I remember the long-tail boats. Their lean, carved bodies, primitive in build, tapered to a high point at bow and stern. Made of wood and bamboo, their bows adorned with coloured scarves and flowers—decorative garlands, which in Thai culture signify good luck and fortune. Out on the ocean, their regal forms would skim the jade waters, lengths of cloth streaming past, in tribute to the gods, as they ferried tourists between islands and provided a drifting platform for fisherman to launch their traps from.
That day, there was no crystalline water in sight, only a churning inferno of debris. The majestic long-tails had crashed to shore, their beached forms scattered along the roadway, ensnared in the limbs of mangled mangrove trees. Stripped of their former magnificence, they laid shattered—mere debris now. Their coloured scarves ragged and lifeless, no longer signifying luck and prosperity, but telling of a far more harrowing story.
It’s been almost exactly thirteen years since that day in December. I still struggle to remember certain details. A therapist told me years ago that this was a coping mechanism. A mode of “being” I had subconsciously defaulted to; it being safer to hold certain memories at bay—on the edge of acceptance where they remain hazy and ill-defined, in the hopes that they’ll fade into obscurity. Even if the details did come into focus, I wouldn’t have the words sufficient to convey them. In the end, some experiences simply elude being told.
The months afterward took on far more clarity than the defining moment itself—the moment from which this all stemmed. The moment in which the world, as I knew it, was indelibly altered.
In these instances, I often defer to facts. Facts are lucid. They hold steady in the face of subjective experience. Facts anchor me in the throes of memory’s quicksand.
The facts are as follows:
- On the early morning hours of December 26, 2004, the Indian Ocean earthquake occurred off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia with a magnitude of 9.1–9.3
- It is estimated that earthquake generated a level of energy similar to the collective detonation of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs
- The violent movement of tectonic plates triggered deadly tsunamis, generating waves of up to 100 feet high
- These deadly waves struck the coastlines of fourteen different countries bordering the Indian Ocean
- It is estimated that between 230,000 to 280,000 people were killed by the Indian Ocean tsunami
- At the time of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, I was staying in the coastal community of Ao Nang, Krabi on the southwest coast of Thailand
The devastating aftermath received an unprecedented degree of global coverage. An unremitting stream of footage documenting stories of survival and mass devastation dominated the media. It was hard to escape the recurrent reports, the terrifying eyewitness accounts, and the amateur videos that were aired and re-aired in the weeks and months following. Where possible, I avoided television, finding it easier to shut it off than to risk seeing scenes of surging waters and demolished communities.
The notoriety of the event, coupled with my safe return to a small and neighbourly ocean-side community in British Columbia, meant my arrival sparked a notable curiosity among others. I was eighteen and deemed a “survivor” of an unprecedented natural disaster. An incongruous title that I never identified with, and that others, unfamiliar with trauma, had difficulty navigating the parameters of.
Though I never agreed to an interview, the local newspaper took advantage of the opportunity to report on something other than grassroot festivals and community fundraisers. I remember glancing at one of the papers my mother had saved, scanning the first few lines, and honing in on sensationalized phrases recounting how I “outran the killer wave.” I quickly shoved the papers in a bottom drawer. If only memories could be so neatly stowed away. Out of sight, out of mind.
Rather than take refuge by moving to more landlocked quarters, I returned home to Vancouver Island, to a community bordered by the Pacific Ocean. My parent’s house was about a five-minute drive to the nearest beachfront—a feature which at one time was desirable, but in a post-tsunami context, did not bode well for my recovery. Months after returning home, I visited Goose Spit Bay, a sandy shoreline bordered by lengths of greying driftwood that extends into the glacial waters of the Pacific Ocean. It was a place I had visited many times growing up, during school field trips and birthday parties. Within moments of arriving, however, the scenic vista that was once calmingly familiar sent me into a full-blown panic attack. I was left cowering in the sand, staring fixedly at my feet, struggling to breathe beneath the vice-like grip of an inexplicable and acute fear. At the time, I didn’t understand what PTSD was. I didn’t know the distressing ways in which the disorder manifested itself. I didn’t recognize the recurrent panic attacks and nightmares as being symptomatic of a designated psychological condition. I couldn’t identify the triggers, which were vast, unpredictable, and sometimes arbitrary. So much so, that a sound or scent could set off my “fight-or-flight” response with the seamless flick of an internal switch.
