River of Flowers, 2014

“What’s all this talk about an earthquake?” says Mum.

That was my 86-year-old mother’s question for me when I arrived at her home a few days ago.  I was astounded that she didn’t know.  It was pretty much ‘the’ topic here in the past week.

Today is the 3rd anniversary of the deadly earthquake that struck my city of Christchurch at 12.51pm on 22 February 2011.  Naturally the anniversary has been in the news this week, but Mum couldn’t remember an earthquake being at this time of year.  Actually, I was really thankful.  This woman had lost so much in that earthquake.  More than most.  She deserved to have it lifted from her memory for a bit.  I was glad, for once, that she had no idea what I was talking about.

As we then talked, her memories came back, but we had over 12,000 earthquakes over a period of about 18 months so it wasn’t surprising that she couldn’t remember one of them. Then she was confused as to which quake she had fallen over in.  I assured her that in that quake, thankfully, she had already been sitting down when it struck and she managed to remain in her chair as her home fell to pieces around her. My father though, was thrown to the floor.  So was I.

Heathcote River, Christchurch, 2013

River of Flowers, Heathcote River, Christchurch, 2013 (Used with permission)
Image credit: River of Flowers, Healthy Christchurch and Avon Otakaro Network
See:  Healthy Christchurch on Facebook or their website Healthy Christchurch

As part of a range of commemoration events in the city, there is one that I find draws me each year.  The River of Flowers is an opportunity for the public to share their experiences and hopes for the future by throwing a flower into one of the two rivers that flows through the city, and by writing a message of hope and tying it to a tree as various points.  Throwing my flower into the river which has always been important in my life, is for me, letting go for a few moments of the sadness, trauma, loss, and worries about the future.  It feels healthy to me, and I like that.

Natural disasters, like our quakes, happen across the world all the time.  Something that had never occurred to me until I lived through this, was that the aftermath goes on for years to come after a disaster.  When the media and their cameras have all gone away, and the rest of the world isn’t hearing anymore, the sad reality is that people go on suffering.

Three years on and my life is still unsettled (to say the least).  I now have a chronic illness (fibromyalgia) which is attributed to the trauma of the quakes.   I live in a severely damaged house and still have no idea how that will be fixed.  My house is pretty cold in winter because of the damage, but aside from that, I’m simply used to the damage.  That said, don’t suppose for a minute that I like living in a house that is now tilted on a bit of an angle.  Or the curtains blowing in the breeze even though no windows are open.  But it’s just life here in Christchurch and I know there are people here worse off than me.

I know full well that mental health is a major issue in my city.  Children are still badly traumatised, as well as many adults.  Free counselling sessions just don’t go far enough.  Three sessions per person is not enough.  The use of anti-depressants has risen significantly.  The psychiatric hospital is overflowing and they’re talking of putting inpatients into caravans out on the lawn.  Suicide statistics tend to run behind by a few years, but I understand the numbers are sadly picking up in my city.  Let’s not forget too, that there is a major housing shortage here now as well as significant poverty.  These both contribute to the state of mental well being.

But this is what really disturbs me…

A year before our deadly earthquake, Haiti (Port-au-Prince) suffered a quake too.  220,000 people are estimated to have died on 12 January 2010.  In Christchurch, there were officially 185 people died.  At the height of the Haiti quake, one and a half million people were displaced and sheltering in tent villages.  That’s just huge.  And it makes me say “what have I got to complain about?”.

While I wonder about the ongoing mental health of those who lived through the quakes here in Christchurch, I wonder even more what is being done for the people of Haiti.  Do they get access to free counselling like we have?  Are the children getting the resources that are being pumped into Christchurch.  It is so difficult to know what is being done for victims of natural disasters when the lights go off on the media bandwagons.  That said, I have a fair idea of the answers to my questions.

Whether it is an earthquake (or 12,000), a volcanic eruption, a hurricane, a bush fire or any other devastating event somehow we need to remember that life afterward is changed and will probably never be the same again.  Not just the physical welfare of victims matters, not just the infrastructure and buildings that have to be rebuilt, the mental health of victims will continue to be a major issue for years to come.

Somehow I think we forget, once the media have gone, and even more so we forget when the media never really got there.  It seems to me that third world countries recovering from disaster, do it very much on their own.

While today, I remember a day I never want to experience ever again, I want to remember people in other countries doing similar recoveries.  I have been fortunate to have access to welfare, Red Cross funding and the like.  I never ended up in a tent city.  I have insurance cover to rebuild my home (when they finally get to it).  But for so many people there is none of this, and those people are the ones I have on my mind today.

“How strange it (the earthquake) must all have seemed to them, here where they lived so safely always! They thought such a dreadful thing could happen to others, but not to them. That is the way!” 

― William Dean Howells, A Sleep and a Forgetting

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Finding My Voice

If there is one thing that mental illness, and probably in particular depression, did to me was silence me.  My voice, my opinions, ideals I felt passionately about, got sucked out of me as the depression grew deeper and more entrenched.  I didn’t care anymore.  Well, at least I didn’t have the energy to care any more.  I just let things pass.  My own misery was all I could focus on. Actually to be totally honest it was simply a matter of would I live another day?

Before I was ever diagnosed with a mental illness, and we’re talking nearly 20 years ago, I was an opinionated person, but only to a degree.  Now I can look back and see that I had opinions but they were shaped by what, and who, was around me. I held little value in what I really thought, assuming that difference from others meant I was wrong.  And I constantly thought I was either wrong or just dumb.

Often that difference from others meant that I remained silent.  All that really did was contribute further to the growing depression.  It’s a vicious circle.  The silence contributes to the mental illness, and the mental illness contributes to more silence.

