As soon as we entered the aquarium, I heard a familiar yet unidentified sound. As we got closer, the little hairs on my forearms stood on end. I could see what it was before we crossed the threshold. An indoor waterfall. That’s really cool. It was aesthetically pleasing. Many people find the sound of water soothing.

So why was I beginning to quiver? Why was I sweating? Why did I feel compelled to run?

In order to keep my toddler from falling headlong into the exhibit, I approached the waterfall. For some reason, I looked up. The nanosecond I spied the juxtaposition of the waterfall and the timber ceiling, my knees buckled a little and the room began to spin.

I felt certain that I’d vomit if I did not get out of that room and away from the sound. I corralled the kiddo and, in a fake sing-song voice, calmly encouraged her into the next room. But the sound was reverberating in there, too. And the next one. Finally, I spotted the river otter exhibit ahead and bribed her along with the promise of furry cuteness.

It worked, but I couldn’t stop shaking. I tried to breathe. I took an overly generous dose of a homeopathic remedy I carry in my bag for the babe. I knew I was having a PTSD moment and I knew exactly why: Hurricane freakin’ Katrina.

I was supposed to be done with this. Katrina was four and half years ago. I was cured of my helicopter and breaking glass-related PTSD symptoms years ago by cranial sacral therapy. Fuck.

I rode out Hurricane Katrina in a turn-of-the-20th-century warehouse near downtown New Orleans with my then fiancé, my mother, my fiancé’s friend, two dogs, and four cats. It wasn’t just a random warehouse mind you. It had been renovated into an arts center in the 1980’s, and my fiancé worked there.

Since we were in an interior gallery space with no windows, the majority of my memories of the storm itself are aural rather than visual. That is except the waterfall, which is traumatically both.

I can’t say how long Katrina raged. It felt like days, weeks, months, but was likely only a few hours. During the full fury of the storm, the wind made a crazy whooping noise. It would start slow and relatively quiet. It sounded circular. The level and speed of the sound would eventually reach a crescendo that felt completely intolerable and then there would be a loud crash of windows shattering followed by a moment of eerie silence. Then it would start again, low and slow on its way to crazy loud and the inevitable crash.

At one point I realized that my joints ached from my clenching in panic. I harkened back to a friend’s story of her highly successful natural childbirth experience, where she relaxed more and more in direct opposition to the intensity of the pain.

I tried it, and it worked. I was impressed with my new-found ability to remain clam and self-soothe.

At one point, something above us exploded. I mean really exploded. The huge, century-old brick building shook as if made of paper. I wondered if anyone knew the identities of everyone sheltered in the building. They knew about my fiancé (he worked there), and they knew I was with him, but what about my mother? Would they have to identify her body through comparing her DNA to mine? What about my fiancé’s friend? The dogs and cats, would they be buried properly or scraped into a dumpster?

My relaxation techniques were much less effective after that.

Toward the end of the storm, we heard the craziest sound ever, like rushing water. We gingerly made our way to the door of the gallery where we sheltered and peeked out of our second floor perch into the four-floor foyer of the building and saw… a four-story indoor waterfall. It was one of the most extraordinary things I’d ever seen.

We wouldn’t find out until later that the water had come from the sprinkler system reservoir that was located on the roof, which had exploded during the storm, most likely from pressure or wind. But without this knowledge, we were pretty dumbfounded. It was so much damn water.

I have to admit, I didn’t think about the danger of the situation or the potential damage to the artwork. Instead, all I could think about was the shattered windows and water, water everywhere. They would never get this cleaned up and repaired in ten weeks.

Why was ten weeks so important, you ask? Well, we were supposed to get married in the exact spot where the thousands of gallons of water were landing and pooling.

Was this a bad omen? Why, yes. Yes, it was.

A couple of weeks later, while exiled in North Carolina, I would walk away from this relationship and into a future I could never have imagined.

Four and a half years later, I was in an aquarium on the North Carolina coast with my two-year-old daughter, and yet I wasn’t there. I was back in that warehouse with the four-story waterfall. The space-time continuum was disrupted.

Not for long, of course. The river otters calmed me. Plus, the mommy role trumps PTSD. I was back to doling out her snack, wiping her nose, and discussing fish poop in no time.

But the experience left me wondering, how many other ticking time bombs are out there? Will I one day freak out while sitting my rocking chair at the old-age home because I hear or see something that reminds me of Katrina? I guess I won’t know unless it happens. Until then I’ll just make snacks, wipe noses, and talk about poop. After all, how often do you encounter an indoor waterfall?

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Alison Aucoin is descended from people who spent their weekends dressing up in costumes and taking silly photos of one another to send to relatives who were serving in the Pacific during WWII. She makes her living as a freelance grant writer but is much happier squeezing playdough with her two year-old Ethiopian daughter, creating photography/audio projects, crafting manifestos on her blog (http://endebetehyemhoneyelem.blogspot.com) and making costumes with her trusty glue gun. She is one of only about a half dozen Cajun Jews in existence.

19 responses to “It’s the Indoor Waterfall That’ll Get You”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    God. Great post, Alison.
    It must have been such a terrifying and upsetting time. You write it so well, especially the fears of what would happen if the unimaginable did. Who would look after the cats and dogs…
    I’m so glad the Mommy role trumps the shitty PTSD, but I’m so sorry you ever had to experience such awfulness.

