Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Post-Traumatic Stress

Doesn't it seem that all I write about these days are children or wildfires?

Well, today you're in luck. Today I bring you, children and wildfires. Please don't change the channel.

A lot of people have been asking how Anna has been handling the recent inferno/evacuation debacle, which is a good question. Children have a way of seeming to handle the most ridiculously stressful situations with complete oblivion, and then they regurgitate them at a later date to let you know that a) yes they are psychologically scarred for life and b) bad parent, bad parent, sit!

The first time we were evacuated I tried very, very hard not to mention the fire. It was late evening and the fire was behind the house and not readily visible from our subterranean lair. God knows why she believed we were taking our computer, guinea pig and several suitcases to our friends house to 'watch the Lakers game', but she did. Anna therefore recalls this incident as the time all the lights went out and Mummy started swearing. That's right, she doesn't remember the fire but she does remember the other F word.

The first night of the Jesusita fire we were not directly threatened. In fact we put up evacuees. The local school across the road was used as a helicopter staging ground though, and throughout the night helicopters were taking off and landing about 100 yards away. It was like Vietnam. Every 40 seconds one would thunder overhead. Until suddenly at about 4am it stopped. What, suddenly there's a City ordinance prohibiting mass air traffic from 4am onwards but before that's it fine? Regardless, the girls slept through it all. Happily oblivious to the military operation going on outside.

The next day though, the fire couldn't be missed. As I tore across town to pick up Anna, running in to roadblock after roadblock I was becoming increasingly frantic. The fire was an apocalyptic orange-black cloud covering an increasingly large portion of the sky. I sat in the parking lot of Anna's school for a lifetime (40 seconds approx) trying to put my 'hello birds, hello sky' flight attendant smile on so I wouldn't frighten the kids. Anna may have smelt a rat when she said "Momma I need to find my shoes" and through my perma-smile I cried, "we don't need shoes! let's just go home! no shoes! let's just go home! right now!!"

In the car, shoe-less, the fire looming over us I tried to pacify her with Raffi, but Anna wanted to talk about the smoke plume. Any fears that she may be terrified were quickly allayed when she said "Kyra said that cloud is a storm but I said it is a fire. Fuh-fuh-fire. Fire begins with F and so does frog and fashion and I would like to be a fashion princess when I get home when I get home can I put my princessdressonandcanIwearmysparklyshoesand......" You get the idea. There we were driving in to the eye of the fire storm, sirens wailing all around, me fielding phonecalls about my father-in-law packing up our house and our friend evacuating with Lucy, and Anna? She was planning her evening ensemble.

Several hours later, ash falling like snow all around us, we drove out to the Santa Ynez valley to our friend's vineyard. In a typically petulant 3 year old way she complained that she wanted to go home, she wanted to watch Noggin, she didn't like the valley, etc etc but then she fell asleep. The rest of the four days we were evacuated she had a rare old time, playing with her friend K and taking endless baths with her in the ranch's old Victorian bathtub that was so deep Anna disappeared underwater for a time (according to K, she was underwater for "about 8", but K's grasp of time can sometimes be questionable, case in point when I asked her how long her Spring Break was and she said "like, a really long time, I think 13 years, maybe 10".)

Here's some pictures of Anna enduring her forced wildfire evacuation. Doesn't she look stressed?

It remains to be seen how much this has affected Anna. I know I flinch every time I hear a siren, and I panic if I see anything orange at a distance. I need advice. I don't know how much to talk this through with her. I'm tempted to take my cues from her, but so far she hasn't mentioned the fire at all, which has to be some kind of denial. I don't want her growing up having panic attacks whenever someone produces a lighter. It would be rather embarrassing if she ducked for cover when we lit her birthday candles.

As for the true victims of the fire. Our tenants came to us yesterday to confess that they believe the violent shaking from the low-flying helicopters has caused their toilet cistern to crack. It boggles the mind.


Brit Fancy said...

Wow, you poor things. Emergency evacuations have got to be the most unnerving experiences ever! I was in NYC during 9/11, and afterwards, all the dust and smoke that continued to emanate for months from Ground Zero made the fire alarms in our buildings go off. And we would grab our pre-packed bags and race out, quaking with fear. Post traumatic stress is definitely what it can feel like!

As for your daughter - she looks pretty happy in your picture. I'm sure she may sense some tension and have some fear, but it doesn't sound like she is scarred for life or anything. Maybe if she saw some buildings being burned down, she would be more deeply affected. Kids are pretty oblivious to a lot of things, so I wouldn't worry too much. I suppose if it were me, I would just tell her bare bones facts: "There are some big fires, but the firemen are trying to get them under control. We moved around so much so that we could be safe. The important thing is we are all okay." And then I'd let her take it from there, by asking you questions if she has any. You probably don't need to launch into a detailed explanation right now. Good luck with everything!!

itsgrimupnorth said...

In my extensive experience of children (I was one and still haven't grown up). I think that Anna has no reason to fear wildfires. Whilst adults will be thinking we're all going to die, the house is going to burn down and I haven't had time to do the dusting, until Anna actually sees any of these things happen to her house she has no reason to think that they will. Therefore limited stress (apart from mom having that strange smile she gets at the times when it's best to avoid her).

Constantina said...

Wow, I have no constructive advice, I can offer this little nugget in hopes that it's helpful: When I was thirteen, our family's barns burned (I'm a farm girl). I was totally scarred, my sister who's four years younger than I was somewhat upset, and my youngest sister (7 years younger) was totally oblivious. That has something to do with our inherent personalities I'm sure. But I'd guess you have a bit of time before the gravity of emergency situations sets in.

Also, just for the record, I'm totally impressed with your parenting as I have the worst emergency brain in the history of mankind. Panic panic panic.

Expat mum said...

I would take your lead from her at this point. If she's grown up there, fires are a way of life, much as tornadoes in, well, Tornado Alley. Perhaps her teachers can give you some advice when she gets back?

Kristin said...

I also have very limited experience with children and disasters, but my instincts tell me that she is young enough to be fine. She will probably remember this time (if at all) as the time she got to go to the ranch and live with her friend for 4 days. Like a vacation.

Had you been forced to leave your home in the middle of the night because it was actually on fire--that could be a different story. But they way that you've explained the evacuation and how you handled the situation makes me think that she will just view it as a change in the routine.

I think you will be 1,000 times more affected by this experience than your children. I'm sure it's been very traumatic for you!

Norm said...

My kids have lived through a lot of natural disasters (Northridge quake, several hurricanes, several wildfires here) and I can say that they take it with aplomb and the experiences have helped them be calmer and more organized in the face of crisis. Hopefully some of this will sink in for your Anna ;)

Hyphen Mama said...

I'm glad your other commenters have good suggestions, because I'm the one who would be hollering "sh!t, sh!t, sh!t" in an emergency.

You must have nerves of steel, I'd have had a fit by now and moved to ... oh heck, where can one move where natural disasters don't strike?