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What does it mean to survive an earthquake?

It has officially been a week and two days since I started my Independent Study Project (ISP). I moved to Matagalpa last Wednesday to escape the inferno that is Managua but found myself heading back down to attend a trauma and sexual abuse talk at the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA). This proved to be wildly unnecessary. Especially because I went back right in time for one of the biggest earthquakes the capital city has seen in a while. I’ve experienced an earthquake before, so that wasn’t new. What was new was experiencing an earthquake with a group of Nicaraguans. For those of you who don’t know, Managua survived a 6.2 earthquake (which is how big the one the other day was) in 1972, but just barely. The city was completely destroyed, something that is still pretty visible to this day. Not only did the ’72 earthquake kill hundreds of thousands of people and level houses, but aid sent into the country was not distributed among the people and was instead reserved for the governing elite.

So to say Nicaraguans are a little paranoid when it comes to earthquakes is completely understandable. There we all were, in an auditorium in the UCA, transitioning between speakers in this talk on trauma when the whole room started shaking. “You’ve gotta be kidding me” was all I could think. “SANTISIMO!” was all I heard before people started screaming and running to the door. I’ve learned that I am quite calm during natural disaster. Maybe because I am in denial at the gravity of the situation. The lights went out and people clamored for the door. I kind of just sauntered over blindly to unlock it.

The rest of the afternoon looked like something out of those apocalyptic movies. Traffic lights were down and drivers were practically anarchic. No rules. No considerations. Everyone was just trying to get home. As I drifted between cars, simultaneously freaked out and intrigued, I thought about an article I read by Martha Cabrera titled “Living and Surviving in A Multiply Wounded Country.” In this article Cabrera talks about the many layers of trauma Nicaragua has endured, from natural disasters to dictatorships and war. Oh, and let’s not forget about colonization! She argues that none of these traumas have been addressed so that the people can move on, leaving them all to pile up and fester. She says:

“When people are hit by a car on the street, they don’t just get up, brush off the gravel, go on to work and forget about it. The very least they will do is tell others about what happened, get it off their chest, tend their wounds. Well, Nicaragua hasn’t just been hit by a car; it has been run over by a long train!”

Why are earthquakes and war relevant? Why do we need to tend to these wounds after they happen? Since this can be kind of complex I made y’all a chart:

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Anytime a traumatic event occurs and is unaddressed the individual is left to self-medicate and heal for him or herself, which is pretty hard if you just watched your whole family get buried under a mudslide. Trauma can also be inter-generational, meaning passed down to your children where it manifests in similar forms and is then passed down to their children. So let’s take a look at this pretty simplified chart of highly multifaceted issues.

During the revolution people either saw or committed atrocities, which could lead to a series of mental disorders including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This is a debilitating condition that can keep people from living a “normal” life. For instance, having a job is pretty normal. But it’s kind of hard to work as a mechanic when loud noises or small spaces scare you, just an example. So without a job you can’t afford your house or necessities. You also may have gone from being a well-respected soldier to being an average citizen forgotten by the government you fought so hard for. What do you do? Start drinking. Your life’s a mess anyway. And it seems to be the only way to get rid of those pesky images of the dead. Because that’s what trauma is, it is reliving the traumatic experience again and again. The experience lives in you and continues to haunt you. So you’re drinking till you get drunk. When you get drunk you cheat on your wife. You rape your daughter. You hit your son. Your children can’t get out of this situation because they don’t have the means, this is all they’ve known. They’re not going to school because you’re not working so they take to the streets to make some money begging. Your daughter becomes a prostitute. Your son, well, he becomes just like you. He drinks to shield the punches you battered him with. And he hits his girlfriend because he saw you hit his mother, so it must be normal, right? They both have kids and the chain goes on and on. And somewhere in the middle of all of this there was a hurricane that washed away your house and swallowed your best friends.

This is just an example and is not representative of every Nicaraguan. But is this far off? This situation can go in many different directions and be taken all over the world. You don’t even need to leave the US to see the manifestations of trauma. What needs to be done? The answer’s pretty simple. Talk about it! However, while the answer may be simple the process is very hard. Getting resources, participants, and with these multiple layers of trauma, having enough time/expertise is challenging! But people at least need to consider the psychological consequences behind major events. Yes, emergency housing is a great way to help people but Nicaraguans have been building their own homes for years. What they haven’t done is talked about what it was like to loose them.

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