Dreading August 4: On triggers and remembrance

It is difficult to reconcile feelings and thoughts related to August 4. Both a deeply personal experience and a collective trauma, the Beirut blast has marked our minds, bodies and calendars in unfathomable ways. 

For many of us, August 4 never ended: Days propel us forwards but it seems as if time has stood still since then. Every day is the day a large amount of ammonium nitrate decimated our city and homes, killed over 200, and injured thousands. For others, time is a means of escape from the everlasting imprint the port explosion left on us. For the rest, it is both.

Many of us have yet to mourn, others have mourned Beirut ever since. But as we near the one-year-mark, we are prone to seeing and sharing news, images, videos, and soundbites from the day. Our minds and bodies are overstimulated with adamant reminders that cause repressed feelings to surface, and the active psychological triggers force us to relive our difficult experiences of the decisive day.

“It is important to be aware, because if these symptoms begin to increase, it is important for the person experiencing them to speak up on the topic and receive the needed support,” said Dr. Georges Karam, an adult and geriatric psychiatrist in a video released by Idraac on the reactivation of memories.

Trauma is a feeling, space, sound, memory, thought or smell. It is at once familiar and yet elusive, foreign and invasive. Trauma reminders can cause our bodies to react without so much as a warning, because trauma isn’t something we can anticipate. We are forced to confront painful memories that induce anxiety and stress, catching us off-guard and leaving us feeling confused, angry, sad.

The mix of emotions, weighing down on us and difficult to cope with, is aggravated ahead of the one year-mark as we are re-exposed to footage of the explosion and its effects.

Since the explosion, and even before it, our lives have radically changed. “An economic crisis, a health crisis, a lockdown that’s making people feel isolated, in addition to traumas or psychological shocks such as the Beirut port explosion,” listed clinical psychologist Ola Khodor in a previous interview with Beirut Today. “These are causing an increase in anxiety and massive psychological stress for individuals that’s affecting their lives.”

People on social media platforms share their experiences with coping after August 4 in an attempt to express their emotions and find outlets for support, more so ahead of August 4, 2021. Many are doing the exact opposite, taking time off from social media to avoid triggers.

Pushing away traumatic memories offers temporary relief, but is in fact a coping mechanism that prolongs our long-term recovery. If we always choose to avoid our memories, we cannot control them nor can we reconcile with them. Avoidance and fear can at once turn into anger and depression.

When we feel triggered, it is important to identify the reactions we have to the trigger, such as what thoughts are beginning to cross our minds during the incident. Simple things such as writing our feelings down or talking to someone through our thoughts can be massively beneficial in the moment, and even so later on, as we begin to process how to react to the trigger.

Our instincts may be to jump towards isolation or seek instant gratification to suppress the painful emotions. This could look like indulging in self-destructive behavior such as substance abuse, overindulging in food or shopping, or more.

It’s hard not to indulge in these things, especially when it feels like the country you live in has closed every door off in your face. We seek solace and comfort in small, controllable aspects of our lives in an unpredictable country that feels like it’s constantly working against us. 

But no matter how much comfort we seek, in whatever area of life, it does not change the fact that it will be short-lived. Once the temporary happiness ends, we are thrown back into the same repetitive cycle. These behaviours pull us up for air, but we’re still drowning under the same memory of trauma.

This collective experience can only be reconciled through collective healing. Who else can we turn to if not each other? Talking about our own individual experiences, sharing tears and anger, with our circles and our doctors and counselors, can bring much more relief than we think it will.

As the day nears, plan how you would want to spend it so you find yourself prepared to confront your difficult emotions upfront. Whether it be escaping Beirut on the day, or participating in a commemorative activity such as a mass protest or mournful walk, take it as an opportunity to directly address the trauma you’ve experienced and the wave of emotions it has put to the front of your mind.

August 4 is a difficult day, and there is no one right way to deal with it.