I easily won that bet. I had made a connection in my brain between sleeping and earthquakes. I refused to shut my eyes and I willed myself to stay awake all night. I did that the next night and the next and the next. I think that lasted several weeks. I got into the pattern of sleeping during the day and staying awake all night.
Eventually, I relaxed enough mentally to try sleeping at night, but only wearing clothes, shoes, having a flashlight next to me , the lights on and the TV on. But my body had become so used to being awake all night it wouldn’t relax enough for me to fall asleep. That’s when I wondered whether I’d ever be “normal” and sleep at night again. My biological clock had completely reversed itself.
During this time there were literally thousands of aftershocks - large and small. Since the initial earthquake was a 6.7 the aftershocks could be in the 4-5 range or the 6 range. A 6.0 aftershock could cause widespread damage and cause buildings to fall. There were thousands of these aftershocks, which made it impossible for me to relax and recover.
In fact, I began to feel unsafe anywhere. Something I had taken for granted my entire life, the earth itself, was no longer trustworthy. It could begin to shake violently at any moment leading to my death. I had never before felt so completely vulnerable. It was as if death could strike at any moment and I had no way to protect myself because I never knew when the next aftershock would hit. Although I felt slightly safer inside, I was terrified of being inside because I worried the house would cave in and I was terrified of being outside as I was anxious about falling debris hitting me anywhere I went.
That’s when it hit me that I was capable of becoming agoraphobic. I could easily see myself remaining inside and never venturing outside again. The scenarios I envisioned were endless; basically, every place I considered going I had to imagine what I would do if a large aftershock hit while I was there, or even on my way there. What if I was stopped at a red light under a freeway overpass? What if the store I wanted to go to had an underground parking structure? What if I was in an elevator? And the list goes on and on...
Once I realized the reality of my situation I was forced to make a decision: become agoraphobic or return to normal life. It didn’t take long to come to an answer; the difficult part was taking the steps to become normal again.
My solution was to take baby steps and to take at least one step a day. I honestly don’t remember the order but I do remember some of those baby steps: driving my car around the block; driving around the small quiet streets of the neighborhood, driving on a major street; driving under a freeway overpass; parking in a parking garage to go to the supermarket; going out to lunch with a friend; going up 1 floor in an elevator, and driving on the freeway.
Each day, as a result of taking these steps I was getting stronger and stronger inside and my anxiety was gradually decreasing as I took more and more control of my life back. I did have some anxious moments as I did encounter a few aftershocks, but luckily none of them were large and I was ok.
Approximately 3 months had passed and it slowly became clear to me that I did not want to live in California. I knew I would always have the fear of another earthquake in the back of my mind and decided I’d be better off somewhere else. It didn’t take long for me to decided that Arizona was the place to go: it was only an hour flight and a 6 hour drive from my family (my parents and 3 siblings still lived there at the time), it was a warm climate (I am very sensitive to cold), and there was much less smog and traffic than L.A.
After a couple of short trips to scout out apartments and jobs, I moved on July 1st, 5 and a half months after the earthquake. That day the high was 110 degrees but, even though it was uncomfortable, I was able to endure it because I was so clear that I’d take heat over earthquakes every time.
Although I did suffer from PTSD (mostly nightmares, flashbacks and being easily startled by sudden loud noises) and a year later began therapy to work on it and heal it, the relief I felt being in a place in which I did not have to worry that at any moment the ground would give way was enormous.
I remember noticing how beautiful the mountains were and the flowers and the blue sky and seeing stars at night - just a sense of the beauty all around me. When monsoon season started a few weeks later I was absolutely mesmerized by the lightning shows and couldn’t wait for the next one (of course, watching them from a safe place inside was required).
As the first anniversary of the earthquake approached I began to feel anxious and depressed. The entire day I was reliving every minute of that terrifying day. I had made no plans and suffered quite a bit.
But, when the second anniversary rolled around I decided to take charge. I didn’t want to be a victim anymore and allow the fear and anxiety to take over once again. So, I made a plan. I decided on three things that represented being in control again: I went up in a hot air balloon (to overcome my fear of flying), I made a donation to the American Red Cross (to help other disaster victims) and I filled my mind with happy memories instead of scary ones.
Over the course of the past 20 years I have come to realize that, although the earthquake was a traumatizing experience, it led to opportunities and growth I never could have experienced any other way;:
- It literally cracked me open and forced me to deal with some early childhood trauma that had been preventing me from living a happy life.
- I became aware that living in fear is not the only choice; living in love is also a choice, and a much better one.
- I learned that I have courage inside me I didn’t know I had. To have survived 11 hours on my own gave me the ability to face other crises down the road: a bout with cancer, witnessing a fatal plane crash, and dealing with the sudden death of my oldest sister in a freak accident.
- I learned that life is precious and can be taken at any moment so it is important to be in the moment and not take anything for granted.
- I learned to appreciate and express gratitude for all that I have.
- I learned that my trauma experience and the lessons I’ve learned from it can be helpful to others.
- I learned that people are more important than things. I lost my home and most of my possessions in the earthquake and realized that people matter a heck of a lot more than things. This has taught me to value material things less and value people and relationships more.
And, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that everything happens for a reason and that every crisis is an opportunity for growth. We all have the choice when a crisis occurs of falling apart or of growing in compassion and wisdom, thereby making our own lives better as well as the lives of others.
My ability to learn these valuable lessons didn't come automatically. I worked very hard for many years with a wonderful therapist who first used EMDR with me, an incredible system to help people overcome trauma, then spent more time working with me on the early trauma I experienced in my childhood that I had not dealt with. Now I believe that the one of the reasons the earthquake happened was to give me the opportunity to look at that early trauma and heal it. If I hadn't done that, I never would have been able to lead a normal life, let alone a happy life. I am grateful to him and all the people who supported me during those difficult years. It was not easy, but it was worth it.