Collapse Trauma (Part 1): “Untergliechness"
For nearly two weeks, the world has shuddered at the tragic events that took place at Champlain Towers South. Captured on CCTV in the early morning hours of a strawberry marginal supermoon–the Surfside condo collapse jolted many of us into an all-too-familiar past. For those of us who witnessed the World Trade Center collapse of 9/11, the flashback to the horrifying terrorist attack reawakened a surge of anxiety. At least it did for me.
But as I took in the brevity of the Surfside collapse, the 9/11 flashback was only the surface of a more insidious and incomprehensible event.
Reliving my past life in Germany, more specifically, returning to the moment just before my life was extinguished in the most dramatic way is difficult to disclose let alone process. The Surfside collapse, like the Lockerbie Bombing, like the Oklahoma City Bombing, like the World Trade Center collapse, reopened a wound that never seems to heal. I've been carrying this wound–this collapse trauma–since World War 2.
Trauma from Another Reality
Up until my mid-30s, I had no idea that trauma could be multidimensional, meaning, for instance, a distressing experience that occurred in a previous life and has now reawakened either as a result of a direct or indirect traumatic event unfolding in the current life. For those of you who find this concept preposterous–the idea of past life trauma becoming a catalyst for one's current anxieties–I don't blame you. I too used to think it was absurd even while experiencing bizarre anxieties that could not be buttressed in this reality.
Throughout my life, I have had several intense and inexplicable experiences that began to alert me of my past life trauma in Germany—and when I became aware that these experiences were rooted in another time and place, I was not only more productive in processing the trauma, but I was finally able to understand the origin of these unusual anxieties. Regardless, processing trauma can be very challenging, and this time around, I was shaken to the core.
Life as a German Civilian During World War 2
A space that only moments ago contained the personal trinkets of my history now lie in a heap of burning rubble.
Like most cities and towns during World War 2, my city in Germany was equipped with air raid sirens that alerted its residents of an imminent bombing raid. Normally, when these sirens were engaged, I would head down to the bomb shelter. But on that fateful day, and for whatever reason, I was in my flat.
What held me up? Why hadn’t I been able to head down to the bomb shelter?
Whatever the reason, I was now stuck in the upper floors of my building hearing the Flying Fortresses overhead—bombs whistling through the air, flattening random pockets of my neighborhood, “meine nachbarschaft, melting under the sameness.” My building shook from the bombs. I froze, standing near my kitchen, observing my spartan décor, aware that I was on the brink of annihilation. Another bomb whistled toward the ground, and I darted underneath the kitchen table as it crashed through the building, causing the floor joists to break away from their seemingly indestructible brick façade. A space that only moments ago contained the personal trinkets of my history now lie in a heap of burning rubble. Or so I imagine.
I don’t remember the actual details of my death.
Was I crushed, blown to smithereens, burned to ashes? Did I die in the Hamburg Firestorm?
I don’t know, and for reasons unknown to me at this time, Hans won't divulge.
What I do know is that the macabre details of how I died are not as important as the act of waiting to die.
“Untergliechness”: Under the Sameness
The YouTube Video above is a recitation of a poem I wrote about recalling my past life in Germany.
In 1984, my family and I were on a summer holiday in Sarasota, Florida when I spontaneously experienced my second past life recall. The memories came through when I constructed a seemingly innocuous word while playing with my friends in the pool.
Camouflaged in a thick layer of dust that had once been their dreams, we sift through the piles of debris in search of our loved ones.
Years later, as I attempted to learn German, I came to understand that the word I had constructed, Untergliechness, is an amalgamation of German and English. Unter in German means under. Gliech in German means the same. My word essentially means “under the same-ness.”
This word is a double entendre referring to the unsettling similarity of collapsed buildings, particularly during the bombing campaigns of WWII. The rubble takes on a chalky uniformity—this is why search and rescue/recovery is so challenging and grueling. Camouflaged in a thick layer of dust that had once been their dreams, we sift through the piles of debris in search of our loved ones.
