Ten years ago today, my apartment building caught fire and nearly killed me when I was almost trapped inside. I lost almost all of my belongings that I owned because my neighbor in the New York City apartment building I had moved into 3 weeks before set her gas stove on fire and then ran out of the building without turning off the gas. I used to think of September 5, 2009 as the worst day of my life. Now I think of it as my best. I wouldn’t wish my path on anyone, and I also wouldn’t change it, not one bit of it, because I love my life now and each of these difficult steps brought me here.
The first few years
Over the several years after the fire, I was dealt a hefty dose of PTSD that still persists in fits and starts today. I had intense anxiety attacks that would take over my mind and body without warning. I often felt like I was watching myself fall into madness. Being conscious of your descent and having no ability to stop it is a terrifying existence. I would be lying to you if I didn’t fully admit that there were nights I would lie awake in bed and wonder if life was really worth it. Many days, my answer to that question was “no, it’s not worth it.”
A nightmare that led to a dream
One night, I had a nightmare that I had climbed out to the balcony of my apartment and jumped to my death. I woke up just before I hit the pavement on Broadway down below. Obviously, I woke with a start. The moon was so big and so bright just outside my window that it was almost blinding. I went out to my balcony, and in my foggy state of mind, I could swear that moon spoke to me. I was in a job I didn’t like, in a romantic relationship with a narcissist, and I spent most of my time profoundly unhappy. Out on that balcony, I realized that I wanted to be a writer, that I had always wanted to be a writer, and if I had died in that fire, I never would be. I’d die with stories still in me. That’s when Emerson Page, the protagonist in my novel that would be published almost exactly 8 years later, began to take shape in my imagination. I would later learn that the name Emerson means “brave”, and that’s what she’s taught me—to be brave. Deep in my gut, I know that the moon and Emerson saved my life that night, and that they have saved me many nights since.
Several months after the fire, I wasn’t doing well. One day I found myself sitting on a New York City sidewalk crying. I didn’t remember where I was going or how I got there. It’s as if I had fallen asleep and woken up in a place I didn’t recognize. A man put his hand on my shoulder and asked if I was okay. My honest answer was, “I don’t know.” Shortly after that, a friend convinced me to go to therapy and recommended a therapist to me. Our first meeting was basically me throwing out a lot of words and a lot of emotions, Brian listening, and then him telling me two things that changed my life: “I’m not afraid of you” and “I think I can help you if you want to be helped.” And that was it. I entered weekly therapy for 3 years, and to this day I still go to see him here and there when I am struggling. It is not an exaggeration when I say Brian pulled me out of my deepest darkness many times and that he is one of the tiny handful of reasons that I survived those early years and went on to build a life I love today. Without him, my life now would not be possible. He is a miracle worker. I owe him everything.
Making peace with my past
As it turned out, the fire was one trauma that burned away the wrapper I tightly bound around many other traumas I had endured over the years. Once the fire happened and my PTSD was in full effect, I could no longer hide nor contain those earlier traumas. I had to deal with them. Those traumas were festering and wreaking havoc in my life in all kinds of ways that I hadn’t even known or acknowledged. It was painful to do the work to heal myself, and it was necessary.
About a year after the fire, I got my first dog on my own as an adult. I had grown up with dogs and loved them so much, but had convinced myself that I needed to be in a relationship before I could get a dog because raising a dog and taking care of one in New York City on my own was something I just couldn’t do.
My fire gave me a lot of occasions to say, “Well, if I’m not going to do this now, then when?” And so, I decided to foster a dog. The fostering lasted about 5 seconds. I saw my dachshund, Phineas, a rescue who desperately needed a loving, supportive home, and I knew he was the dog for me and I was the human for him. We have had our ups and downs – plenty of mental and physical health issues for us both – but he is by far one of the best beings I’ve ever had in my life. We rescued each other. We still do.
Grateful for the lemons
My fire stripped me bare of any and all pretenses, excuses, and denials. Though at first it made me afraid of everything, it eventually made me fearless. It made me strong and confident. I had run from a burning building, lost almost everything, and rebuilt my life—mentally, physically, and emotionally—from scratch. What did I have to be afraid of? What could I not do? That fire taught me that my only constraint was me. I wasn’t making lemonade out of lemons. I was and am grateful for the lemons, just as they are.
My life is not perfect now, far from it. There is still so much I want to do. There are so many places I want to go and see. There are still so many experiences I have yet to have, that I want to have. For today, I’m putting those aside. Today, I’m just happy to be here at all, still broken in some places and with all the pieces I need to be whole. Thanks for listening. Thanks for being here with me. It means more to me than I have words to say.
Remember that a fire can also be a kiln. Whether it consumes you or improves you is all about your perspective. I’ve had a very difficult 24 hours. This point-of-view and great friends got me through. If you’re going through a tough time, I hope this idea helps you, too. Sending you love.
7 years ago today my apartment building caught fire and I had to start over in every sense. I feel so many emotions on this anniversary though the one now that is more prominent than others is grateful.
In the middle of that soot-covered apartment that day I had no idea what to do, where to go, or how to feel. Mostly, I was scared and filled with what-if scenarios. Had I hesitated even a minute longer, it’s unlikely that I would have made it out of the building.
I thought that day was the worst day of my life because it sent me down into a very dark and terrifying spiral—mentally, physically, and emotionally. Now with the benefit of time, I see that day as one of my best.
That day set the course I’m still following, causing me to let go of the things that don’t help me live my best life and to take chances every day. That fire caused me to lose a lot of things I loved, and it also helped to create space for me to build something brand new.
That process of rebuilding has been beautiful and terrible, and I consider all of it a great gift because it helped me to know and appreciate just how strong and resilient I am. And those are things worth knowing.