I’m sure there are some people close to me who always thought I was too opinionated.  “A dog with a bone.”  But gosh, what’s wrong with a dog with a bone?  They’re happy.  Isn’t that a good thing?  Seemingly not.  Becoming less depressed is not always seen as a welcome thing.

It seemed at times that finding my voice again was troublesome, and it actually did cost me dearly.  When I was at my sickest I didn’t voice opinions, I didn’t disagree (apart from about putting food in my mouth!), I just let life happen around me.

Sometimes I look back at world events across those years and I can’t remember a scrap of it.  These things just happened, and I wasn’t well enough to notice, let alone to form opinions and to have my voice.  Actually the only event I could recall was the 9/11 World Trade Centre disaster.  I was aware of it happening because in a brief psychotic state I believed I had caused it.

Now I’m starting to find my voice, and it feels good.  I’m learning what I believe in, and what I am passionate about.  I find those things are quite different from what I believed previously, but that doesn’t surprise me.  You don’t go through prolonged suffering without being changed along the way.

My voice is not always popular, but that’s ok, because I am learning that my worth as a person is not based on agreeing with those around me.  That is a huge step for me.

I’m learning that a ‘dog with a bone‘ is a good thing because, while some people will hate it (and they do!), ‘dogs‘ with ‘bones‘ achieve change in the world.  Even me, with my one small voice can make change.  Just as each one of us can.

The ‘bone‘ I have been chewing today has been on the issue of disaster tourism in my city, Christchurch, NZ.  Before 2010 I doubt I knew the term disaster tourism even existed.  Now I know it only too well.  Wikipedia (and I know that’s not reliable but it will do for now) defines disaster tourism as:

 “the act of traveling to a disaster area as a matter of curiosity. The behavior can be a nuisance if it hinders rescue, relief,
and recovery operations”

In my opinion it is taking people who have become victims and are possibly traumatised, and turning them into a sightseeing venture. It screams ‘wrong’ to me, but I know that there are many people who think it is a good thing, and many people who make a good livelihood from such ventures and will convince innocent victims that it is in their interests.

It’s happening everywhere around the world, anywhere there has been some type of disaster.  Think of the last natural disaster you saw on the news, and the disaster tourism will be a big business there for years to come.

It’s a big issue in Christchurch, and is becoming bigger now that tourism operators want to take tourists further into what they call the disaster zones.  I’m just not convinced that this is a good thing for the people who have lived through the disaster, and are now rebuilding their lives.  Personally I need normalit, if that is possible.  I don’t need buses full of tourists coming down my street.

You can pick the ‘rubberneckers’.  They drive slow, and their eyes are not on the road.  I live on the edge of the area tourist operators want access to, and frankly I don’t like being stared at.  Letting tourists through doesn’t help me recover in any way. I get told that letting tourists see the ruins helps them to understand my suffering.  Really?  And how does their ‘understanding’ help me recover?  I know it puts money in the pockets of the tourism operators, but I’m not at all convinced.

But I’ll stop chewing that ‘bone’, because that’s not really the point.  What is the point is that having an opinion on disaster tourism (or anything else) is something to celebrate.  It is a good thing to be finding my voice again, and to know (or to be learning) what matters to me.  It feels great.

Not everyone agrees with that though.  Some people in my life wish I would shut up.  Some people might wish that I dropped the ‘bone‘, but personally I think that it is a good thing when people become passionate.  And it is a great thing when people can recover from mental illness, and find their voice.

I’m sorry to those in my life who would prefer me to go back to silence, but I’m only sorry because you miss out on knowing who I really am.

“How would your life be different if…You stopped allowing other people to dilute or poison your day with their words or opinions? Let today be the day…You stand strong in the truth of your beauty and journey through your day without attachment to the validation of others” 

― Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth, and Being Free

Certainty

Certainty is one of those things that we never realise how much we appreciate it until we don’t have it.  I’ve realised that I am lacking certainty, and right now, I miss it dreadfully.

If you have been following my blog for a while you’ll remember that I live in Christchurch, NZ where we have been ravaged by a procession of earthquakes since September, 2010.  The quakes have finally died away (pretty much) but we live with the aftermath on a daily basis.

The most devastating quake to hit the city was on 22 February 2011.  People died, buildings collapsed, and lives would never be the same.  My home sustained substantial damage including basically splitting the building into three pieces and knocking it off its foundations in one corner.  But hey, after some emergency repairs it was deemed liveable.  It’s just not entirely weather-proof (it’s winter here, so I’m feeling that) and the floor slopes to one side.  Aesthetically it doesn’t look too good, but then there are many worse off than me.

Since then, certainty vanished.  I have little idea whether the house can be fixed, or whether it will end up being demolished.  I know that to fix it will take some major work, not to mention money.  In New Zealand we have a government agency, the Earthquake Commission (EQC), whose responsibility it is to fund the repairs of damage caused my natural disasters.  That funding is through a tax levy on insurance.

EQC has become the organisation we love to hate.  Personally I think a lot of that is justified.  Between them and my insurance company (that’s another story entirely because they literally fled the country) they hold my life in their hands.  My certainty is at their mercy.

For some residents of Christchurch, including my parents, their future was determined on the day of that quake.  Their home was immediately deemed only fit for demolition, and they were instantly homeless.  Not entirely homeless, because they just shifted into my home, until we were able to find a new home for them some months down the track.

That would clearly be devastating for anyone, and there were thousands of people in that boat. I don’t wish that for myself, but sometimes I think it would have been a bit easier.  At least I would know.  At least I could get on with my life.

But instead life stopped that day, and it’s been a waiting game ever since (for me, and thousands of other residents in the same boat).  Will my home survive?  I don’t know.  Will I have to shift out?  And where will I go?  I don’t know.  Will there be a fair settlement?  I don’t know.  I’m just waiting.

