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A woman lies on a couch while buildings collapse outside her window. Illustration

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Rebuilding my home—and my life—after an earthquake

I didn’t fix the cracks that cut through my walls, first telling myself that I’d get around to it eventually, and later actively avoiding it

Groggy and disoriented, I walked down the stairs that led to my office building’s parking lot in Mexico City. It was the Tuesday morning of September 19th, 2017, and I had effectively napped through the evacuation drill that every year commemorates the victims of the 1985 earthquake—the deadliest in the city’s history. My coworkers teased me that of course I would be the one to sleep through a natural disaster.

That week had gotten off to a strange start. I’d just broken up with my boyfriend of two years and, though determined to distract myself with my work, I seemed to always feel tired. But soon there would be no time to wallow. As if it were a personal wake-up call, scarcely two hours after the drill, a sudden jolt announced yet another devastating earthquake. Buildings collapsed, entire streets were closed to traffic, and people frantically tried to get a hold of their loved ones through weakened cellphone reception. The final death toll was 361, but during the minute or so that the ground shook, no one had any way of knowing how bad the damage would be.

In a daze, I started walking the six blocks toward my apartment, breaking into a run when I encountered a building’s entire facade littering the street. When I arrived home I found my kitchen floor covered with shards of ceramics; books and framed pictures were scattered throughout the living room; several windows had shattered, providing an escape route for my two frightened cats, whom I fortunately recovered the following morning. About a dozen diagonal fissures cut across the walls, exposing my building’s fragile brick structure. Because my neighborhood, Condesa, was one of the most affected areas, authorities ordered all residents to evacuate immediately. I spent the following weeks living in a friend’s guest room, stupefied, fixing sandwiches for the thousands of volunteers who were helping with the military’s rescue efforts in collapsed buildings.

Eventually my apartment was marked “cracked though safe,” and I returned home. The earthquake had unleashed a wave of solidarity throughout the city, and during the immediate aftermath, everybody seemed to put their lives on hold to help in any way possible. For that time, it was easy to keep my own heartbreak in perspective. But the dust inevitably settled, and anything I was distracting myself from was there to greet me once I returned to my routine.

I spent the first day back in my apartment cleaning, sweeping away the remnants of my tableware, and placing my books back on their shelves. I had the windows repaired, mostly to seal off my cats’ newfound path toward freedom. But I didn’t fix the cracks that cut through my walls, first telling myself that I’d get around to it eventually, and later actively avoiding it.

Despite several awkward attempts at reconciliation, my relationship was undeniably over. Not long later, I was fired from the job I loved, and obsessing over the unexpected loss added another layer of stress to my already less-than-ideal situation. Until then, I had been almost arrogantly satisfied with how ideally everything had fallen into place for me since I’d made the move to Mexico City two years earlier. Then, after years of cultivating the life I had always envisioned for myself, it was all falling apart. I had seen my apartment, a beautiful sunlit two-bedroom in front of my favorite park that I carefully furnished with things I brought back from work trips abroad, as the ultimate symbol of success. Somehow, amid what I now recognize as depression, it struck me as appropriate that my home, too, appeared to be in a state of imminent collapse.

I can’t remember much about the months that followed. The city I once dreamed of living in now felt hollow, so I took the generous severance package from my former workplace and left for New York, initially planning to stay for a month but eventually settling there for three. Depression, however, can only be put off for so long before it becomes unmanageable and all-consuming. The summer and my severance ended simultaneously, and I flew back home, where the cracks in my walls had grown more pronounced. I became inured to them with surprising ease. Every morning, I wiped away the brick dust that had drifted down from them, made coffee, and sat in front of my computer, trying unsuccessfully to piece my life back together.

Eventually, I decided to go to therapy and was prescribed antidepressants. I came to realize just how much my physical surroundings affect my mood and the sense of control I have over my own life. Slowly, I began to let go of everything I was hanging on to: the relationship, the job, the perks that came with both. The general anhedonia I had felt for more than a year began to lift. I embraced freelance work and started enjoying the freedom it gave me to visit a museum or read in the park during the middle of a weekday. I sent the final of many letters to my ex. Finally, I went to Home Depot and bought a bucket of plaster. The men who came over to help cover the cracks on my walls accidentally dropped one of my portraits, shattering its glass. I took it to be repaired the next day.

Ana Karina Zatarain is a writer and editor based in Mexico City.