If you’d asked me a fortnight ago what the mood of Christchurch folk was, asked for a precis of our psychological landscape I would have said that we were doing okay. That we were finally moving on from our quake traumas, at least those of us not in the seemingly unending embrace of an unresolved claim (EQC will tell you that most are now resolved and it’s only the most complicated claims that remain open but everyone knows someone who is in this situation). These people excepted though, my sense was that we were doing pretty well.
And I would have been dead wrong.
The magnitude 5.7 aftershock that shuddered through Christchurch on Valentines Day didn’t just shake up people’s china cabinets and bookcases, it struck a psychological blow that I think it will be hard for those who haven’t lived here for the last 5 years to understand. I’m going to try to explain anyway because I think it’s important for me personally but also for us as a country to try and get our collective heads around it.
When the aftershock hit it was sudden and already quite violent but it ramped up a bit after the first second or two, which was fortunate as it gave my partner a chance to get down from the ladder he was on, propped against the side of our house. The worst of it was over fairly quickly with some gentle rolling to finish (all aftershocks have their own personalities about which a person, if they were so inclined, could pen “tasting notes”). By then I was bolting for the other end of the house where my 2 year old son was taking his nap. I burst into his room running high off adrenalin and parental panic…only to find him miraculously asleep.
This was a blessing for more than one reason as I spent the next hour attempting to stop my hands from shaking. I couldn’t seem to calm myself. I’d had such a tremendous surge of adrenalin that I couldn’t actually do anything useful beyond texting loved ones and sending sweary tweets.
Fuuuuuck. That was shitty.
— Moata Tamaira (@MoataTamaira) February 14, 2016
My heart continued to pound. I had a small whisky in an attempt to calm my nerves. I cried a little bit.
I was upset, yes, but more than that I was completely taken aback by my physical reaction to what I knew was not a particularly destructive seismic event. The rational part of my brain understands how aftershocks work, what to expect, and how they vary in destructiveness. Most aren’t especially damaging and very few indeed are lethal. This one wasn’t and that became clear pretty early on. The fact that I still have a full compliment of stemware and fridge contents that stayed that way is testament to that fact.
But my body, even though it’s had nearly 4 years of no significant aftershocks, knew differently. It kicked straight into high anxiety, flight or fight, do or die mode. I was unprepared for how fully prepared it was. If it reacts this way after 4 years of relative calm, will it always be this way? Will I always be a little twitchy at the rumble of a passing truck or bus? Will I always be digging my fingernails into the arm of the couch, every time the wine glasses rattle? Was I so thoroughly conditioned during those early, frightening, cortisol-infused days that the effects are now permanent?
So that was a bit of a revelation but the Valentines day aftershock has done something more than just rattle us in mind and body. It’s shaken the dust off our ongoing mental health issues that we have all been pretending that we don’t have. The illusion of normality, or even the “new normal” has started to drop.
One of the few breakages we had that day was a framed print of local icon, the Edmonds Factory. Somewhat ironically it was some cookbooks toppling off the edge of a shelf that did the damage. Later I picked out the dangerous looking shards of glass and examined what lay beneath thinking that the print might be okay if we put it in a new frame. But on closer inspection I could see a very fine line traced across a cerulean blue sky. An almost invisible scratch where the glass had cracked against it.
That is what Christchurch is now. If you’re not looking for it, you probably won’t see it but if you hold us up to the light and turn us a certain way you can see the damage. What do I mean by that? Well certainly I mean the elevated number of suicide call outs, and the alarming number of children with PTSD only 8 percent of whom have access to counselling (it’s hard to imagine how, as a society, we could be failing our smallest and most vulnerable members more with a startling fact like that in front of you), but this is actually just the extreme, more noticeable end of a very wide spectrum.
It manifests in less dramatic, more ordinary ways too. People who avoid going into multi-level buildings. People who even now will only park on the roofs of parking buildings, never the lower levels. People who still feel uneasy in movie theatres. People who self-medicate with alcohol or other calming substances. People who get nervy about the idea of walking over the Bridge of Remembrance again, even though it’s been fully repaired and earthquake strengthened. Panic attacks. Getting headaches more often than you used to. Anxiety. Insomnia.
I’m lucky in that my own anxiety is limited to during and immediately following an aftershock. I don’t feel excessively anxious at other times (though in the last week there’s been a low level sort of hyper-alert state that has definitely messed with my sleep).
And yet there are other dark, earthquake-related thoughts that sometimes haunt you. As a personal example, I sometimes bike past the site of the CTV building on my way into town. Every time I do I find myself thinking about people being trapped in that building, sending their loved ones text messages or calling them, and waiting for a rescue that never came. I imagine being trapped under a desk with only my mobile phone as a light source and being overcome with heat and smoke. Every time. Every time I pass that building I have these thoughts. If that strikes you as rather dark and more that a little morbid then you’ll get no argument from me. It is. And our city is dotted with these ghosts now.
I’ve never actually told that to anyone before. It’s just not the sort of thing you can drop into polite conversation. Not without the conversation in question veering awkwardly off into a discussion of the weather… and isn’t Richie McCaw a top bloke?
But this recent aftershock has prompted a few of us to let our guard down and actually reveal to other human beings that we’re struggling a bit. You’d think it would be easier to do that. We’ve all been through this together, after all, but I think that trope of The Resilient Cantabrian that’s constantly trotted out has done us no favours. It’s a lot to live up to, being stoically nonplussed for five years. And if you don’t then you feel like you’re letting the side down. I for one can’t keep the performance up any longer so I’m not going to bother.
The last week or so life has been harder than it usually is. I’ve had trouble sleeping and I’ve been tired, worried and unsettled. Every aftershock has made me anxious and then I’ve felt annoyed and disappointed in myself for feeling that way. I’m not “fine”. I need gentle and kind words and actions and some nice quiet time with a book and a cuppa. But the miracle is, if I ask for those things I’ll probably get them.
Sadly, not everyone has the comparatively manageable level of anxiety that I do and they need more than just a bit of “me time” and a cuddle. That there’s some doubt as to whether anyone is sufficiently funded to give it to them should be a matter of burning national shame (or burning National shame – take your pick). It’s hard enough to admit to yourself, let alone other people, that you need help. Can you then imagine being told there isn’t any? Or that you’ll have to be put on a waiting list?
I don’t know if there’s anything that I can do about that but I know that I can at least be honest about how I’m coping (or not) and in doing so maybe give other people permission to join me in shattering the myth of “resilience” that we’ve been collectively trying to live up to.
People that may be able to help –