So today as I write, there is a small army of assessors from EQC roaming my property.  This was last done in September 2011 but they have come to the conclusion that the assessment they did at that time was not accurate.  Basically they didn’t take into account that my home is physically joined to three others.  How could they miss this fact?  I don’t know.  This has particular implications for me because my foundations need to be repaired and to lift the house in order to do that, they would probably have to lift the other houses too.  That starts to sounds complicated, expensive and possibly simply not worth it.

As this team of EQC staff (I think there are about 10 and apparently they are combining the assessment with a staff training exercise) go through my property (and my neighbours) inside and out, I wonder just what will be the result.  I certainly won’t know this today, and I suspect it will be months more before I get any certainty from them.  That’s just the pace they work at.  And this… is just life.

So does certainty matter?  Is it something I need to ensure lasting mental health even?  I’m inclined to think it does matter, simply because I like to know what is ahead.  Even if change is ahead, at least if I know, then I can prepare for it (mentally and physically).  But in this situation that’s not possible.  It’s no worse for me than for many other residents of this city.  We all face this indeterminate wait, with a foreboding that our future is in someone else’s hands.

Perhaps the major thing that I have learnt in this whole earthquake nightmare (which included the subsequent death of my father) is to live one day at a time.  The only problem is that sometimes it is just so damn hard to do that.

Some days I can do the ‘one day at a time’ philosophy.  I can accept that at some stage I am going to have to leave my home, either permanently, or temporarily while repairs are undertaken.  That I don’t know when that will be, and when it happens I probably won’t get much warning.

But other days, like last night when I was trying to sleep, it just seems all too much.  I just want to know.  I just want that certainty of what is ahead. Some days I can live with the uncertainty, but on others it seems like my entire mental health rides on those 10 EQC assessors who are here today.  But then here in Christchurch, that is the only certainty so many of us have.

“The world is a wonderfully weird place, consensual reality is significantly flawed, no institution can be trusted, certainty is a mirage, security a delusion, and the tyranny of the dull mind forever threatens — but our lives are not as limited as we think they are, all things are possible, laughter is holier than piety, freedom is sweeter than fame, and in the end it’s love and love alone that really matters.” 

― Tom Robbins

When Your World Turns Upside Down (reposted)

A few weeks ago I published this post but removed it shortly after, when I felt uncomfortable having shared what is contained in it.  I now feel more comfortable with sharing it, and so am re-posting it.  I apologise to those who read the original post and commented, before I deleted it.  I did appreciate your comments.

Today has been the second anniversary of the worst earthquake we lived through in Christchurch, NZ.  185 people weren’t so lucky and lost their lives.  Many more were injured.  And yet many more have suffered health problems (and for some death) following the quakes.  For me, my father died six weeks later, my mother is a completely different woman and my own fibromyalgia is attributed to my trauma from that experience. 

Our lives literally turned upside down.  While recovery, repair and rebuilding slowly take place, for about 450,000 residents life will never be the same.  This post is about what came to matter.

My world has literally turned upside down in more than one occasion. It has been frightening, life changing and heart stopping (both literally and figuratively when I look across my family who also experienced this). It happened, for me, by way of massive earthquakes, but for others it might have been tornadoes, hurricanes, bush fires, floods, tsunamis or a number of other events that we know as ‘natural disasters’.

It might be ‘natural’ but nothing seems ‘natural’ at the time. Everything is totally unknown and shocking.Out of nowhere, comes complete devastation. The question that repeatedly came into my mind as I was in a number of major earthquakes in Christchurch, NZ was “how can the earth do this?” It was simply beyond my wildest imagination that the world was capable of moving like this, yet now it was my reality.

If you have read back through my posts you may have read some of this before, but this is a different angle than that which I have shared previously.

In a few weeks it will be two years since Christchurch experienced its worst (although not biggest) and deadly earthquake. On 22 February 2011 a 6.3 earthquake, centred just 10 kilometres from the central city, hit on a busy, summer Tuesday. It wasn’t the first, or the last quake to devastate the city.

Nearly two years on, it seems that finally the after shocks might have died away. There are still occasional ones just to remind us of our terror, but mostly now it is about concentrating on rebuilding ourselves, our homes and our city. Or waiting. There is so much waiting. In early days for supplies of fresh water, now we wait for the Government and Insurance companies, and of course we wait at the thousands of roads-works holding up traffic as the repairs to roads, water pipes and sewers go on.

Five months earlier on 4 September 2010 at 4.35am I was woken by our first quake. It was a 7.1 quake centred just out of the city at Darfield (about 30 kilometres away). It was dark, and I woke to this incredible violent shaking. Initially I had no idea what was happening. In New Zealand we are used to minor quakes but this was far beyond anything I had experienced.

As children we had been taught that in an earthquake you make your way to a doorway or under a table. Instinct somehow kicked in. Moments before my cat had been asleep by my feet, but I couldn’t see or hear where she was. That instinct saw me grab my teddy bear and try to make it to the doorway. It was only two metres but it seemed like miles because the cupboard doors on one side, and the bed on the other, were being tossed and thrown around the room. I literally had to fight to get past.

I clung to the door frame, and as I did I realised that there was an old doll on my bedside table. I had grabbed the teddy bear but I hadn’t grabbed the doll, and now I wanted her. I wanted to go back. For a moment, she was everything in the world, but then I knew I wouldn’t make it back. Right then I wasn’t sure if this was the end of the world, or was it a very bad earthquake. I just hung on and hoped it would end. I hoped my doll would still be there when it stopped.

When these ‘natural’ disasters strike they tend to be life-changing in many ways that one would never have expected. What is important takes on new meaning and you find that things you thought were important, don’t hold the same value you thought they did.

