Lately I’ve been having trouble sleeping. I go to bed at my usual time, which is anywhere between 9.30-11pm. Most of the time I’ll toss and turn for a couple of hours before I fall asleep, sometimes I’m able to drift off nicely. But almost every single night without fail, I’ll wake up between midnight and 2am, and then I’m awake for the rest of the night.
I’m doing everything I can to avoid going to the doctor about it. I know they’ll just give me sleeping pills; they know my history with insomnia. But sleeping pills suck. Sure they get me to sleep, but they also leave me feeling zombified the next day. So I’m trying to sort it out on my own. So far I’ve stopped drinking anything containing caffeine after 3pm. I’ve banned myself from using my phone while I’m in bed and trying to sleep. I’ve started reading really boring books to knock myself out. I’ve tried counting sheep. I’ve tried warm milk. I’ve tried lots of things, but none of the above seems to have made any difference.
Last night I woke up just before 1am. Out of nowhere, I had a small panic attack because I have an assignment due one week after the holidays finish (so two weeks from today — my anxiety is very rarely rational), which left me wide awake. So I sat up, grabbed my phone and I opened up the Reddit app to see what’s happening around the world right now. I spent a few minutes scrolling through before I came across this beautiful picture of the Kaikoura peninsula (photographer: Jim Wall). I didn’t even need to read the title of the photo to know exactly where it was taken. That place stole my heart a few years ago and never gave it back.
What a beautiful place. I have been all around the world, and yet nothing quite matches the beauty and serenity Kaikoura has to offer. But that’s not what I first noticed about the picture. The thing that stood out to me was the brand new coastline that rose out of the sea in the two minutes my entire world completely changed. And as soon as I saw it, I burst into uncontrollable and hysterical tears.
It’s been five months and eight days since that night, and despite the complete change in scenery and being busy with my studies, I still can’t seem to escape the psychological effects it has caused. I’m highly unlikely to be alone in this, I can only imagine the rest of the town is suffering still. One thing I noticed straight after the quake was the way the community banded together, and everyone made sure everyone else was doing alright. I miss that.
Here in Wellington, whenever someone finds out I was in Kaikoura during the earthquake, I’m usually either asked a series of inappropriate and invasive questions (“Did you feel like you were going to die?” “What’s it like thinking you were going to die?” “What was going through your head at the time?” etc..) or I’m shut down with inappropriate or insensitive statements, such as: “You should be thankful you weren’t in Christchurch for their earthquakes.” or “Wellington got hit bad too, you know. I know what you went through.”
It’s actually gotten to the point that I’ve started lying to people and say I came back to Wellington before the earthquake. ‘They’ say talking about trauma helps heal the wound, but I don’t think so. I know people are just being curious, or don’t realise they’re being insensitive, but they also don’t realise that with every invasive question, they’re making me re-live the night that completely flipped my world upside down. Wellington did get a surprising amount of damage to infrastructure, yes. But I’ve yet to meet someone else who clung to a doorway so tight their fingernails snapped as the rest of their body swung like a pendulum, while everything came crashing down and got thrown around.
Sometimes at night I lie wide awake on the brink of pissing the bed because I’m too scared to get up to go to the toilet. The last time I slept with a night-light in my room was when I was a kid. Now I have to sleep with either my cellphone or my laptop light on, because the dark scares the shit out of me. Two seconds before the quake hit, everything went pitch black; there was no power and there weren’t any street lights. I’ve never been in total blackness before, and I’m terrified of ever experiencing it again. I’ve tried sleeping with my room without any lights on, and I just end up having a panic attack.
Before the quake I was on a weightloss and fitness mission, I lost 17kgs and I was walking everywhere. I was in the best shape I had been in in years, both physically and mentally. I felt great. But in the last five months I have stress-eaten all that weight back and I don’t enjoy walking anymore. All I think about are how the power-lines fall when earthquakes get to a certain magnitude, or the way verandas collapse and I don’t particularly want to be underneath one when that happens. If I’m on flat land, I spend my time wondering if I could outrun a tsunami. I can’t even go to a mall without remembering what a group of people in a confined space are like when they’re panicking, they become like wild animals. They’re terrifying.
We had a small earthquake here about three or four weeks ago. It was only 4.8 or something and it lasted all of a few seconds. But before the ground shook, I heard the low rumbling and I knew exactly what it was. My flatmates were continuing on with whatever they were doing but I froze and held my breath. Then there was one semi-big jolt and it was enough to make my heart sink to my stomach. I think it was then that I realised it’s not actually over for me, but where do you even begin with over-coming something like that?
Trauma suffered due to a natural disaster is a different kind of trauma, or so I’ve personally discovered. It’s not like you can just go back to normal daily living, because what the hell is normal? This is my new normal. Being cautious with where I park my car, making mental notes of easy escape routes when I’m in a building, overplaying positive mantras when I’m on a train and trying really hard to not think about what an earthquake when you’re on a train would look like. There are so many situations I find myself in that in the past I wouldn’t have given a second thought, now they’re massive deals and sometimes I can’t cope with them, so I just walk away from them. I thought I was a hermit before the quake, now I barely leave the safety of my bedroom.
All this stress and anxiety that I’m trying to deal with: it’s no wonder I’m struggling to sleep at night, even if at the time I’m not thinking about the earthquake. This has given me a glimpse of what post-traumatic stress disorder actually is and how it affects the brain. I don’t know if I have PTSD, but I sure now know that PTSD is more than just constantly thinking about what you’ve been through; psychological trauma runs so much deeper than the conscious thought. And I have absolutely no idea where to start, or even how to begin to fix it. Screw you, earthquake. My life was great before you came along and ruined it.
I’m not sure how I feel about returning to Kaikoura, either. I know that eventually I will, I kind of have to. My family lives down there and I can’t expect all of them to come up and see me, even though that would be awesome. And like I said, Kaikoura stole my heart a few years ago and since she never gave it back, I’ll have to go get it myself. I just hope that by the time I do go back, enough healing would have taken place that the earthquake doesn’t even cross my mind when I arrive.
I had hoped that I was going to write out my experience of the earthquake, but I really don’t feel up to it right now. I’m thankful that enough time has passed that for the most part I’ve forgotten a lot of the actual event, so I don’t think it would be a lengthy write-up. But I also feel like this post is already pretty damn personal and has gotten the point across. It’s so weird, a year ago today I thought of myself a strong, independent and driven person. Now I kind of feel like a shell. It’s amazing how things change over time. I wonder where and who I’ll be in another years time? I’ll be going on 28.. That’s so weird.