Life after trauma: five years post-quake and the statute of limitations on PTSD

It's been five years today since I was running up the stairs of a guest house in Port-Au-Prince when I felt the world shake beneath me . . . five years since I bolted back down those stairs, frantic to grab my baby who was sleeping in a carseat, to try to escape the house to safety. Five years since I watching the tiles pop off the floors and the walls and saw the plaster of the building crack enough that I could see through to the outside. Five years since I grabbed my daughter and then found my son and huddled with them as far from a building as I could find until the shaking stopped. Five years since I sat in the Livesays driveway and cried as each aftershock came . . . wondering how much longer this horror could last.

I've always been reluctant to call myself an "earthquake survivor", and I've written very little about the PTSD I experienced as a result. I decided that I'd delve into it a bit today, because I feel like the distance has given me enough healing and perspective to talk about my own experience without minimizing the experience others had that day. And because I feel like survivors need to tell their stories . . . because when we recognize our experience in others, it helps us heal. Maybe you haven't been through an earthquake, but maybe my experience of trauma will resonate with your own details.

When I got back from Haiti, I had my little 15 minutes of fame as all the local news channels clamored to get an interview with the "local Orange County woman who survived the earthquake". It all seemed very overdramatic to me - but I realize (sadly) that people tend to be more interested in a story about someone they identify with. I did the interviews because I wanted to use the attention to talk about humanitarian parole. As I saw the stories later, I chuckled at the little liberties they took to make it sound more dramatic, and I rolled my eyes at the descriptor of "earthquake survivor". It doesn't seem a fitting title for someone who doesn't even live in Haiti, for someone who came out unscathed, from someone who took a plane home to a normal life and an intact home. Do I really qualify as a "survivor" here, when so many people lost so much? When I was I in a structurally sound building that didn't collapse on me? When I didn't struggle with finding food or water in the following days? When I got to drive to an embassy and be flown away from the rattling aftershocks? When I got to arrive home to balloons and family and friends, while others were still missing loved ones and fighting to survive? It seemed unfair to call myself a survivor when others where surviving so much more hardship.

At the same time, I did survive what was an incredibly traumatic experience for me. The days following the earthquake in Haiti were every bit as terrifying as the event itself. It was a different kind of terror . . . a dull, overwhelming sense of dread and fear that had a cloudy, disassociative feeling to it, in contrast to the sharp focus of the earthquake itself. I would like to say that I found some sort of supernatural strength in the days following the earthquake, but in reality, I felt scared, weak, and alone. I was without my husband, and without two of my children, and I missed them terribly. I was also very worried about getting out of the country. My infant daughter who traveled with me was sick, and we were beginning to hear about issues with food and water. The phone lines were down, and we had a day where we really had no contact with the outside world. It was the most terrifying experience of my life.

Despite this, when I got home, I was reluctant to talk about my feelings around the earthquake. It seemed disrespectful and petty to be burdened by my own trauma. I spent a good portion of that first year minimizing the impact the earthquake had on me.  In part because of survival guilt, and in part because minimizing my feelings is just what I do. It's an art I've perfected well.

I have an irrational and driving need to appear capable and stoic.  Sure, I mock my foibles in the little things from time to time, but in general I go to great lengths to avoid seeming flustered.  I am like a duck who is gliding across the water, appearing graceful and effortless, all the while with two feet just under the surface, desperately paddling in circles to stay afloat.  This tendency manifests itself in every situation, from the grocery store to the pediatrician’s office.

DON’T LET ON THAT YOU ARE A MESS.  Keep the anxiety under the surface. 

Except that, sometimes since that day in January of 2010 I am a mess.  Frequently, in the last five years, I have been a mess.  And pretending to not be a mess is really freaking exhausting, which has the affect of MAKING ME MORE OF A MESS.  It also has the effect of confusing those around me . . . because I seem capable and calm in certain moments and then snap into an emotional wreck at any ill-timed provocation.

However, I continue in my charade because a) I am in a good bit of denial myself, and b) people don’t like a mess.  Not for any length of time, anyways.  There is a statute of limitation for what is acceptable for grief.  My succession of miscarriages taught me this painful fact. One or two miscarriages? People are there for you. By five or six? People are uncomfortable. People stop calling. And you start to get the sinking feeling that people see you as a lot of work.

This is true for years away from earthquakes.

The statute of limitations for trauma that did not cause bodily harm or death?  It is shorter. 

I had no idea when I came home five years ago, shaken to the core and relieved to be home, that in five year’s time those feelings of panic and anxiety would have taken up residence in a deeper, more permanent spot in my psyche.  I had survived!  Surely this event would be a minor blip in my own lifeline . . . surely lasting trauma was only deserved for those who lost more.

I pushed the feelings aside, because I wanted to, because others wanted me to, and because I had no time to feel them, anyway.  I fooled myself into thinking that the waves of anxiety were situational.  I had a newly adopted son.  I was still, technically, “post-partum” with my daughter.  I was adjusting to life with four kids.  Stress is inevitable, no?

And yet, I had the indications that this was more than stress.  My thinking was cloudy.  I was easily overwhelmed.  I was incapacitated by noise, by surprises, by crowds, by chitchat.  And I was experiencing sensory issues with anything that reminded me of the earthquake. The loud rumble of the neighbor taking out the trashcans sent me into a spiral.  The sensation of a person shaking their foot in a seat next to mine could make me come unglued.  The sound of the dishwasher switching cycles . . . the sensation of being under someone running on the second floor. . . the “trauma clues”, as we therapists say, we there.

I didn't want them to be there, and I didn't want others to see it, so I hid out in my house.  Because I get just how rude and/or distracted and/or negative and/or overly sensitive I can seem to others.  I knew I was incapable of possessing the traits of friendliness that are important to me and valued by others.  And I would rather not be seen at all, than be seen as self-absorbed or aloof or depressive.  It was too exhausting to explain myself to others . . . too tedious to continually remind people that I’m still compromised.

“How are you?”

When the answer to that question continues to be negative . . . when people seem disappointed and irritated when it remains stagnant. . . it gets easier to lie.  Or to avoid situations where I’m asked.

Because the only fear I have greater than seeming like a mess?  Seeming like a burden

So after the earthquake, I stayed home, and I withdrew. I avoided obligations or crowds or variables. Because I would rather my kids be a little bored than have them see me overwhelmed.  

I would rather turn down a playdate than act like a weirdo at a playdate.  It’s easier to control my environment at home. 

It's gotten better over the past five years. I've found a new normal. I no longer feel shell-shocked or hyper-vigilant. But I am different. That panic is right under the surface.

It’s like Flowers for Algernon. I never know when I’m going to be my normal self, or an overwhelmed, “pretending to be present” version of myself.  But after the fact, I can recall with perfect clarity the ways I have been awkward or insensitive or just plain weird.

Emotional trauma is tough to recover from, because the wounds are real but they are invisible. I remember wishing I could somehow wear a sign that reminded people that even though I was home and had my little airport reunion, I was still a mess. Even still, I sometimes feel the urge to tell people, "I'm sorry I'm not totally normal. Something happened that I can't quite recover from."

Maybe that’s what this post is for,

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