Up in Flames


Those familiar with phobias (and maybe especially those in possession of one or two) will, perhaps, take interest in this story.

“Fire and Ice,” Robert Frost’s meditation on the impending apocalypse, concludes with the assertion that ice might be an ending quite a bit nicer than fire. And yes, the irony is lost on no one (Frost, ice), but for the pyrophobic among us, the choice between fire and ice wouldn’t have required even a haiku’s worth of debate, much less nine whole lines. When one choice is fire and the other is anything-that-is-not-fire, the pyrophobe will pick the latter with the instantaneity of a spark. They’d sooner board an iceberg-bound Titanic than approach a long-since-erupted Vesuvius. When hell freezes over, the pyrophobe will sin with abandon.

Interactions with Fire: A Timeline

Traumatic pancake incident.

Death-by-fire of the house of my uncle Bob (Bob’s full name is Robert, but not Robert Frost).

I get everyone in the fourth grade to sign my "End smoking!" petition.

My grandma quits smoking.

My aunt, Emily, loses her house in a fire.

I learn the difference between “burned” and “burnt."

2012, April
Aunt Emily dies of lung cancer.

2012, May
My grandma takes up smoking again.
I start dating a boy who smokes.

I stop dating the boy who smokes.

2014, December
Grandma’s apartment goes up in flames due to a lit cigarette butt.
She is admitted to the burn ICU

Camps and Candles

The year that my uncle Bob’s house burned down, I started attending a summer camp at my preschool. On the last day of camp, I came home and promptly burst into tears. Clearly inconsolable. Agony, blotchiness. My mom finally managed to discern, through my sobs, that the issue was a boy. I had fallen in love with Steven, one of the camp counselors. I was five years old, and Steven was probably sixteen or so. My mom, characteristically supporting my bouts of misery with whatever resources she had, called the camp, got Steven’s home phone number (this was before cell phones), and dialed. She explained to Steven, over the phone, that she was Rebecca’s mom and that her daughter was a tad heartbroken that she hadn’t gotten to say goodbye to her favorite counselor. I choked out a “Bye, Steven,” and then dissolved into tears once more. After about an hour of this, I pitifully wiped my snotty cheeks on my mom’s skirt and admitted, "Mom . . . at camp, I never even really talked to Steven."

Birthday candles have always been a source of anxiety. My mom, a professional violinist, would insist on accompanying the "Happy Birthday" serenade on fiddle. (Of course, this brought to mind a cheerful Nero, harmonizing with the crackle of a blazing Rome.) So I’d blow out the candles hastily, often forgetting to wish. Other options for wishing were limited—fairy godmothers are scarce these days, four-leaf clovers perhaps even rarer in a cement city. Fountains (the opposite of flames, obviously) served as the primary recipients for my childhood wishes. I carpeted the Dupont Circle fountain in tarnished copper. And at night, when the stars (shooting and otherwise) came out, the neighborhood homeless would pick through the fountain debris (cigarette butts, mostly) and take my wishes from their watery grave.

The year that my grandma quit smoking, I fell in love with another sixteen-year-old camp counselor. (By this time I was fourteen, but my “type” had apparently endured.) It was unrequited, or at least I assume so—having never even really talked to Theo, it was hard to know. I started going to therapy that fall.

A Life Worth Living

Every Christmas, when my dad insisted on lighting fires (and throwing in those colorful pinecones), my aunt Emily would come to visit from Atlanta. She’d come bringing dozens of little presents wrapped in crinkly tissue for the nieces and nephews. She was a petite woman with dark hair and droopy elbow skin, a radiant smile featuring a few blackened teeth, and a cigarette smoking habit. Always willing to get down on the floor and play with the kids. Always using too much olive oil in her famous vegetable dishes, soaking the green beans to the bone and puddling on our plates. Always taking breaks every few hours to pop outside for a “walk” or a breath of “fresh” air. Always coming back inside smelling acidic and stale. I adored her.

I fell in love the year my aunt Emily died of lung cancer, shortly before my grandma (having lost her eldest daughter) starting smoking again. The man I fell for wasn’t even my camp counselor! He was, however, Tristan. Tristan liked to tell me I was crazy. He also liked to shove me into walls when we fought. He liked to make me sleep on the floor by his bed. He liked making fun of my weight, isolating me from my friends, convincing me I was worthless and undeserving. He liked insulting my family. He liked smoking cigarettes and blowing the smoke in my face. He liked manipulating things I said. He liked forgetting my birthday, breaking promises, and shaking me by the shoulders, hard.

