For Samuel Williams Jr., the start of the nightly cacophony of fireworks in his Inwood neighborhood became a troubling reminder of the time he served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I was walking to the corner store at around 7, a very common situation,” recalled the 41-year-old U.S. Army veteran. “Next thing you know from behind me, I’m hearing a big boom like an explosion.
“What we’re trained to do is take a knee, look around, and yell out the three D’s: description, distance and direction. At the moment, as I began to take those actions, I had to stop myself and realize that I wasn’t at war.”
Williams is among the New Yorkers who deal with the debilitating effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The nightly pyrotechnics leading up to the Fourth of July, occurring with a length and intensity not seen in decades, is taking a toll on people scarred by war, terror and other trauma, mental health professionals say.
The first night she heard fireworks from her Upper West Side apartment, Mariam Khan was transported to her youth in Pakistan, where she developed a fear of loud noises after a handful of close encounters with suicide bombings.
“It sounded pretty similar to the blasts I had heard back home, so I was obviously on edge immediately,” said Khan, 24. “Then everyday it would happen, I would wince and get upset.”
Mike Kim, a psychoanalyst, Iraq War vet and a former director of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ Readjustment Counseling Service, told THE CITY that a sudden unexpected spike in firework usage can have devastating effects on people contending with PTSD.
Fireworks, both big and small can echo the crackling of an AK47, the whizzing of an enemy’s rocket, the firing of naval weaponry or the signaling of a flare taking to the air.
“Someone who was doing traditional combat on land and heard whistles of rockets flying by overseas can hear how that sound resembles fireworks being set off here,” Kim said. “I have friends who were snipers in the military and for them, this can sound like a gunshot.”
‘It Can Easily Trigger’
While most people who suffer from PTSD can at least brace themselves for the worst around Independence Day, the constant booming for weeks beforehand has caught many off guard.
“A lot of people don’t understand misophonia,” Kim noted, describing the phenomenon in which certain sounds can trigger emotional or physiological responses. “Our veterans can have a serious fear of those particular sounds. When you’re home, and you hear the unplanned but sporadic surprising instances of fireworks, it can easily trigger you. Veterans can automatically move into a defensive posture.”
Kim says that defensive posturing can manifest itself in many ways, all of which can put PTSD sufferers in a state of fight or flight. Effects include flashbacks, nightmares, a sudden feeling of isolation, and, in the case of Williams, an intrusive calling back to his training.
“At times I have to make sure I process it the proper way, in a way that reassures myself that it’s actually fireworks and not another mortar round coming in, or a grenade going off,” he said.
Joe Bello, who represents The Bronx on the city’s Veterans Advisory Board, said the fireworks issue is particularly tough to contend with in a crowded place like New York, which is still reeling from the pandemic.
“In a lot of cases, it’s not like you can go to your neighbor next door and talk to them about PTSD,” Bello told THE CITY. “It’s hard to get to the bottom of this.”
But Kim noted there’s an opportunity to start conversations.
“These adolescents and young adults may not be aware of these issues,” Kim said. “I don’t want to see a hostile crackdown on fireworks in these communities. I think law enforcement should recognize that these are young kids. Seeking out the distributors would be the right thing to do.”
Khan said she’s made an adjustment in dealing with the nightly barrage. “Now that they’re so frequent I have gotten more used to them,” she said.
Williams, though, said he’s working to avoid the thundering noise.
“When they start letting them off, I usually try and make sure I’m inside, away from the situation as best as I can,” he said.