Fiona James still shudders when she talks about the time nine years ago that she and her family were in Phuket, Thailand. The teacher from Warwickshire, UK, had booked the holiday of a lifetime for herself and seven members of her family. This was going to be special. Not only would they be celebrating Christmas abroad, something they’d always dreamt of, but it was also going to be her son Edward’s 21st birthday on December 27, and they had saved up for a long time to make this double celebration one to remember.
“We reached Phuket on December 23. The island was breathtaking,” she recalls. “We all had rooms on the third floor with views of the incredible blue ocean and I remember being struck by the serenity of the place.
“Christmas Day was so wonderful. It was a complete contrast to everything we were used to in the UK. For one, it wasn’t white. The weather was cool 20°C and there were celebrations going on everywhere in the tourist-friendly Phuket. I remember my husband Paul, my brother and sister-in-law and I lazed on the beach, while Edward, his girlfriend Jenny, and my daughter, Milly, were enjoying all the wonderful games and activities that were on offer at the hotel. When the sun set that day, I couldn’t remember a time when we’d been happier.”
But for Fiona, what happened the following day, Boxing Day – would leave her devastated for long after. “The day started off just like any other, apart from one unusual thing,’’ she recalls. “At about 7am I remember the room shook slightly. It was unsettling, but we had no idea what an earthquake might feel like so we had no point of reference. The tremors were almost imperceptible and stopped after a few seconds. “I remember asking Paul what it was. But he just shrugged his shoulders. We all forgot about it the next minute and just carried on as normal, heading to the restaurant for breakfast where we were joined by Jenny.’’
The three were relaxing over their morning coffee when Jenny said she was going down to the pool to reserve some sunbeds so that they could carry on topping up their tans. Moments later, chaos erupted. Fiona, 50, and Paul, 54, remember seeing a group of people, all tourists at the hotel, race through the restaurant on their way out. “Their faces were tense with fear and they looked very, very scared. I remember shouting “What’s wrong?” to a woman. “Tidal wave,’’ she screamed and continued running.
“I heard a deep rumbling sound.’’ It was the death knell for hundreds of people in the area. “I remember Paul looking out of the window but we couldn’t quite register what was going on. Then seconds later, we saw it. Through the glass windows of the restaurant that overlooked the sea we caught sight of a huge wall of water heading towards us.”
Fiona does not remember the next few seconds when the wave crashed into the hotel. “I must have blanked out but then I remember Paul and I scrambling on to a high wall as the flood waters began to rise around us,’’ says Fiona. Through the sound of the wave they heard the screams of people who were caught in the swirling waters below. As Fiona and Paul screamed in panic, the chaotic scary moment became etched so deeply in her memory that it was to haunt her for years to come.
“We were struggling to survive, looking out for anything to cling on to. Beneath me in the rapidly rising waters a young woman floated past, carried swiftly by the surging water. For a split second our eyes met and I think we both realised that she was in all likelihood going to die. Her face was filled with pure terror. I stretched out my hand towards her, but it was futile. There was no way I could reach her.
“When you are in such a desperate situation, your survival instinct kicks in and Paul and I were looking for some escape route. Somehow, we managed to get to a door that had been shattered by the blast of water. Luckily, it led back into the hotel and we clambered to relative safety. Of course the natural instinct is to go to a high place where the water might not reach, so we headed for the roof of the hotel.”
It was at that point, surrounded by about 200 other people who had sought out the safety of the roof, that Paul and Fiona realised that their son’s girlfriend Jenny had been down by the pool. “My son and daughter, too, were nowhere to be seen,’’ says Fiona. “I began crying out for them but it was no use because my voice was drowned out by the waves and the screams of hundreds of others.’’
“Don’t move. Stay here,’’ Paul said to Fiona as he headed off to look for them.
“Those were the longest three hours of my life,” she remembers. “I started talking to a man, who had two young children with him. He was a teacher too. He told me he had managed to run with a child under each arm, but his wife had not been able to keep up and he had no idea where she was. I had no words of comfort to give him and we fell silent.