On that dark September morning, all that mattered to me was my cat (who I didn’t see for another two days) and the teddy bear and doll. I thought my world was ending. It would have been useful to have my mobile phone from the bedside table, but I didn’t think of that until it rang a few minutes later (what became a regular ritual of checking on other family members).

There wasn’t much logic to what was important but in time I would repeat the same choices. Five months later, when the February quake struck it caused much more damage because it was closer to the city centre, it was very shallow and it was lunchtime on a busy work day. My parents lived in an apartment building in the city centre, and when they (and I) struggled down the damaged stairs some time after the quake, they were leaving the building forever. I was with them that day, and while I had time to grab my bag, they had no time to grab anything. Dad had his car keys. That was all.

Their experience made me question my priorities again. What really mattered? Actually a lot didn’t matter. Mum was understandably upset because she hadn’t put her wedding rings on that morning.

We were fortunate that my brother and I were able to go back into the building for a short while several months later. By then we had worked out what really mattered. There was mum’s rings, my grandfather’s World War Two medals, and family photos. Of a houseful of possessions we had narrowed it down to that.

It seemed a little crazy to walk past broken china on the floor. Items my parents had got as wedding gifts and had been part of our family for my whole life. They didn’t matter. They just weren’t important. I’d like to say that what mattered was that we were all alive, but by that time my Dad had died. The stress of everything had beaten his heart.

But we do have everyone else, and some families weren’t so lucky. We are fortunate. We found mum’s rings and Granddad’s medals (although they mysteriously disappeared later). We retrieved most of the family and ancestor photos that couldn’t have been replaced.

For me, I lost precious items in my home too, particularly gifts from friends. Smashed on the floor. But two years on those things don’t matter. The things that did matter, which were of my heart, were my cat, my teddy bear and the doll. Oh, and I never take my rings off now. I learnt that lesson from Mum.

“You can’t help respecting anybody who can spell TUESDAY, even if he doesn’t spell it right; but spelling isn’t everything. There are days when spelling Tuesday simply doesn’t count.”

― A.A. Milne

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All I Want For Christmas

There’s a few things I’d like for Christmas.  If that’s too much to ask for, there’s a few things I need to buy.  While I’ve been either lying in bed, or lying on the couch over the past few days experiencing the full on fibromyalgia attack (note, not a flare!  See Namby-Pamby Flares) I have realised there are a few things I need.

Firstly I need a laptop.  Please Santa.  I’ve been ‘writing’ posts in my mind as I’ve lain there unable to sleep.  They probably didn’t make much sense, but if I had a laptop I wouldn’t have to transcribe onto paper for later when I could sit at my desktop computer.

Even my two year old niece was watching Dora The Explorer on her mother’s laptop the other day.  If L can use a laptop then surely I should be allowed to write my posts from bed, or the couch.  Shouldn’t I?  My bank account says otherwise so I’m really pinning my hopes on Santa.  Really Santa, I do believe!  Everything you say is true!  Absolutely!

Next…

I Want To Float

Image credit: flickr.com/photo/40571874@N00/1101392997

Why do I want to float?  Because with fibro, pressure from anything hurts.  Whether I am sitting on a chair, lying on the bed, anything.  Even standing makes my feet hurt.  So I don’t want to be on anything.  I want to float.

What are my options?  Well, we’re short of swimming pools in my part of Christchurch thanks to the earthquakes of 2010/11.  The two public pools that were on my side of the town have been destroyed.  We’re waiting on the replacements, like many other things.  No doubt we’ll be waiting a while and I don’t mind.  Personally I think fixing homes is more important, but the Government didn’t ask me and I see they’re fixing children’s paddling pools at parks.  So swimming pools can be too far off.

I live only 10 minutes drive from the sea so I could take to the beach.  The only thing is that if I’m going to float in the sea I really have to have my eyes open to watch for stray waves, and perhaps sharks.  Somehow I just don’t see that as practical.  It wouldn’t be very relaxing.

One of my favourite television programmes is the English Absolutely Fabulous.  I love it, and actually when required, I can do a pretty good Eddy impersonation.  Eddy had a floatation tank in her house.  While the idea of getting in a tank and closing the lid leaves me a little claustrophobic, the length of the tank she had seems like just what I need.

I have a bathtub in my house but I’m tall, and I can’t stretch out totally and float.  What I need is an extra long bath.  Maybe seven and a half feet long.  I’m thinking that when the earthquake repairs are finally done to my home ( before, or after the swimming pools) I can have the bathroom extended to include my extra long bath.  It would be bliss.  If yoiu can’t find me, that’s where I’ll be.

Whether or not the insurance company and government combination responsible for the repairs would be willing to help is questionable.  But I might just remind them that my fibro was apparently caused by earthquake trauma.  How can they say no to that?

One more thing I want while we’re at it…

I want to float

Yes, again I want to float.  But this time, not on water.

Image credit: Kropsoq / Wikipedia.com

As I’ve said before (see Serious Attitude Problem), Christmas is not my favourite my of year.  I might not have been doing anything practical this week in terms of getting ready for Christmas, but I have been thinking.  Unfortunately I haven’t been doing the thinking I needed to like ‘how am I going to get my shopping done and not stress out with all the crowds now that school is out?‘  Instead I’ve been thinking ‘how can I get out of this?

Much as I have no desire to repeat those years, the years I spent Christmas in hospital or respite care had their very definite advantages – the ability to ignore reality.  In hindsight I admit that it was very convenient to have to miss everything about Christmas just because I was entombed in a psychiatric hospital.  You have to admit, it’s a pretty plausible excuse.  I’m not going back there and I know now that I’m a ‘big girl’ and I have to face reality, but don’t we all need our own escape plans?