    • Alison Aucoin says:

      Thanks Zara. It really means a lot to me that YOU think I write well. And by the way, the mommy role trumps everything.

  2. Matt says:

    Fucking hell.

    I was at Oschner Hospital during the storm. All those huge glass hospital windows. Water itself doesn’t bother me, but for years afterwards the rain would really screw me up–mostly by inducing some sort of depression. If I fell asleep during the rain (which I love doing) I would have bad dreams about it, all night long. Gradually, it all passed, but every now and then one pops back up.

    Good luck.

    • Alison Aucoin says:

      Happily, my love rain while I sleep has always been fine. It was the sounds of helicopter overhead or breaking glass that used to get me. And I don’t think it’s waterfalls in general. It’s indoor ones. I will look on the bright side that my triggers are so very specific…

  3. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    I tried not to worry that night, but that was one time worry was totally justified. The good news is when these things happen, you quickly figure out the source. Nip it in the bud. And thanks, Bach.

    • Alison Aucoin says:

      Yup, I did peg it correctly as soon as it happened. I was pretty proud of myself for that.

      And if I remember correctly, you sounded perfectly calm the last time we spoke before the storm. I need to remember that you are a good actor sometimes.

  4. jmblaine says:

    I clicked because indoor waterfall caught my eye –
    There are five of them here at the Opryland Hotel
    and I visit often.
    Not what you were talking about though.

    I was in NO right after Katrina.
    a strange strange time.

    Cajun Jews.
    That with the picture
    is marvelous TNBing.

  5. Alison Aucoin says:

    I love it when a good noun becomes and even better gerund! So happy to be effectively TNBing.

  6. Sensory memory is a bitch, isn’t it? Especially when we think everything has been effectively tucked away. This was a beautiful post. While horrifying and sad, it is also a triumph of your spirit and grace that you can tell your story here.

  7. Alison Aucoin says:

    Thanks Robin. I’m def of the school that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. There was a time I considered burial plots. Now I’m Super Mommy: stronger than a stinky diaper, faster than a streaking toddler, able to leap piles of laundry in a single bound!

  8. Tawni says:

    Wow. Amazing what will trigger the PTSD. (I’m diagnosed with it too.) And I could so relate to the Mommy role trumps PTSD. I often find that in stressful situations, while I’m soothing my toddler (or trying to keep him from realizing there is anything to fear), that I end up soothing the scared kid inside myself as a really lovely by-product. Have you noticed this as well?

    I really like your writing/voice, and am glad the river otters helped you get past this episode quickly. I’m a big fan of any creature that eats food off its own belly. 🙂

    • Alison Aucoin says:

      Oops, I think I’ve accidentally labeled myself with a psychiatric diagnosis I don’t actually have. I was using PTSD colloquially, not clinically. Not to say that it wasn’t real or incredibly unpleasant, I just didn’t reach the clinical threshold. I can’t even imagine how horrible it would be to actually reach that threshold.

      And Tawni, I find that parenting is healing all sorts of old hurts. Getting out of my own head and putting my daughter’s needs ahead of my own is super inexpensive (and effective) therapy! Snuggling a lot isn’t hurting either ; )

  9. I’ve heard some horrible stories about PTSD from friends with family members who have been through wars and violence and other such terrible events.

    Man, there’s nothing quite like that moment when you realise that the issues you thought had gone still have the power to grab you by the belly and squeeze. But it sounds like these days, should they rear their ugly heads, you can set them on the run pretty quickly. Especially with the help of some otters.

  10. Alison Aucoin says:

    There’s a reason that pet therapy is gaining such popularity with older people and survivors of trauma. Little kids could too, that’s if you somehow could protect them in the process. Animals and kids get us out of our heads and repetitive thoughts. Playing with and caring for a toddler can definitely cure neurosis. If you’re doing a good job, there’s no time for it!

  11. Dawn Dreyer says:

    How strange, Alison. I can picture what the water must have looked like. Have we had the conversation about how I actually did have my wedding at the CAC? It wasn’t the right decision for me — the partner, not the location. I wish I could have figured that out before hand.

    I’ve been playing with two-year olds lately — as an assistant teacher at Durham Community Preschool, in Old North Durham. My time with the twos has been life changing. I love it. It is incredibly healing and I consider it sacred time.

    I really like your writing! I look forward to reading more.

  12. kendra bober says:

    Alison, thank you for sharing…B was born 2 days before Katrina hit, and those first newborn weeks were so bittersweet as we watched what happened to the city in the following days…I woke many times to his cries to nurse in the midst of dreams of thousands of babies crying on the neutral grounds that I was desperately trying to save. I covered my ears when I walked by CNN and looked instead at the maps of the flooding, looked for your house and wondered about you and our other friends…though we were far away, our hearts and our worries were right there with you. I am so happy that you are safe and happy and have your new life and gorgeous girl-child, and celebrate the renewal that you and many many many of our friends have had…truly inspiring.

  13. This is indeed a very inspiring article. Thank you very much for sharing us your experience.

    It serves as a motivation for us to go an extra mile even with the presence of hindrances. I really appreciate your idea about it.

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