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As originally posted at Climate Action NOW! site in 2000:
I was asked by a group in Amsterdam called Oilwatch to write this piece for a book they are publishing for next month’s climate meetings at The Hague called Cold Catches Fire. The person who contacted me had read a 1997 letter I wrote to Clinton about climate crises-caused weather disasters triggering PTSD.
This was the most difficult and grueling story I’ve ever written.
October 16, 2000
A Change in the Wind… Climate Change and Human Trauma
by Andy Caffrey
It’s a day that was literally burned into my memory. A day I would like to get out of my memory, but can’t because the trauma I suffered hardwired it into my neural pathways, much like the subconscious memories we have of burning our fingers on a hot stove, or playing with matches.
I’m referring to the firestorm which incinerated a huge section of Oakland and Berkeley, California from October 20-23, 1991. After four days of rage, 3,500 houses and apartments were turned into powdered ash by the extreme heat. 20,000 people were left homeless. Twenty-five people died, 2,000 cars and trucks roasted. And I was left to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for the rest of my life. It was the worst fire involving loss of life and property since the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906.
The people living in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area of almost seven million people — and soon this century to become the wealthiest area in the world — hadn’t ever seen anything like this. Unfortunately, if climate models prove true, then the tinderbox eucalyptus, Monterey pine, and redwood-covered hills are likely to see this horror more and more frequently, over and over again throughout the century because of the intensifying effect of global warming on the natural fire ecology of the region. Scientists warn us to expect more and more of these huge firestorms in increasingly arid metropolitan areas throughout the world:
“Climate change experts are reluctant to predict how weather extremes may change, but are quick to recognize the possible implications if changes occur. Increased impacts of drought on agriculture and water supplies are feared. Some analysts are concerned that persistent, multi-year droughts may increase the likelihood of large brush and timber fires. The 1991 fire near Oakland, California (which caused more than $3 billion in damages) is indicative of the kinds of events that could occur with increasing frequency as a result of accelerated greenhouse warming.”
[fr. p. 144, Confronting Climate Change: Risks, Implications and Responses, edited by Irving M. Mintzer. Produced by Stockholm Environment Institute and published by Cambridge University Press, 1992]
The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) issued a Hazard Mitigation Report in which it emphasized the unusual weather conditions in Oakland that day a week and a half before Halloween in 1991 as follows: “…an unusual east wind, at speeds in excess of 65 miles per hour, that raced down from the crest of the Oakland-Berkeley Hills. Coupled with record high temperatures well into the nineties, the hot, dry winds gusted and swirled through five years of drought-dry brush and groves of freeze-damaged Monterey pines and eucalyptus trees. All the conditions for a major disaster were present that morning of October 20, 1991.” (1)
According to Captain Donald R. Parker of the Oakland Office of Fire Services, “The magnitude and scope of what is simply referred to as the ‘Tunnel Fire’ is far beyond the experience of any living American firefighter. Only those who fought the Chicago Fire last century or battled the Great Fire in San Francisco would be able to identify with this conflagration and firestorm….” (1) That means it was beyond the “magnitude and scope” of every firefighting unit in the United States.
And please note that the fire was fueled by the results of opposite preceding weather extremes: five years of drought, and freeze damages that had killed huge swaths of Monterey pines and eucalyptus trees which then dried out during the droughts. In those conditions, all it took was one renegade ember. Captain Parker reported, “More than 25 firefighters were on the scene overhauling hot spots from a fire the previous day… Saturday’s fire had been well overhauled; hose lines left in place surrounding the burn area, the fire area was checked by Oakland fire companies during the night, and fire crews had been on the scene hours before ignition on Sunday…. Eyewitness accounts testify that a sole ember blew into a tree just outside the burn area, and the tree exploded into flame, and the fire was quickly out of control — raging around and over firefighters who were indeed fighting for their lives.” (1)
The unprecedented immensity of the inferno quickly overwhelmed the joint command of Oakland, Berkeley, Piedmont and the California Department of Forestry’s firefighting operations. According to Captain Parker, “There were many problems that confronted both line firefighters and managers as the fire progressed: rapid spread of the fire in many different directions…. Fire units lost water, forcing them to retreat because the supply tanks and reservoirs were emptied. Loss of water occurred primarily because of… citizens wetting roofs and vegetation, water service flowing freely in destroyed homes, tanks and reservoirs could not be refilled because of fire-caused electrical failure (and) many mutual aid fire engine companies could not connect to Oakland fire hydrants because they utilize two-and-one-half-inch couplings and Oakland fire units use three inch couplings.” (1)
This was the largest mutual aid effort ever undertaken in California, but, according to Parker, “Radio communications were often difficult or impossible because of overload (too many units on the same channel), too few mutual aid channels available, and steep, hilly terrain interfered with radio signals.” (1)
It started off quite beautifully, actually, with what appeared to be a small, harmless grass fire that was supposedly put out by buckets of water dumped repeatedly over the area; water scooped up from nearby Lake Temescal by large helicopters.
