How Fireworks Can Trigger Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
By Nadia Al-Samarrie
I spent 4th of July in San Francisco this year. A departure from my West Marin country life where fireworks are illegal. The locals decided to put on a fire show right in the intersection of a street with a two-way traffic light, only 100 feet away from my front door. Starting at 7:30 pm fireworks began going off all around us till 2:00 in the morning. Earlier, my sister and I went for a seven-and- a- half-mile hike looking for the big city fireworks when it turned out that the best show was up-front in our Mission district neighborhood.
Fireworks echoing from a distance remind me of artillery. If you have ever been in a war zone, the blast heard from fireworks can sound like a mass shooting, triggering PTSD. A condition where scary and traumatic events affect your mental health; possibly making it difficult to concentrate, function, causing you to lose interest in life or the things that once gave you joy.
In 2003 I traveled to Baghdad when Saddam was still in hiding. My father was living there. His health was compromised. I wanted to say my goodbyes in case he was going to pass away. My journey there was dangerous. It started with taking a taxi cab from Amman Jordan to Baghdad Iraq with one driver and an armed man along his side. The trip required passage through Fallujah, a dangerous life threatening crossroad on our way to Iraq’s capital.
After visiting Baghdad for two weeks, gunshots in the neighborhood became familiar sounds. I could assess how safe I was from the distance of the echoing gunfire. Instinctively knowing at what point clearing out for self-preservation is required. My new distressing normal life was compounded by being bombed then charged by American soldiers, a surprise to us both. The American soldiers assumed we were the perpetrators who attempted to attack their Hummer as they routinely drove by. We, on the other hand, preparing to go out for a birthday celebration, had no idea what had just happened. Until we found ourselves lined up with our hands raised above our heads facing seven American soldiers with cocked guns ready to shoot. I was told that American soldiers could shoot once without asking questions. But it was not clear if the seven of them could all shoot once or only one of the seven could shoot once without interrogating us. Concerned about my elementary school-aged children being motherless, I thought of the shortest word I could say to identify myself as an American. “Hi,” I said in a high-pitched unfamiliar voice. “you are American?” one soldier asked. “Yes,” I responded. “Where are you from?” “California,” I said. “You are a long way from home,” he replied; the conversation went along those lines.
Sixteen years have passed since my last visit to Baghdad. But, anything that sounds like gunfire makes me feel edgy; instantly taking me back to a time where my safety was questionable.
Living in West Marin has insulated me from the sounds of fireworks. However, some war Veterans like myself instantly travel back in time to re-experience PTSD when they hear a sound similar to gunfire. Fireworks sound like gunshots for those who have lived in a war zone. Sadly, a nationally celebrated holiday like the 4th of July can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder.