NOTE: I wrote this three days ago; since then we had a 3.9 earthquake.
The Santa Ana winds arrived here yesterday in Southern California and with it general mayhem. The evening newscasters report fires and blackouts already, and it is only day one of a projected four-day visit by Ana. The warm winds typically whip through the mountain passes here in fall and winter, and this time they were expected to be in excess of 65 mph.
As it happens, tonight I wake up to a rumbling sound. I feel the floor vibrate under the bed. It fades and returns, fades and returns. Panicked, my New York mind tells me, “Earthquake . . . pre-tremors.” We didn’t typically have earthquakes in New York so, to me, every rumble in California is an earthquake.
Bump! Bump! Bump!, I hear from under the bed. I contain my fear before it gets out of control, slowly relax my worried brow and realize my 82-pound labrador-shepherd is snaking her way under the bed with nary an inch to spare. When the wind is crazy like it is tonight, she’ll go into stealth mode like a private in Army basic training–a steel dagger in her mouth, making her way under barbed wire. She’s a barking maniac at the mailman (whom she sees every day), our outdoor cat (whom she sees every day), and the neighborhood dogs (whom she sees every day), but she’s a quivering bag of chicken bones when the wind kicks in.
I remain alert the rest of the night. With not much else to do but wait for morning, I wonder, What happened in her life to scare her so? Had I only continued psychology studies in college, I’d be a behavioral psychologist by now and the resident dog whisperer in my house. But, alas, all I can do in the moment is speculate. She’s scared to death of fireworks and thunder; those sounds send her cowering under a desk. Is it the random bang of a slamming door in the house as the wind forces through windows and hallways that terrifies her? Was she once trapped in a dark room when a door abruptly shut? Oh, to climb inside her mind and help sort it out. I feel so sad she suffers.
I’ve been here before, my mind tells me, and I am soon revisiting my mind’s old hallways, rewinding ten years of life after 9/11. There, I recall the all-too-familiar struggles my husband at the time had with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) due in part from his time working at Ground Zero. PTSD is normally associated with the traumas soldiers suffer during their time on the battlefield that play back for years to come in horrific flashbacks, but it’s a condition that can exist for anyone with a history of any kind of trauma. For my ex, the things his PTSD mind would tell him were lacking in reason and rooted in fear. Events and moments in his life experience that truly scared the heck out of him became a constant shadow figure lurking over his shoulder, threatening to take his life at any moment. The method to manage the fear often required the alteration of reality in an effort to avoid reality.
Fear can get a person–or in tonight’s case, a dog–to the point where they cannot reason and so cannot contain their fear. They become consumed in an infinite dark hole from which there is no hope of escape. And all you can do as a love-invested bystander is try to accommodate and comfort them, but you cannot fix them. Nothing breaks a heart so much as wanting to help someone but realizing you are unable to change what is already written.
The Santa Ana winds come, as always, with the threat of fires, and the fires can etch Ana’s visit permanently on the landscape. Nobody can stop that. It simply IS. Every time she blows through, she reminds us of where we have been. Likewise, traumatic memories are the winds that can blow through a suffering mind. They come unexpectedly and leave a permanent scar on the landscape of the soul, stealing all joy from life.
As for me, I have no fear yet associated with Santa Ana and her winds. For me, her arrival means warm, breezy nights in an otherwise cool season. On nights like these, the palm trees outside my window become graceful concubines swirling fanciful fans before the alluring eyes of a moonlit sky. The night is alive outside my window and the seductive sounds could lull me to sleep. But tonight, for the love of my dog, I close the windows and say goodnight to the warm breezes I enjoy so much. I tune in soft music on the radio to distract her from the noises outside and the thoughts in her head. This, too, I recall from my time with my ex-husband: create the necessary distractions from normal life; alter reality for the sufferer when it triggers fear; be at the ready to comfort and calm; spend a lot of time trying to manage someone else’s reality.
As morning nears, my dog finally falls back to sleep, but I do not. This, too, I will always recall.