The Fallout from 10,000+ Quakes

This week, with the second anniversary of the devastating 22 February 2011 Christchurch earthquake approaching, I’ll be blogging about several issues relevant to our situation here in Christchurch and natural disasters in general.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

I’ve had a nagging feeling in the past few days that we’re in for another good earthquake.

I’m not talking anything as big as a 5.5 or a 6.2, but a decent jolt to let we Cantabrians know we’re not out of the woods quite yet.  Let’s pray it’s in the 4 range and nothing too major.  At least we know that they are getting fewer and farther between, even if we have had a wee cluster of 3s in the last few weeks.

If you know me, I actually called the 4 September 2010 and 22 February 2011 quakes.  I didn’t say what day it was on or anything like that, because I honestly didn’t know.  With the September quake, I had a feeling to stock up on water and canned goods, and this ominous feeling of a dark patch in the future.  With the 22 February 2011 quake, what I did know was something big was coming.  My sixth sense or voodoo or whatever you want to call it was screaming to be prepared.  I told other people so that they could be prepared.  It was even on my Facebook page at one point as part of a general comment about Christchurch looking like World War 2 Europe after the September and December 2010 quakes.

Bringing up my feeling of another shake at morning tea with my work colleagues led to an interesting conversation.  Most of us started talking about how we still feel vulnerable and a bit jumpy when we feel vibrating and very uneasy when we hear sudden loud noises.  It segued into a conversation about post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and how people like us who have experienced several harrowing natural disasters in a short period of time are now starting to demonstrate symptoms of the underlying trauma.  Cantabrians have been warned that many of us will start exhibiting signs of PTSD within 2 years after the quakes.  With being so brutally honest with one another this morning, we discovered that most of us probably have some form of PTSD.

We usually hear about PTSD in the context of war veterans and people who are innocent bystanders in these conflicts.  But even learning of a bad medical diagnosis, witnessing or being a victim of abuse, or a natural disaster (like an earthquake or 10,000) can also trigger PTSD.

During our discussion, Suzie brought up the point that only people who experienced the earthquakes first-hand understand the trauma we all face; people who didn’t go through it don’t understand or couldn’t even comprehend what we went through and are still going through.  Catherine said a day doesn’t go by where she doesn’t think about the earthquakes.  I added that perhaps my “gut feeling” of another good shake is a reaction to the 2 year anniversary of 22 February 2011 quakes quickly approaching, and that the quakes we did experience had such strong peak ground acceleration (some of the strongest recorded near a city in the world) compared to relatively moderate magnitude, and it was that ground movement that will always haunt us.

Brenda added that the shallowness of the quakes added to the strong movement, and said she looks at different cities, like Wellington, which are earthquake-prone, in an entirely different light.  I agreed; every time the UPS truck would drive past my parents’ place in Chicago, Noel and I would jump at the noise.  Jacqui explained that babies born right before or around the time of the September 2010 quake and February 2011 quake are now 2 years old and exhibiting all sorts of behavioural problems.  Catherine stated these behavioural problems extended to teenagers and other young people, with depression and anxiety being at quite high rates throughout young people (and probably the community as a whole).

This is the fallout from 10,000+ quakes.

One of the signs of PTSD is anger.  There is a rage that boils my blood when I feel I or one of my friends or family are being wronged.  I admit that I become very angry a lot quicker than I normally used to do.  The New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA), the New Zealand Government’s leading agency dealing with tertiary education organizations (TEOs) like where I work, have been particularly good at making me angry, mainly because The Powers That Be there seem to have very little clue and very little compassion, and really don’t seem to give one iota of caring when they create and implement policies and procedures that those of us at the coal face, and with a little common sense, know won’t work or are flawed.  (I now put a little note in every consultation form I send back to them to remind them of this.  I’m sure they ignore it like every other common sense comment or suggestion I have made over the 17 years I’ve been dealing with them.)

Another sign is hypervigilant (being very aware of everything going on around you and being ready to react).  I admit that I did have this for a long while until I realized that I cannot control everything, especially Mother Nature and the Earth below me, and all I can do is reduce the hazards around me.  Every little noise, every little creaking of the house, would startle me or wake me up.  For months, neither Noel nor I had a very good nights’ sleep, and it showed.  Overall, it made me tired.  Very tired.

A third sign of PTSD is difficulty falling or staying asleep.  And I have to admit, the reason I’ve gained quite a bit of weight throughout this whole ordeal is because I’ve been drinking a glass or 5 of wine in the evenings so I’m reasonably comatose by the time my head hits the pillow.  It’s my way of coping, I guess.

A fourth and very scary sign of PTSD is flashbacks or nightmares.  Believe me, I’ve had both.  One night, in Chicago, I confided to my brothers Brian and Jeremy that sometimes at night, right as I am falling asleep, I can hear the loud rumbling, feel the violence of the ground lurching underneath me, and listen to the details of the event: Jacqui’s almost inhuman fear escaping in grunt-like noises as she despirately tried to hold on; my fingernails trying to dig into the wall to hold on, only to have the ground give a good push under me, my fingertips slipping from the doorframe; feeling the air expel from my lungs and the sheer pain wracking my body as I collided with the other doorframe; the absolute stillness and deafening silence in the few seconds before we realized it was over; being afraid of the earth below you, knowing that there is no way you can ever escape its raw power.

This is something that will never go away.  Those of us who experienced the horrors of 22 February 2011 will never be the same.  We can try to return to life as normal as we possibly can, but somewhere, in the dark corners of our mind, the experience will always remain.

So how do I feel in light of all this?

I am alive.

We survived, battered and injured.  But we survived.

We can rebuild.

I tell those I love that I love them, with conviction, whenever I speak to them.

I linger in that hug a friend gives me a little longer.

I try to focus on the things that are important to me, and not linger on the things that aren’t.

I am inspired to do the things I want to do, and complete them as best as I can.

I want to leave a legacy and “breadcrumbs” of who I am, my dreams and aspirations, and my achievements for my nephews (and perhaps nieces) and their children and their children’s children to discover.

I hope to know where I come from, to pay respect to those who came before me and made me who I am.

I try to keep in touch with those who matter to me.

I am trying to figure out what my purpose in life is.

I try to be a nice person.

I say “thank you” and mean it when someone helps me.

I am trying to be remembered as someone who positively impacted humanity during my short time on this planet.

I want to be happy and bring happiness to others.

These are the things that really matter in life.