Indoctrination began early through compulsory attendance of the Hitler Youth, misleading Hans’s generation into a war of attrition.
Untergliechness also refers to the pernicious veil of sameness that resulted from the unrelenting racism and fascist ideologies of Nazi Germany. Being a German civilian during that time was complicated and frightening. Those who begrudgingly drank the fascist Kool-Aid innately understood that defying Nazism meant imprisonment and/or death. Fascism foments a culture of fear. No one, not even the most self-proclaimed Nazi was safe in Nazi Germany. It was the younger generation that would ultimately prove their undying fanaticism. Indoctrination began early through compulsory attendance of the Hitler Youth, misleading Hans’s generation into a war of attrition.
Stretching Time in the Hour of Death
Time has expanded beyond the confines of physical reality, and I am thrust into an infinite nightmare, seeing the bomb break through the ceiling in slow motion, waiting for death into oblivion.
Most of us have a lay understanding of what it means to say, “time is relative”–how time seems to speed up and steal our most precious moments. Or how it seems to come to a crashing halt when
ever we are in the middle of doing something we dislike or dread. During moments of displeasure, seconds feel like years, and we often wonder, “Will this ever end?”
Now imagine being in the World Trade Center when the planes hit. You are trapped in the 100th floor. You know that death is looming, but time has once again betrayed you, sadistically slowing to a crawl, stretching the anticipation of death into eternity.
Will the Jargon Set Me Free?
An expert's theories turn into a YouTube rabbit hole, watching a building fall on repeat, finding a disturbing computer simulation that adds another layer of analysis and explanation to an event that is profoundly inscrutable.
For me, whenever a tragic incident like 9/11(or the Surfside collapse) happens, it is as if I am back in my flat in Germany breathlessly awaiting for that damn bomb to obliterate me. Time has expanded beyond the confines of physical reality, and I am thrust into an infinite nightmare, seeing the bomb break through the ceiling in slow motion, waiting for death into oblivion.
I justify this dark obsession—the vicarious mental reenactment of my death—by anchoring it to a forensic engineer's technical deconstruction. If I learn the jargon of my demise, will it set me free? An expert's theories turn into a YouTube rabbit hole, watching a building fall on repeat, finding a disturbing computer simulation that adds another layer of analysis and explanation to an event that is profoundly inscrutable.
A flattened and demolished floor plan that was once familiar is still weirdly recognizable. “She’s alive, I know she is,” we say, clinging to miracles because the alternative is too painful to accept.
Everyone processes trauma differently, and for me, needing to remember and to relive the trauma help me to peel away the layers of anxiety from my past.
Reliving trauma makes us behave in ways that may be dismissed or labeled as "poor coping skills." Nevertheless, I obsess over specific victims in the collapse–those who are not so different from me—the adventurous Aries in the fourth floor overlooking the ocean–I cry for her now—her prophetic posts on social media–her insouciant foretelling that in hindsight is too unnerving to ignore–was she unconsciously preparing for her death?
My honest disclosure may appear disturbing to anyone who does not understand what it is like to either recall a past life trauma, or to experience/witness/live through a traumatic event during one’s current life. My point is that everyone processes trauma differently, and for me, needing to remember and to relive the trauma help me to peel away the layers of anxiety from my past.
Paradoxically, in the midst of releasing the anxiety, I am dying all over again.
Then there is the shame that accompanies the spectacle of death and destruction that is not my own. This voyeuristic act distorts my suffering into a gratuitous obsession. Trauma has a way of unleashing all sorts of feelings and emotions, oftentimes in the most unpredictable and disturbing ways.
To be continued...
Stay tuned: In my next blog post, I will address how expressive arts can help us process trauma.
 If you are unfamiliar with the traumatic experience that I am referring to, check out my About page or this blog post, or this one.
 My first past life recall occurred in Colombia, South America during an intense earthquake when I was 4 years old. My family and I lived in a high-rise penthouse.