“But in the end one needs more courage to live than to kill himself.”
― Albert Camus
On the surface, everything can look calm, everything can seem okay. But hidden under that calm there are those ever-present Cate’s crocodiles. If you’re not sure what I’m on about this time, check out Crocodiles & Three Wise Men. While I had never stopped to consider crocodiles much before, I find myself drawn to them (well, pictures of them) and there is always a good reason.
My last post Courage Required was a little bit cryptic, and apologise for that. The thing is there is a calm look on my face for anyone who sees it, but my mind is racing at ninety miles an hour (144 kilometres for us kiwis) trying to work some things out. At the time I posted I could get as far as telling you that what I needed to find a healthy dose of courage, but I was unable to do much more. The racing mind had me stalled, flicking through websites aimlessly, not taking anything in, unable to even concentrate to catch up on reading other blogs because I just couldn’t concentrate to do anything but generally looking… calm (to anyone but my imagination).
When I started blogging, I set myself some rules. The biggest being that I would largely leave my immediate family out of my blog. Why? In my desire to do my little bit to reduce the stigma of mental illness I wanted my blog accessible to my friends and family. That kind of changes the focus a bit because family, for most of us, have a pretty significant part to play in our lives now or in the past.
I made the decision to not write anything about my immediate family that they might be unhappy about. This is partly because of a previous disagreement over something I had published in the past. Some parties were not exactly happy with what I had put on the internet, and while I didn’t take it off (because after a lot of soul searching I didn’t think I’d done wrong), I did resolve to be almost over-cautious in what I published in future. So at this point you occasionally might read of my 19 month old niece’s activities, but that is it (and I should say she seems to be quite okay with that).
Now I find myself in a situation that involves my family, but if I don’t find a way to write about it somehow, I risk those crocodiles rising up through the calm and biting me on the arse. So I need to write about what is going on for me, without betraying their confidences. Easy? Not at all! But here goes. Forgive me if there are gaps that mean this doesn’t make sense.
On 22 February 2011 life changed forever here in my corner of the world. It came with an almighty earthquake (that I have regularly mentioned and) that killed 185 people in my city. I knew one of those people personally. My family was lucky to avoid death, but incurred great loss both physically and mentally. An earlier (and larger) earthquake on 4 September 2010, almost destroyed my brother’s business (that he had only bought one month before). In February, my parents lost their home and about 70% of their possessions. They walked away with the clothes they were wearing and it wasn’t until four months later that my brother and I were given a few hours to go into the destroyed apartment and retrieve what we could. By that time, in April 2011, my father died suddenly in my home The cause of death being heart failure caused by stress. My home was severely damaged in February but the three of us had been living here ever since. There was no other option.
Sixteen months on, my parents home is now demolished, and just yesterday I received the offer for my mother from their insurance company. My home is still severely damaged and it is looking like it will be years yet before it is repaired (it seems it’s in the too hard basket and many homes are in that same basket). My brother’s business is still badly damaged and awaiting an insurance decision. He struggles to keep it running. The dream he and his wife had of owning their own business hasn’t quite been what they’d bargained on.
But all these things are the relatively easy pieces of the puzzle. These are the material pieces that can perhaps be fixed with the provision of a cheque, or a builder. It’s what goes on in the minds of the people who live through all this, that is not so easy to fix. We have all changed and are not the people we used to be.
For me surprisingly I think the trauma of everything actually helped me take a leap toward wellness. Like everyone else here I struggled to sleep at night (the first and largest quake happened at 4.35am and that was one heck of a way to wake up), I became super vigilant about not just more quakes but the safety of my family. My ‘performance’ of the past nearly 20 years would have suggested that I would completely crumble at this. When my father died six weeks later and my effort at CPR was unsuccessful, again past ‘performance’ would have suggested that I would crumble. My brother admitted that for a while, when the telephone rang, he would expect it would be a call to say I had been admitted to the local psych hospital… or worse. Actually that was the furthest thing from my mind.
I think I got flung into a position where I needed to take some control, not just for myself but for my parents too. They were never the same again and I almost swapped roles. For years I had been the ‘sick child’ needing to be handled with care in case “she spun out and did something crazy”. Now, from the day in their apartment when the quake struck, and I needed to clear a path for them to get out to the stairway and out of the building, to arranging to replace their necessities and find a new home for Mum. It’s hard to put into words, but it was (and I mean them no disrespect) like we reversed roles. They became the ‘sick children’ and I the ‘adult’.