I lived in a cooperative, vegetarian household of eight people: music lovers, activists, healers, organic gardeners, and “Big Lovers.”
One roommate, Sky, our computer genius, Hindu devotee, and one of the household’s two Progressive Rock fanatics (I being the other one) came running from his yurt into the kitchen. With his long blonde hair tousled behind him and his glasses ajar , all excited and gravely concerned, he shouted, “There’s a fire on the hillside! And it’s big!” So we ran outside to see it.
Now I don’t have a problem with fire in general. I know that fire suppression policies have ravaged forests in the U.S. and elsewhere. Burning grasslands is also normal for this region where we lived. In fact, fires are essential for the survival of all kinds of species and habitat in many parts of the world.
To get an idea of how big the fire was that day, hold you right arm out and bent in front of your head. Imagine that your forearm is the opposite hillside. If you then imagine a bottle-cap sized scab on your arm, that would be roughly to scale with the Day One fire on that Oakland hillside.
I suggested we hold on and not panic. As the crow flies the fire was probably 1/2 mile away from us, and burning uphill away from us. The fire crews were at the scene watering down on the fire from the hillside above it. The helicopters began to arrive a few minutes later. After a while, I thought the cascades of water from the helicopter so beautiful that I ran inside to my room, grabbed my camcorder, and set it up on a tripod to capture on videotape the graceful water patterns dancing in the air.
I did this for a half an hour and then I got bored. The fire was definitely controlled, and in fact was put out within the next hour, a few hours before sunset. So we all went back to what we were doing, or something new, and came out to check the fire scene every now and then until it got dark.
That night, the winds from the desert east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains began to pick up considerably while I focused that part of the evening on reviewing the video I had shot. The video had turned out well and, I found it too, quite beautiful.
One of our other roommates had a guest camping out on the back deck amidst the eucalypts growing all around the house and a few which even grew through sawed-out holes in the deck. For this reason my girlfriend Dawn and I became quite restless and worried in the middle of the night because incredible clusters of thrashing 60 mph gusts were tearing at the branches of the trees, relentlessly. We heard limbs and branches breaking off and crashing down all through the arid night.
Well, our guest survived a rather exciting night for him until morning no worse for the wearing wind. For Dawn and me we spent a lazy late morning taking a long time to awaken because of our lack of sleep the night before. Making coffee and a slow, groggy breakfast, we were once again in the kitchen around noon when Sky came rushing in terribly frightened, “The fire’s back, and IT’S A LOT BIGGER!”
My throat plummeted deep into my chest. Four of us raced through the open sliding glass door and up the driveway out to the road, to a vantage point to see the new fire. A very bad sign as soon as my first step slapped on the cement walk outside the door. Everything was DARK. Everywhere. Bad dark. Something is very, very wrong dark! All hands on deck dark! ATTENTION!!! The ship’s on fire!
And this was over 100 meters from the spot where we could first see the fire the day before. And when we got there it was very bad indeed. “Mt. Oakland” had erupted, and we were now one grassy lip away from the cauldron. And the “forearm” ridge side was now completely obscured by a relentless, terrifying, volcanic-like bursting forth of intense, billowing black, black smoke.
