The Christchurch earthquakes were an earth shattering event in more ways than one. They started a chain of events for the people of Christchurch and indeed the rest of the country; indeed they turned out to be life changing for me. The end of my old life and the beginning of a journey to start a new one. The country as a whole has had to look closely at their buildings, most towns and cities have had some buildings closed as a result. For me the effects of these quakes have been far reaching in fact. The following is a chronology of those effects. I have chosen to write this piece for several reasons. It is a way to get it out of my head; also a way to show others that there is a way through. Christchurch was a stunning place to live, from the iconic Cathedral in the square to the large open space that is Hagley Park. The Avon River meandering its way through the center of town providing a peaceful place for residents and tourists alike to relax and enjoy a more leisurely pace. Its journey ends near New Brighten Beach, which in the summer becomes the people’s playground, the long pier used for fishing and the stretch of unbroken sand beckons to one and all.
4.30 am on the 4th of September 2010 saw this changed forever; the city and its sleeping residents were awoken from their slumber by one of the most frightening events you can comprehend. Imagine waking up in the dark with all of your senses being bombarded, lots of noise, crashes, bangs and shattering glass, dust in your eyes and mouth. You are being tossed like a salad, up, down and sideways. My first memory of that morning was trying to get out of bed. Every time I rolled over towards my side of the bed I was thrown back into the middle. Finally after what seemed like an eternity, but in reality was only a minute or two, the shaking and the noise stopped. The silence which followed seemed deafening, I lay still, too scared to move in case it started again and yet knowing that I needed to get out of bed to safety. The following is a poem I wrote some six months later as a way to try and get some of the feelings of that day out of my head and on paper. It was written one week prior to the quake which struck on the 22nd of February 2011.
Four thirty five
I hear a roar, my eyes are open
I see nothing, it’s still dark
The bed is bucking like a bull
Where is the floor, I want it to stop
All around I hear bangs and crashes
I hope the ceiling stays put, don’t land on me
It stops, just the sound of my pounding heart
I find the floor, what am I standing on
Where’s my phone, I need light
No power, just an eerie silence
Waiting for daylight to arrive
Another strong shake, my heart is racing
We huddle in the lounge as the day lightens
What a mess we can see
Glasses, plates, food, pictures, furniture
Some upended, most just dumped
Lots broken, some spilled
No rhyme or reason to the destruction
We sit and we wait
Where is the cat, is she all right
What are we going to do now?
Wait for my heart to slow down
My head to clear, it’s all right my dear
I am here to protect you, hold me
There was a real sense of fear and foreboding that morning as the sun came up, no power or phone just silence and the occasional sound of a car going by or the voices of neighbors trying to sort out what was what. We had enough food for a few days; we had a portable gas cooker so that was a start. Around 9am we ventured out to the local shops; mostly to see what was what in our neighborhood. A five minute walk and it was so weird; no damage at all in our neighborhood which was good, the people we met were in various states of shock, as were we. No one seemed to have suffered too badly at all, tales of the odd broken glass or picture was about the worst of it. The local supermarket was a total shambles inside; they had the door open and were selling bread, milk and batteries, cash only and no change. We met a couple who needed some infant formula and had no cash, the EFTPOS system was down so we bought it for them.
This was a sobering moment for me, our technology had failed us! I realized that we took so much for granted in our daily lives, how were we going to survive? The next few days were a blur; most of the time we didn’t know which way was up. Conflicting news items and information didn’t help. However the biggest problem was just working out the necessities of daily life, how do you boil enough water to drink; what do you do about the food in the fridge and freezer without any power. How do you wash and probably the most annoying of all, how and where do you go to the toilet. To most of us the inconvenience of having to boil water and having no toilet or power would be bad enough. For a short time it might even be fun to some extent having to get back to basics. If only that was the case for those of us living through this series of events. We had hourly aftershocks to live through and some of those were pretty big ones too. The thing with aftershocks is that you never when the next one will happen, how long it will last or how big it will be. The strain on the nerves just builds and builds to a point where, in my case at least I just wanted the world to stop and let me off. I’d had enough. I was working as a truck driver at the time, long days and hard work; it is real hard to concentrate on that sort of job when half your brain has shut down.
By the time of the February 2011 Quake I was pretty much running on auto pilot, I would go to work in the mornings, somehow, muddle thru the day till knock off time and then just die when I got home. My life was just an ever narrowing cycle of days and routines. Work was the only thing that got me out of bed in the mornings but it was getting harder and harder. February came with the promise of something nice and normal in my life, we traveled to Kapiti for my son’s wedding, the 14th of February was the date, it was a fantastic day, and the beginning of better times ahead I told myself. Life was due to turn around, the worst was over, things were picking up at work, and we had water to drink and could use our toilets again. Yes life was looking up all right.
