This is just how it looked in my nightmares-beautiful and terrible beyond words. (Japan 2011)

Tsunami in Hawaii–a constant shadow. Not everyone has grown up in the shadow of these killer waves, but I am one who has.

Last night's warning klaxons, traffic jams, barking dogs, and overall environment of anxiety brought it all back.

I grew up on Kauai, spending the majority of my days spitting distance from the beach, a circumstance which spoiled me for living elsewhere (though God knows I’ve tried.) My parents were hippies beyond when it was fashionable, and working was not high on their priority list. Kauai was never an economic hotbed, and these circumstances combined led to jobs involving buckets, mops, lawnmowers and duct tape as the answer to—well—just about everything.

By age 11 things were beginning to unravel (don’t worry, I’m getting to the tsunami part). My dad’s drinking had moved from sometimes, to often, to constant. I hated school as one of two haoles in my entire class.

A bright spot in my life was my pony, a deceptively cute Palomino Shetland with a wicked set of teeth and a mean bag of tricks. I learned to ride the hard way, namely by hanging on for dear life while he ran at telephone poles and tried to scrape me off (still getting to the tsunami part) We kept him in a pasture occupied by cows and other horses on the large estate where my dad was caretaker. I loved that house, the pasture, the beach literally across the street.

I also developed a tsunami phobia.

I thought about it all the time. I pictured the wall of water passing like a lateral freight train across Hanalei Bay, sucking up me, my pony, my family, my baby sister and throwing us against the far steep walls of the valley. I’d been in the ocean all my life and had several near-misses with drowning, so I knew that death would be far from peaceful.

I packed my “tidal wave escape bag” with a few important things—gold locket from my grandma, a hairbrush, my favorite book The Secret Garden. A toothbrush. A change of clothes. My good Pentel pen set and art tablet. A gallon milk jug of water.

I read the pamphlet from school on Tidal Wave Awareness (because calling it a tsunami is a relatively new thing) tried to get my parents to have a Safety Plan (I dimly remember them indulging me in a rehearsal of our lengthy drive out of the Bay to high ground in our old Rambler American which only started 50% of the time) and I continued to have bad dreams about it, obsess about it, and not want to be away from the house in case it happened and I was separated from my family.

Looking back, as a child therapist now, I believe I was going through separation anxiety because of the alcoholism, and the tidal wave was a metaphor for the disease I feared was swamping my family.

This went on for close to a year until one night I had a different kind of dream. In the dream the ocean receded, and miles of exposed sea floor were too fascinating to resist. My sister and parents went out onto the bare sand and reef, picking up shells and fish.

“We have to run!” I screamed, and it fell on deaf ears.

Then, we saw the wave.

Looking at the footage of Japan reminded me of it. It was enormous, and endless in its scope, and roared down like a giant clear turquoise mountain. Too late to run, my family came together and we all hugged with my baby sister in the middle as the ocean fell on us.

And it was peaceful.

I woke up on a golden beach, knowing I was dead. Knowing I was still in the dream. My rascally pony pranced up to me, nudged me with his nose, and when I got up it was to see everything I knew, only perfect now. The beach, pristine, white foam like whipped cream on yellow sand. The ocean, calm as a lake, back in its bed, jade-green mountains surrounding it. A perfect setting for heavenly Kaua`i.

I climbed onto my pony without saddle or bridle, and he lifted off the ground, magically flying straight up. There was no anxiety about falling off and for once he was sweet and I had a couple of good fistfuls of mane to hang onto as we rose in the air.

We flew straight into the sun, and in that formless golden glow was everyone I ever knew and loved.

I woke up with my phobia “cured.” I just stopped worrying about a tidal wave, though I liked knowing I had my bag packed and an escape plan. I knew I was going to die someday, and I would be in a place with everyone I ever knew and loved. It was that simple.

As to the metaphor I was living out, just like in the dream the wave engulfed us—but I never woke up on a perfect beach.

In the next year my pony died by choking on a piece of coconut. My dad went to rehab and my mom took us to live with my grandmother in California, sleeping with my sister on a couch in the living room and going to a big city junior high where I was as lost as a hippie kid from Kaua`i could possibly be. (I still played with Barbies at age 13, for godsake, and I’d hardly ever watched TV.)

I did, however, have a truly amazing imagination and that’s where all the stories come from. That’s also how I can scare myself (and others) so very well.

So now you know why I’m extra sensitive about tsunamis, horrified and haunted by the ones that hit Indonesia, then Samoa, and Japan. Every time we have one of our little nonevents here in Hawaii, I work through it. I deal with my former phobia by staying away from the news, prayer, helping others, and living 1600 feet up a volcano.

To all who are grumbling about the work of the evacuation: watch the videos from Japan. It only takes one time of getting complacent to have it all go badly, badly wrong.

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