Still, even though the wind had never ceased from the night before, and despite an intense shiver up through my spine, I didn’t feel too worried. A few houses were going to burn and then it would be under control and then squelched again, I thought. Until that moment I had not even conceived of the possibility that I lived in a dangerous region prone to fires. It was just grass, right? Well, and some eucalypts now. And even though the wind was blowing to the West, we were to the South, so the fire was not moving toward us… was it?
I DID NOT run and get my camcorder this time. Instead, I sat down silently and just watched the fire, the wind, and the monster cloud of smoke which had come for its due. I wanted to learn this beast which had just cracked through the crust of the Oakland Hills and was now expanding like lava, ever so slightly, to my home.
There were no horns, or screams, or even sirens really, just the eucalypt-thrashing desert wind over my head and all around me. I watched half million dollar homes almost silently become touched by flames and then embraced… After a minute or two more, each would flare up and out of existence like the sulphur burst of one match lighting another. Such a simple ending for a half a million dollars worth of concentrated human energy invested over the years in something very sacred to most: “Home.” All the relic contents of each family’s lifetimes, just simply nonexistent. Gone. Poof! Nothing to repair. Nothing to fuss over, dust off, vacuum or scrub down. Nothing even to pick up, really. Just the emptiness of enormous absence.
But I had no concept of the void at age 34. Of a huge gaping utter emptiness, a bloodless, oozing wound of the soul that was so monstrously huge that it could just sweep over thousands of neighbors, like an angel of death, creating a loss for each much greater than any anyone was prepared for.
So I watched very carefully to see if this creature was moving south, and if so, how fast. It was! I could see that it was now. A closer house and another poof! pfft! and then that familiar campfire crackling of wood. Although it was moving much more quickly on it’s western front, the southern front was definitely expanding toward us. I figured it would take about another hour to get up close enough to the house where we had to flee.
I felt like it had come from the bowels of the earth to extract tribute of profound humility from us, the arrogant, self-righteous, silly-stupid, TV-managed, militarized and blinded, omnicidal, suburban humans that had allowed our collective personal power to wreck everything that anybody loves. That it was time to get back at those assholes who turned the SUV into a cancerous epidemic ravaging the Earth. In a way, inside, I was even cheering for him. Maybe it was revenge on the affluent of California for the Baghdad bombing by U.S. President Bush. Looking at photos taken in the aftermath of the incinerated areas, it’s hard to detect any distinctions between the two.
Whatever this thing was, I was now completely disconnected from the reality of the threat posed by this fire to me. There was none, I felt. I had never experienced something as large as what this fire would become to me, so I had not even a remote concept of the lifelong toll it would take on me.
Rainforest organizer, Australian John Seed, had bequeathed to me the decorated van he had used for his western North America Deep Ecology and rainforest road shows of 1989. I used the van to conduct the Redwood Summer road show of 1990. On that trip, however, the transmission crapped out on me and I barely got it back to California where it eventually died in our driveway.
That was quite a drag, a huge bummer because I really could have used it to save the most precious of my possessions. Instead, all Dawn and I had was to share her small red Ford Taurus. Katya, another roommate, was out of town, so the first thing Dawn thought of was Katya’s cat. So while I watched the fire, Dawn went off looking to save the cat. To this day, this is a very moving memory for me, because Dawn could have been rescuing her own personal belongings and mementoes of her life but instead chose to save another, nonhuman, life. Sadly, the cat was never found and was probably a victim of the fire.
My room was downstairs, in the very back of the two-story ranch house. Of all my roommates bedrooms, from mine it was the longest walk possible to Dawn’s car. When I got down there, I just stood silently, slowly rotating around to my right, looking around the room to assess what small fragment of these things I would save. Foolishly, I didn’t really believe the fire would reach us. I really thought everything would be all right.
So when Dawn came screaming down the stairs yelling that I had to GET OUT NOW!; that the fire department was here yelling at us to get out now, well, I just sort of let go of reality, of my attachments to the material anchors of my self.