Mine?  Well New Zealand is said to be the adventure tourism capital of the world, so the last thing I want is a hot hair balloon.  That way I can just float away when it all gets too much.  That wil be me running from the family Christmas barbeque (remember it’s summer here), jumping in the basket… and away I float.  Bliss  And by the way,in true introvert style, it will just me… and someone who can drive/fly this thing.  Wish me luck.

“You never really know what’s coming. A small wave, or maybe a big one. All you can really do is hope that when it comes, you can surf over it, instead of drown in its monstrosity.” 

―    Alysha Speer

What Battles To Fight?

Image credit: FB/Women’s Tea Time

Is it just me?  Or do other people get swamped by how many battles there are to fight?

I admit, before my family tell you, I am a stubborn, opinionated ‘dog with a bone’ at times.  I’m passionate (as you’ll know if you followed my Passions Profile Challenge a while back) and I feel strongly when I see things that I don’t think are right or fair.  When I see people being treated badly I want to jump up and down and tell the whole world that it is wrong.

The thing is though that I know I can’t fight every battle I see.  It’s actually not good for my health, mental or physical.  And if I ranted here about absolutely every battle, I suspect I’d lose readers pretty quickly.  If I fight every battle then I end up just being ignored because “she’s just at it again“.  I am probably already gaining myself a reputation that I’d really rather not have.  I dont’ want the ‘crazy’ label.  I want people to say “she makes a good point“.

Yesterday was one of those days where I was bombarded with things on social media and news sites that I just ‘had’ to fight back.  Thankfully I was a little wise and saw the pattern.  I did fight back on one issue, but I stepped away and breathed instead on the rest.  Except I was still frustrated because people were being treated badly, portrayed badly, or money was being wasted on things that just don’t seem right.  By the end of the day I was exhausted simply from having it all in my head.

Here’s a list of some of the things going around, and around in my head yesterday:

1.  Fixing children’s paddling pools gets priority in earthquake recovery in my city over people getting homes to live in.

2. One young person’s suicide is highlighted (irresponsibly in my view) by the media and mental health organisations over, and over again taking the focus away from what really matters.  She’s not the only one.  How do we handle this responsibly, with thought given to others who might read but are suffering themselves from bullying, self harm, depression and suicidal thoughts?

3.  A person labelling another as ‘sick and twisted’ (among other things) because they didn’t like their actions.  Both people are likely to have mental illnesses.

4.  Churches prioritise spending millions of dollars on ornate buildings to ‘worship God’ when (I think) they should be prioritising expenditure on feeding the poor and hungry.  This applies to governments too.

5.  A young person wants to give up the fight for her life (again) because she can’t get adequate help from mental health services.

6.  Fancy sports stadiums are more important than people who need food, shelter, safety.

I won’t go on because I’m sure you’re getting the idea.  Issues of earthquake recovery in my city leave me more, and more disturbed because individual people’s needs are not important.  Maybe I’m a biased on that partly because my needs don’t get a look in on that front either, but there are so many people much worse off than me.

And mental illness (and yes, I’m choosing to use the term mental illness rather than mental health purposely because this is making people sick… or dead), especially concerning stigma and the media’s portrayal of it just sickens me.

But for the sake of my own health I have to draw the line.  I can’t fight every battle, but I want to.  I feel strongly about all these things, and what I hate is that from each of these issues and more,  there are individuals suffering.

Today my fibromyalgia has flared up again.  Certainly yesterday was an dificult day because it had been my Dad’s birthday, but this is what fibro does to me.  The emotional stress inside converts to physical pain, brain fog and fatigue.  I know myself well enough to know that probably both things contributed to today’s reality.

So I’m wondering?  Do other people struggle like this?  How do you choose wisely what battles to fight?  How do you rest easy if you choose not to fight a battle?

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

~Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

― Martin Luther King Jr.

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Good From Bad

‘Good from Bad’ in the form of the new Christchurch CBD shopping area…
created solely from shipping containers.
Image credit: flickr.com/photos/jjprojects/6335876035/in/photostream/

Regular readers will hopefully forgive me for going on again about earthquakes, and earthquake recovery.  I do realise that while it is a very important issue to me, that it is not so interesting to others, especially if you have never even experienced a mild tremor in your lifetime.  I wrote a couple of days ago in In My Corner Of The World… There Is Hope that today is the two-year anniversary of the start of our earthquake nightmare here in Christchurch, New Zealand.

I was thinking, and came to the conclusion that today’s date, 4 September is significant for me in more than just the reminder of the quakes and the destruction.  I realise that it was the trigger to finally beginning my road to recovery from mental illness.

What I have learnt through this nightmare is to take one day at a time.  In so many ways.  People often talk about taking one day at a time.  Actually, it is almost too often sometimes, because it is difficult to understand how that might possibly make a difference.  Let me explain…

Every time an earthquake strikes there is no certainty of whether this will be a tiny shake that you just wonder whether it was actually just the wind.  Or will it go on, and build to a much more traumatic and damaging quake?  Many times I have sat here at my computer as a quake starts and I wait a second or two to decide, do I run for cover, or do I just ride it out?  Sometimes I have run for cover only to feel a little silly when it was just a small tremor.  But other times I have been glad I made the choice to move, as things come crashing down around me once again.

The other thing I don’t know is when the next one will come.  I always knew that after a major quake, smaller quakes called after-shocks would follow, but I had no idea that after-shocks, and then new major quakes could continue on for years.

It’s difficult to know exactly what to do after the quake stops because I don’t know what will follow.  Is it worth putting all the photos back in the shelf?  Should I pick the television up off the floor? (actually we Cantabarians got clever eventually and screwed televisions down.  Actually anything that could be screwed down was)  I have now had one new television courtesy of insurance, but I don’t really want to have to go back for another.  And to be honest there are some things that now live in the floor so they can’t fall any further.