This week I have been almost overwhelmed by some of the practical issues that this has raised, that no one really has time for but they still need attention. It has been hard, there have been a few tears (I don’t cry that often) and there has been an enormous sense of being alone. I have been angry with my father for dying. He was always the person I could talk my problems through, and I knew that this time he would, again, know what I should do. But damn it, he’s gone. He was my voice of reason (mostly!) but now while I can rant at my memory of him, he can’t respond. And I seem to be finding it harder in the second year since his death, than the first. I realise just how much I, and my family have lost. It’s not just his physical presence but the part he played in our family.
I am the youngest in my family and the only girl, so I always assumed responsibility would fall on my brothers shoulders, particularly my oldest brother. He does not live nearby and circumstances have meant that it is me on the spot, and I find myself having to take on things I never expected. This week it has been hard (as I said) and while I know I have come a long way in my recovery in the last 16 months, I have yet again found myself really struggling with the same old doubts and fears arising. Yet this time, it’s not just me I have to consider. In some ways that’s really difficult, and leaves me in deeper distress, but in other ways it, yet again, saves me. What I need though right now, is a whole heap of patience, and that sure doesn’t come easy with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). I can be incredibly patient with people I don’t know but with my family, it is a whole other ball game.
It’s totally understandable that the rest of the country, and the world, would think we have just picked up our lives and moved on. Unfortunately that’s not true. We live with the aftermath of the quakes everyday, both practically (you should see the state of our roads) but more importantly, mentally and emotionally. We have all changed, and while some of us will pick up our lives and move on, particularly for older people, life will never be the same again. My mother (at 83) lost her husband, her home, most of her possessions, her church (it completely collapsed) and many other friends who have also died in the last year. Again, I mean no disrespect but she is not the woman she used to be… and how could she not be different having lost so much in practically 50 seconds of the quake?
At this stage I have no idea whether my home, and my brother’s business, will be restored in her lifetime. Certainly it is unlikely that she will be alive to see the city restored (80% of all buildings in the central business district have been, or are still being demolished). Mum grew up in this city and, as she knew it, it is largely gone or certainly cordoned off.
It makes me laugh (a slightly skeptical laugh) when I hear that our Government has made provision for five counselling sessions for each resident of the Canterbury area (my guess is that is about 500,000 people). It’s a good start, but five sessions doesn’t give you much when so many have been through such enormous trauma. I suspect every one of my family (that lives in this region) could do with that counselling, but I know it’s not going to happen for most of them. Aside from the ‘stiff upper lip’ mindset, there is also just the enormous need to just keep going, one step at a time. People don’t have time, because the basic necessities of life are what still matters right now. And I can’t imagine that the city has enough suitably qualified people to meet the need anyway.
I was lucky to already be in psychotherapy and be able to talk about a lot of this with a therapist I knew and trust. [Unfortunately I am in the middle of a month of my therapist’s holiday. Nice for him… but damn him, for having his holiday!] I think many more people will just let the crocodile slide back under the surface and hope it never rises again. I know my mother will. But all you need to do is watch the face of a Cantabrians when another quake (they’re happening all the time) strikes. People are living in fear, because it’s what they’ve come to know. What does that do to their on-going mental health?
I can’t help wonder how other places that have survived such terrible disasters fair. Japan was hit by a much deadlier quake (and tsunami) just three weeks later (March 2011) and I wonder what happens to the emotional and mental needs of all those survivors. Other places like Haiti, Chile and Italy raise the same wondering in me. Actually we were really quite lucky, but still, lives will never be the same. There was an amazing outpouring of support here from other countries, and other parts of this country, but the scale of the distress is so much more than what was seen in the first couple of weeks.
And one final thought? No, I have yet to summon up that courage I need. I guess I am procrastinating, which unfortunately that means the problem does go away.
“No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just come out the other side.
Or you don’t.”
― Stephen King, The Stand
- Crocodiles & Three Wise Men (infinitesadnessorhope.wordpress.com)
- Courage Required (infinitesadnessorhope.wordpress.com)
- Reality… 10,000+ Earthquakes And Counting (infinitesadnessorhope.wordpress.com)
- All Senses Engaged… Water (Passions Profile Challenge #8) (infinitesadnessorhope.wordpress.com)
- One Year On (quakestories.govt.nz)
- Canterbury Quake Live (canterburyquakelive.co.nz)