We arrived home on the 21st of February, one more free day till I had to go back to work, it rained the morning of the 22nd, by mid morning the day was looking brighter. I was out on the other side of town when the quake hit at 12.51pm that day, a rumble like a truck going by to start with and then all hell broke loose. Standing in the car park of the Shirley Saint Albans club I felt the ground start to move, this was different, this was way worse than any so far. The quake was so severe that I ended up being thrown to the ground, laying there watching the lamp posts bend like grass in the wind, what was coming next. At one point I remember looking towards my car, it was bouncing and jumping so much that I could see daylight under all four wheels. There aren’t words to describe the sight; unless you were there then it’s just too big to put into words. Pure terror comes close though. Having made sure that we were all OK and having checked on the staff in the club, thank god no-one was hurt, if only that had been the case all over town. We all headed home to check on family and friends, no cell phones so it was the best way. The drive across town was quicker than I would have expected, mind you I think that everyone on the roads was trying to do the same thing, no horns or stress, just get home, get safe, find out what mess awaited us. Man what a sight it was, our house and most of our street was untouched, I remember thinking to myself ‘what earthquake’.
It was so surreal, quiet and peaceful, no dogs barking just really quiet. Eerie. We opened the front door and oh my god, what a mess, the floor was covered with pictures and books and anything that wasn’t nailed to the walls. The kitchen cupboards were all either empty or totally tossed around, the kitchen floor looked as though there had been a drunken brawl, food, broken plates, jars and glasses everywhere. Where the hell do you start with a mess like that? We didn’t, we cleared a space in the lounge, made a coffee, somehow the TV had survived so we sat and watched the coverage of the quake live as it came in. This was the weirdest time for me, here I was sitting in my lounge, coffee in hand and watching dirty and bloodied people walking the streets, rescuers’ trying to get people out of the broken and twisted remains of buildings. Sirens, cries for help and the almost calm voice of the reporters telling us what was going on. The coverage was that of any natural disaster anywhere in the world and yet it was my city, the streets I drove every day, the buildings I saw all the time, it was only 10 kilometers from my house yet it could have been on the other side of the world. This was the moment when my mind finally shut down and shut off trying to shut out the noise. The sight of broken and battered buildings and people, the screams and cries was all just too much for me.
The next clear memory I had was Thursday afternoon, my partner had made an appointment for me at the doctors and I was given some anti depressants and some sleeping pills as well as something to calm me down. Monday morning there was a meeting at my work for all staff, the company I worked for were totally fantastic. We were all going to be paid, we all would have jobs and those of us that needed help just had to ask. There was a Councillor there and I spent some time with her that day and almost daily from then till we left Christchurch. She was good; we talked about lots of things to do with me and what had happened, also how it was affecting my partner. In the end the decision was made that the best thing for us and me in particular was to get away, find somewhere where the ground was more stable and there were people around to support us. We chose Levin, my partner and I had been thinking that a move to the north island would be in our future sometime, however sooner was going to be better than later.
The days blurred into weeks, lots of things to do, more support from work, help from the bank too and a lucky break with a truck rental company and all of a sudden the day arrived. The truck was loaded, our lives were packed and all the planning was finished. Thursday the 3rd of March, I made my last trip out to the gate with the rubbish bins, just an ordinary day by the looks of things. The sun was just going down, nice warm breeze and no sign of the strife that had befallen this lovely city. For a brief moment I thought that just maybe this was the wrong thing to do, will I live to regret leaving, who knows. One of my neighbors also was putting her bin out and we exchanged a few words, she was staying, but she understood why we were leaving. It turned out that she was one of the lucky ones, in here words ‘Christchurch rocks my world’. This made me laugh at the irony of the situation; the very thing that was driving me away was making her resolve to stay even stronger. Good. Christchurch needs people to stay and repair and rebuild and carry on, part of me was very happy to know that the city would survive, it will be reborn and rebuilt. Who knows, one day I may go back, even if only for a visit; right now though my focus was on getting back to normal, whatever that is.
Friday morning and the trip to the North Island begins, I can remember most of it, well as far as getting to Picton at least; from then on it’s pretty foggy as to what happened, I suppose I was running on adrenalin and will power. Auto pilot would be an accurate description. We spent our first night in the north island at my son’s place in Kapiti, not a lot of sleep that night, trouble with the cat and I was over tired to the max. Sunday we all headed to Levin to unload the truck and put our stuff into storage, what a mission that was. The truck was empty by 3pm and I was absolutely exhausted, I was cold and hot and sweaty, my whole body was shaking and I still had to drive to Palmerston North to drop off the truck. Leaving Levin I had no idea if I would even make it, my cell phone was on the seat beside me, just in case. They say it takes forty minutes to get to Palmy from Levin by truck, it seemed to take me forever…............ My next conscious memory was waking up Monday night, I had slept for 24 hours straight and I still felt totally shattered, at least the ground didn’t shake so that was a good thing. We were at a friend’s house in Palmy, all our stuff in storage and our cat in a cattery down the road.
