Since I’ve got to uni I’ve noticed how many people struggle with stress, or anxiety or other mental health issues. Most of the time, my anxiety is a result of my family; my mum isn’t always the nicest. But I’ve been thinking recently about anxiety, and what causes mine; and another cause is what happened when I was nine. I went travelling with my family, and we got caught in the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. We were in Sri Lanka, one of the hardest-hit countries. The waves were reaching about 100ft and we were incredibly lucky to survive it. Sri Lanka was the first place we travelled to- we were there for 2 weeks, decided to upgrade from backpacking for Christmas, found a hotel on the beach, and then the tsunami hit. If anyone does read this, I just want to warn you that it’s about some pretty horrific stuff.
Considering I was 9 at the time I remember quite a bit from travelling- not as much as I’d like, but even now random smells or sights trigger memories I’d forgotten about. However on that particular day I only remember up to a certain point, and then my memory is blank for a long time. I remember chronological events in a detached fashion- the hotel flooding, the way that the whole sea seemed to vanish before the wave hit, the sheer size of the wave itself, and the run inland to the mountains. Our hotel was right on the beach- we’d been having breakfast when the hotel began to flood and at first just assumed it was an unusually high tide. I remember I’d wandered off a little bit from my family and I was looking back at them- it didn’t make sense, all of a sudden there was water everywhere, at knee hight. It seemed to click almost immediately, and the waiters and hotel staff began screaming at everybody to get away. People were running everywhere. My memory of this is slightly chaotic, but I know I was separated from my family and when I did finally find my mum again, my sister had disappeared. Everyone were scrambling around in chaos and Mum grabbed hold of a man as he ran past, asking him to take me upstairs whilst she looked for her. As soon as she left the man vanished, and I was left in the rush of people streaming past. Luckily one woman took hold of me and I went upstairs with her. Panic is weird; we knew now what was coming but I remember glancing down into the lobby and seeing people who instead of getting themselves to safety were wading around in the water (rapidly rising past hip height) trying to find their possessions. I found my mum being bandaged up- furniture was now floating around and she had been knocked over by a table and had then cut her foot open on a bottle. The next event in a series of surreal happenings was looking out of the window to see the sea had vanished. For miles there was nothing but exposed sea bed, it was the weirdest thing; and that was when terror began to set in- it was undeniably evident that all that huge amount of water would return in one. We retreated up the hotel. There was a group of us at the top, someone was handing out Coca-Cola, saying it would help with the shock, and two men were trying to get radio signal to try and get us airlifted out. I was young enough that they were trying to distract me, and knowing I loved reading they shoved a random book at me- I was in shock, so weirdly I could actually focus on it- the only book they’d managed to find was the most horrific account of the holocaust. I dropped it pretty quickly. Next thing I remember was the first real wave. It was a roar louder than you would have thought possible. We were on the top floor and the first wave stopped just short of our window. All you could see was a raging mass of water and debris, and there was a horrible, trapped feeling that this wave might be too big to ever escape. The wave didn’t retreat for a long time, and as it continued to build we began to think it may actually overtop and drown the hotel. We did think we were going to die. What can you do against a 100ft wave? Mum was telling us that if we were picked up and swept away, we had to hang onto her and not get separated. Then, the wave had gone and we were planning to run. The sea had vanished again and you could tell that when it came back it would be bigger. I was only 9; I couldn’t understand how none of the others wanted to run with us; the elderly couple I had been sitting with were staying, along with the men with the radio and several others. To this day I don’t know whether any of them survived. We packed a few things, and left the hotel. The first thing we saw was that the wooden hut we were originally going to stay in had been swept away completely, there was nothing left. The hotel pool was filled with uprooted trees, and even as we sprinted in what we hoped was the right direction, we could see the wreckage- buildings were smashed apart, cars were stuck halfway up trees, fields were flooded, and bodies were strewn along the road. We ran past a small house that had been completely destroyed, and another random thought popped into my head- the woman who lived there had hand-made sarongs for us just days earlier, and she had been ecstatically happy as she had finally saved up enough money to buy a sewing machine and expand her business. The tsunami had destroyed her entire home and livelihood, and there was no sign of her. The run through the streets was a nightmare- we could clearly see the mountains ahead, but trying to wind our way through the labyrinth of alleyways seemed impossible. Cars and motorbikes were streaking past, and we tried asking for help but understandably, no one was stopping. If the wave had come then, we probably wouldn’t have made it. When we finally reached the mountain we joined a group of people at the base who had managed to call in assistance, and there were several false alarms of more waves in the wait for transport. We travelled to a monastery and stayed inland for a long time after that, but before we moved on from Sri Lanka my mother insisted we go back to that same beach. We were living out of backpacks and so hadn’t had much with us in the first place, and since we had decided to run from the hotel in the break between the second and third waves, we hadn’t had much time to pack. Any items we thought might be helpful we donated to the aid workers.
Writing this now, more than 10 years later, is still incredibly hard. I think about the tsunami a lot, but I try to use it as a reminder that, whenever I have problems which seem completely overwhelming, I can always know I’ve dealt with far worse. To make myself braver.
We were on CNN after that; we’d been very lucky, we’d made it to the capital of Columbo, and were staying with the English Ambassador there. I found the transcript of that interview, which I do want to post on here sometime, but right now this has been hard enough- time to go do other less heavy stuff!