Please consider donating to Doctors Without Borders here or at the bottom of this post.
This is a story about dissociation, and how nothing one dissociates is ever truly “gone”. I procrastinated starting this post, although it’s nagged at me since the day of the Haiti earthquake. I feared whatever was making me feel afraid. I pushed myself to write because that’s what I do. I write to clarify, to focus, to get crap out of my head, to heal.
I write to explain to myself why I’ve had unusual sleep disturbances, and feelings of dread and anxiety as I watched the calamity unfolding in Haiti. What I understand now is: I was living in Los Angeles during the January 1994 earthquake. And I got into the whole “that was nothing like this one” mind trip. And, really, it wasn’t. But it could have been. Better building codes, better governmental response, better available local resources — it all adds up to save lives. But it wasn’t a small quake.
This is how the U.S. Geological Survey described it:
On January 17, 1994, the costliest earthquake in the history of the United States struck the Los Angeles region, killing 57 people, leaving 20,000 homeless, and causing more than $20 billion in damage to homes, public buildings, freeways, and bridges. This magnitude 6.7 quake occurred 10 miles beneath the town of Northridge on a previously unknown ramp-like (“thrust”) fault not visible at the Earth’s surface.
I lived on the ground floor of a two-story apartment in West Los Angeles in January 1994. Having lived most of my life in L.A. County, I’d experienced many earthquakes, all with a “wow! that was kind of neat” naivete. The 1994 quake was the first time in my life I wondered if I was going to die while it was happening.
I was sitting in a recliner in my living room (late at night with my laptop — some things never change), and was bounced repeatedly straight up off the chair a good six inches in the air, up and down up and down. I tried to stand and kept getting slammed back into the chair. The lights went out immediately and things were flying across the room. The refrigerator door was flung open, food ejected all over the kitchen, I heard glass jars shattering. The building sounded like it was coming apart for what seemed like forever. As the shaking subsided, hundreds of car alarms began blaring.
Incredibly, my building held up fine. But apartment buildings in the blocks surrounding mine were randomly destroyed. I lived six blocks from the collapsed Santa Monica freeway (pictured below). The roof collapsed on the nearby Staples Office store. Fires were breaking out. People were standing around dazed, in their pajamas or whatever they’d thrown on in a panic.
I moved my car out to the street, and sat in it for five hours, feeling the aftershocks, waiting for daylight to find a flashlight to inspect the damage and find my cats. (Both of which refused to come out of hiding, one behind the stove, and one behind the piano, for three long days.) Power and phone were out for several days. I walked to the 7-11 around the corner and bought a gallon of drinking water for $5.00. The guy was later arrested for gouging. The scene everywhere was surreal, especially later seeing the extensive damage in the San Fernando Valley, about 40 miles away.
Air quality in L.A. is always an issue, but for weeks there was a fine residue from literally tons of dust and soil thrown up into the atmosphere. I struggled for six months with increasing asthma leading to increasing inactivity, which landed me in intensive care for ten days in July 1994 due to severe asthma and a pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lung).
I was then recovering and very weak, unemployed, and without medical insurance. A bill collector called four hours after my release from the hospital to say (verbatim) it would have been better for me if I had died, because they were never going to stop hounding me.
During that entire seven months I was without an ongoing therapist. Not by choice; just circumstances. I did speak with him by phone the night before I went to the hospital, because I feared I would not be coming home. I wanted to say goodbye.
I never really talked to anyone about how I was impacted by that period in my life. I just wanted all of 1994 “gone”. I moved on, literally. In December 1994, I left L.A. without ever looking back to start a new life in Boston with my online sweetie, now my husband of 15 years. Out of sight, out of mind, sort of. (We all know how that really works. Till it doesn’t.)
This is why my sleep was horribly disturbed, and why my life felt sooo out of control, even though it isn’t at all, for much of the last ten days. This is how dissociation operates, and how PTSD symptoms are triggered sometimes years later. It is a lesson I keep learning again and again.
If you’ve read this far, I thank you, and ask that you please (continue to) donate to Haiti earthquake relief. I am continually amazed by what Doctors Without Borders is accomplishing there, despite the fact that three of their own clinics were destroyed, and many of their own personnel have yet to be accounted for. You can make a one-time donation at that link.