This week in London, there was a devastating fire in a block of flats, killing many people. It has caused some political unrest in the city, so it’s all over the news and social media.
A few friends texted to check I’m OK, because they knew it would make me think of the house fire which killed my ex-boyfriend, in 2012.
When I heard that people had died, I immediately started imagining how awful it must’ve been for them, dying in a fire. Then, instantly, I’m imagining my ex-boyfriend’s death. I’ve played this out in my head so many times, over the years, especially straight after it happened – I have about 100 different versions of his death in my head. I know he was trying to put out the fire when he died, and over and over again, I’ve pictured it, without wanting to.
However, I think even a year ago, I would’ve coped even worse with hearing about this horrible news.
Over the last 6 months, I have finally come to terms more, with what happened, and I wanted to write about what has helped.
First, I’ll say what it was like, going back to my house, the day after the fire.
I was moving out, but a lot of my stuff was still there. I lived there for 3 years.
I always had strong, mixed feelings about that house. He still owned it jointly with his ex-girlfriend. They broke up 2 years before he met me. He really struggled with their breakup.
When we first got together, it felt like her ghost haunted the house. The house tied them together, and a lot of things were still exactly as she left them.
Then I moved in and reclaimed the house. I redecorated the walls she painted. She had painted the bathroom a depressing maroon. I painted it aggressively yellow.
I started to love the house. I loved living there with him.
He loved that house. It’s in an arty part of the city, and all the houses are painted bright colours. Ours had a mural on the side. We lived by train tracks, and all the trains that pulled into the city went past our house, and children would wave at the mural. It was an unusual house with 3 floors, on a hill, and the back door was one floor below the front door. We came in the front door and then went downstairs to the kitchen and living room. He loved that house because it was like him – quirky, arty and a bit battered.
It was falling down, though. Part of the reason they still owned it together, was that it was unsellable, because it had subsidence. I think the state of the house contributed to our breakup, in a way. He was very bad at sorting things out. There had been a leak in the kitchen and we had no kitchen floor and bare bricks in the living room, for months.
The day after the fire, I went to the house. I wanted know what was still salvageable, and I just wanted to see how bad it was.
His brother met me there. The door had been smashed in by the fire brigade so now there was a big padlock. His brother unlocked it.
He gave me gloves and warned me the fire had turned everything black and sooty.
He wasn’t wrong. It was dark inside. The emergency services had turned the electricity off, and it was winter. Not much light was coming in through the windows, because they were black. The walls and ceilings were black.
The carpet in the hallway had melted and reset into a prickly plastic mess.
One of the first things I noticed were these big loops of melted plastic on the walls.
What the hell are they?
Then I realised they were picture frames. The art work inside had fallen on the floor or was flapping around inside the plastic mess.
I walked up the stairs, towards our bedroom. The melted carpet felt weird under my feet.
The smoke detector on the stairs had melted and dripped down from the ceiling, like a Salvador Dali painting. We had known it was broken.
I went into our bedroom. Everything was black.
I looked up at the ceiling. I bought an expensive lampshade, a year or two earlier, with polka dots on. Now only a wire cage was left.
Where has the rest of it gone?
Then I realised the lampshade had melted and dripped down onto the bed.
This was our bedroom. This was where we slept together for several years. We had endless, lazy weekend mornings in here.
During the week, he gently mocked the way I crashed around, noisily getting dressed for work, while he tried to sleep before his late shifts. Other times, when I was getting dressed, he was feeding the animals after night shifts.
But he was dead.
I burst into tears. Then his brother came in and asked me why I broke up with him. I didn’t know what to say.
I went back downstairs, and into the bathroom. It was an unusually large bathroom. We kept our bikes in there.
The yellow walls were black. One of the windows had cracked with the heat. Our budgies used to live in the bathroom. Weirdly, that room made more sense than any other. Their cage was perched on the massive bathtub, but he kept their cage open so they had more space to fly around. They used to come and sit on the shower door when we were in there. We had to make sure we kept the toilet seat down, so they didn’t fall in.
