On December 26, 2004, my husband, my 8 and 11-year old children and I were on the beach in Patong when the massive tsunami hit the coast of Thailand. We were incredibly lucky. Although we were caught by the waves as we were running off the beach, we were carried across the road into an empty lot. We survived. More than 230,000 people did not. This traumatic event shaped the rest of my life in many ways. This blog is about how the trauma directly impacted me and what I did to deal with it.
Shock and basic care
The first few days after the tsunami, we were all in shock. I remember staring at the ceiling in our hotel, only blocks away from the beach but untouched by the tsunami because it was slightly uphill. I listened to the A/C, my body and mind tensed and waiting for the next destructive wave that would thankfully, not come again.
Directly after a violent event, everything slows down to a crawl. You are completely in the moment and there is nothing but this. At this stage, we were just focused on surviving. Getting wounds attended to, finding a place to sleep, figuring out how to ultimately get home. We were lucky to have many people who participated in taking care of us and helping us to do just those things.
Family and social network
For the four of us, it was complicated when we got home. All of us were dealing with the trauma in different ways. Sometimes it was hard to be patient, attentive, supportive to other’s needs. Our nerves were raw, so there was a lot of snapping at each other. But we had been through it all together. It created an additional bond. It’s not one we ever talk about but it’s there. And we did manage to help one another despite our own pain and suffering, just by being physically present, together.
Our friends and family played an important role, rallying around us. We had a strong support system and that was a critical part of healing. Sharing the story again and again with people who care was part of processing and getting one step closer to our “normal” selves.
Giving myself time
I took a month off and it was like the blink of an eye. I was a long way from completely processing what happened and the implications, but life rolls on. Even after the initial shock wore off, for me there was a period of numbness. I had difficulty actualizing the real world going on around me. Even back in my home, everything just seemed unreal. Had I participated in this life before? Was I really going to be able to again? I was a spectator, watching. I didn’t feel like I was a part of it. Now, that’s part of post-trauma, but it’s also a sensation that is linked with acute depression. Besides everything else, I recognized that I needed medical help to get through the aftermath.
For a while, I couldn’t stop seeing danger and threat all around me. I was hyper sensitive to potentially threatening scenarios. A truck passing in oncoming traffic could swerve and smash into me. (That one still comes up today sometimes.) A gorgeous, and very heavy, chandelier above my head could fall and crush me. These are spontaneous thoughts that just pop into your head. And you’ve got to deal with them.
I was able to get past the initial period of constant involuntary reminders about danger by accepting that, yes, danger is everywhere. We live with it as a matter of course. In some ways, it’s important to be tuned in to potential danger. But being tuned in and being obsessed with (impossible) safety in all situations is a very different thing. It’s easy to become frightened of everything and I did not want to live my life that way. Even today, I am hyper-sensitive as a passenger in the car, but I don’t dwell on it and I don’t avoid cars as a result, so I’ll call that a victory.
Letting go of being in control
I think the potential danger out there is especially problematic for people who are control freaks. And that was me. I have battled a need for control my whole life. After the tsunami, I saw the useless nature of the beast. I was able to accept that what comes next is unknowable. More importantly, I learned to let go of it by simply reminding myself that I would be able to handle it, whatever IT is.
At the end of the day, I am still highly practical. I can, and do, plan and organize. But I know now that outcomes are never a given. No matter how genius the plan is, we need to plan, adapt, plan, adapt, plan, adapt ….. ad nauseum! So how has that changed me? I focus on what I can do. And I let go of expectations to a large extent. Especially expectations from my loved ones. I try to let people live their lives, make their own decisions. I’m always ready to give perspective and advice. But I strive NOT to tell them who they should be or how they should do things. I try very hard not to judge, even if it’s still something I battle with on occasion.
After something like this, you wonder why. It’s a question we can’t help but ask. Why am I still here? Finding meaning is, I think, the most positive way to deal with the aftermath of trauma. Not meaning in the event. Meaning in my life in general. What did I have to hold on to? What really mattered to me in life and gave me meaning and purpose? I found solace, meaning, in many different ways.
I read books from the Dalai Lama, Tony Robinson and other inspiring people. I became determined to live with compassion. I decided that even if my job wasn’t about helping people, I could make a difference in people’s lives one at a time through caring and compassion.
I discovered the power of defining my life priorities. I defined my life priorities and started making decisions and prioritizing based on where I wanted to get to. I didn’t want to be wasting time – the urgency of living a full life in every moment of every day becomes apparent when you’ve seen how quickly, and without notice, it can all be snatched away.
It changed everything for me. One of the biggest things it changed was the tension I had before between time spent with my family, my job, and for me. I was always hustling to try to create time for ME, and I often resented time spent doing mundane things because I wanted to be doing something else. Suddenly I realized that my family and the time I spent with them, and even my career, was actually FOR me, not just me living for others. Many things that seemed like an irritating duty to just get done and over with became very different when I realized they were not just “duties” but opportunities. So, not only was I doing more things that corresponded to my values, but I was enjoying the things I was already doing more than I had before.
Both my husband and I needed to do something. The kindness with which we were treated by the Thai people touched us very deeply. The destruction was so devasting and yet, we strangers were precious to them. A deep lesson in humility and love. So we looked for and found a very personal way to help. It gave us something concrete to do, to fight survivor’s guilt, and to give meaning to today, right now.
We found a refugee village of nomad fishermen, and their families, who had been displaced and lost everything. We raised money to help. First to send the children to school (in Thailand, parents must pay for uniforms, school materials and books). Then to provide some nets and fishing materials so the nomad fishermen could get back to earning a living. We did that for a year – raising money at local events and with our extended network.
We went back. That still seems a little like a dream, but we did. We visited the village. We travelled up the coast months after the tsunami and saw the wreckage everywhere. We put faces to our small contribution. It wasn’t exactly closure. But it was a step amongst many in the journey to recovery.
None of the things that I did were enough to ward off the episode of acute depression I had as the one-year anniversary of the tsunami approached. The emotional journey, the realizations, the life filled with meaning don’t happen in a day, a week, a year. They happened for me over several years. And I would say I am still learning and processing even today, 14 years later.
But I am thankful. Thankful that I did not live my life stuck in a grouchy pattern of self-martyrization as a responsible mother and worker. Thankful that I was able to examine my life and find meaning. If you’ve been struck by trauma, look deep within, you can find meaning too. If you want to find out more about the stress management techniques I learned, check out my blog and website.