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Neuropsychology And Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder After the Earthquake

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For ethical principles this article is inspired and fictionalized from scientific datasets and real cases. There is a girl named Funda. And Funda had experienced something so bad, may be the worst experience one could live throughout her life. A major earthquake turned not only the buildings but also the life of Funda into a wreck, like others that experienced it. Please note that “Funda” is a feminine Turkish given name meaning heather. Let’s see what she says.

“Actually that day was a very beautiful day for our family. I mean, if we hadn’t experienced such a bad event, it might have been a day we would remember as a great day. Because that day was my brother’s birthday. He was turning 8. My mom had made a cake for him. We had cut the cake and celebrated his birthday. I mean, as a family we could have remembered that day as a great day.”

After a night spent so happily, all of them returned to their rooms, without knowing the things that would happen a few hours later.

“I turned off the light and went to bed. The door opened. My brother was standing at the door sill. He said he wanted to sleep with me. He had his teddy bear in his hand. I was a little sick. I was afraid that he might catch the flu. So I didn’t let him sleep with me. If I hadn’t sent him to his room, he would have slept with me. Actually, he could have been alive today. I mean, my biggest regret is this. If I hadn’t sent him, may be, he would have been still with me.”

That night, Funda woke up from her deep sleep into a big nightmare.

“I remember that there was a severe humming. When I opened my eyes, pieces of concrete were falling down on me. Then, all of a sudden, I jumped out of bed. I called out to my mom, dad and brother. But nobody answered. When that voice stopped, I was trapped in a small, totally dark space. There were only pieces of concrete around me. Our house had collapsed.”

Funda spent 70 hours under that wreck.

“I waited desperately for some time. After that I tried to find a way out.”

After being trapped for 70 hours in the middle of that darkness, a hand reached out for her. That hand took her back to the life she had given up all hope.

“I stayed in a narrow and dark place for 70 hours without food and water. There were pieces of concrete around me. I tried to push them but I couldn’t move them even an inch. Then I started to hear voices coming from far. I understand that they were the rescue teams. I called out to them a lot but of course, they didn’t hear my voice. Then I passed out. The voices started to come from a close place. I knew that they were coming to save me. Then, all of a sudden, I saw the light. Fresh air struck my face. A hand, reached out for me. I thought that this was the end of the nightmare. But actually, the real nightmare, had just started.”

A member of Team DEMP (Disaster and Emergency Management) says:
“It was a huge earthquake and everywhere was just a wreck. We had a very limited time for our rescue operation. It was almost 3 days after the earthquake and there was still hope for the ones under the wreck. While working in that building, suddenly we heard a noise. It was a faint cry coming from deep under. Then, we started to work on that special area.

Stress after the earthquake
Disaster and Emergency Management while helping people.

Our work is a great burden in emotional sense. We have a huge responsibility on our shoulders. Because there’s someone alive under that wreck. And you have to take her/him out safe and sound. We went in through the canal we opened, and we reached the person under the wreck. She was a young girl. We held her from her arms and took her out. When we took her out she looked around bewilderedly. She cried out for her family and threw herself to the ground. We thought she needed help and sent her to a hospital.”

In a sense, Funda was reborn. So after this return, could everything go on as it was?

“After I went out I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was like a nightmare. I mean, every place, everything was destroyed. Paramedic team tried to take me away from there. But my only thought was my family. I only wanted to wait there. I didn’t let them take me away and I started to wait for my family.”

Everybody hoped that this wait would have a happy end. But unfortunately, in disasters as huge as this, your wishes don’t always come true.

“Actually, I don’t want to talk about the rest of the story. It’s hard for me to talk about that. First they took out my mother, then my father and my brother. I thought that I had committed a sin. I mean, I thought I was safe because I was punished in this way. My life had ended there.”

Funda had lost all her family in this horrible disaster. How would Funda go on leaving in this ruined city all alone?

“I came to Izmir (historically known as Smyrna) with my uncle and his family. I was feeling so alone. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. During those days they helped me a lot. They supported me so much. But that support meant nothing for me, it didn’t help me at all. Because life wasn’t going on for me.”