My experiences in Thailand would dominate many—if not most—of my conversations in the months following. I was asked probing questions, ones that cut to the root of what ailed me. People hoping for a revealing and engaging retelling were left wanting. My responses were vague, noncommittal, and disconnected. For me, so much of what had happened remained shrouded in ambiguity. The experience was still percolating somewhere between shock and disbelief. What had happened evaded comprehension, and in turn, my ability to effectively cope.
“You were THERE? Did you see it? What did it look like? Did you see any dead bodies?” That last question I really grappled with; often responding with a look of incredulity that silently, but not so subtly, said “Really?” Initially, I struggled with the questions; always unsure whether answering them provided a meaningful narrative, or merely fed into a sordid curiosity that bordered on blatant insensitivity. And so, instead of talking about my experience and subsequent struggles with mental health, I went silent.
In more recent years, the line of questioning has centered around the film The Impossible. Have I seen it? Would I see it? Was the movie true to the actual events? Did I like Naomi Watts as an actress? The only firm replies I can offer are: No, I haven’t seen it, and yes, I am a Naomi Watts fan! The remaining questions are less straightforward. I have seriously considered watching The Impossible. I’ll notice it when sifting through Netflix looking for something to satisfy my indeterminate tastes displayed under the heading “drama.” A category that makes me wonder if a more apt title might be “trauma.” The cover image is of Ewan Macgregor, his brow furrowed with intensity, carrying a small child—presumably to “safety.” The theatricality of it all almost appeals. Almost.
I’m reminded of when I used to ask my dad, a retired social worker who counseled teens with addiction issues, if he had watched any episodes of AMC’s popular series Breaking Bad. He would answer bemusedly, with a tinge of exasperation in his voice, “Jack, I spent twenty years counseling kids with meth addictions. You really think I want to spend my retirement years watching a show about the people who cook it?”
Point sufficiently taken.
I don’t think we can expect others to fully understand that which exists outside the scope of their experience. It’s unrealistic to assume people will know how to respond exactly as we want them to, particularly when it’s in response to something unimaginable. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t making an effort to do so. And it doesn’t mean that I’m sparing myself by defaulting to a cautionary mode when I shut down every conversation about that day. One bad encounter isn’t the sum of all exchanges, and certainly not of the many conversations started by those with a genuine desire to connect.
You can guide a person’s line of questioning. You can inform and correct it (if need be), and set it on a more appropriate course; hopefully, with the intention to educate and foster worthwhile conversation. Over the years, I’ve learned that silence does not legitimize suffering, but rather, enables it. Transparency and openness about these experiences—which we are far too often sheltered and standoffish about—strengthens a collective body of understanding and acceptance, particularly surrounding mental illness. Over the years I’ve found it a far more healing and restorative process to assume people hold good intentions rather than harbor ill will.
In recent years, I’ve taken pains to reign in my judgement. I’ve tempered my impulse to recoil before others could express their sympathy or well-intentioned interest. The truth is, I’m still coming to terms with what happened. I’m still navigating my way along an uncertain, and occasionally challenging, course of healing, while recognizing that a state of permanence in terms of mental health is an unrealistic expectation. Stability is not synonymous with remaining static. Stability is subject to the unpredictable ebb and flow of everyday life, and weathers the elements while staying the course.
I don’t often mention being on the southwest coast of Thailand on December 26, 2004. In the rare instance that I do, or it inadvertently comes up, it’s with far more acceptance than my previous self, with still raw sensibilities, could sufficiently feign. I hold no allusions that the events of that day will be graspable to others. There is no universal language for the individual experience; no way to translate things in a way that encapsulates all the subtle nuances and bold complexities of subjectivity. There are emotions and memories that have burrowed themselves away deep, beyond reach of our impulse to generalize. Yet, I am far more welcoming of people’s efforts to do so. Of their efforts to empathize through the lens of their own experienced sorrows. Of the underlying humanity that motivates their gesture. Of the sincerity and openness that fuels their inherent desire to connect. And of the humbling instances where I am met with mirrored vulnerability.