Tales of an accidental phoenix

Two years ago today, in the early afternoon, my house caught fire while I was in the shower.

The timing was, in retrospect, comically terrible. I had a head full of shampoo, I was soaped up head to toe, and suddenly the water went cold. Looking up, I saw that the orange power light on the shower had gone out, which meant either there’d been a neighbourhood power cut at a very inconvenient time, or the switch had tripped on the circuit breaker in my front hallway. Since I didn’t fancy having to rinse all that soap off with freezing water, I decided to tiptoe my naked self out into the hallway to investigate.

As soon as I opened the bathroom door, black smoke poured into the room, and within seconds I was coughing and struggling to see.

It was, by quite a margin, the most terrifying moment of my life.

Two hours later, as the chief fire officer surveyed the damage in the aftermath, I stood there stunned in my soot-covered dressing gown, my hair now caked with a mixture of dried shampoo and ash. I was completely silent and devoid of any facial expression; all the emotion had been drained out of me. I had a sprained wrist, several small but painful burns on my hands and feet, and a rasp in my breathing.

The officer finally delivered his verdict: I wouldn’t be able to return to my home until the repair work was finished and he gave safety clearance. His time estimate on this was ‘anywhere from several days to a few weeks’.

I burst into tears. In my completely rattled and confused state, I misunderstood the meaning of what he was saying, and pictured myself wandering the streets for the next month, barefoot in my blackened dressing gown, my hair glued together with dried shampoo.

‘I’m not going to be able to rinse my hair for several weeks?’ I asked between sobs.

The officer tried not to giggle. ‘No, of course you can,’ he replied. ‘You just have to do it at someone else’s house, or at a hotel’.

‘Oh yeah, of course’, I said, and then started to laugh at the silliness of my own mistake. In many ways the trauma had reduced me to the level of a young child who doesn’t really understand how the world works. I figured that a shower, some clean clothes, and a good night’s sleep would sort me out.

It didn’t.

It was five weeks before I could return to my flat. It was nearly a year before I could be in a bathroom—any bathroom—with the door closed. When staying at friends’ houses, I would warn them that I was going to shower with the door slightly open, and that if they didn’t want to see anything, they shouldn’t walk past. My top priority was to never, ever again be surprised by a fire on the other side of a bathroom door. Even now, irrational lumps can creep up in my throat if I’m at someone’s house and discover that their bathroom is at the back of the house, rather than near the front door where I could get out quickly if I needed to.

Post-trauma is an odd thing. The fire itself, objectively speaking, was considered minor, but it sent me into a downward spiral of paranoia and unwise decisions. My sense of self-worth sank so low that I stopped doing many of the things I loved, and completely abandoned projects that had, up to that point, been going well. Nurturing toxic personal situations at the expense of healthy ones became my new normal, to the point where I soon had no one in my life that I could truly rely on or confide in. My apparent inability to stop this downward spiral was both a symptom of and a trigger for depression of a magnitude I hadn’t experienced in over a decade, a black hole that very nearly consumed me one cold winter’s night while I was travelling in Bulgaria.

Sometime around the end of April this year, after eighteen months of psychological upheaval, emotional chaos, and the help of a good therapist, my serotonin and dopamine levels finally started to stabilise again. Within a couple of weeks there was an immense shift in my depression, and the mental fog lifted. I was alarmed at the clarity with which I could suddenly see my personal circumstances, almost as if I had snapped awake from sleepwalking to find myself wandering through a lion’s den. I finally cared enough and felt able enough to do something about it, and set about making some dramatic positive changes.

If you’re looking for a clean ending to this story, there isn’t one. In general I’ve been moving from strength to strength, and I feel better now than I have in over two years, but it hasn’t been entirely linear. Even though I finally got my flat reassembled and cleaned up, I still find hidden spots of soot from time to time. That’s also a pretty decent metaphor for my psyche— my drive and spark have found their way to the surface again, but every once in a while I do something that pre-trauma me would shake her head at. For example, one particular incident a couple of months ago showed me that I’m still not being careful enough about honouring my intuition and steering clear of troubled individuals. Sometimes I tell myself that I’m just having a post-traumatic overreaction, when in fact someone is genuinely Bad News and the red flags couldn’t be more obvious. This is something I’m still working on, but I’ve learned to be patient with my mistakes and my recovery.

Most of my personal news these days is happy. I’m travelling more, spending more time with friends and family, and have resumed activities and hobbies that bring me joy. I’ve also rediscovered my empathy and capacity to help others; recently I decided to shave my head in solidarity and support of local breast cancer patients (a project which is now so close to reaching its fundraising goal that I’m starting to feel excited butterflies at the idea of actually running a razor over my scalp). I’ve been collaborating with artists all over the world on their creations, and have a few of my own in the pipeline.

And, apparently, I’ve started blogging again. My previous post on this blog was published a week before the fire, and I wasn’t sure when, if ever, I would get back to it, but here I am.

So there’s that.

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