The fireman was yelling at Sky who had found his cat and had packed up his blue pickup with many of his belongings, and was almost ready to peel out. Leaning out of his driver’s side door, Sky was screaming at Dawn, and Dawn was screaming at me. Out! Now! Nothing more, let’s go! At that point I just bit down on the lie that everything would work out for the best, turned and jogged out of my room to Dawn’s car.
I had yanked the back seat out of Dawn’s car to make room for more important things, but I had only managed in three loaded-down scrambles to the car, to grab four peach crates of my Earth First! master video tapes of actions, road shows, performances and interviews and a couple of other things. I had grabbed my Boy Scout merit badge sash which had on it the 51 merit badges I had earned twenty years earlier, and a canister of movies I had made as a Scout. When it came down to it, and I looked around my room at my entire life-as-relics, I chose those master tapes as the most precious of my possessions. Unfortunately, I didn’t get them all, and the tape I had shot the day before of the fire ended up left on a table with a dozen other master tapes I was previewing at the time.
I shoved these crates into the back seat, got Dawn to give up searching for Katya’s cat, and we drove out.
Dawn and I unloaded her car at our landlady’s house, which itself was not in the clear by any means, and zipped down the hill to the Fox TV station in Oakland. I’m a stringer for them and they immediately put my raw footage of Ground Zero up on the screen with voiceovers from the anchors.
Just after the techs and I had set things up, Dawn and I relaxed a bit and looked up at the other monitors in the studio. They showed the live feeds from other cameras, and at that very moment, a helicopter was hovering right over our house! It did not look good at all! At best the flames were twenty feet from our house on two sides… But that very week some roofers had put a brand new roof on the house, supposedly one that was highly fire retardant… But as I watched, I just got more confused. It was way too real, and I didn’t want the verdict to come in so soon. I don’t remember how we came to stop watching that monitor. But we did.
Dawn and I drove over the Bay Bridge to San Francisco to my father’s apartment. Dawn was driving, so I could look over my shoulder and see what everybody else could see, from wherever they were standing in the nine counties. Godzilla rising up out of the bay would not have seemed more incredible than the plume blasting from the Oakland Hills towards the stratosphere.
After a few hours and a few glasses of cheap wine with my dad, we returned to Berkeley, the adjacent town neighboring Oakland to the North. Our household had a relationship with a sister cooperative there, which existed on and was christened “Oregon St.” As we walked up, Dawn and I could see a lot of activity in the house, and indeed, most of our housemates were there. But then I saw in the middle of the living room what I thought must be a hallucination. All of my stereo components, except for one speaker, were there, and some CDs and a few other belongings. I couldn’t believe it! My Rolodex was there!!!! Thank God! My connection to the many precious people of my activist life.
It turned out that one of the people who had founded our house, the “Skyline House,” had come driving up a back trail to the house when he saw the fire. He had gotten in before the fire department closed off all access to the area. When he arrived at my room, we had already been evacuated. He quickly ran through Katya’s and my rooms in the back, and did his best to grab what seemed most important. What a blessing! What a kind man.
It took several days before we were allowed to take a shuttle up to our house. Slowly winding up Broadway Terrace, the spine of the fire, we swung up and over rises and around squiggly curves through entire neighborhoods turned to what were now foundations for nothing, a few craggy chimneys, and a few inches of white powder covering the whole emptiness. Just more and more of them, thousands of them! And the bizarre scene of an intact house or two sparsely scattered about on one street left standing a solemn vigil, themselves untouched by the dark angel’s flight.
Where there was once so much life — and junk — and the personal dramas of thousands of people, there was now just still air on an overcast day. It was like everything else had been completely sucked into a parallel universe. I was trying to figure out if I should wake up, concentrate on something, go get help, or ask someone what I had to do to get my universe back.
I stared at stalagmite-like piles of perfectly formed sculptures in ash. In a bizarre irony to this dream, I could still see each page of all the piled books I had just brought out of storage before my van died. They had stayed exactly in place, but had just suddenly been zapped and turned into dust. The rainforest van didn’t protect anything locked inside. Fine powder. Everything. The refrigerator melted! There was not one thing to save. Our two story house was now just four inches of ash.
The total acreage burned by the fire was 1,520, and the perimeter of the burned area was 5.25 miles.