Now, at first, I couldn’t find them. Then I did. Two tiny feathered bodies were hidden in a corner, behind the bathroom bin and the toilet. They must’ve found the least smoky place to hide, before they died.
Our kitchen and living room were downstairs. That was where the fire started. I knew he was sleeping on the sofabed, in the living room, because he didn’t want to sleep in our bed without me.
I wanted to go down there, but there was nothing left of the staircase. It had completely turned to ash and disappeared. There was a door at the top of the stairs, but half of it had burnt away. There was nothing left to see.
Over the next few months, I went back several times. It felt harder every time.
All my stuff was black, and I had to get rid of a lot of it, because I couldn’t clean the black off. All the edges of my books were black. Even the filing cabinet with my bank statements in – smoke got into the drawers and turned the edges of every page black.
The smell of smoke instantly takes me back to the black. The evenings I spent with a washing up bowl of soapy, black water, in my new flat, trying to wash the black off my things.
I was totally fucked up, for a year or so. Seeing anything related to fire, or anything that reminded me of the police giving me the news, made me feel terrified. It felt like it was happening again.
Then it got better, over the years, but not that much. I thought this was as good as it could get. I still felt devastated some days, and terrified sometimes.
Until about six months ago. A combination of things helped:
- breaking up with Matthew and dating Whippersnapper
- some training on PTSD I did for work
- being brave on the 5th anniversary
I met Matthew about a year after the fire, and we went out for 3 years. He is a nice person, and one of the people who texted me to check I’m OK this week. However, he was jealous of my dead ex, so I gradually stopped talking about him.
About halfway through our relationship, I found a shoebox of cassette mix-tapes my ex-boyfriend made, and I started listening to them in my ancient car. It almost felt like an affair, when I looked forward to driving and illicitly listening to his tapes.
As soon as we broke up, I started reminiscing about my ex-boyfriend again, instead of pushing the memories underground. I loved it when I met Whippersnapper, and he was so interested in hearing about him. They had a lot in common.
Then I told him about blaming myself for his death, and he was first person to help me see it differently. Instead of just saying “of course it’s not your fault!” (although he did say that), he asked me what other things also played a role in the fire. I told him the boiler was broken, so he was using electric heaters, and he was drying laundry too close to one of a heater. He was always doing dangerous things. The smoke detector was broken.
After that conversation, I drew out a pie chart of all the factors which contributed to my ex-boyfriend’s death, and realised I had been wrong to give myself 100% of the pie. I really feel like my guilt shifted that day.
Then, unfortunately, Whippersnapper broke up with me, just a few days before the 5th anniversary of the fire. I always find the anniversary unbearable. Over the years, I have tried whole range of things on that day – seeing my mum and dad, going into work, going on holiday – nothing felt right.
This year, because I already felt so miserable about WS, I decided to handle the anniversary differently. Instead of trying to make it hurt less, and blocking it out, I decided to look into the abyss.
I went back to the city I used to live in, and stayed with my friend, just round the corner from my old house.
On the morning of the anniversary, I wrote the post about the police telling me about the fire. I cried when I was writing it, and then felt better. I thought writing a blog would make me ruminate and overthink more, but actually, it really helps.
In the past, when I went over that memory, rather than remembering it from start to finish, I’d just go back over and over the worst bits, and it was all fragmented. Since I wrote down what happened, from start to finish, it has really started to feel more in the past.
When the fire happened, I couldn’t have been diagnosed with PTSD, because I hadn’t experienced the right kind of trauma, as I didn’t witness the fire. A year later, the diagnostic criteria changed, and then I could’ve been.
With PTSD, the memory is stuck in the wrong part of the brain. The memory of the trauma is stuck in the amygdala, whereas normal memories get filed away in the hippocampus. Every time you recall the trauma, your brain gets flooded with neurochemicals because you’re so distressed, and that fuses out the normal process for moving memories into the hippocampus.