I had heard people say that animals often gave advance notice of earthquakes about to hit, and that the birds went quiet, and the like.  Well my cat Penny lived through a good number of the quakes and never once gave me any warning.  She would look as shocked and terrified as me, except usually she would move a whole heap quicker than me.

When you’re in an earthquake zone, like I now know I do, you realise that there is little certainty.  I have learnt to have bottled water on hand, extra non-perishable food, and batteries in the torch and radio.  Actually I know have a solar-powered torch/radio so that solves the problem.  These things are so much more important to me now that I have experienced needing them, but not having them.  Now if I am prepared for that uncertainty, then it becomes manageable.  I know exactly the things I need to do if, and when a major quake hits.  I can just go into that action plan almost on automatic pilot rather than the shock of it paralysing me.  I know what is important.

When I learnt to take one day at a time with regard to my material needs, I started to take one day at a time with my emotional health too.  I have finally realised that worrying about my future, won’t make it any better. Worrying about the past wouldn’t make it have not happened.   I have finally learnt to say what is on my mind because I don’t know if I will get the chance again.

I particularly learnt that with the death of my father.  At the moment he died, he and I were having a very rare argument (about chemical toilets of all things).  Clearly it was heated enough to literally stop his heart, on top of the stress he had already experienced.  What I struggled with afterwards was the fear that in the argument he would have lost sight of the fact that I loved him.  There was no time, it was over in an instant, and if only we had stopped and just appreciated each other rather than arguing.

I should say that I have dealt with that now.  I know my Dad knew I loved him and while it is unfortunate that our relationship ended in anger, I know it is okay.  I feel at peace with that, and achieving that in itself is a very big difference from the person I was, who would have felt bad and guilty for the rest of her days.  I have learnt to say what’s on my mind, at the time.  I will never know if I will have another opportunity to say I love someone.

By learning to live in the moment, and be very clear about my feelings with those I care about, I have been able to correct some of the other things that were screwing me up, particularly in terms of my relationships with other people.

I never want to live through another two years like I have just been through, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.  But good does come from bad.  I have learnt so many things that otherwise might have taken years to discover, if I ever did.  While the experience has been a nightmare, my mental health has strengthened in leaps and bounds, when for so many years nothing seemed able to achieve that.

We usually look at mental illness as being a bad thing, and quite rightly so, when you stop and think of the anguish and pain for the sufferer, and those around them.  Again I wouldn’t choose the last 19 years again.  Not for one minute.  I lost so much, and I know I hurt people along the way.

But the suffering I went through created a new person.  I am not the person I was in the 1990′s, and actually I am quite glad I’m not.  I am a better person.  I have new opportunities because of the person I have become, and so I would go so far as to say that good came from the bad of my mental illness.  I fully expect that some people may have difficulty accepting that, and that’s okay.  I am just saying that for me, there is good as a result of the pain and suffering I experienced.

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths.  These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

In My Corner Of The World… There Is Hope

Map of New Zealand         Image credit: freeworldmaps.net

In my corner of the world, today is the first Saturday in September, a day I will never forget.  It is the beginning of spring.

Two years ago residents of my city, Christchurch, and surrounding areas were violently woken at 4.35am by a 7.1 earthquake, the first of thousands of quakes to follow in the next two years.  It was the first time the city had ever really cared about earthquakes, because it wasn’t known to be an area at risk.  Now we are obsessed by them, but trying to rebuild and slowly move on.

That morning I woke and immediately tried to get out of bed and race for the doorway.  It was only a matter of metres to run but between cupboard doors swinging wildly and the bed being tossed and turned, it wasn’t an easy pathway to tread.  I got there and hung onto the door frame for dear life.  It was beyond anything I had ever imagined and I wondered how the ground could possibly move that much.  I was terrified.

By the time the shaking stopped, power and phone lines were down.   A few minutes later I got a call on my mobile phone, from my sister-in-law.  We were both terrified and needed to know everyone was okay.  Amazingly there was no visible (once it got light) damage to my house.  That was too come in the months ahead.  But everything had fallen off its perch, the television had taken its first of many dives onto the floor (it’s now been replaced), and my cat, Penny was nowhere to be seen.  She didn’t appear for a day and eventually I found her, also terrified, hiding under the bed.

The daylight broke eventually into a beautiful spring day.  Blue skies, calm and warm.  It was in stark contrast to the events of several hours earlier.  I have noticed that same beautiful spring weather over the past couple of days and actually the beauty of it takes away the horror of the morning.  Somehow thankfully, I have a better connection in my mind with the beautiful weather, than the terror.

I tried to head to my parents home to make sure they were okay but even my car had responded to the quake and the battery was dead.  Was this coincidence or not?  I have no idea.  It wasn’t an old battery and there was no other reason why it should have drained.  But now I was car-less and new batteries were hardly on anyone’s list of priorities that morning.  Eventually I got a lift over to where I was going and it was incredible to see whole street frontages of buildings having collapsed onto the road.  In Christchurch we grew to be used to destruction like this, but that day it was all brand new and it completely blew me away.

My parents were fine although they had a lot of breakages.  We worked to put their place back together again, with no idea that we would repeat this exercise over and over again in the next five months, until the building was so badly damaged that we couldn’t go back in.

That afternoon, back at home, I walked down the road to the nearby Avon River (which flows through the city).  The river itself was a milky colour.  Almost like a milk tanker had tipped in its load.  It didn’t look right at all, but was a sign of the silt that raised from the earth below into the river.  That silt was something we became very used to.  Called liquefaction.  It wasn’t just the river, but land for miles was almost drowned in the stuff and residents had to work hard to clean it up before it set solid.  Liquefaction is something I had never heard of, but was a repeated problem every time there was a big quake in the years since.