Everything we were doing was a way of adjusting to becoming a refugee, finding out where we had to go, and completing the processes of getting aid from various charity organizations, the Red Cross chief among them.
A few days after our evacuation, Dawn and I were having brunch in a cafe after having been put up by a motel the night before. That’s when it hit me. I just began to shake all over and cry uncontrollably. What had hit me was a subconscious “getting it” that I was wrong during the evacuation from the Skyline House, and that I truly could have died from being wrong.
It turns out I was right about how long the fire would take to reach our home. The morbid way that folks could early on find out if their house was torched was simply by calling their phone numbers. If the phone was ringing, then at least part of your house was still standing. If it wasn’t ringing, well… “Welcome to the void.”
I was completely wrong about how the fire would reach the house, from which direction and at what speed the flames would crawl or race to the house. You see, the fire being north of us, I calculated how fast it would take for the fire to reach us at its current rate of moving south, slowly rolling down the opposite hill and up our own. But that is not how the fire reached our house at all. We got hit from the West. Salm, the man who grabbed my stereo and other belongings, told me that just after he fled from the house he looked back up the trail, and saw flames shoot back up from the West, against the wind through the underbrush like a fuse, which blew up the house when it and the incredibly hot air preceding the flames reached the house through a backdraft.
I hadn’t thought of that. It was just a coincidence that the timing of that event and my calculations for an approach from the north were the same amount of time. And that’s when the immensity of what had happened blew out my circuits. It was a primal shudder that rose up in me that morning at brunch, and it hasn’t gone away.
Not everyone who goes through any given traumatic event gets post-traumatic stress disorder. On average, science suggests that about 25 percent of victims who go through any particular trauma will get long-lasting, severe PTSD. That’s one in four rape victims, one in four combat veterans, one in four plane crash and natural disaster survivors, one in four mugging victims get PTSD. But unfortunately for those who get hit with it, like that memory of a burning stove top, the flashing bursts of traumatic memories becomes hardwired in the neuronal circuits of the brain, never to be erased. Perhaps the effects of sexual harassment are similar.
Small irritants can unleash waves of utter panic and excruciatingly vivid full-color flashbacks during which sufferers relive the horrors of traumatic events experienced decades ago, even those which have vanished from conscious memory. Stimuli that most people find only mildly startling or annoying can cause PTSD sufferers to duck for cover or bolt with fear. In their day-to-day existence, they can find themselves numbing out for hours, “not thinking of anything,” (2) as one Vietnam veteran put it. Some veterans move to the woods leading lives of constant fear and paranoia.
“I go into deep flashbacks,” another veteran interviewed by Discover magazine says. “It’s like I’m right there again–the sounds, the smells, the screaming. It’s almost like a blackout; the present doesn’t exist. It can be snowing and I sweat like I’m in the jungle.” (2)
One of the key factors seems to be how overwhelming the experience was for the victim. It begins with a trauma beyond the range of normal human experience in any given class or culture. I use surfing as a metaphor to picture it in my mind. It’s like when a surfer, who is used to riding 10-foot high waves, gets slammed into the sand by a forty-foot high wave and barely survives with his life.
While some people lost their homes and memorabilia, they still had their work, their incomes, their friends and families, and most of the other patterns in their life unaltered, except temporarily, by the Oakland inferno. These are key things from which they could begin to renormalize their lives. New homes could be bought, belongings replaced.
But not for me. I had every pattern, every resource of my life destroyed.
“Severe Trauma May Damage The Brain as Well as the Psyche,” was a New York Times Medical Science section headline on August 1, 1995. Daniel Goleman’s article began,
“Severe emotional trauma may put its victims in double jeopardy, not only searing the psyche, but physically damaging the brain. New studies in trauma victims as diverse as Vietnam combat veterans and victims of childhood sexual abuse have found a shrinkage in the size of the hippocampus, a brain structure vital to learning and memory. The very hormones that flood the brain to mobilize it in the face of an overwhelming threat can be toxic to cells in the hippocampus, the studies suggest.”
