Exhaustion and fear

The stress and lack of sleep is really starting to hit. Yesterday was probably my worst day – we had a couple of really big aftershocks at about midnight which really spooked me, so another night of very little sleep, and despite there being only a handful of aftershocks during the day, I was on edge all day, especially yesterday evening as it started to get dark again. After three days of feeling reasonably blazé about the aftershocks, suddenly my stomach was in a knot and I was jumping at the sound of cars going past. Yet today, despite being woken by one of the biggest aftershocks yet this morning (it was “only” 5.1, but was centred much closer to Christchurch and very shallow, so felt huge) I’m feeling really calm and relaxed again – probably (pause here for another wee aftershock…) because I was only woken a couple of times during the night so I got the closest thing to a proper night’s sleep I’ve had since before the earthquake. H, on the other hand, was fine yesterday but is feeling really anxious this morning.

Fear’s a funny thing. I’ve been terrified of earthquakes since 1991, when I was in Westport for an “earthquake swarm” – three 6.x eathquakes in the space of a week, with aftershocks for months afterwards. Like this one, there was no loss of life, and very few serious injuries, and the damage was much less because it was in a small town with mostly low wooden buildings. It may have just been the timing (I had just moved there a week before to start my first real job after university, so I was already feeling a bit anxious about my plunge into proper adult life), but they left me a nervous wreck, and ever since then the slightest tremor has always set my nerves jangling. Even going into the earthquake simulator at Te Papa, which I knew was completely controlled and safe, left me a bundle of nerves for about an hour afterwards.

Yet the earthquake on Saturday morning, ten times bigger than the Westport ones, while of course being incredibly frightening at the time, seems to have almost cured my fear of earthquakes. It’s like the worst has happened, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, so I can relax now. My first reaction to an aftershock is not panic, but instead veers between curiosity and boredom – “I wonder how big this one will be”; “Oh, that was a different type of shake than the last one, that was interesting”; “bother, not another one, I just sat down”; “I can’t be bothered going to the doorway, I’ll wait and see if it gets bigger first.” Not that they aren’t scary at times (especially the big ones – and some of the aftershocks we’re having are big enough that if they were independent earthquakes rather than aftershocks they’d be news stories in themselves), but it’s a more rational fear, not that total panic I used to have. Even the anxiety I was feeling yesterday was more about tiredness than actual fear.

It makes sense in a weird sort of way. When H was going through therapy for his anxiety disorder, they taught a technique called “task exposure”. The theory is that when you’re afraid of something, a lot of the fear you feel isn’t actually fear of the thing you think you’re frightened of, but of the feelings that fear brings (the old cliche is right: the only thing to fear is fear itself). You think about whatever frightens you, and you anticipate how frightening it will feel to encounter it, so you start feeling even more anxious. But if you actually expose yourself to the thing you fear, you realise that the fear you feel isn’t actually as bad as you’d imagined it would be, so it starts lessening your anxiety. And that’s kind of what’s happened to me. For all these years I’ve been dreading another big earthquake, and imagining how frightening it would be. But now I’ve been through a big one, and it wasn’t really that bad. It was scary, of course, but I survived. So now I don’t have to be frightened about how frightening it would be. Of course, ideally task exposure is supposed to be done in a controlled way, increasing the exposure in small increments, but that’s a bit tricky to achieve with earthquakes 😉

Anyway, life is slowly going back to normal. Or maybe it’s just that the abnormalities are starting to feel normal. Buses are running again (I never thought I’d feel so happy to hear the sound of a bus go past as I did yesterday morning when I heard the first one – it was so reassuring to know that things are starting to get back to normal again), and we had our first mail delivery yesterday. We’re still boiling drinking water, but we’ve got into a good system with that now: we fill the big stock pot with water and boil it for the prescribed 3 minutes, then whenever we want a hot drink we can just bring it to the boil again and ladle water into our mugs. We use the same pot of water to fill the sink to wash dishes, and have filled a bottle from it to keep in the bathroom for brushing our teeth (though I have forgotten a couple of times and used tap water – no sign of gastroenteritis yet though, so I think I got away with it). Although we’ve got running water in our part of town, we’ve been asked to conserve water while they’re restoring the supply to the rest of the city, so we’re not having showers, just washing in the basin (although I did have a quick shower yesterday – I couldn’t cope another day without washing my hair!), and we’re avoiding washing clothes.

We’ve been given a schedule of when staff are going to be allowed back onto campus to start cleaning up. They’re letting us on building by building, and we have to have a safety briefing first. Our building was supposed to be allowed in tomorrow, but they’ve now held us back until Friday because of this morning’s big aftershock, which has meant they have to re-check all the buildings for structural damage again. Participating in the cleanup is voluntary – we’ll be paid whether we go in and help or just stay home – but I think most of us will be wanting to get in and see just how bad the mess is. From the photos they’ve been posting on the university’s website, I’m expecting my office is going to be in complete chaos – I’ve got a lot of free-standing filing cabinets I don’t expect to be standing any more, and I hate to think what’s happened in our resource room with its shelves of books and stationery!

Thanks again everyone for the messages of support – it really helps to know everyone’s thinking of us. I got a lovely phone call from Nephew #1 on Monday night – he said if we were scared by the earthquakes we should go and stay at their house.

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  1. You know on the news you always hear about ‘aftershocks’ and think… ah well, the big one is over so they will be fine. . .


    Too much anxiety can really throw you for a loop in the long run.

    Hang on.

    I hope the earth stops moving soon….

  2. I’m glad things are returning to normal for you, and that the damage wasn’t as bad as it easily could have been with a quake that magnitude. When I heard where the quake was centered, my first thought was how you were faring.

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