This is what it’s like to be a refugee, it sucks big time. Nothing to call your own, no freedom and nothing to do with your time except wait. Tuesday we went to Levin to the WINZ office to sort out our future, sounds easy when you put it like that. It was anything but easy. We had bills to pay, a credit card we couldn’t afford, car payments to make and we still had to find a place to live. Where do you start when you have your whole life to sort out? WINZ were amazing; I don’t care what anyone says about them, I wouldn’t be here now if they hadn’t been as helpful as they were. We arranged a benefit, got the car payments sorted out and started to look for a place to live. Money was the biggest problem in all this, how to afford all the trips to look for a place, how to pay to rent one when we did and then the cost of moving in. None of these things are too hard to do if you are in full control of all your faculties, sadly though I wasn’t. Finally we were in a place, three bedrooms, log fire and garage, our stuff was out of storage and the cat was home with us. If only that was all that was needed; now it was time to try and sort out my head.
Trips to the doctor were almost weekly in the beginning, trying to get my meds right. Authors note, I’m still trying to sort them. My counseling sessions were weekly and life slowly started to turn round for the better. It is funny that; sitting here now writing this; it seems as though someone else lived through all of these events. Well you might think that all my problems were behind me and to be honest that’s sort of what I thought too. Boy was I ever wrong. Debts and more debts. Prior to the September earthquake my partner and I had been on a good income, over one thousand dollars a week combined. Now we found ourselves having to live on just over four hundred a week, the car payments and the credit card were killing us so we started looking for help. First point of contact was to ring around the organizations that were working to help the people of Christchurch; I won’t name names but as I might have guessed all their efforts were focused on Christchurch itself and those that were in the greatest need. This annoyed me at the time; however looking back on it now I can see why and its OK, that’s how it should have been. Next we tried all the usual options, banks and finance companies for debt consolidation but with little or no joy. One afternoon at the Levin Budget office our adviser suggested we file for an NAP (No Asset Procedure). This is one step bellow bankruptcy and it was to be the only way to get ourselves out of the hole we were in. As you might imagine though it was just another thing to stress me and I lost track of the sleepless nights trying to decide whether to or not.
Anyone reading this that is in any sort of financial trouble; I urge you to stick up your hand and ask for advice, it was the best thing I ever did. The first six months in Levin were pretty rough, lack of money, lack of sleep, winter weather all combined to add to my depression. I wasn’t in a happy place at all. The warmer weather around October saw us moving into a smaller and cheaper place, this solved all but the last of the money problems. The new house and the improving weather saw me getting a new lease on life, in conjunction with my doctor and my Councillor I decided to try and change my future. Rather than just get better and get back to work as a truck driver I figured that it was time to use my mind for a change, this piece is a step in that direction too, as I have always wanted to be a writer I decided to enroll at Massey as an extramural student and study for a BA. A big ask I hear you say and you would be right, it hasn’t been easy so far and I know it will only get harder, however I am sure that it will be worth it in the end. I have a good brain; I just never used it before. OK so I’m off and running towards a better future, I hope. Life doesn’t really seem to like me though because for some reason it just keeps putting obstacles in my way. They don’t come much bigger than the end of a relationship, nine and a half years, all done and over with. I guess you could say that we simply grew to want different things; we are all growing and changing all the time so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise when it happens. Back to the drawing board, study went through a bit of a rough patch, for a while I had no net access and fell behind, then I moved a couple of times, finally ending up in Marton in November 2012.
Will I ever settle? Who knows, anyway here I am now, I’m in a new relationship, engaged to a wonderful woman, she is my friend as well as my soul mate. We have both had similar experiences with regards to the Christchurch earthquakes and are both on long term medication. My study is back on track and in the coming few years I plan to finish my degree and then look at getting into a social work or counseling role, to pay forward some of the help I have received over the last few years. From September 2010 till now I have been through an amazing journey, a scary journey and at times all I have wanted to do is just go to sleep and never wake up, I did consider taking my own life a few times on the way, never for more than a few minutes at a time, I was lucky to have people around me who cared for and supported me. I won’t name them here, they know who they are and to them I say thank you from the bottom of my heart.