“The symptoms of post-traumatic stress include nightmares and vivid flashbacks of the traumatic moment; being fearful and easily startled; having intrusive and disturbing memories of the trauma; irritability, and difficulty concentrating.”
”Combat veterans who still suffer from post-traumatic stress symptoms from the Vietnam war had an 8 percent reduction in the volume of their right hippocampus compared with vets who suffered no such symptoms, according to the July  issue of The American Journal of Psychiatry by a team led by Dr. J. Douglas Bremner and including [Chief of Psychiatry] Dr. [Dennis] Charney, at the West Haven…” Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Connecticut.”
“And both combat veterans and survivors of childhood abuse performed at levels averaging 40 percent lower on a test of verbal memory than did people of comparable age and education…”
“‘The hippocampus is especially vital to short-term memory, the holding in mind of a piece of information for a few moments, after which it either resides in more permanent memory or is immediately forgotten. Learning, the accretion of new data in memory, depends on short-term memory….
“‘The hippocampus is essential for transferring such facts from short-term to long-term memory,’ said Dr. Sapolsky,” a neuroscientist at Stanford University.
“Another study of Vietnam veterans found that those who saw more intense combat and suffered from more severe post-traumatic symptoms had an average shrinkage of 26 percent in the left hippocampus and 22 percent in the right hippocampus, compared with vets who saw combat but had no symptoms.”
“The memory of those with post-traumatic symptoms is particularly faulty for words, like grocery lists or phone numbers.”
“The study found no deficiency in the trauma victims’ overall I.Q. scores, nor in other kinds of memory, like for things they had seen or for vocabulary.”
“The shrinkage in the hippocampus may be due to the effects of heightened levels of cortisol, a steroid hormone secreted by the brain in response to emergencies… cortisol ‘may be neurotoxic to the hippocampus at the massive levels that are released under extreme stress or during trauma,’ said Dr. Sapolsky…,’I’m talking about the levels you would see in a zebra running from a lion, or a person fleeing a mugger — a real physical life-and-death crisis — if it is repeated again and again as time goes on.’”
“It’s necessary for survival, but it can be disastrous if you secrete cortisol for months or years on end. We’ve known it could lead to stress-exacerbated diseases like hypertension or adult onset diabetes. but now we’re finding the hippocampus is also damaged by these secretions.”
Scientists have done experiments in which they give a mild shock to the feet of rats, accompanying the shock with a flash of light. The rats learn to freeze in response to the light flashes alone. They expose the rats to a burst of white noise, which makes it jump. Next they accompany the white noise with the flash, and find that the rats jump higher than they do when they hear the noise alone.
This shows that a painful experience and its experience of shock for a victim, can be re triggered by a benign sensory signal. One can see by this how the visualized flashbacks of a PTSD sufferer can trigger an autonomic response of utter terror. It’s a “pathological form of anxiety.” (2) The war in Vietnam spawned an epidemic of PTSD.
This sensory linkage hardwiring seems to occur in the amygdala. People have one in each hemisphere of the brain. According to research reported in the June 1995 issue of Discover.
“A tangle of input nerves enters the amygdala in two regions…. Another important knot of nerves courses outward… and leads ultimately to all the end points that administer the visible business of fear — the nerves and muscles that make you jump out of your chair when a car backfires, raise your blood pressure, and speed your heartbeat.”
“A trauma sensitizes the amygdala, imprinting it with a potent yet unconscious memory of fear, training it to jerk all the neural cords of terror every time your five senses transmit a stimulus that, no matter how innocently, echoes the primal episode.”
“Now, unfortunately, when the innocent sound of thunder reaches your ear, a signal bypasses the cortex, traveling from your ear into the amygdala, where the traumatic experience has permanently linked it to an outbound circuit that activates all the dolor of panic. Any deliberate, reasoned attempts to deal with the remembered trauma are subverted by the neural circuits completely beyond your conscious control.”
