As soon as the sun went down on the third, we started getting ready for the fireworks. The next morning, I pulled my window fan down and propped it on the laundry basket, shutting the window. My girlfriend closed the kitchen window and back door, setting up a box fan on the kitchen table.
The window of their bedroom had been shut since the night before, when someone particularly close to our apartment had set something off with a loud crack. I had re-opened my window during the night to let cool air in while I slept, the heat stifling and oppressive, but I knew it had to be closed on this day.
Living in a household of trauma survivors means that the fourth is different for us. I had heard the first fireworks in the distance on Sunday night, and my girlfriend D and I spent the entire week on edge, waiting. This is an activity that is both fatiguing and futile; it is impossible to predict when a stranger is going to choose to set off some kind of firecracker. In the week leading up to the holiday, most of our neighbours waited until the sun was fully down to set them off, but not all did, and on the day itself, all bets were off. The constant vigilance made us irritable and distractable, and any stressor—such as the money problems we’ve been struggling with for the last month—could catapult us into panic and tears.
This is our reality; the reality of living with PTSD. It is often hard to tell what will trigger an attack, but loud noises are very likely to do it. I am lucky: when I’m triggered, I can’t stand for people to touch me, my heart races, and I’ll often cry myself into exhaustion. My girlfriend has it worse: they sometimes get flashbacks and disassociate from their surroundings.
Where most people view the fireworks as a fun show, we are terrified. We cannot control these reactions, and each unexpected explosion can leave us with chest pain, tremors, emotional numbness, nightmares, or irritability, a grab bag of horrific symptoms. The hot temperatures don’t help either, with our city experiencing highs of 99° in the days before the holiday. It was 80° on Friday, but we couldn’t open the windows; instead, we simulated a breeze by running all of the fans; the apartment was still stuffy and hot, but it was better than the alternative.
Tensions were mounting, and not just in our apartment: the next-door neighbours had a giant screaming match, the first I could remember ever hearing from them. Two cats got into a fight just outside my window. Later, my girlfriends and I listened anxiously to a firecracker go off and injure a dog next door; the dog whined loudly for several minutes, and then went silent. When we checked, there was no one out there.
The sounds of fireworks continued well past the time I assumed they’d stop: each time we’d open a window for air flow on the fifth and sixth, we were confronted by explosions of sound. At one point, I put on headphones just to dampen the noise.
The world is not a safe space; we know this better than most. In the course of a day, we encounter many little moments of unexpected anxiety and fear, which often build on each other and can trigger panic attacks and dissociative episodes. The range of potential triggers is staggeringly wide, and we often don’t even know what all of them are. There are obvious things like film scenes that mirror our experiences, or the kind of terrible threats that anonymous jerks fling around on social media, but there’s so much more, most of it not at all obvious: sudden movements, honking horns, police sirens, cars backfiring, being tapped on the shoulder from behind, shouting, flashes of light, dropped items, aggressive or hostile questioning, strangers getting too close on the train—it’s impossible to know what exactly will set off an attack. As with the fireworks, we try to plan ahead and minimise our contact with potential triggers, but short of never leaving the house—which some who face panic attacks feel they must resort to—we are going to encounter at least one of them a day; often, it’s closer to dozens, and the attempt to avoid them or suppress our responses is physically and mentally exhausting.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, there are 7.7 million American adults living with PTSD. Causes can include any form of trauma, not limited to: the sudden loss of a loved one, bullying, physical and/or sexual assault, childhood abuse and partner violence, abduction, bombings, car accidents; and natural disasters.
Although there is greater and more widely-spread understanding of PTSD now than when we used to call it things like “shell shock”, “soldier’s heart”, and “railway spine”, society still treats those of us with PTSD as though we are solely to blame for our reactions. We are called over-sensitive, and subjected to things like exposure therapy to “cure” us through close contact with the very things that traumatise us. And, annually, we find ourselves surrounded by a battery of explosive noises and flashing lights—the exact conditions that trigger a lot of us into panic attacks and dissociative states.