Her uncle says:
“Even we were in great pain. I had lost my brother, my brother’s wife and my nephew. It was a great tragedy and pain. And this little girl had lost her mother, father and her only brother. We tried to talk with her a few times but she refused definitely. She didn’t listen. I offered her a psychologist. But she refused that as well.”

And Funda:
“After I started to live with my uncle and his family, I learned that I had passed the University Entrance Exam. Faculty of Law was my first choice, my biggest dream. I was accepted for the program but I couldn’t even feel joyful about it. During those days, I had different thoughts about going to a psychologist. I thought as if I was betraying my mom’s, dad’s and brother’s death. After all, I was feeling responsible of my brother’s death.

I was thinking that I was the one who killed him. And I was nearly going crazy for that. I started university with a heavy heart. Everybody thought that this would be good for me. But I was so unwilling to go on. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I didn’t want to go to school. It was as if the life had stopped for me at the night of the earthquake. Whenever I had nothing to do, I remembered a scene from that night. Me sending my brother to his room, my family passing in front of my eyes, the hours that I spent in an airless, dark place. I couldn’t breath. I was all sweaty.”

Her uncle says:
“She started to go to school but this didn’t change anything for Funda. She was going recklessly. She didn’t have a social life like the other youngsters. She hardly went anywhere except school. We wanted to help but she refused. We watched her suffering, desperately.”

Funda:
“I had managed to survive in one of the biggest disasters of the country. Because of that for others, my rescue was like a miracle. Everybody wanted to ask something about the earthquake. Then one day, people started to talk about it in class. Suddenly, I started to sweat. My heart was beating fast. I couldn’t breath. I quickly went out to the corridor and fainted there. My friends and my teacher took me to the hospital.”

Even though a lot of time passed by, the burden of the experience was getting heavier for Funda. Time, couldn’t heal Funda’s wounds. It deepened them more.

Her friend says:
“I am Funda’s friend from University. From time to time she experiences little traumas because of that earthquake. There is something that I can never forget. Once we were sitting in a cafe and an earthquake of a small scale started. We didn’t even feel it. Suddenly Funda threw herself under the table and started screaming, “Help me! Help me!” she cried. We hardly pulled her out and hardly calmed her. She went crazy, it was like she lost it totally.”

Funda:
“My fears didn’t get any better until I finished school. I had graduated. I was going to have job interviews. I went for an interview. I entered a room. I mean, it was dark of course. There was a block out, everywhere was pitch-black. The voices coming from outside started to echo. Then I remembered the moment of the earthquake and I started to scream, “Let me out of here!”.

Her husband says:
“We met at the university. After graduation we decided to get married. I explained this situation to my family. In order to meet her, my mother invited Funda for breakfast. Everything was great when she came. We were really having fun. Then my mom hit the table a little. At that moment Funda stood up with the fear of an earthquake. She went to the corner of the room. We tried to calm Funda but it was quite hard for her to calm down.”

The fear that captured Funda’s life was dragging on. In every darkness, in every jiggle, she was thinking that she would live that horrible night again. And she couldn’t help doing the same things. Instinctively, she was only going to a corner, hiding and trying to protect herself. The results of this huge trauma were not only affecting Funda’s life. They were unavoidably affecting the ones that enter her life as well. Finally Funda, decided to free herself from this enslavement and take the control of her life in her own hands again.

A clinical psychologist says:
“While living our daily routine and planning our future, we don’t assume we would experience something bad. We think that our life will go on as always. We rather like to think this way. Nobody says “I will have a car accident today”, “I will be sick”, “I will or a someone close to me will have a bad sickness”, “There will be an earthquake today and my whole life will change”, “I better prepare myself for that”. Nobody says that and they can’t say.

Traumatic events are violent events that destroy the bridges we built between our present and future all of a sudden. Funda came to us approximately 4 years after that tragic event. Yet the effects of the trauma she experienced after the earthquake were still clear. It was clear that she was experiencing something we call “post-traumatic stress disorder”. It’s very common to show some responses after traumatic events. As a matter of fact, these responses are normal.