I’ve written about the quakes before but the reason I write today is to mark the anniversary (actually on 4 September) but to also note that finally the ground seems to be quieting down.  Three days ago it was reported that we hadn’t had a quake (that could be felt by humans) for eight days.  Wow!  This is really big news for us because the quakes have been rolling constantly for the two years.   To finally go that long without them is a very great gift to us all.  I’ve just checked, and I don’t think we have had any since that news report, which would take it to eleven days.  There have been small shakes (under 3 on the Richter scale) but that is all.  Of course we all are reluctant to tempt fate by celebrating this quieting down of the ground.  But maybe it is coming to an end for now.

It has been a heck of a two years.  Constantly alert for quakes.  There have been over 11,700 quakes in that time and most of those have been very shallow and centred very close to the city.  There has been much loss, and for  me aside from a very badly damaged house, my father died as a result of the stress of the quakes.  Many people have suffered badly in terms of both physical and mental health.  While I have been fortunate that my mental health wasn’t affected ( and that in itself is a miracle), my fibromyalgia has been put down to being a result of trauma from the quakes.  I am not alone.  Many people continue to suffer.

I love spring.  I think it is my favourite season because I love to see the new growth, the warmer weather, the city filled with golden daffodils.  I love that my daphne bush in the garden is flowering.  It just makes me feel better after a long winter in a damaged home.  Here in Christchurch we have a long way to go in repair and rebuilding, but perhaps now that we see the quakes dying down, and winter is over,  we can begin to have hope again for restoring life.

“When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest.  The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits.  People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.” 

―    Ernest Hemingway,    A Moveable Feast

Kia Kaha

Kia Kaha    =    Be Strong

Kia Kaha’ in Maori means ‘Be Strong’ ( or sometimes ‘Stay Strong’).  It is a regularly used phrase here in New Zealand in a huge range of places.  For example, when the three kiwi soldiers who died in Afghanistan last week were returned home in recent days, Kia Kaha has often been repeated to their friends, families and colleagues.

It is a warm expression of support and encouragement, sometimes used as a greeting; used by Maori and increasingly by Pakeha (white-skinned New Zealanders) alike.  It is uniquely New Zealand, and I admit that I like that.  If regular readers hadn’t noticed I am proud to be a kiwi.

Kia Kaka chch

(Photo credit: KimMcKelvey)

Kia Kaha Christchurch

The phrase Kia Kaha Christchurch became a popular call after 22 February 2011, when we were struck by the deadly earthquake that killed 185 people.  At the time, and since because it continues to be heard today as we rebuild, it seemed like a nice expression of support that the rest of the country was giving us.  Actually even Prince William used the phrase when he addressed many Christchurch residents at a Memorial Service in the months after.  Someone had clearly told him that it would be a welcome phrase to use, and I’m sure many who heard the speech were encouraged by it.

Yet to be honest, the use of kia kaha after the earthquakes is nice in terms of support but it just  doesn’t quite sit right with me.

I read a comment on a blog recently that caught my attention and perhaps summed up what I was thinking but hadn’t dared to even think, let alone, express.   It said:

“… I just find the whole earthquake terribly cruel,
depressing, crushing, and awful, and nothing
to be kia kaha about” 
(1.)

I accept the phrase kia kaha in the manner in which I think it is meant, but when people have lost lives, limbs, homes, possessions, businesses… I’m not convinced that being strong is always the appropriate  response.

Don’t get me wrong, being strong was pretty much the only option for so many people in the days immediately following.  My own experience was that I had no choice than to be strong as I turned my attention to helping my elderly parents deal with the losses they had encountered.  Neither of them were thinking straight, yet there were many things that simply had to be done.  They had left their home with nothing, so had no clothes, no money, not even any identification.  There was help available for them fairly quickly but it involved dealing with bureaucracy.  Yes, even in a disaster someone is going to want forms filled in.

So I had no time to do anything but be strong.  There simply wasn’t any other choice.  But while being strong was appropriate in the early days, there came a time when it was necessary for me to feel the emotion that I had switched off and buried.  It was buried so well I hardly knew it existed.  It was only in rare moments with just my brother that I was even able to feel the stress that was building.

Six days later I was fortunate to get half an hour of my weekly appointment with my psychotherapist.  It didn’t matter that I was sitting in a field on my brother’s farm talking to my therapist by phone.  My friend Plonker was alone in being able to listen in.  It wasn’t the usual environment but the chance to talk about how I was feeling made a huge difference to me.  I didn’t have to be strong right then.

I worked out at that point where I needed to be strong, and where it was safe to have the feelings that were bubbling over.  That made an enormous difference to me, because I knew that there was space for me.

What concerns me is that not everyone has that space, and for many the term kia kaha is the only words they’ve heard.  A friend of mine (a man of about 60) told me some months later that he had been diagnosed with depression following the earthquakes and had come to accept that he didn’t have to be strong.  For the first time in his life he saw that it was okay to be sad, it was okay to be weak.  Having realised that, and with the help of medication and counselling he was starting to recover, but understanding that he didn’t have to be the stoic one in his family was the break through.

Today I came across a blog post saying a similar thing.  I’m not exactly sure how I came across it.  I guess it was something I fell upon but was exactly what I needed to read.  It fits perfectly with what I am saying, although I admit that the post is addressed to men.  Carlos Andrés Gómez says in his blog:

…I was fifteen when I heard about my closest childhood friend being killed in a car accident, and I will never forget this tremendous burden I felt to “stay strong” and “tough my way through it.”  I didn’t want anyone to know how much I was hurting.  I didn’t want to ask for help.  I accepted it as a given that I would bottle up all of my emotions and deal with them alone.  I took great pride (at the time) in the fact that I excused myself from the table to cry alone in the bathroom after my father told me the news. I never shed one tear in front of my sister and dad, and it somehow felt like undeniable proof that I was finally ready to be a man. I quietly celebrated that moment of shutting myself down emotionally, as though it were an accomplishment.  I wore it like a badge of honor that I could conceal the hurricane of emotions in my chest…”

Whether man or woman I think there are times when shutting down probably seems like the best course of action.  It’s what I did in the immediate days after that quake because there was simply too much else that needed to be done.  And while I welcome anyone greeting me with kia kaha I’m not sure that it is the phrase I need to hear now.  Now I need to hear that I don’t need to be strong.  Even if it is only me that gives me that permission, I need to know that it is okay to be as I am.

