I’m Permanently Damaged, Thanks to Climate Change
The trauma doesn't go away.
Today — November 8th — is the fifth “anniversary” of the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people, destroyed 14,000 homes, and wiped the town of Paradise, California off the map. And recently — five years in — I’ve come to realize that I am permanently damaged, permanently broken, because of my experience in the Camp Fire.
I always thought — assumed really — that I would heal, eventually, and go back to “normal”, to the old, pre-fire, me.
But I realize now that that may never happen. It probably won’t.
Just as climate change survivors never fully recover economically from a climate disaster, it turns out that they may also never fully recover mentally or emotionally from a climate disaster either.
Before the fire, I was one of those guys: confident, self-assured, cocky even. Not fearless (because I’m not stupid), but free of fear.
I’d never suffered a major trauma.
My parents were happily married for 62 years. I had a stable, middle-class, Ward and June Cleaver, childhood.
I was normal. I was “well adjusted”.
I knew that anxiety, fear, dread, panic, and depression existed, but I had never experienced them.
Then came November 8, 2018.
I actually drove into the fire that day to save our cat, Kitty. But then I became trapped, stuck in a miles long line of cars, all trying to escape the fire.
It got dark, darker than the darkest night, even though it was ten in the morning.
Then the flames came. People panicked and abandoned their cars.
But after an hour or so, we slowly emerged from the trees, somehow never overcome by the flames. Traffic began to move. I thought I was safe. But soon we were directed down a narrow road and traffic came to a halt.
Soon, it got dark again, and soon there were flames again.
And there we sat for an hour, unmoving, waiting to be burned alive. People abandoned their cars again, but there was nowhere to run.
People ask me if I thought I was going to die.
No, I didn’t think I was going to die. I knew I was going to die if we didn’t move.
But eventually, we did move and I — and Kitty — survived.
But I was a different person after that.
I had recently become the head of Strategic Planning (reporting directly to the University President) at a public university before the fire, but I couldn’t do my job afterward. I no longer had any interest in the work, even though it was a position I’d wanted and worked for for a long time.
I was still teaching, and my students (I still love every one of them) held me anchored to the earth. I cannot say just how much they meant to me.
But the work of strategic planning had lost meaning, and I didn’t care anymore. I couldn’t concentrate and didn’t want to.
I asked the Chief of Staff to the President if I could go back to my old job as an analyst, part time.
She agreed, but I think she and everyone else — including the University President — was shocked. I had waited for this opportunity and had savored it, and now I was walking away. My career was over, and I knew it. It didn’t matter.
After a few months, I retired — about 7 years before I had planned to.
I took long, lonely walks every day, in a sort of deep, deep daze. My wife worried that I was suicidal, but I fortunately never was.
I was in shock. I was traumatized.
I couldn’t drive in traffic or be in tight spaces. It triggered every red alarm in my system. It reminded me too much of being stuck in the endless line of cars in Paradise that morning.
I put on weight, the infamous “fire 15” that many people put on after the fire (yeah, that was an actual thing). I was sad and quiet, but experienced sudden bursts of anger.
I felt like a zombie; life drained of all joy and meaning.
Five months after the fire, I had an “episode” that seemed like a stroke.
Stepping out of the shower one day, I suddenly didn’t know what time of year it was. I didn’t know what year it was. I wasn’t sure where I was. I couldn’t remember my students’ names. I stood there dripping wet, not sure of much of anything. But I did know enough to think I was having a stroke.
Fortunately, my wife came home from work right then and took me straight to the local ER.
CT scans and other tests showed that it wasn’t a stroke. So they sent me home. The symptoms faded.
A week later I had a follow up with a local doctor. When I described my experience, he said, “That sounds like PTSD. Have you had any recent traumas?” “I was trapped in the Camp Fire,” I replied. “Well, there you go,” he proudly responded (nothing like nailing the diagnosis on the first try, I guess).
Getting therapy after the fire was nigh impossible because of the absolute crush of people with experiences just like mine.
Over 40,000 people fled Paradise that day. There weren’t enough therapists within a 100 miles to deal with that. Most of those people likely remain untreated to this day. The walking wounded.
It wasn’t until we left California that I was able to find a trauma therapist who helped me.
For some people, EMDR is a liberating experience — or so my current therapist tells me — but it was a difficult and painful experience for me.
Recalling every horrible moment of that day, over and over, was… not enjoyable. But it helped. Immensely.
But, as I’ve learned, it didn’t “cure” me. It didn’t put me back to “normal.”
Yes, I can drive in traffic. Yes, many of the things that triggered anxiety before no longer do.
But I still have crippling anxiety over… nothing. I never experienced anxiety before the fire. But now, it just comes out of nowhere for no apparent reason.
And dread. Sometimes a nameless, faceless, massive dread settles over me like a unmovable boulder.
I have anger issues as well. Sudden bursts of rage that seem to come out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly. Antidepressants seem to help with that, but it’s still there.
But overall, I am doing better — certainly much better than in the first months after the fire. But I know that I will never be the same.
That person, that confident, well-adjusted guy; he died in the fire.
— — — — — — — — — —
40,000 traumatized people fled Paradise that day.
And in a sense, 40,000 people died that day, because the people who emerged from the fire weren’t the same people who had gotten out of bed that morning.
Every day there are more and more climate disasters. If we hear anything about them at all, we hear about the deaths and the homes destroyed. But we hear precious little about the people who “survive”, but die inside. The people who are permanently damaged.
That’s the real, and rapidly growing toll of climate change. It’s not just the deaths and material destruction; it’s the thousands and millions of damaged people left to wander the earth.
I’m just one of them.
Read more of Tony's work here.