. And I thought: "I wish my house would burn down or something so I really have something to cry about."
The irony, or big cosmic joke, that I thought that and then our house actually burned down -- what are the odds of that?? How can that even happen?
Photo by Zhivko Minkov
Emotions bubbling to the surface
So I walked around with this huge shame and guilt, convinced that God was punishing me for being bad (what I could possibly have done to deserve that is beyond me, as I was a good kid) and for wishing this would happen. It didn't help that the firemen never figured out exactly what had started the fire.
My parents decided to build a new house on the same spot and had to take away the trees in the yard for construction to take place. I was secretly very upset about this, because the cluster of birches that created the perfect climbing spot for a small child was one of my favorite places. I had built a little platform out of sticks for my stuffed lion and rabbit to be there with me and played there just the day before the fire.
A year later we moved in and one day when I was on the swing set it creaked under my weight, which freaked them out and decided that I was now too big to use it. I had a melt-down at this and started crying and yelled how they took my favorite trees away and now I can't even be on the swing! It might seem like such a small thing, but it was the straw that broke the camel's back. You can only push down your feelings for so long.
My mom found me later in bed, still crying under the duvet, and said that they didn't realize that these things had/would upset me. And how would they? I didn't want to be a bother, with everything they already had to deal with, but they also never asked. I was a child, but I was still a person. Even though my troubles might have seemed small compared to their adult worries, it was still big for me and I had been dealing with this all on my own, because I was believed to be too little to be traumatized from it.
Photo by Trym Nilsen
There's no wonder that I have lived my life with such anxiety, when I saw with my own eyes how suddenly your life can crumble in front of your eyes. That already at eight years old I realized that parents aren't the super humans you usually think they are as a child, that they will keep you safe. I saw how powerless they were, how little control we have over our lives.
I realize now that I'm writing this that that's probably the reason I feel such pressure to pack just the right things in my purse or bag when I leave the house. Because as the fire was unbeknownst to me starting on the other side of the wall, I was sitting in bed with my stuffed animals, reading a comic book, and if only I had grabbed them they wouldn't have burned and I would have still had them to comfort me. I often berated myself for not taking them with me. Maybe this is why I have such a strong attachment to stuffed animals, even as an adult.
Everything we go through shapes us, in one way or another. I think it really helps to find the patterns and the original catalyst to our behavior. As they say, knowledge is power. I can't change how it was handled back then, I can't even blame my parents for handling the situations as best as they knew how. But I can acknowledge my inner child and try to give my adult self what she needed, in a way that my parents couldn't.
Hi, I'm Erika!
I know what it's like living with anxiety and depression, but living and living are very different things. I believe in practical tips and methods, and I will use them to help you be the brave, daring, darling individual you are.
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