Saturday, 5 September 2015

Seismic damage

I can pinpoint the exact moment in time when my world was turned on its head. At 4.35am on September 4th, 2010, a massive earthquake hit my home town of Christchurch, NZ. It set in motion a chain of events that have gradually seen my life unravel. The reasons I have an eating disorder are complex, but if it weren't for this earthquake and the thousands that followed, I would not be in the state I am in today. The trauma placed immense pressure on my coping systems, shook loose the nuts and bolts of my eating disordered past, and left me exposed. At the time, I wasn't paying attention - getting through was all that mattered. It's only in hindsight that I can see the extent of the damage.

We were sleeping when the first earthquake struck, thrust from our cosy cocoons directly into cold, sharp fear. The earth thundered and thrashed like a furious bull. Crockery crashed, glass shattered and furniture slammed against walls with each jolt. It felt so vicious - like the worst kind of betrayal. The ground beneath my feet, the most solid of things, was not as I thought. My illusion of a safe and benevolent world was blown to tiny pieces.

My neighbourhood - built around a pretty, winding river, was badly affected. There was no electricity or running water for many, but we cleaned, cleared and repaired, and gradually patched a semblance of life back together. No one had been killed and we were grateful.

Relentless aftershocks made emotional recovery slow and halting. The acrid smell of fear stuck in the air and I was constantly on edge. Before the earthquakes, I would take long runs around the river to burn off steam, but I stopped. Deep fissures cut through the river banks and houses slumped at its edges, and I couldn't bear the destruction. I swapped running for alcohol as a way of dealing with the stress.




In early January, with my anxieties still running high, someone made a comment about my physical appearance. It was fairly innocuous remark, but it hit a vulnerable spot in me and I immediately swung into restrictive eating. I began recording and limiting my food with a fervour that I hadn't had in many years. Though I made no conscious link at the time, food restriction - like alcohol, became a tool for numbing my emotional distress, and a mental escape from the chaos that surrounded me. The disordered part of my mind awoke.

Then, on the February 22nd, 2011, the second major earthquake hit. I was at home with my youngest, who was napping at the time. Its brut force flung me up in the air and I dropped like a puppet, colliding with the floor as it came up to meet me. I picked myself up, and tried to focus. Time splintered, each second disconnected from the next. As I headed towards my son's bedroom, my eyes darted around the house, collecting a jumble of disparate images as I went. The kitchen floor was strewn with debris, jagged gashes crossed the ceiling, and the floor sat on an unfamiliar slant. I found my boy on the ground, bewildered but unhurt. My eldest was at school, and we made our way there. Electrical wires draped the road on the way, and I drove over them, not knowing if we would make it across. As I entered the school another aftershock rocked the earth and the screams of five hundred children pierced the air.

My children, family and friends escaped unharmed from all sorts of perilous situations. We were lucky. Others were not. One hundred and eighty five people died, and many were injured terribly. Our city had collapsed into a pile of rubble. For days, smoke billowed from burning buildings, and helicopters whirred over the devastation. It was horrendous. I looked on in disbelief, and thought only of escape. Every fibre of my being screamed GET OUT. I couldn't keep my children safe, and without that there was nothing.

The thing was, my husband didn't want to leave. Everyone reacts differently to trauma - they say it's either fight, flight or freeze. I was clearly favouring flight, and he wasn't. There is no one 'right' way to be, but there came to be a sort of heroism attached to those who stayed and stuck it out. The media, in particular, celebrated stories of stoicism. For me, staying meant I wasn't acting on my basic survival instinct - to protect myself and my children - and it was incredibly damaging to my mental health. I felt like I wasn't entitled my feelings, that I didn't have the right to choose, and I didn't trust in my ability to affect change. For four months, after every significant shake, I'd look to my husband and ask 'Was that big enough, did that count, can we go now?' I put my power in someone else's hands and I paid the price.

Physically, I remained in Christchurch, but I left in every other conceivable way. My dependence on alcohol increased. It provided respite at the end of each anxious day and numbed my distress. I was by no means alone in this - word had it the alcohol industry boomed while many businesses fell flat and closed. My food restriction continued - I focused on the minutiae of what I ate, and recorded everything. I locked into a strict exercise routine, and kept note of calories burned. Effectively, I constructed a (very flawed) coping system, which became the framework for my eating disorder today. It channelled my emotion into a form I could deal with, and distracted me from the real problems. Mentally, I felt very unearthed - my grip on reality was slipping. The connection between my physical and mental self fractured.

I managed like this until June 13th when, in the wake of another terrifying earthquake, something changed dramatically in me. The shift hit like a thunder clap - it was sudden and powerful and I said no more. The second the shaking stopped, we jumped in the car and left for good. It may have appeared from the outside as if fear made me leave, but it wasn't. It was courage. I took charge of my body and mind, found the strength to listen to my truth, and act. I did it despite fear, and plunged into the unknown.

Adrenaline kept me going from then on. It powered me through as I set up a new life for me and my children. I worked, mothered, rekindled old friendships, managed the domestics and sorted my way through insurance hell. The change was energising. I was glad to be in a new city, but I was raw and traumatised. The pressure to perform was taking a toll on me, and my marriage was in trouble. For a good, long while, I relied on my trusty 'friend' alcohol to help cope. It lulled the eating  disordered part of my brain into a stupor. But stressful events kept happening, building layer upon layer until there was a stack so tall that I couldn't carry the weight of it anymore, and the eating disorder took over.

Trauma and disordered eating are intrinsically linked for me. How it came to be this way, I'm not sure, but it's clear to see in my reaction to the earthquakes. Today, it shows up in the imagined catastrophes that occupy my mind. I constantly visualise disasters: I see planes crashing into our house, tornadoes bearing down on my children, and lightning strikes that take aim directly at me. In one of my visualisations - an horrific car accident, my youngest son is badly hurt. I cannot think of anything worse than my children being injured or in danger - that's as bad as it gets. But in this imaginary nightmare, as I lie next to my son in hospital, I skip straight to thinking about a banana. I am deciding what to do about the banana... do it eat it, or do I not? Should I eat more? Or maybe just half the banana? It's ludicrous, but it shows how closely connected distress and restrictive eating have become.

The damage caused by the earthquakes runs deep and wide, extending into parts of my life I could never have predicted. The anniversary of the first earthquake was yesterday - it's now been five years, and I'm still reeling from the impact of it.




xx

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