Do we really recover after disaster?

Image depicts an olive green paper leaf with the following handwritten text: After the fires we put out our epicormic growth, captured the light, and grew. Some of us were seeds, blown on those stormforce winds. We grew in new places. Thank you for remembering. Kim
My leaf for the tree of remembrance at the Museums Victoria ‘From the Heart’ exhibition.

recovery (n):

  1. A return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.
  2. The action or process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost.

(Oxford English Dictionary)

I’ve been pondering recovery, 10 years after the 2009 Victorian Bushfires (often referred to as Black Saturday) razed my home and community, changing my life forever. Contained within that opening statement is the obvious problem with using the term ‘recovery’ to describe the process that occurs following significant trauma. My life has been forever altered.

Recovery supposedly entails regaining possession or control of something lost, but it’s clear that I will never regain possession of Mum’s pearl necklace. My home will never be rebuilt. The car was long ago mined for usable scrap metal. The rhododendrons will never again herald the arrival of spring on the mountain. What little remains of the garden has been under someone else’s stewardship for several years now. Instead, I have a necklace crafted from the nuggets found in the bottom of my charred jewellery box and a blue car to replace the green. My new home, 10km from the CBD, is approaching 100 years old and on some days the garden could feed our suburb. The miraculous rhubarb I transplanted from the mountain is especially tasty.

And our understanding of recovery also implies that we eventually return to a “usual” state of being, a pre-disaster state that was supposedly the pinnacle from which we fell. So, what to make of the fact that my health now is probably a shade better than it was in February 2009? Over the past 10 years there have been times when I was gravely ill and others when I was the fittest I have ever been. When the wind and heat flare I am anxious, unsettled and prone to tears. This is not very different to when I lived on the mountain, only now I fear for the lives of others, rather than my own. I feel safer in the suburbs. I cry more often. We don’t go on holidays in the summer. My children grow into thoughtful, caring souls. I have a broad, rich new community of friends. I make jam for the school fête. My work is fulfilling. I write and perform poetry, a surprise development. There’s a new relationship, more than six years old now, which brings healing and laughter. My life bears little resemblance to what it was on the morning of February 7th 2009. I still prepare for disaster, since disaster seems inevitable, but I’m convinced that I will cope when it comes. I am the happiest I have ever been. I am the product of what is described as post-traumatic growth. Many would say that I have ‘recovered’.

But I don’t think recovery is the correct term. It can create impossible expectations of return to pre-disaster life and implies a tangible endpoint for a process that will be lifelong. Those who experience trauma are indelibly altered by it, for better or for worse, but mostly both. Perhaps a better term would be ‘evolution’. Or perhaps we could think of ourselves in the same way as the landscape, which has undergone ‘regeneration’.

The ‘From the Heart’ exhibition, which commemorates the February 2009 fires is free for those affected by the 2009 fires. The exhibits focus on regeneration and progress since the fires and would be suitable for most children.

https://museumsvictoria.com.au/melbournemuseum/whats-on/from-the-heart/

My thanks to Dr Alexis Harley for her editorial assistance with this piece of writing.

red shift

Today is proving more difficult than I had anticipated. Now that the fog and cloud have lifted we are left with the smoke haze, which renders the light orange. The same light I remember from the 7th February 2009. Although it distresses me, I find I cannot look away from its strange glow. It has been haunting me all summer, so why should today be any different?

red shift

red-shifted light
reaching us from distant stars
is evidence
of an expanding universe

today our home star’s light
is once again auburn
waves reflected by
airborne remnants of the land

aerosolised forest, homes
the smoke holds even the lungs
of creatures, who once
breathed clean air

a summer of warnings
Instagrammable sunsets
P2 masks, closed windows
and contracted lives

Thoughts on helping

Lakes Entrance, where I holidayed in 2018

Black Summer bushfires 2019-2020, from the perspective of a Black Saturday survivor

In the face of this monumental disaster, most of us want to help in some way. Some will fight fires, some will volunteer their time at relief centres, some will care for injured wildlife and many will donate to bushfire appeals.

Given the scale of the emergency, many people will know someone directly affected by the fires: first responders, evacuees, those who endure weeks of uncertainty about their homes, those who lose their car, their business, or their home and, most tragically, the bereaved.

