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Of PTSD and how my cat changed my life - Part 1: how it all started

Aktualisiert: 15. Okt. 2022

In 2011 a devastatting earthquake struck the city of Christchurch in New Zealand. At the time I had lived and worked there for over six years. New Zealand had become my home.

Christchurch Cathedral, before the quake in 2011

22 February 2011.

It is a surprisingly cool summer morning, a little muggy, with an oppressively low blanket of clouds covering the usually clear sky. A light drizzle gently sprays my face as I head down Gloucester Street on my bicycle. It's the perfect weather for getting cosy inside with a cuppa or enjoying a quiet walk in Hagley Park. The kind of weather I like. And yet, a peculiar drifts through my mind as I am cycling towards my workplace in the city centre.

„Hope we don't get a big quake today.“

Peculiar, indeed, you may think.

Well, considering I live in a city that experienced two major earthquakes and several small aftershocks over the past six months it's not out of the ordinary to think these kind of thoughts.

The thought is peculiar though, as it comes out of nowhere and disappears back into oblivion as soon as I am done thinking. Only to reappear a couple of hours later, at 12.55pm, when a 6.9 earthquake hits and lays waste to the city I live in.

Dust, sirens and people. Lots of people gathering in the open area of the central city square, seeking refuge from collapsing buidlings and falling debris. People with wide eyes and pale faces, trying to understand what is happening. A pregnant woman consoles strangers, so that she does not go into labour. Several men in fine business suits are breaking down, sobbing uncontrollably.

Fear. Confusion. Shock.

The tall spire of the gothic Cathedral lies sprawled out on the ground in front of the proud stone building, the crumpled metal chairs now visibly sticking out of the top of what's still standing of the solid stone tower. „Like paper“, I think. The chairs look just like crumpled paper.

Another jolt in the ground rips a collective scream from the crowd. The small tower on the old Post Office building sways ominously, but it holds up. Some of our staff dash off down Colombo Street towards High Street to get out of the city. I decide to stay and wait.

Something inside me tells me that Colombo and High Street have been hit harder than the Square and I am not brave enough to face what I would find there. Later one of my colleagues tells me that she will never forget the bodies that have been pulled from the rubble, their faces covered with cardigans and other clothing items by the time she walks past. I am grateful I decided to stay in the Square and wait.

Yellow vests appear. Two council workers are guiding the shattered crowd to exit Cathedral Square via the North and East. Down Gloucester Street – the very street I rode in just a few hours ago. I almost do not recognise it now. The street is littered with rubble and big chunks of the building's facades, the sides are lined with squashed cars and more rubble. Nothing looks familiar anymore.


Reads a green message sprayed on crumpled car. Next to it a big „C“ in a circle.


"No dead bodies in here."

All the cars we pass display a „C“.

The council workers have cleared the way for us.

Further down the road, the crowd disperses and we turn down a side road that is flooded with mud and water. Liquefaction. We make it home eventually and a friend collects us a few hours later to get us out of the city. The one hour car ride takes four long hours as we follow the trail of hundreds of cars fleeing the city at a snails pace. With the streets flooded with water and mud, and the occasional sink hole that could swallow your car or damage it beyond repair, the journey is slow. In the growing dark, we try to find a way across the Avon River – as it is the only way out of the city. Every bridge we approach closed or non-existent. Just gone. If we don't make it over the Avon, we'll be trapped in the city … and petrol is running low, too.

After three hours we hit a bridge that's open (the only one as we learn) and ten minutes later, we are on the highway going North. Out of the city.

I return one week later and spent the next few years rebuilding my life, together with the rest of us in Christchurch. I try at least. In the midst of constant aftershocks, eternal dust and construction sites and a work-relationship with a narcissistic boss. My health declines to a point when I finally decide that I have to return to my birth country - Austria.

Fast forward eight years.

I am rudly ripped out of my sleep by a jolt, then a shake. And another jolt. While my mind realises that it's just someone climbing up and down the top bunk of my bed, my body is wide awake immediately. Heart hammering, breathing stopping.


No, somebody just hopped on and off the bed.


The alarm of my nervous system goes off again.

Just someone who climbed up on the top bunk of my bed. My mind tries to rationalise.


My body does not listen.


It just lies there, by now completey frozen in fear.

It is the third time this year, that an insignificant incident like this shifts my body into emergency mode and it takes a great deal of determination to pull myself together and push the anxiety attack aside.

Bad idea by the way. But that's been my coping mechanism for a while. A long while. Basically, my entire life.

A day later, I fly back to Austria, where I live now. The flight back is a tedious red-eye-flight on which I cannot any sleep.

Two days later I still have not found any rest. My limbs feel like lead and every little noise catapults me into a panic attack. I can't fall asleep, I can't really sleep during the day either, and yet, I am overall too exhausted to sleep. Some days I am up for 40 hours or more, because my nervous system simply can't switch back to relaxation mode. Other days I sleep for 12 to 14 hours straight and when I wake up I am still exhausted. Some days I do not eat, because I am too tired to cook or prepare anything. Housework is overwhelming. It's too tiring. Too much. Seeing doctors is exhausting. And they all seem to say the same thing. I am fine. Nothing is wrong with me.

I need help.

I see a psychiatrist and am finally diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder - short PTSD. I get sick leave for a few months and go into therapy, tackling the anxiety and my sleeping disorder first. My healing journey begins in very small steps. Slowly, I get better. My sleep patterns begin to stabilise and I focus on looking after myself, which is difficult enough, since I'd never learnt how to do that. I find it much easier to take care of others.

I feel lonely.

It's not human company I long for, though, because as much as I love my friends, meeting people is exhausting. Socialising is exhausting. After a short conversation I grow so tired I want to go to sleep. So, I keep social contacts to a minimum. It's easier to chat over the phone. And even phone calls can be exhausting.

I do not long for human company. I long for something more simple. I long for someone who I don't need to talk to or answer back to. And who I can take a little care of.

It can't be a dog, because dogs need exercise and I am not ready for that. I am still too weak, too exhausted.

I love cats.

A cat it is.

And they're easy to take care of.

Or so I think.

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