“People kept shouting that another wave was coming and as we looked down we could see the water was still rising. Below it was carnage. The water was filled with bodies, cars and debris. It was beyond the most horrifying thing I could possibly imagine.”
In comparison to so many other families, Fiona and hers were lucky that day. “Paul returned to the roof with my son and daughter, who had been high enough up on the third floor to be safe. Amazingly, Jenny, too, had survived and had managed somehow to make it to the hills behind the hotel with a family who had helped her.’’
Fiona’s brother-in-law and his wife were also found later. They too had survived by racing up the hills. Fiona says, “We went as seven and by some miracle we were still seven. We all had much to be thankful for.”
Profound personality change
After a few days of trying to sort out lost passports, they finally managed to return to the UK. “We should have been ecstatic simply to have survived, but there was a very palpable sense that none of us knew how to deal with the experience and we stopped talking about it. Being dropped straight back into real life was weird. It was like it had never happened and no one else had experienced it so they couldn’t understand. I carried on trying to pretend that I was fine for my family’s sake.’’
But deep inside Fiona was being gnawed by stress and guilt. Images of the horrifying ordeal kept flashing thorough her mind and at night she used to wake up, sweating from nightmares.
Though she didn’t realise it, the trauma she experienced profoundly changed her behaviour and personality. She began to suffer from debilitating panic attacks, became a virtual prisoner in her own home and turned to drink to numb the pain.
“The flashbacks started about a month afterwards and they weren’t how I would have imagined flashbacks to be. It’s hard to describe, but I could see the terrified face of the woman who had floated by me in the water, like she was in my mind’s eye. I was tormented with guilt for not being able to help her and for the fact that I and my family had survived when so many others had not.
“It seems amazing to me now, but for the next eight years I tried to bury these feelings, which affected my behaviour dramatically. I found it increasingly difficult to face going out in public as I had begun to suffer from panic attacks and I only felt safe in my own home.’’ Fiona’s social life suffered because she refused to step out of her house. Although several friends did help by offering consoling words, nothing could get the image of the woman out of her mind.
Finding a solution
“I knew I needed help, but I didn’t know where to turn, until a friend told me she had been treated by a hypnotherapist Russell Hemmings for anxiety issues and felt completely in control of her life again. Though I was sceptical that anyone could help me, I decided in January this year that I was in such a bad way that I had no choice but to try. If I hadn’t met Russell, I wouldn’t know what I know now; that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder,’’ says Fiona.
“Meeting him was a revelation. He literally gave me my life back. Almost as soon as I met him, he put me at ease and I started discussing my drinking and agoraphobia issues. Initially I didn’t mention that I was a tsunami survivor but he recognised that things didn’t add up and there must be a cause for my behaviour.’’
Russell used cognitive behavioural therapy and a specialist hypnotherapy technique know as ‘disassociation’ to unlock the trapped memory and allow Fiona to revisit the trauma from a different perspective and a ‘safe place’. “This type of hypnotherapy works at a deeper level so that the negative thoughts buried deep in the unconscious mind can be brought to the surface and alleviated,’’ says Russell. He explains that he had successfully helped people who had a fear of flying so he was sure he would be able to help Fiona as well.
Fiona is full of praise for Russell. “After just one session, though I was tearful, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief and calm for the first time in years,’’ she says. “He has the ability to draw things out gently and it was when he fully understood what I’d been through that he explained I had what is called a ‘trapped memory’, which is a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.
He used a metaphor that described perfectly how I felt. He said it was an emotional splinter that was buried deep in my mind and that he was going to use hypnotherapy to draw it out. He said it might cause emotional pain at first, – just like a physical splinter does – but that once it was removed healing could take place.
Says Russell, “It was clear that the memory of the traumatic experience was hurting her, but there are ways in hypnotherapy to help her.’’
After a series of four sessions from mid-January to mid-February, Fiona says she now feels like a new person. “The images of death and destruction became more distant and I could finally come to terms with what had happened to me. It was like I had been rebuilt and that I had hope for the future… I am now able to do all that I used to before the horrific incident happened,’’ she says.