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A Lesson From the Paradise Camp Fire: Anxiety and Memory - It Doesn't Work

It has been nearly a year since the devastating Paradise "Camp-Fire" which destroyed 14,000 homes, including ours. We had an hour from the evacuation warning to the "leave-now mandate." I filled the car with gasoline and spoke with Sarah on the phone. She said, "Get the girls art." I hurried from room to room gathering paintings our five daughters had made as children, a few pieces of folk art, and finally my bicycle. I hooked up our small trailer which would become our home and my office. Sarah navigated against traffic, returning from work. She grabbed a box of important papers and a few items of clothing for each of us. The smoke thickened. I could hear the fire's roar in the nearby canyon as ash and burning embers fell like snowflakes. My brother-in-law phoned to see if we had evacuated. "Get out now, my mother is caught on Pentz Road, surrounded by fire" he said (and she made it). We checked on neighbors and headed out of town. My journals, girls' memory boxes, and some special memory-gifts remained at home. My brain was shutting down as the urgency increased. We could have collected those items as well.

The post traumatic symptoms linger. Survivors share a common understanding that we forget appointments, we forget names, we forget directions - things that should be simple. To an observer, we are normal. We laugh, eat, love, work and play, but the residue of the fire is real. I have a contractor friend who has built dozens of homes over the years. He is a master architect and an artist at his work. He moved to another state and is building a simple chicken coop behind his new home. "You'd think I'd know what to get at the lumber yard," he said. "I had to return six times for things I forgot!"

Our memories are compromised when we are stressed, and we do not perform well. Psychology Today shares, "It’s the end of the term, and you’re ready to face the big final exam you’ve been studying for all month. You’ve gone to every lecture, read every chapter, and memorized every formula and key term there is to know. You’ve never felt more confident about a test before. The big day arrives. You’re feeling a bit anxious. The test booklet lands in front of you — and panic sets in. You try to brush it off, but to no avail. Sitting with pencil in hand, you turn over the page of the exam booklet. You read over the first few questions. It happens: All the knowledge you thought you had in your head magically vanishes from your mental repository. There’s nothing up there. Nothing at all. It’s as if someone went into your brain and removed all traces of your prior learning. You end up failing the test, despite all the preparation beforehand. It’s a common occurrence because our ability to retrieve and encode information from stored memories can be quite easily hijacked by stressful situations. Stress has been shown to annihilate our ability to retrieve old memories. It offers a brain-based explanation for why we so often blank out during these types of memory-related performances."

Sarah and I have had to do some memory-work-arounds. We keep better calendars, set "memory-alarms" on our phones, and check on each other's appointments. We appreciate loving friends, we have met generous strangers, and we live in a small apartment that takes us back to our early years together. I have great empathy for those who are working through challenges related to illness, employment, health or family and the effects of stress. I'm slower to judge. I seek to understand others - I have greater patience.

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