I have been thinking about the things that helped me after my home was destroyed and the father of my children was injured on Feb 7th 2009. I have decided to share these thoughts as they may help others identify ways to help those affected by the current fires. Obviously, I am speaking from an individual perspective and what helped (or didn’t help) me might not hold true for the person you are aiming to help, so check in with them, or someone who knows them well to find out what is really needed. I have divided the thoughts into three vague chronological sections to help order my thoughts. They assume the person has lost their home.

The list of ways to help is long. I don’t anticipate or intend that any one person perform all these tasks. Share the jobs, make a roster. Play to your strengths – if you are a good listener then spend time listening. If you are a whizz in the kitchen, cook up some food. If you love real estate, help find a place to rent. If you love animals, take the dog for a walk.

Please don’t take lots of pre-loved stuff to relief centres. The experience after Black Saturday was that there was so much stuff that massive warehouses were needed to store it. Some of the goods were great, but other stuff was really only suitable for the bin. A great deal of time and effort was used up in sorting what would be useful from what needed to go to the tip. Many of the best items were snaffled early, by people who had place to store things and folks who had lost everything missed out.

Give cash, especially in the immediate phase. I cannot stress this enough. Give cash if you can. (Or put money into the person’s account).

Image shows burnt home in ruins with burnt forest behind.
The remnants of my home in Kinglake West, 2009

Immediate phase: shock and basic necessities

The person you are helping has a brain flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. They are likely to be hypervigilant, anxious, easily startled, not sleeping, picking at food or eating compulsively. They may have one clear fixed drive to do something (and that something may seem unwise). They will have difficulty concentrating and have poor memory as a result. They may find making decisions extremely difficult.

You can help by:

  • finding them a place to stay – offer a room, fund a motel and book the room, find a relief centre or other accommodation
  • giving them plenty to drink, trying to avoid too much caffeine and alcohol
  • providing food – light snacky things may be better than full on meals, things with decent nutrition, make sure they are foods the person is familiar with and likes
  • making sure they have somewhere to wash themselves and their clothes
  • ensuring they have a working phone with charger and credit
  • giving them toiletries (but check that they haven’t already been given 20 tubes of toothpaste)
  • taking them to the doctor or chemist to get any medications or dressings they may need, consider some eye drops for smoke-affected eyes
  • giving them some clothes, preferably new or near new – take them to a shop if they are up to it or ask them what they would like. Don’t throw out the clothes they are wearing – these may be the only things the person owns. Ask before you wash those clothes – bag them until you know it’s okay to do so, the clothes will likely reek of smoke.
  • minding children so that adults can have conversations
  • finding somewhere for any pets, and buy any necessities for the pets
  • making a roster/duty list with friends to provide support, without doubling up
  • letting the person’s employer know what is happening, only with the consent of the person
  • offering to be a central contact point for friends of the person who want information – again, with consent. The barrage of messages and phone calls can be overwhelming. 
  • avoiding giving them too much stuff – they have nowhere to put it

Most of all you can help by listening – to silence, to their story repeated many times, to anxieties about their community, to fears, to the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘I should haves’. You may need to spend hours listening and just holding space. You don’t need to find answers to the ‘what ifs’ and ‘I should haves’, you just need to listen – without judgement. If you can find specific information about the person’s community, do so. Divvy up the tasks of listening and information gathering so that there is one person available to listen and provide company. You might need to find a counsellor or take them to a doctor. (The VicEmergency site has some basic information with links: https://www.emergency.vic.gov.au/relief/#personal_well_being) You might need to debrief after all the listening, ripple out to someone less affected – don’t rely on the person you are helping to debrief your own trauma.

The kitchen that was

Next phase: dealing with insurers, finding a temporary home

Having a place to be private and to feel settled can be really important. Some people may prefer to stay with family and friends but this may only be a short term option. Having somewhere to feel safe and secure is important. There may be limited options near to where the person you are helping lived. They may wish to be far away from the smoke and the burnt landscape. They may want to be a close as possible to remain connected to their community.

