The faultline in my life

How I coped with the aftermath of the aftershocks of the 2015 earthquake

On the morning of 25 April 2015, my father was out running some errands, my mother was watching tv and I was trying to sleep off a headache. It is easy to remember the details of some days more than others.

I started to feel a little dizzy, and I thought my headache was getting worse. I was shaking. “Wow, I have never had a headache so bad that everything around me feels like it's trembling,” I thought.

Then, my bookshelf fell on top of my bed and I knew it was more than just a headache.

At that moment, I remembered everything I was taught in school about what to do if an  earthquake struck. I knew I was supposed to duck under a desk or stand in the doorway, but I did neither of those things.

I ran downstairs and saw my mother sitting calmly in her chair. But before we could run outside I had to go find our dog Bubbles who was hiding under the bed in the guest room.

The shaking stopped when the three of us made it to the garden.

Those 55 seconds felt like forever. People were shouting and crying, the phone kept ringing, and my dad called and told us he was on his way home.

In the aftermath, as we kept experiencing aftershocks for days, we spent a lot of time in the garden as a family more than we had ever before.

Soon, people started marking themselves ‘safe’ on Facebook and I often wondered what happened to those who did not. Everyone was talking about the earthquake, and would continue to do so for weeks and months following that fateful day.

Thousands of private and public buildings including historic monuments and temples were destroyed, killing nearly 9,000 people and injuring close to 22,000.

It was too early to start addressing the mental cost of the earthquake as people were just trying to cope with physical injuries and the financial burden wrought by the disaster.

But I started working as a trauma counsellor at a hospital in Kathmandu, and twice a week I would meet survivors. I would listen to their stories and help guide them deal with their emotions.

During one such session, I met an eight-month pregnant woman. Her husband had taken her mother and her sister, who were visiting her in Kathmandu, to Dharara because they had always wanted to climb the tower. She did not go because she was heavily pregnant.

When the tower collapsed, her husband only broke his leg, but her mother and sister did not survive the fall. She never cried, but would often say, "I wish they had not been able to make it to Dharara like all the previous times they came to visit me. If they had, they would still be alive."

They say as a mental health professional, you should never let patients influence your feelings and I think that is why I decided not to work as a therapist, everyone’s story affected me personally.

Recently, I realised that I had not watched any of the footage from the 7.8M earthquake in Nepal. I had experienced it myself, and I did not feel the need to re-live that moment.

The other day, a friend asked me if I had any Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) myself from the disaster, and I was quite offended.

He told me I tended to zone out anytime someone talked about the earthquake. When someone does ask me about it, I share the facts but try not to indulge in the conversation.

To this day, I feel the smallest of vibrations, like when a truck drives past and the ground shakes a little. I do not feel comfortable climbing to the top of buildings and looking down, it makes me slightly nauseous even now.

When I think about the earthquake, it is always a combination of fear, shock, anger, relief, sadness and stress, and they all blend into each other.

Yesterday, while preparing to write this piece, I watched some videos of the earthquake for the first time, and it was difficult. I felt deep sadness watching the moment that changed so many lives and the course of how Nepalis would cope and continue living their lives. I realised I still remember every detail of those 50 something seconds.

All of us have our own methods of dealing with life’s stressors, some ignore them while others chose to address them. No one can be forced to move on because everyone’s reaction to trauma is uniquely different.

You have to do what works for you. Some may benefit from seeking professional help. Immersing themselves in work or a hobby might be the key for others. And then there are those who talk it out with friends and families.

After surviving a traumatic event like an earthquake, it can be hard to stop thinking about it, but it gets easier with time. Similarly, everyone reacts differently and they find their ways to learn to move on. Some have more difficulty than others.

If you find yourself abusing drugs or alcohol to cope, it is a sign that you should seek help because the issue may be deeper than you let on. Pay attention to your loved ones and see how they are doing.

Six years after the earthquake, Nepal is still recovering. And as we continue to build the city and the country, many people are also rebuilding themselves.

Anjana Rajbhandary


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