Two days ago, while at my workplace, I had to deal with intensive fear after someone set fire to stock. Shoppers and staff evacuated the store, and then I and my colleagues were sent home.
I didn’t feel the fear. It went underground, it was that intense.
But I had a memory that playing over and over in my mind. I was reminded of an interview I did five years after 9/11, when terrorists brought down the World Trade Centre. To mark the anniversary of that terrible event, I interviewed a local man who was there. I can’t find the original story I did on Robin Lamprecht’s escape, but a follow-up story, quoting the original one is here.
I remember sitting in the family home as Lamprecht wept, telling the story of his harrowing escape down the second tower’s stairwell. He felt survivor’s guilt as New York City firemen raced up the stairs past him, ultimately to their deaths. He relived the fear of descending the endless, crowded stairs, hoping he’d return to safety of his wife’s embrace.
He remembered the voice of his deceased mother urging him to keep going. An angel, nudging him to safety.
His eyes filled with fear even though the trauma was in the past. But that fear persisted. It’s called post traumatic stress syndrome. And I, like a lot of journalists, suffer from it too. We can’t do our job without empathy — putting ourselves in the shoes of our interview subjects — but that comes with a price.
When Times Colonist columnist Jack Knox wrote the followup, I got in touch with my old colleague. (I retired in 2014.) It was during that conversation that I recalled I’d kept the original recording of Lamprecht’s interview. I’d transferred it onto a CD for some reason. And then I dug it out and played it. I wanted to feel something, but emotions are hard to stir up in people like me — we bury them, and they play havoc with our blood glucose, heart health and things like blood pressure.
Buried stress can be a huge factor in physical health. I used to deal with the buried stress by drinking alcohol, but I quit booze over three years ago. It wasn’t helping me at all. In fact, I am convinced it would have killed me.
So the other day, I was working in the shampoo section when an announcement was made: “Code red — this is not a drill.” It was a sign that there was a fire somewhere. The store evacuated, many of us wondering where the fire was and what was happening. I saw no smoke. Many of the employees huddled together in a parking-lot shelter used for shopping carts. It had snowed and the temperature was chilly. Everyone was calm. I got hugged by another associate who laughed as she used me to keep her warm, and it made me laugh too.
One of the managers took us around the building to the fire door access to our lounge. I glanced at his face and saw the tension I couldn’t feel in myself. My heart went out to him. I wanted him to be okay.
In psychological terms, I was projecting. What I couldn’t bear to feel, I recognized in someone else. I did as instructed, and went home. It was the end of my shift anyway. The next morning (yesterday) I showed up for work and found the parking lot almost empty. Another employee was waiting to be let in the front door, so I joined her. A manager come and told us to go home. We’d be paid for the day. The air quality had to be tested before anyone could return to work or shop.
For some reason, I started chattering to her about how I’d paid attention to mass shootings in the US, and how I now try to be aware of escape routes should something happen here. My mind flashed again to Robin Lamprecht, and his helplessness as he descended a crowded stairwell. I’d been triggered.
I ran into the store’s head manager in the parking lot. He hoped the store would open in the afternoon “but your shift will be over by then anyway.” It’s that kind of place, where the store manager is aware of what shift you work. Again, I sensed concern and care. Again, I pushed the fear away.
It was only last night that it hit me. I fell into bed exhausted but couldn’t get to sleep. My mind kept going back to my concern for that manager that ushered us out. Why was that such a big deal for me? Why was I so concerned about his emotional well-being?
The answer was simple — he reflected what I was too scared to feel. Nobody likes to be reminded of their vulnerability, especially for something as unpredictable as a terrorist attack. In this case, a small fire in the back of the store could have quickly got out of control. Fortunately my co-workers used fire extinguishers to put it out.
Like many former journalists, I’m a voracious consumer of world news. I see the reports, I feel for those involved. I’ve never really wondered about my own safety. Canada is safe, right?
Awareness is a key component in releasing buried stress, and I’m doing my best to find a balance between unreasonable fear and confidence that will allow me to manage the fear without being overwhelmed by it.