I am a little uncomfortable with calling myself an “earthquake survivor”. When I got back from Haiti, I had my little 15 minutes of fame as all the local news channels clamored to get an interview with the “local Orange County woman who survived the earthquake”. It all seemed very overdramatic to me – but I realize (sadly) that people tend to be more interested in a story about someone they identify with. I did the interviews, most of them on my first full day home, because I wanted to use the attention to talk about humanitarian parole. As I saw the stories later, I chuckled at the little liberties they took to make it sound more dramatic, and I rolled my eyes at the descriptor of “earthquake survivor”. It doesn’t seem a fitting title for someone who doesn’t even live in Haiti, for someone who came out unscathed, from someone who took a plane home to a normal life and an intact home.
At the same time, my feelings about the earthquake have been extremely intense. My first month home, I spent hours glued to the television, watching the footage of the devastation in Haiti. If I wasn’t watching tv, I was reading stories online. I saw statistics that 1 in 13 people in Port-Au-Prince died that day. And the more I saw of the far-reaching effects of this earthquake, the more unglued I became.
I think we have all struggled with the “why” questions of this disaster. Why Haiti? Why so much loss? Why so much sorrow? Why to a people who have already struggled so much?
In my darker moments – and these have been frequent – I have also struggled with the injustices of survival. Why did I survive this earthquake? Why was I in a structurally sound building? Why did I not struggle with finding food or water in the following days? Why did I get to drive to an embassy and be flown away from the rattling aftershocks? Why did I get to arrive home to balloons and family and friends, while others were still missing loved ones and fighting to survive?
It’s not because I am a better person, or have more of God’s favor, or because I was more resourceful or more resilient than anyone else. Not by a longshot. Suggestions that God was protecting me . . . those make my stomach churn. Was he not protecting them? All 230,000 of them?
During the last two months, I have watched the news from Haiti in complete horror. I know that we all have – and I’ve struggled to figure out what a healthy reaction to devastation should be. Is there such a thing? I’m not sure . . . but I know that my thoughts and feelings were frequently not healthy. They have been obsessive and morbid and self-punishing. My fixation was motivated by terror and guilt instead of compassion. I was regularly having panic attacks watching CNN . . . and yet I couldn’t not watch.
And then Kembe came home. This should have been a joyous occasion. In many ways, it was. But there was this gnawing realization that his early homecoming was a result of this awful tragedy. How do I celebrate that? Two weeks prior to his homecoming, I sat in a hotel room in Orlando with other adoptive moms, all of us lamenting and commiserating about the length of our adoption process. Never in our wildest dreams would we imagine that our kids would come home in such a short time, AT THE SAME TIME, on the same plane. If someone told us that then, we would have jumped for joy. Instead, their homecoming was somber and stressful. When people have talked about his early homecoming as an answered prayer, I wince.
Of course I am thrilled he is home, but the circumstances have made for a rocky start. For him, for me, for all of us.
I finally saw my doctor a few weeks ago, to talk about my anxiety since the earthquake. As he questioned me to try to get to the source of my anxiety, he asked about what was going on in my life personally that was so troubling. Some current stressors? Something tangible?
And as I sobbed in his office, all I manage to blurt out was that I couldn’t fathom the amount of dead people lying under concrete. And thrown in mass graves. And so many amputees. And people living in tents. And still feeling aftershocks. And HOW THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO JUST GO ON WITH MY LIFE WHEN THIS IS A REALITY IN OUR WORLD?
And really. How am I? (Apparently with a generous bottle of Ativan).
I went to church last Sunday for the first time since the earthquake. For me, this is often a space where I can finally get in touch with the spiritual issues that I suppress as I try to keep up with my kids. As the worship songs played over me, I was overcome with emotion for the people of Haiti – for their grief, their pain, their unspeakable sorrow.
I am not a survivor, in their sense of the word. But I feel a connection to their grief in a way that is making it difficult for me to experience any joy right now. I am still trying to figure out how to go on with my life here, as they continue to struggle there. It’s a helpless feeling, this survivor guilt.