Having the memory stuck in the amygdala means that, unlike normal memories, it feels like it’s happening again when you remember it, it can’t be updated with new information (e.g. knowing you’re safe now) and you have no control over when it comes into your head. This means people with PTSD feel constantly jumpy and on edge, because their brain doesn’t believe they’re safe even though the trauma has ended. It also means that random things that share arbitrary characteristics with the trauma, trigger the memory all the time (e.g. seeing someone wearing the same colour as the person who attacked you).
A lot of the things we do, when we’re working with PTSD, are to help the memory move into the right part of the brain. This can involve talking through the trauma in a specific way, so it gets processed properly, without the brain being flooded with distress neurochemicals.
For a few months after it happened, I felt panicky every time I saw police, or even people wearing black, or even just white cars that weren’t even police cars. Until recently, every time that memory came into my head, I would zone out and lose track of what I was supposed to be doing. Now I finally feel like that memory is in the past.
After writing that blog post, on the morning of the anniversary, I met one of his friends for lunch. I had felt a bit awkward, because we don’t know each other that well, but it seemed like a good idea. I also reminded myself he doesn’t work in mental health, like me and my friends, so he might not be up for talking about emotions.
We met for lunch, near where his work, and I was wrong. Even when we were just in the queue in the cafe, he said “I think about him a lot. And it’s never not hard.”
We had a lovely time and talked a lot about him, and how we felt, and life and death. We both said we should be in touch more.
Then I decided to go back to my old street, to look at my old house from the outside. As I walked across the city, I listened to songs that my ex-boyfriend liked, which I usually skipped because they’d be too hard to hear. I smiled to myself. I felt completely peaceful. I looked into the abyss, and it just turned out to be a little room.
I spent so long trying to block it all out. I was so prepared to feel devastated all day, but by the afternoon I felt peaceful.
I walked up the steps to my old street and looked at my house. It looked different – they had repainted the outside and the front door. It’s always strange when somewhere you lived has changed after you moved out, but this felt OK.
It looked like the house had sort of healed and recovered, like we had all been trying to do.
I went up the hill and walked to a bar that I always used to go to with him. This was a route I used to walk most days, to go to the little Tesco. It felt OK to be back. It felt nice.
Something I learnt on my PTSD training, which has really helped, is stimulus discrimination. I already knew about this from my initial CBT training, but I hadn’t realised it could help me.
The nature of a trauma memory makes it feel like it’s happening again, when you remember it. The memory can be triggered by anything sharing features with the trauma.
Anything to do with fire made me feel terrified, even though I wasn’t even there when it happened. Seeing a little log fire or pictures of fire, seeing steam or fog, even candles made me feel uneasy. Even the way the lights flashed on my internet router – when I saw it out of the corner of my eye, it made me jump, because it looked a bit like the way fire moves.
First, when I saw fire, I would get a tense feeling in my body, like the feeling you get after a sharp intake of breath, when you haven’t breathed out yet. Then I would think Get it away from me get it away from me. Then, a few seconds later, the emotions would rush in. I’d feel terror, but also hate. I hate fire more than I’ve hated anything. Fire is a cunt.
Now, I’ve started doing stimulus discrimination, when I see fire. All this involves, is thinking about all the differences between the current situation, and the original trauma, using the five senses. I think about what I can see that’s different, what I can hear, what I can feel, what I can smell, whether there’s anything I can taste.
For example, when I was in India, they would put all the rubbish into little piles, and then set fire to them, so we were constantly walking past fires of burning litter.
This stressed me out because burning plastic is one of the worst kinds of fire. At least with a log fire, or a bonfire in a garden, the smoke is clearer. Burning plastic stresses me out because it’s more likely to produce deadly fumes, and the smoke is black, like in my house.
So when I was getting stressed out, I would think
- it’s 2017, not 2012
- I’m in India, not the UK
- it’s daytime and sunny
- I can feel the sun on my skin
- everybody is safe
- the fire was lit on purpose, and it’s small
- litter is burning, not our house
It really helped.