tiistai 19. toukokuuta 2015

A change of mind

What I am about to tell you, I do not tell for reasons of asking for sympathy but to share what life in Nepal is at the moment. The behavioral change is most likely not permanent, it takes too much energy in the long term, but it will take a while. I read this article on the Guardian on the mental health disaster that is potentially brewing in Nepal. Having lost their homes, family, income and livelihood, it is no wonder. I will not even try to compare my situation with them. But considering that even those who have suffered little will know what I am about to write about should only show that truly, mental recovery of the quake that shook the earth in April and again in May will take time. For many much, much longer than it will take me.

What has changed then? For instance, I have formed new habits. My habit now is that when I enter a room, I check the walls, the pillars and try to figure out the safest spot in any given space (away from windows, outer walls, heavy objects, next to an interior wall, near a pillar if there is one, preferably under a table etc, door entrances are pretty okay too). I do the same routine outdoors. My eyes keep scanning for open spaces as I walk. Sometimes I will feel a little uneasy when I am on the streets and there does not seem to be a secure place to run into, just in case it does shake again: too many tall buildings, too many trees, too many electric lines.  In busses I relax, they're pretty safe places to be in that situation.

Another example: Yesterday I went to my Nepali class, we sit down with my friend Katja and do a little small talk. I sit down and I knock the top of the table, it's sturdy. Katja shares my exact thoughts and voices them out loud: "This is a good table, in case it starts shaking again, we can crawl underneath it since the door is a little bit too far away, we might not make it outside in time and then it is better to stay put." Before the quake, the sturdiness of the table would not have been a topic. Leaving the cafe, we laugh at the fact that we make a mental note to pay a visit to the bathroom because looking for a toilet after a quake is no fun. Better take it on with an empty bladder.

Aside from constant escape routing, other feelings that have emerged.  I go to dinner with my friend Sally who has decided to go home earlier than planned. We talk about guilt, about feeling guilty of the fact that we have a place to escape to, have a chance of feeling normal, as soon as (hopefully) our feet touch the Nordic ground. Earthquakes will not be an issue for us, possibly never again. This is not the situation for those who stay behind. This kind of security is a luxury and what a luxury it is!

Guilt comes in other forms as well. I give you an example. People have started to greet me on the streets. I am used to little kids shrieking out Hellooo! when I pass them by, but now it's grown-ups too. A middle aged woman joins here hands in a Namaste when I pass her by in the street and young men shout out hellos and thankyous on the street. Random people come up to you to talk and ask what you are doing in Nepal. I tell my story and at the end of the conversation, they thank you for your kindness and volunteering efforts. I don't feel like I deserve it: I am a mere NGO volunteer, just as shaken as they are, just as paralyzed.

I did have nightmares in the beginning, but they stopped rather fast which is nice. I sleep my nights mostly without waking up, but I am very tired. It is normal, I am told, even if it lasts for more than a month. The constant small tremors serve as a reminder and make moving on somewhat slower.

It is very hard to do anything sensible. I am very happy that when I go back, I only have a couple of days at work and then I leave for holidays. I definitely need that time to settle in. And, I will go see a psychologist, just in case, to make sure that I am on the right track to recovery.

At the office, we "work". After the initial burst of energy, everyone working on adrenalin, I think we are now tired. We are the office, sit at the computer but I doubt we get half of what we'd get done on a normal day. I know I don't for sure. People are falling asleep in front of their laptops. To be fair, no one should expect much at this point. The state of the building adds to the abnormal mood: the cracks in the toilet of the office look pretty scary, they go around the whole room; I am banned from upstairs and my colleague from his room. Most of my colleagues are, if not sleeping outside, then at least removed from their respective homes. Recovery takes time, like it or not.

Many of my migrant friends living in Nepal have left, albeit many of them temporarily. They have gone home to calm the nerves of their families, and to some extent, I guess, recover. In a way, I do want to leave early. I talked with my sister on chat a few days ago and she will drive all the way from Turku to Helsinki to come and pick me up from the airport with my 1,5-year-old nieces (twins) that I miss horribly. The idea of the three of them at the airport waiting to pick me up, seeing my family and friends, and spending time with them does make me want to go pack my bags immediately at times. But I won't do that unless I really do not feel like I can stay. I have five weeks left. I have people I care for here and about whom I would worry about if I left now. I want to see them get back to normal as much as I can before waving goodbye and heading for the airport, not knowing if or when I will return.

I do have another, selfish reason for staying. It will be hard to explain how I feel or felt or will feel to a person who has not gone through the same. How do you explain the feeling of something you take granted, like having a ground that does not betray you under you feet be taken away? How can you explain the intense tiredness that is the result of being on your toes for three weeks? For the time being, my best therapy has been here, taking it through with those who do understand and know what it's like. That we never leave the house with a full bladder, that we appreciate the meaning of sturdy tables in a restaurant, it needs no explanation. We understand spaghetti legs. (A week after the earthquake I just felt that my legs cannot hold me up anymore, I could not stand fo the entire night, we call them spaghetti legs.) We understand the faint nausea that is caused by the constant tremors and aftershocks, now up to 240-ish since the first one shook us on April 25. And we know the feeling of guilt that will come when our flight home takes off. And the guilt of survival, of little suffering. Of feeling absolutely helpless and useless in the relief and reconstruction of this country. And those are the reasons for me still staying here. Despite the fact that I know returning would give a peace of mind to my family and friends.

But little by little we move forward. And loved ones, friends, colleagues, when we do see you back home, please be patient with us. Disaster mode is, I presume, not a switch you can just turn off and on. And while here, understand that my messages to you will be short and I may not answer immediately. It does not mean that your well-wishing is not appreciated, it is just a mixture of being very tired, having too many messages to write and not knowing what to say. But know that I am, by and large, fine. Bit by bit, life will go on and get back to normal. I will make stupid jokes, lose things that shouldn't be lost, forget to call you back and be impossibly late everywhere, all the time. I will, probably, be a little bit of a different person though, it has been a humbling experience.  But I think it will be for the better.

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