Millions of Americans will celebrate Independence Day with pool parties or backyard barbecues, followed by fireworks. I, on the other hand, will make sure I am home before dusk, windows shut, blinds down and the fan on full blast to drown out the sounds and lights.
When I was 16, I fled the war in my native Bosnia and was fortunate to find refuge in the United States. Although I can truly appreciate the significance of celebrating this country’s anniversary of independence, every year the fireworks bring back the deadly soundtrack of my childhood: the crackle of sniper fire and explosions.
My own reaction, juxtaposed with the image of families sharing food and drinks while enjoying the summer leisure, has often left me feeling alone — cowardly even.
But I’m not the only one for whom fireworks can be triggering. What about the survivors of mass shootings? What about those who have never experienced such trauma but are nonetheless anxious and apprehensive about the possibility of yet another tragedy? What about other war refugees and veterans? And what of our beloved pets who experience great distress from all the cacophony?
My first Fourth of July was in 1996, less than a year after my arrival in America. I had just finished 10th grade and was living with a wonderful host family in Ohio. That summer, we packed up and drove to Antigo, Wisconsin — the charming hometown to both of my host parents — to see their relatives.
It was a family tradition that all of the children walk in the Fourth of July parade dressed up as clowns. So I, too, walked through the town in a green-and white clown costume, waving a tiny American flag and smiling at the crowds.
Afterward, there was a party with food and music, which attracted a lively crowd. Suddenly, a series of loud pops punctured the festive din. I screamed and ducked, covering my head with my hands. The sound of firecrackers took me back to Sarajevo and my childhood under siege, where for nearly three-and-a-half years I endured daily sniper fire and bombings. I was overrun by terror and seized with fear. The people around me were unfazed by the noise but shocked at my reaction. My eyes filled with tears, and I felt ashamed for making a scene. Moments later, my host mom pulled up in her SUV, snatched me to safety and drove me home.
Years later, as an adult, I was visiting my host parents in Ohio. We were chatting and lounging by the pool when someone suggested that we should see the town’s fireworks display later that evening. Suddenly, my throat went dry and my pulse quickened. I spent the rest of the evening fretting about how my body and mind would react to the fireworks. Luckily, our dinner went late and we never left the house, but I was still gripped with anxiety.
Over the years, I have put considerable effort into developing resilience and acquiring tools to help my mental health. For PTSD specifically, I learned how to challenge the negative thoughts, also called stuck points, which were shaped by my childhood trauma but which no longer serve me. For example, believing “I am never safe” or “I have to be vigilant all the time” served a purpose during the war and kept me alive, but now those same beliefs harm my mental health.
Whenever I hear fireworks, I try to control my inner narrative by telling myself: You are safe, they are far away, they are not dangerous. But the body remembers and reacts. The physical reaction is far faster than the rational one. Instantly, I feel my heart thumping as I pulse with adrenaline.
Even days later, the aftershocks can linger. It is as if I have suddenly been turned inside-out. My nerves are exposed to the elements, and even as I empty the dishwasher, the clinking of the plates and silverware feels like tiny hammers chipping at the enamel of my teeth. As I go about my day, disjointed reels of war memories interject on a whim: the blast that wounded my legs at 13; the crackle of sniper fire as I ran across intersections; the roar of mortar shells above my head.
Let me be clear: I am not against fireworks. I do however wish for more awareness and compassion around the use of fireworks. One of the most distressing scenarios I have experienced is when they are fired late at night, catapulting me out of sleep. Or when they are ignited a whole week before or after the actual festivities. In those instances, I am caught off guard, which only compounds the distress they elicit. I wish that as a society we’d be willing to gain a deeper understanding of the invisible wounds so many of us carry and then show more empathy.
I suspect that there is an untold number for whom the sound of fireworks brings back some of their worst memories. I hope we can be more mindful of how we might be affecting our neighbors, friends and relatives.
For my part, I wish for the day when I can enjoy fireworks without the fear of what they might stir inside me. Perhaps that day will come. Perhaps it never will. Until then, I might inch to my window — still shut but with the blinds pulled up just enough for me to see — and revel in the colors, if only for a few moments.
Nadja Halilbegovich is the author of the award-winning book “My Childhood Under Fire: A Sarajevo Diary.” Her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Time, Newsweek, The Boston Globe and The Toronto Star, among others. Having survived the siege of Sarajevo and the Bosnian War as a child, she has dedicated her life to advocating for survivors and war-affected children. You can find her at her website http://www.nadjapeace.com/ and on Twitter @nhalilbegovich.