I opted out of the big earthquake feed but could not escape its vicarious trauma.
The babysitter called in sick. I will have to skip work, take the kids to the park, and find backup for the rest of the week. Plus a doctor’s appointment, the gas bill, and a mountain of laundry occupy my mind when a message from Aleya buzzes:
“Just hearing news about earthquake… hope your family is ok.”
Friends check in when something big happens at home, in Türkiye. Riots, coup, wildfires… With an unknowable force Earthquake! lands on top of a messy mental pile at home, in L.A. Will it tip the whole thing over? Alper and I exchange unsettled glances. It’s far inland from our family. Bad news travels fast. Everyone we know is probably fine. I reply: “My family is safe. Kind of you to check in. 🙏” Off to work and back to toddler hour.
But messages keep rolling in. Caroline pings soon after: “None of the buildings were ready for it. And 4AM worst time. It’s so sad, so many people. So many kids.”
Damn. 4AM... My body remembers what it feels like to be woken up by a powerful earthquake. Zero part of me forgets the collective trauma of my generation. We were supposed to learn from it 24 years ago. If this is bad, it’s on all of us. I feel fury beginning to boil. It wants feeding.
I pick up the screen. 7.8 + 7.5. Double major earthquake. Over 10 cities affected. Plus snow storms in the region. Roads blocked. Aid halted. Enough seen. Without knowing the toll, I expect it. News broadcasts will hook audiences for days with miracle rescue cliffhangers. As for social media, it will be an inferno, live. Is there any point for me to get sucked into this? I check my capacity. Already strained from floods in California. I know the earthquake will catch up with me and how it will affect me. There’s no need to see the footage to imagine the suffering. So I make a point to be present with my kids, and avoid scrolling.
On the 2nd day Alper comes home. Shaken. He scrolled through the whole inferno. Shame. Guilt. Rage. And everything in between. “Why them? How come not us?” He tells me one story about a mother and her baby which goes straight into my heart like a long needle. I press my palms into my eyes as if it would help me unthink it. He says he’s sorry to pull me into it. I say I’m sorry he has been carrying it all alone.
“Hundreds of kids, babies are coming out of the rubble. They’re small and intuitively go into the fetal position, so they’re more likely to survive,” Aslıhan tells me. Orphans. What will happen to these kids? Panic. I must do something. I jump, pulling my mom group in with me. Like ants in the rain, a busy, clumsy traffic begins on WhatsApp. Turkish moms juggle our first-world problems, try to figure out the best way to help from our diaspora, and feel inadequate at not knowing what’s best at the same time. It all comes down to money. But of course there is the desire to help in some tangible way. Packing a like-new cardigan feels physical, perhaps closer to pulling a living body out of the rubble. I click checkout on a bulk order of handwarmers attaching a personal note to it. Unsure if they will ever warm up cold hands and question their carbon footprint. But I ship them anyway. I sleep, having clocked in. Anaesthetised by action. Guilty of not being able to do more. Thinking of thousands of bodies in the freezing cold. Ashamed at the warmth of my bed. Just fine.
Day 4. Group texts go quiet. I can sense a first wave of burnout. Then: “We are going to buy a thermal camera which helps locate survivors.” Could it possibly make it there in time? I chip in anyway. Alper and I watch our kids at the playground, starry-eyed.
Miracle at the 132th hour!
Trauma-informed mental health professionals create safe spaces for children in the region. Online, they educate the public about how to volunteer without burning out, how to talk to kids. I am impressed with the Turkish psychology community rising to the moment, so well-prepared.
What’s for me to do? I tell Gizem how I feel utterly useless. “I think that’s how everyone feels,” she writes. “I have a friend who went to Hatay for a week for search and rescue and she felt her efforts were fruitless. No matter what, those of us that survived will feel this guilt.” My therapist says, guilt is usually something that is imposed on us by someone else. Who is imposing the guilt I’m feeling right now? The dead or the living?
Men in orange suits, dogs, and diggers standing atop pancaked cement. They hush the crowds into a high-voltage silence, pending for a living sound beneath their feet. The visual is so senseless… no, worse, so familiar I want to spit at it.
198th hour! The news hands out every rescue story like cotton candy and we eat it up, pink and sticky. For every miracle there are thousands that weren’t. 45,968 confirmed in Türkiye and 7,259 in Syria.
Red balloons placed on rubble to honour child victims. Image credit - BBC News
It’s dark. Even the most carefree people I know seem dark right now. “My wife’s an iron woman. I’ve never seen her cry in 15 years,” Orkun writes. “She breaks into tears constantly.” I assure him that crying is a healthy thing to do at a time like this. Fully feel this pain, so we can do better tomorrow. This grief is what I expect the world to show about climate change. I realize I haven’t shed a tear so far. But I appreciate that people have, and that they tell me they have. It makes me feel useful.
“Creates a sheltered spot, a room in the room, to play or just cuddle up in.” As advertised, I fold and fit my adult body parts into the IKEA pop-up tent with my two kids. The play turns into kicking and screaming pretty quickly. When I fail to calm it down into fun and joy, in a claustrophobic flash, the reality of the mother enters mine. “My baby stopped crying.” She tells the rescuers. “Let me go and help others.” The needle in the heart. A single story evokes everything that the body knows about this world. “How will I protect you?” I mutter. Without a single worry they crawl out the tunnel. I weep in the room within the room.
278th hour! Maybe the thermal camera made it.
Day 20. An atmospheric river returns to California. A eucalyptus falls on power lines. Lights are out for 3 nights. Temperature falls to 40F at our house. We’re fine, I say. This is totally fine. In comparison… We tuck ourselves in bed; a man, a woman, two babies, and a dog. Plus those hand warmers. Safe. Fine.
If you would like to show support for the orphans who were affected by the earthquake, I trust this well-rooted organization. Here’s a donation link: https://www.darussafaka.org/en/donation/earthquake-support-campaign
Aslı Sonceley is a Turkish/American artist raised in Istanbul, based in Los Angeles. Over the past 10 years, she has worked on numerous Greenpeace campaigns, communicating the root causes and impact of climate change. She has been vocal about her activist burnout and how she turned to art as therapy. She recently completed a Climate Psychology Certificate Program at California Institute of Integral Studies. Asli Sonceley is active in CPA BIPOC and Expressive Arts communities. www.aslisonceley.com
Lead Image by Asli Sonceley