This doesn’t just apply to the aftermath of natural disasters.  It applies in day to day life.  I spend a lot of my time concerned with the well-being of other people, and have recently attached a note to my computer screen.  It says “sometimes you have to do what’s best for you and your life, not what’s best for everyone else“.  For me, this is the message I need.  I don’t always need to be strong for others.  Sometimes it is okay to simply look after me.

PS. If I have offended anyone in my interpretation of the term kia kaha, I apologise.  My intention has not been to criticise the use of the term (which is one I use and appreciate), but to explore the use of it.

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are
strong at the broken places.” 

―    Ernest Hemingway,    A Farewell to Arms

The Tale Of Plonker The Pig

A ‘relative’ of Plonker’s                Image Credit: thornypup / Flickr.com

I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that people (and animals) come to us at exactly the right time.  I have long struggled with the phrase that there is a reason for everything.  I knew in my head that it was probably true but there were some things that really stumped me.  How could there possibly be a reason for some of the terrible things that happen?

Last year I developed a rather good friendship with Plonker, one of two pigs then living on my brother’s farm.  Plonker was named by  my nephews.  I’m not exactly sure how he earned this name and I can’t remember what his friend’s name was.  No doubt something apt to their then, thirteen and eleven year old’s minds.

I admit that I have been known to talk to inanimate objects (selectively) and so to talk to animals is not strange for me.  My cat Penny and I used to have long conversations, each taking turns to speak.  We didn’t necessarily know what the other was saying but we at least had our timing worked out.  And I always felt she understood.  So when I met Plonker and his mate it was quite natural for me to strike up conversation with them.  One can get a lot of sense from talking to animals.  Often much more than humans.  For some reason Plonker has a special character and he became very special to me.

The time was the days immediately after our deadly earthquake in February, 2011.  I had my parents staying with me, after they had lost their home and belongings  in the quake.  I had temporarily lost my car (for a few weeks) because it was parked trapped between two damaged buildings in a cordoned off part of town, and so I was reliant on my parents for transport.  We were asked not to move around the damaged city if we could help it but because I had no water, no sewage, and for a while no power we opted to go out to my brother’s farm during the days.  For some reason my parents wouldn’t go and stay out there.  I think they wanted to be near their home, in the hope that they might gain access.  That didn’t happen of course, and so for the sake of everyone’s mental health, we went to the farm (where water, sewage and power were operational) during the day and returned back to my home to sleep.

It was very stressful, and that is a big understatement.  Actually it was probably the most stressful time of my life.  Aftershocks continued, as we listened to news reports of bodies being dug out of collapsed buildings.  The personality of both my elderly parents changed markedly at that time (my father died six weeks later as a result of the stress).  The change in their personalities wasn’t really any surprise, considering what they were going through, but it was difficult for all of us, grandchildren included, to adapt.  It was almost like suddenly having completely different parents to those we had known before.  The only one who didn’t struggle seemed to be 10 week old L.  She slept on regardless.

I quickly took up walking around the farm to get some space from everyone.  It was also a chance to have a smoke (a habit I had taken up again when the quakes started several months earlier) which I attempted to do away from the kids.  I regularly went down to the pig’s hangout to visit Plonker and his mate.

Finally someone talked sense.  Plonker was interested to know if I had food for him.  He would start to get excited about company when he saw me walking his way.  I hadn’t completely forgotten that he was a pig but I felt appreciated, especially when I brought food.

I don’t know much about pigs but I understand they are social animals, and so when Plonker’s mate headed for the ‘dinner table’ (my vegetarian tendencies start to struggle at this point), Plonker seemed  to be lonely.   I used that as an excuse to hang out with Plonker more often.  The thing about Plonker was that he had no expectations of me, and what’s more he didn’t seem rattled by the constant quakes.  He was in my mind, the perfect company at the time.

Plonker has since made his own way to the ‘dinner table’ sadly.  Thankfully I wasn’t told who dinner was until after I had eaten.  The thought still leaves me feeling a little unwell, and I admit I haven’t formed such a close attachment to subsequent farm animals.  Saying good-bye was not easy and while my nephews laughed at me giving Plonker a leaving present (a bag of fruit purchased just for him), he will always have a special place in my heart.

Plonker saved my bacon (pun intended).  Spending time on the farm with him soothed the trauma of everything else happening, and the stress of suddenly finding myself living with my parents again (after nearly 30 years).  Plonker was there at the right moment for me.

In the same way there have been special people along my way who have appeared in my life at just the right time.  One was my friend A who I came to flat with just months before first getting sick.  At the time she was recovering from a two year battle with depression and actually that was significant in helping me accept my own depression that would follow.  We were only in each other’s lives for a couple of years and since have gone our separate ways, but I firmly believe that she was there for a reason.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it is more than just coincidence that particular people (and pigs) come into my life.  There is a reason for these things, and actually I don’t need to know what that reason is, I simply have to accept them.  I’m slowly realising that I don’t have to understand, all I have to do is accept the gift I am offered.

“A friend is someone who gives you total freedom to be yourself-and especially to feel, or not feel. Whatever you happen to be feeling at any moment is fine with them. That’s what real love amounts to – letting a person be what he really is.” 

―    Jim Morrison