“Researchers found that when a monkey’s amygdala was damaged, the animal became tamer, less responsive to threats, and generally less fearful.” Also, “they showed that in experiences of remembered fear the amygdala, figuratively, lights up like a Christmas display.” (2)
Stimulating the amygdala with low electrical current can generate a startle response similar to those displayed in natural fear situation. In the amygdala the neurotransmitter glutamate seems to be the culprit that lays down and then marries terror and sensory input to horrific memories. Discover explains
“Glutamate transmission can work in two ways, each involving a different receptor on the tail end of the nerve cell that receives a signal. When activated, one of these__called the AMPA receptor–allows a transient impulse to speed through the system from point A to point B. Like the wake of a rowboat, all vestiges of the signal vanish almost as soon as the impulse has passed. For PTSD, though, you need permanent learning. The glutamate system might manage that too, by means of another receptor, this one called NMDA. When activated, the NMDA initiates a series of complicated biochemical changes inside the cell that allow learning to take place, laying down a permanent trace, like the imprint of a mountain bike’s tire track along a dirt trail. Activating the NMDA receptor makes it permanently easier for signals to leap across the synapse, just as a bike’s tire track smooths the route for later cyclists, as if inviting more and more of them to follow it.
“Now, normally the NMDA receptor is blocked; it won’t engage unless one of several things happens first…. One of the things that can liberate it is an activated AMPA receptor…. Suppose a transient stimulus–let’s say the crash of a howitzer firing in battle–activates an AMPA receptor in the amygdala. That would unblock the cell’s NMDA receptor, allowing a second stimulus–say, body parts flying–to imprint an essentially indelible trajectory from the senses into the amygdala and out again.”
“What’s important here is that it may not be just the sound of the explosion that gets linked to the fearful response. Thanks to the first signal’s success in unlocking the NMDA receptor, other signals arriving at the same time, carrying information about the look of sand, say, or the heat of the desert wind, are joined by glutamate to the same fearful response. Decades after the initial event, a neutral stimulus like the sight of a sandy beach may follow a glutamate-lit path that leads to terror.”
“Say you saw your buddy blown up in front of you in Kuwait,… and say you were in deep sand at the time. Now every time you see sand on the beach, it re-creates this fear. That’s the conditioning process–sand paired with an awful event.”
“The amygdala sends a tangle of pathways in and out of the brain’s other parts, and there is strong evidence that it’s involved in many phenomena beyond fear and other emotions. It’s been convincingly identified as a modulator of social behavior, and it may also be implicated in schizophrenia, epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s disease.” (2)
Consider for a moment the basic categories of your life. Think of them as spokes on a wheel, extending outward from a center hub that is you. For me, those spokes include: home, diet, exercise, friendships, family members–close and distant, income generation or work, personal passions and interests, and my ecological activism, among others. The fire wiped out or undermined all of my spokes.
So this wheel turns out to have spokes which represent paths I now had to walk to get back to the rim of the wheel, just to get back to a minimal state of balance and well-being in each area of my life. Now I had to walk in every direction all at once to restore my personal equilibrium. Nine years later, as I write this, I still haven’t done it.
Now think of this spoked wheel’s rim as representing a ring of fire that must be reached and overcome, gotten through, to have that area of one’s life restored to balance. That’s more what it’s like for me, for someone with PTSD. Because when I try to restore something in my life which was destroyed by the fire, to advance down a spoke/path, subconsciously my mind asks, “So why do you need to restore this area of your life, Andy?” And then the memories flash back in like a flood, triggering a fight or flight reaction by visually activating my limbic system.
For example, as a poor activist, I couldn’t afford to replace my bicycle. When I would think about looking for a used bike, I would suddenly get the creeps, like the flames of a gas stove being slowly turned up along my spine. And so I just started to avoid mentally going there, developing an aversion to all of the paths I actually need to follow to restore myself.
Going through life guided by an elaborate automatic aversion system is pretty much how my condition developed, what my daily life collapsed into. So this is the main handicap, the main obstacle I have in managing my own life. Oh, and I still haven’t gotten a bicycle.
A year or so later, I started to lose my ability to remember. I didn’t lose any memories (as far as I can tell), but when I was doing part-time carpentry work for a roommate, I would find it impossible to remember painting or nailing instructions, immediately after being given those instructions. I couldn’t even write the instructions down so that my roommate, who was giving me this work, wouldn’t have to repeat himself 3 or 4 times. I would just get confused, unable to listen and write simultaneously.