He liked me, so I loved him.

The nurse in the hospital said it had been an abusive relationship and handed me The Verbally Abusive Relationship, a book by Patricia Evans. The psychiatric ward security guard (suicidal thinking warrants that kind of thing, I guess) took a liking to me and snuck me a contraband Snickers bar. The head psychiatrist overruled my prior diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder and instead gave me the Borderline Personality Disorder stamp—citing my tendency to obsess, my reckless disregard for my own well-being in the face of approval from abusers, the fresh and already-formed scars on my wrist, my extreme highs and lows, and wild (“abnormal”) emotional reactions. He’d known me for all of three hours when he said these things. My roommate, who was going through an amphetamine detox and puttered around hooked up to her IV, cursed out the psychiatrist for making me cry.

The year Tristan and I broke up, I started Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), an approach that is often used for patients with Borderline, whom many therapists refuse to treat (too unstable, too risky, too incurable). DBT did not care about my fear of fire. Nor did DBT care about my abusive ex-boyfriend, my specific diagnoses, my childhood. Alisa (therapist, life-saver, godsend) only wanted me to get better—to stop cutting, to start breathing, to make mine a life worth living. When Marsha Linehan created the DBT model in the 1980s, she said of her patients with Borderline: "People with BPD are like people with third-degree burns over 90% of their bodies. Lacking emotional skin, they feel agony at the slightest touch or movement."

Change of Heart

I object to the smell of cigarettes, the creepy withered paper, the cancerous aspect, and the evil industry. Most of all, I hate the fire—hatred springing from paralyzing fear, of course. Smoking cigarettes is, I think, just a watered-down (figuratively) version of those circus fire-eaters. Fire, like depression, is all-consuming. It eats everything in its path, leaving behind shells and scars and chars and ash.

I’ve tried many times to find a perfect metaphor for depression or a way of explaining it to neurotypical folks. Sometimes I say, "It’s like being permanently on the verge of being on the verge of tears.” Or I say, "It’s like you’ve got an imaginary friend who follows you around everywhere and totally hates you.” But I think the depression-as-fire metaphor is most accurate. Put anything in a fire—happy days, sad days—and it all comes out the same: gray, numb, dead. Sometimes it’s almost exhilarating to feel so hopeless. Sometimes other people think it’s a bit glamorous or attractive.

Tristan fed off the despair, fanning the flames and throwing sticks into the fire. He knew a happier version of me would never put up with the way he treated me. At one point, while we were still dating, he offered a deal: he’d stop smoking cigarettes if I stopped cutting myself. I accepted, grateful for the uncharacteristic concern and care he was demonstrating. Of course, a week later at a party, Tristan pulled out a cigarette and lit up, casually exhaling into my face. “Not worth it,” his eyes said. The scraping sound of his lighter sounded an awful lot like a razor chafing a wrist.

The year that my grandma woke up to her bedroom in flames (she’d fallen asleep while smoking) and ended up in the hospital with third-degree burns—and even that was lucky—I’m sure you can guess what happened . . . there was a boy. Jake. Six foot two or so. Benched 250. Preschool teacher. For weeks, which turned into months, which ever-so-tenaciously turned into a year or so, I dreamed of being the one to make him happy. I will always love him, I thought. Or at least, I will always have loved him now.

Jake went obliviously along from girlfriend to girlfriend, introducing them to me and never noticing the forced smiles and swallowed tears. It seemed this was to be one for the unrequited books (an anthology!).

But against all odds, Jake had a change of heart. I ended up in bed with him. And a happily-ever-after was in sight. It seemed like everything might finally be okay. Girl meets boy, girl falls in love with boy, boy finally realizes girl is worthy of adoration, depression is a thing of the past, The prescription medications can be thrown out, the incurable has been cured. No more hospitals, no more psychiatrists and psychologists and social workers. Just true love.

But before jumping to such conclusions, Jake had a favor to ask. "Anything for you," I said. Something he thought would be really hot. Something that would make me super-extra-sexy in his eyes. "Seriously, anything," I said, eagerly. 

“Could you, like, smoke a cigarette while we fuck?” 

I smoke a cigarette.

Want to share this story? Feel free to save or copy this image when you post on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other social media site!

Want to share this story? Feel free to save or copy this image when you post on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other social media site!