Because the situation itself is not normal. We can call these responses as acute stress responses. These healthy responses become a disorder if after a long period of time, the individual still can’t go on living if s/he continues to show stress responses as if s/he is still experiencing the same event again. In the post-trauma period, we see that 3 emotions are experienced intensely. First one is anger, second one is the sorrow you feel for your lost ones and finally, the great fear you feel about the repetition of that traumatic event.

In post-traumatic stress disorder, recreation of those specific memories in mind frequently, anxiousness, sleep disorders, perspiration, tachycardia and guilt feelings related to that event are commonly seen.”

Funda:
“During these 10 years, my memories stayed as they are. The things I saw in the wreck, the loss of my family, the death of my brother. My biggest regret was about my brother. I didn’t let him sleep with me that night. If he had slept beside me, he would have been with me now.”

Clinical psychologist:
“During our sessions, we realized that the most disturbing memory for Funda is the dialogue between she and her brother. Funda was feeling responsible for her brother’s death and this situation, almost made it impossible for her to go on with her life.”

Funda:
“For such a long time I didn’t want to get help from an expert. I guess the main reason was that I just wanted to punish myself. If I continued to live as before, I thought it would be unfair to my mother, father and mostly to my brother. I guess, to be rescued from that wreck was my real disaster.”

Clinical psychologist:
“One of the most efficient psychotherapy methods used in post-traumatic stress disorder treatment is EMDR therapy. By this method, the individual realizes his/her memories, emotions, physical responses and thoughts related to that traumatic event. And this method provides the reprocessing of all. The aim here is to determine the wrong labels and twisted thoughts related to that traumatic event and reconstructing these memories in a more healthier way. We started working with her about the moment of earthquake and especially the moment she shared with her brother.”

Funda:
“For a very long time, I felt like I was the killer of my brother. I mean, if I weren’t so selfish that night, if I had let him to stay with me, may be he would be alive now. But during the therapies, I learned something. Even if I had let him stay, may be he wouldn’t be as strong as me. All in all, I was saved from that wreck too. I was trapped for 70 hours in a tiny, dark space without any food and water. I mean, I wasn’t advantageous or something. I was just a little bit luckier. That is why I had survived.”

Clinical psychologist:
After working on her trauma about her brother, we started to progress quicker with Miss Funda. In our sessions, we worked especially on stimuli like shake, ground noise, and darkness which reminded her the moment of earthquake and the time after. We showed her how to cope with them. Our studies on relaxation techniques helped her a lot as well.”

And now Funda:
“During the last four years, I was like a prisoner of that 70 hours I had spent. I couldn’t stand the slightest shaking or darkness. This situation made my life so hard. I thought I should get some support. Actually my biggest saver was this. I learned how to relax under such circumstances. For instance, when my mother in law hit the table, I had lost my control. But now, I can even handle bigger shakes than that and I can still keep calm. I am so happy that I could get over it.”

Her husband:
“As we were dating I was close to Funda more than anybody else. I know her so well. When we were together, each and every moment I was trying not to remind her anything about her past. But now, Funda is able to cope with these emotions. Our marriage is going well and we are really happy. She managed to be a more social, more active person. She managed to be close to people. At home, we no longer try to avoid things that make her remember the past. At nights, she’s no longer screaming and waking up from her sleep. She’s sleeping in peace beside me.”

Finally, her uncle:
“I am so happy that Funda could overcome that horrible experience. Poor girl, she suffered for so many years. It’s really hard to cope with something like that. Even we could hardly get over that trauma. Now we see her laughing, talking, walking around. And this makes us really happy.”

After years of suffering and nightmares, Funda managed to find a way to go on. Experts say that post-traumatic stress disorders that emerge after traumatic events are like chimney cleaning. Every event has nature of its own and even though the progress of the symptoms may differ, they all have a common point. It’s very hard to live that traumatic event and cope with it.

Nobody knows this better than the person who experiences it. Hope you can leave all your psychological captivities behind. We wish you happy days that you will live with joy of life. Join us next time on Neuropsychology.

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