When Your PTSD Is Triggered by Fireworks...Every Fourth of July

Personal Health

Most people look forward to the Fourth of July. Who doesn’t love a long holiday weekend, delicious barbeque, and of course, fireworks? Well, me. I have a severe phobia of explosive sounds, and I’m so terrified of fireworks that it casts a pall over the entire holiday. Since childhood, I’ve suffered severe panic attacks at the mere thought of a loud, sudden pyrotechnic burst.

My phobia only worsened into adulthood, to the point where even seeing a firework wrapper is enough to trigger a flood of tears and heart palpitations. In college, I spotted one littered on the quad lawn while walking to class. Instead of going to my 2 p.m. seminar,  I fled in panic back to my dorm room and curled up in bed wearing industrial-strength noise-blocking earmuffs, the kinds used by construction crews with jackhammers.

But the most infuriating part wasn’t my reaction, or its persistence, but its inexplicable nature. Why was this happening to me? My phobia had no traceable source, no noble origin story. Was it possible to feel traumatized if there was no initial trauma? Because I couldn’t remember a precipitating event for this fear, I was mystified not only by my emotions, but by my entire physical state. Why was I shaking? Why was my heart racing? Not only was my phobia irrational, it was incomprehensible.  

Until I found the videotape.

A few years ago, my parents rediscovered a box of home movies, and invited me over to reminisce over all the standard childhood memories and milestones: holiday dinners, elementary school plays, and, as it turned out, baby’s first panic attack. It was a Fourth of July barbeque at my parents’ house. According to the grainy VHS footage, my four-year-old self toddled down the driveway to stand next to my uncle. All of a sudden, without any warning, he lit off a chain of fireworks—a decision that proved to be not only foolish and potentially dangerous, but permanently scarring. As my entire family squealed in awe of the loud, colorful sparks. I ran in terror out of the camcorder’s view, presumably into my basement bedroom.

The summers that followed the firework incident saw the beginnings of my phobia.  I could barely leave the basement during the weeks surrounding the Fourth of July for fear of what I might hear and what I might feel. My room became a safe haven of sorts, an underground bunker. Avoidance, as is the case with so many traumas, was key to feeling protected. I didn’t even remember the precipitating event—wouldn’t remember it until I saw the tape. But that’s exactly why I was so traumatized. I had yet to fully process and integrate the initial incident. I processed it by living it over and over, unconsciously.

The videotape proved to be overwhelmingly validating, even healing. For years I had been haunted by those echoing booms. One sound could trigger a fight-or-flight panic. I struggled to cope, but not knowing the provenance of my extreme reaction remained deeply frustrating and unnerving.  Seeing that footage, however, was like trapping a ghost that had been swirling inside my brain for years. Finding visual evidence of the origin of my greatest fear played a pivotal role in helping reconstruct, and ultimately recover from, trauma that affected me in the decades that followed. Who knew that the answers I sought were hiding in the bottom drawer of a bureau, waiting to be discovered in one of my mother’s excessive bouts of spring cleaning?

While the tape certainly filled in a major narrative gap, it also raised questions I didn’t have the faculties to answer, questions that came accompanied by a nagging sense of guilt. Did what I experience actually constitute trauma? I wasn’t a combat veteran or a civilian living in a war-torn country ravaged by bombs. I was a child who heard a noise a million other children hear—most of whom don’t react the way I did. For the longest time I refused to acknowledge my experience as trauma. It lacked the heft of importance I thought the term should be reserved for. I even flinched when my therapist used the word to describe my past. Perhaps it was a defense mechanism, a refusal to admit I was capable of being terrorized by something so seemingly minor. How could something so mundane and ordinary be traumatic? It seemed a great disservice to those who survived extreme circumstances that more generally trigger PTSD.

It was not until I undertook my own research that I could accept my own story as one of trauma, however generic it may seem. In his work, psychiatrist and researcher Bessel van der Kolk writes: “The critical element that makes an event traumatic is the subjective assessment by victims of how threatened and helpless they feel … The meaning that victims attach to these events is as fundamental as the trauma itself.” My case seems to exemplify the truly subjective nature of trauma. The meaning I affixed to it became just as powerful as the event itself.

From a clinical perspective, there has also been a shift in how trauma is defined—one that’s also moved towards the subjective. When describing PTSD, the newest edition of the DSM now places greater emphasis on the four main symptoms that accompany the disorder—re-experiencing, avoidance, negative cognition and mood, and arousal, all of which were defining aspects of my behavior—rather than the stressor itself. Additionally, any disturbance that could portend death, injury, or sexual abuse can constitute a traumatic event. A stray firework mishap, while certainly minor compared to the daily threat of combat, can technically instill terror, especially in a small, easily startled child like myself.

The latest edition of the DSM also includes a pre-school subtype and a dissociative subtype. in which memories of trauma seem dreamlike, distorted, and unreal. Both of these also applied to my situation, and helped convince me that my phobia was a result of PTSD. At the time of the fireworks incident, I felt helpless and lacked the verbal capacity to express my fear. All I could do was run away from a circumstance that felt unreal. I removed myself from the situation as suddenly as I removed it from my mind, blocking it from future memory. It’s amazing how consciousness can be altered to accommodate the need to escape in order to function.

I don’t know whether this new understanding of PTSD affects how psychiatric professionals view, diagnose, and treat the disorder. But I can personally attest that it validates the experiences of survivors. I am a testament to the variety of forms PTSD can take, and it means a great deal to me to see those forms recognized. It is only now, as I seek to give narrative shape to the formative events of my childhood, using both the objective evidence of videotape and the subjective evidence of my emotions, that I retroactively understand the context and consequences of my trauma. It is only as I return to these memories that I can fully integrate them into my being. It is just one of many steps to overcoming.

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