A couple of years later I started to realize I have Attention Deficit Disorder, when I realized that not only could I not remember instructions, but I couldn’t follow conversations any more. One time at a conference where I was a speaker, the morning after my talk I awoke unable to speak for almost eight hours. Here is how, a month ago, I described my typical days to another activist:
“…something else has happened. It’s a PTSD-triggered state of fear. The fear state further diminishes my cognitive abilities, sometimes to the point where I become mute.
“It works like this. The stopper is removed from my brain’s “sink” which is holding my neurotransmitters. As they deplete (drain out), my thinking fragments, then I lose my ability to create sentences while writing; then I lose my ability to remember what just happened. And that is the state I hang out in during most waking hours.
“The PTSD-triggered state of fear then takes it further: I get in a literal state of panic. Then I lose my ability to think at all (I can’t even listen to music or watch TV – it all just adds more chaos and irritation)… I end up in a state of confusion that is very much like dizziness, without any physical symptoms, and I’m stuck feeling, ‘What do I do now?’”
“So, like Julia Butterfly, my writing “prowess” is a result of overcoming and overcompensating for a ‘natural’ deficiency.”
A week or so after the firestorm left us homeless, Dawn and I moved into the basement flat in the house of Dr. Frank, an activist friend of ours. After a few months, Dawn wanted to move to a less claustrophobic town, and hopefully another communal situation.
We moved into a group house of mostly dance spirits. It turned out that Dawn’s healing involved needing a lot of my time, but mine required going off in a cave somewhere and trying to get myself reoriented and out of confusion. So we split up amicably, and I moved to another room in the house.
But after a year and a half, the consciousness fascists in the house prevailed, and I was forced to move out because my soul and my body weren’t available enough to them. It wasn’t acceptable that I was trying to do the best that I could to heal myself. These dance cultists wanted me to get involved in their dance scene of hitting three of these free dancing clubs each week. I either had to submit to being preyed upon by submitting to their collective will or leave.
The others in the household, including Dawn (who apparently has not come down with PTSD) just wanted to get the cultists to shut up already. So I had to leave, I had to move out into my car and become homeless, just to make a few people happier. My ailment must have appeared invisible to them. It certainly had no meaning for them and did nothing to evoke any compassion or generosity of spirit from them.
So two years after the firestorm, I found myself entering a phase of homelessness that would last for almost five years. I would lose my car after a year and a half… and almost everything saved from the fire and acquired right after it was lost in a 1995 storage locker theft. Including my merit badge sash.
All of this still lives, all too alive in cupboards of my mind, ready to leap out and shut me down at the least provocation. I can not watch TV anymore. All kinds of news stories bring me to tears. Fixing meals is still too complicated for me. My entire extended family and over 90% of my friends abandoned me when I could no longer keep up with their way of life, when my life had become far less upbeat than theirs.
No more Earth First! road shows for me. I don’t have a car, and I mostly stay within three miles of my home, rarely leaving the small town where I now live. I have countless scars that will haunt my dreams and follow me through my days for the rest of my life. The battle scenes of my mind awaken me each day. So far, the firestorm has burned like a blowtorch almost a decade out of my life. I now consider myself a holocaust survivor.
(1) All quotes attributed to Captain Donald R. Parker taken from, “The Oakland-Berkeley Hills Fire: An Overview,” by Captain Donald R. Parker, Oakland Office of Fire Services, http://www.sfmuseum.org/oakfire/overview.html. “Captain Parker was the “Division C” commander, in charge of operations at the Claremont Hotel on October 20, 1991. He is assigned to the Oakland Division of training.
(2) ”Kernal of Fear” by Mark Caldwell, Discover, June 1995, p. 97-102)
2011 addendum: Fortunately, I have healed a tremendous amount since I wrote this 11 years ago. And I now have a bicycle. I still have the Earth First! videos I saved from the fire, which are, 20 years later, finally getting seen as I now upload them to the Internet. And, uhm, I’m running for Congress!