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Elisa Goldstein, Ph.D.Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
A blog about mindfulness, stress-reduction, psychotherapy and mental health.

The Dark Side of Happy Anniversary

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: Dec 8th 2009

man in tunnelThis poignant article by Louis Nayer was brought to my attention about the "anniversary reactions," the experience of reliving the anxiety associated with the trauma during the anniversary of the event. It does a wonderful job exemplifying and normalizing our continued reactions to these traumas and I felt it was important to share it. Louise Nayer is author of How to Bury a Goldfish: And Other Ceremonies & Celebrations for Everyday Life and her recent upcoming book Burned: A Memoir (Atlas & Co., April 2010). She also teaches "Trauma and the Arts" at city college of San Francisco and has her own blog focused on healing from panic attacks at louisenayer.blogspot.com.

Without further ado, here is Happy Anniversary:

Happy Anniversary! Those two words are usually words of celebration-a joyous marking of time-usually of a couple staying together. The words can also signify other happy events-but the key word is "happy."

However, "anniversary reactions" as they're known in the therapeutic world signify something much different-a haunting, a trigger from the past that sometimes takes over someone's body, literally. That's what happened to me.

When I was four years old, my parents were severely burned in the basement of a rental house in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. My father, a physician, and my mother, a nurse/educator, took their first month-long vacation with my sister and me and our babysitter. We left the concrete heat of Manhattan to enjoy the spectacular beaches of Wellfleet. We were a lucky family.

On the night of July 22nd ,1954 my parents went off to a play in Provincetown-Della, our babysitter was to let in the "gas man" who was to deliver two new tanks of propane. The pilot light on the stove was out. The tanks were delivered (the man let in by Della), and the pilot light on the stove now worked. My sister, Anne, and I had our beloved macaroni and cheese and Della read us "The Merbaby," our favorite story and put us to bed. Late that night my parents came home after going to dinner, a play and then to a friend's house.  My mother wanted to wash her face with warm water but the faucet ran only cold water. Determined to wash her face, she decided to go down to the "pit" where the hot water heater was housed. My father held the flashlight. My mother, match in hand, found the valve. There was no smell-so she lit the match. A flash fire horribly burned both of them, particularly my mother's face and hands. They ran up the ladder, rolled out the flames and a neighbor and Della heard their screams. They were then taken to the hospital in Hyannis Port.  My sister and I went to live on a farm in upstate New York with our Aunt, Uncle and cousins and I didn't see my parents again for nine months. They were terribly disfigured and my father, especially, was "changed" in the way that people are changed when they come back from war.

Flash forward thirty-eight years-1996. My parents have survived wonderfully. Both went back to work and had sterling careers. They have retired and moved from New York City to Oakland, California, across the Bay from where I live in San Francisco. I am the same age as my mother was when she was burned. And through a synchronicity only fate could design, my daughters are four and six, even born in the same months as Anne and me.

During that time, I suffered terribly from an "anniversary reaction" as I now know it is called. I had severe panic attacks-heart racing, hands sweating, a feeling of disconnection to my own body and to the world. I would pass by mirrors and not quite see myself in them; I saw walls of fire as I drove to my teaching job at College of San Mateo. Sometimes I woke up feeling like I had to throw up. I felt possessed. I had two young children. I didn't know what was going on. "It's an anniversary reaction," the therapist said. Then I understood-I was reliving the terror-and believed it would get me, too-that I would be burned and be separated from my own children, just like what my mother had been through.

 Now it is 2009. Through self-hypnosis, exercise, tremendous love from family and friends and years of therapy I have few if any panic attacks. Sometimes the old terror rears its head in elevators-but I drive easily across bridges that used to set off my worst fears. Though I had been in therapy for many years before the panic attacks, had I known the relentless nature of an "anniversary reaction" I might have been able to prevent, or at least be more prepared to deal with the severity of the attacks. My panic attacks have now faded like the footprints on the sand in Wellfleet. Yet I know how important it is for everyone to understand how a childhood trauma can haunt any of us-and that we all need to understand the strength of the "anniversary reaction."

To the readers: As always, please share your thoughts about this article, personal stories, and questions. Your interactions here provide a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    Elevators - Louise Nayer - Dec 18th 2009

    Hi Lyn,

    Thanks for the comment. Elevators are  the one place where I still feel panicky. I often look to see that there is a telephone--and sometimes reach for my cell phone. I'm often happy if someone else is on the elevator. Lately, though, I've been trying to think of the elevator as a cocoon--something that protects instead of traps. Self-hypnosis has also worked for me. Good luck.

    Thank you. - Lyn - Dec 14th 2009

    This month is extremely difficult for me.  I get panic attacks out of nowhere.  I'm terrified of elevators.  I will walk up four flights of stairs to avoid going on an elevator.  I probably would walk twenty actually. I recently just had one and on a brink of another.  They are milder now then they used to be, but I was curious to see if anyone else had this.  It's very comforting to read that I am not alone in this.

    So thank you.  

    Thank You - Amber - Dec 9th 2009

    Thank you to Louise for writing this reminder that anniversaries of traumatic events are time for us to be open and compassionate to ourselves and our loved ones. Turning something so difficult into something so positive and forward-moving is something we all should practice more.

    Shining a Light on the Dark Side - Anne Nayer - Dec 9th 2009

    As Louise's older sister I have experienced a different set of symptoms in reaction to the traumatic events that changed our lives overnight. As a therapist I have worked with people to shine a light on the unconscious as it bursts forth in terrifying and 'out of the blue' symptoms of a emotional and physical nature.  While insight is not an instant cure-all, understanding and compassion for one another and oneself always point the way to healing.  I hope that Louise's article and book Burned give many people the hope and inspiration they need to turn the dark side of anniversary reactions into an opportunity for growth and a return to wholeness.

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