Burned: An Interview with Louise Nayer
Today I am privileged to bring you an interview with Louise Nayer, author of Burned: A Memoir. Louise is also author of a poignant article that 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. Louise Nayer is also author of How to Bury a Goldfish: And Other Ceremonies & Celebrations for Everyday Life. Louise 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.
Today, Louise talks to us about the experience of trauma and some words that may help.
Elisha: How was it when you were young to have a mother whose face was burned? Was it hard for her and for the family to be out in public?
Louise: When I first saw my mother (nine months after the accident) -- her face, covered by ropey scars, was terrifying to me. Her arm was attached to her face-part of the grafting procedure. She looked nothing like the pretty light-skinned, dark jewel-eyed mother I had last seen on Cape Cod. But she was my mother with the same voice and a steely determination to have us back together. As time passed-she had 37 operations in total-mostly on her face and hands--her face looked better though always disfigured. At first when she went out in public people got off the elevators so as not to look at her. That was really hard for my sister and me. We glared at people, even though we were so young. We were trying to protect her. That was a big responsibility for young children. My sister was often out of the house-a combination, perhaps, of my parents' looks and the accident and the fact that my mother was very strict and more formal than her friend's mothers. My father didn't want to go out in public with my mother for years. He was very depressed and hated all the stares. Much later, we had no choice but to accept how she looked.
People in our immediate universe stopped staring so much, and my mother had always been very social so kept up her friendships. After four years she began to go out and would not let anything stop her. The stares continued always. But my parents had a full life. Maybe I became more compassionate as a result-more accepting of "difference."
Elisha: Recently you've noted having panic attacks while writing this book. How do you see that associated with your trauma?
Louise: I became extremely anxious after the accident. I was five years old on our return to our apartment in New York City. I stood by the window and stared every time my mother was out of the house-waiting for her return. I woke her up every night for months. "Are you still there?" I would say. I had a hard time with sleepovers, even with my next-door neighbor. This all, I believe, led to the later panic attacks I suffered first in my early twenties after a break-up with a boyfriend and upon graduation from college. I felt lost and scared. The panic over- took me suddenly. I felt possessed. I then got better. However, in my early 40's as I was writing the book and was my mother's age when she was burned-and my daughters were the same age as my sister and me I experienced an "anniversary reaction." The panic was unrelenting. I also saw walls of fire. I had trouble crossing bridges. I was clearly having PTSD symptoms related to the explosion in the Cape Cod cellar.
Elisha: What did you do to get through the panic attacks?
Louise: I did what I was taught in my early twenties-to breathe into a brown paper bag-and try to relax my body. At times I stopped drinking caffeine. I exercised. I saw a therapist-and continue to see a therapist. I did some EMDR and believed the rapid eye movement work helped me. I continued to do Reevaluation Counseling (peer counseling) that I had started in my mid-twenties and helps with "discharging" feelings. I went to an amazing hypnotist who created a specialized tape for me that I still play-sometimes every day. I took some Ativan (tranquilizer) but shied away from medication, though looking back it might have been good for me to be on medication so I could have been less anxious around my children. I took a lot of baths as the heat soothed me. My husband was a constant support. My family and friends helped me enormously. I desperately wanted to get better. I became attuned to signs that my body was in a hyper-vigilant state. I still do all the therapies-and now do acupuncture as well some times. I recognize that I need to do self-care on a regular basis. I teach a class called "Trauma and the Arts" and continue to read about healing after trauma and what works.
Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone whose family member had been burned, what advice would you give them?
Louise: First of all, I would let that person know that everyone in the family is now considered a "burn survivor" and that it is important that he/she gets counseling as well. Because of the severe injuries and the enormous difficulty for the burned person, a lot of the attention in the family is focused on the person who is physically burned. However, all the family members need to be helped. It's important to be able to express a wide range of feelings: grief, anger, sorrow and perhaps guilt. I would also hope that the family could discuss some of these feelings together-to find out what each family member needs. There are groups that help families, like The Phoenix Society. I would encourage that person to join with others to get the maximum amount of support to get through such a difficult and often heart-wrenching ordeal. Ultimately, I would want to give that person hope that in time the family can pull together- to rally around the person who has been burned and also make sure that each member of the family can openly discuss his or her feelings with a professional counselor.
To the readers: As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.