This year, a number of organisations in my city—including Portland Fire & Rescue, the Oregon Humane Society, and Legacy Emanuel Hospital—joined together on a campaign against illegal fireworks, putting up billboards in the city that say “Illegal fireworks… Who Cares? …Your Neighbors”:
The signs warn that fireworks can cause stress and anxiety, injuries, fires, and property damage, and state the possibility of a $1000 fine and the risk of being held liable for damaging property and injuring people. Well, my girlfriend and I definitely experienced stress and anxiety, and there was at least one dog injured; I’d say this billboard is pretty accurate, albeit very vague.
About 7-8% of the general US population has PTSD, according to the US Department of Veteran Affairs, with about 5% of men reporting it and about 10% of women. Up to 20% of US veterans struggle with PTSD, and their families experience problems such as secondary traumatisation, child abuse and partner violence, high rates of divorce, and depression. And the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reports that victims of sexual assault are 6 times more likely to suffer from PTSD than the general population, and 1 in 6 women will be the victim or survivor of sexual assault in their lifetime; I am one.
This past May, there was a flurry of debate about trigger warnings in academic settings. A student at UC Santa Barbara who was also a survivor of sexual assault proposed classroom trigger warnings to her professor after a film screened in class featured an explicit sexual assault; the New York Times reported on the debate, saying many professors were “fuming”, because “[trigger warnings] suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace.” This in an age when 1 in 5 female college undergraduates are survivors of sexual assault that occurred since they started college.
There is a difference between a discomfort with hard materials and the type of serious psychological damage that PTSD is symptomatic of. I was in California when Elliot Rodger went on a shooting spree in Isla Vista, near UC Santa Barbara. His aim was to get revenge on women whose bodies he felt entitled to. Women raised in this society know the daily fear of these kinds of attacks, the possibility that someone might come along to make you into the one in six women subjected to sexual assault.
I was not in danger from Rodger’s attack, up the coast as I was, but that doesn’t matter to my PTSD: as I was heading back to Oregon, I almost got in a car accident, and the blaring horn of my bus’ driver flipped me from the anxiety I had been ignoring all weekend into a full-blown panic attack. My heart began to race, and I started crying silently. I honestly worried I was having a heart attack. I had to block out the sound of my fellow passengers with soothing music and move seats so that people walking in the aisle wouldn’t accidentally brush against me and spike my fear back up. My chest tightened and I hyperventilated for several minutes. Then, I spent the next eight hours recovering: light-headed, dizzy, and trembling, I did all that I could to make an unsafe space (my Greyhound bus) comfortable enough to get me home without a second attack. I was too sick and anxious to sleep, though I did shut my eyes and clutch a small teddy bear in my lap.
This kind of panic and fear is leagues away from the mild discomfort that free speech advocates rail against when they warn us that trigger warnings are a pre-cursor to censorship. This kind of panic and fear has driven the rise in suicide rates among US Veterans; according to a 2012 report from the VA, a veteran committed suicide once every 65 minutes in 2010. This kind of panic and fear is triggered by fireworks.
Ultimately, my girlfriend and I made it through the annual terror of the Fourth of July. The fear and anxiety we felt subsided, blending into the ongoing difficulty that is living with PTSD. Our lives go on, and we are subjected every day to those hundreds of potential triggers. One more Fourth of July over, but the problem continues.
Don’t we deserve to feel safe in our own home?
Given issues such as the VA’s continued failure to treat veterans in a timely manner, and the country’s continued struggle to end campus sexual assault, shouldn’t we try harder to be cognizant of those amongst us who are most vulnerable? Our country as a whole needs to commit to providing care and support to those who need it most, but for individuals that support doesn’t even have to be financial.
Sometimes, doing the right thing is as simple as not turning a neighbourhood into a nightmare.