  • Help the person make any insurance claims. Write down a list of the things that have been lost. You may have photos to assist. Some insurers want very detailed lists.
  • Help the person identify any payments or grants they might be entitled to
  • Help the person replace any lost documents, bank/credit cards etc.
  • Support the person you are helping to identify their needs and their priorities in finding a new place to live. Do they have insurance that covers rent for a year?
  • Make a list of all the suitable rental properties in the area they have specified and arrange a timetable to view the properties. Drive them to the appointments if necessary. Advocate with real estate agents. Be there as a second pair of ears. Offer to read over contracts with them.
  • Make a list of the items the person needs to start a new home. You could start with the bare bones – fridges, tables, beds etc are pretty universal, but ask about specifications.
  • Help the person go shopping and tick off the items on the list as they are bought. This is also the time when donations of good quality secondhand items can be really helpful – match them to the person’s requirements and try to keep them in line with the person’s sense of style if possible. Consider buying brands of small appliances the person is familiar with – it’s hard work trying to learn the way new TVs, microwaves etc work when they all have to be done at once with a traumatised brain.
  • Clean the rental place before they move in, if needs be
  • Help them move stuff into the new house, unpack it and remove the packaging for them
  • Mind children during the moving in
  • Do a big grocery shop (or coordinate among friends) to buy all the non-perishable pantry staples like salt, pepper, cooking oil, pasta, rice plus cleaning products, cloths etc
  • Make some meals for the freezer
  • Have a look in your odds and sods drawer and think about the things that people might suddenly need but that you mightn’t think to buy – scissors, bandaids, candles, matches, torches, batteries

Keep listening. Listen about the fatigue, the ongoing sleep disturbance, the anger, the recriminations, the survivor guilt, the displacement and the difficulty making decisions. Keep listening and find help if needed.

Image shows a suburban backyard with shed, metal slide and a neatly mown lawn.
New beginnings, a blank slate to make ours

Longer term: finding or rebuilding a permanent home, identity

How this plays out will unfold over time and involve more listening. There’s no correct way to re-establish your life after trauma. One factor associated with the best chance of recovery is to have rich social connections, so you can help by facilitating a person to be gently accepted into a new community and assist with them maintaining links to the place they have left.

In the longer term you can help the person navigate the rebuilding process, if that is what they choose to do. If they are relocating and wish to buy a home you could help them do some reconnaissance, come along to lend support at an auction or during the sales process. It may take years for the person to make a final decision, or they may change course. Support them and listen.

Losing everything you own can strip you of a sense of identity. That’s why in the early phases it’s important to give the person you are helping as much agency as they can take on when replacing lost items. A wardrobe of clothes and house of stuff that doesn’t feel like ‘you’ serves only to underline the loss. Some of the brightest moments in my recover have been the items returned or given to me that link me to the past: the book I’d lent a friend, the egg beater and Christmas ornament that were my grandmother’s, a book with an inscription in my mother’s handwriting. So if you have any items that the person had lent to you, return them. Find photos and give them on a USB or share via the cloud. Find some memorabilia. Don’t assume the person wants everything to be the same as before the fire. New editions of previously loved books might not be what the person wants. Perhaps they need some LPs or CDs? Perhaps a playlist of songs curated from a happy time? Perhaps a cookbook of family recipes? Perhaps some cuttings from your garden?

This is a long list and will not have covered all the ways to help. My advice may not be right for the person you are trying to help – always ask them or someone who knows them really well. Most of all, keep listening.

With support, the person you are helping will not only survive this disaster, but likely grow and thrive over the many years that recovery takes.

My love to you all. x

image shows sandy pathway through a tunnel of tea-trees.
Shelter the person as they travel their path

A poem for 10 years

“Are you saying the fires were a good thing in your life?”

Yesterday I spoke on Jon Faine’s special broadcast to mark the 10th anniversary of the February 2009 fires. 173 people lost their lives during or immediately after the fires and an equally sad too many thereafter. Thousands of homes, businesses and community facilities were destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest and farming land were razed. Communities were shaken to their core.

Image contains: burned ruins of a home, some exterior mudbrick walls are still standing, there is twisted metal and a melted bath. Behind the home are many burnt trees in a forest.
What remained of my home, and the forest behind.

What followed was a truly remarkable response from all levels of government, charitable organisations and, most importantly, thousands of ‘ordinary’ people who helped in countless ways: donations of money, provision of shelter to people and animals, goods, labour and services, listening patiently, fostering creativity and advocacy. The relief effort is ongoing.

On the program I discussed the experiences of the displaced, especially those who didn’t return to live in the fire-affected areas. Not everyone rebuilt their homes. I mentioned the difficulties experienced by people like me, which were different from those who remained in place. I was accompanied by Professor Lisa Gibbs, from the University of Melbourne, who has lead an extensive body of research into community, recovery and resilience after bushfire. Details of the Beyond Bushfires team and research can be found here. I stressed that, for me, the experience of the losses from the fires have lead to post-traumatic growth: my life now is richer. I am grateful for the positives the disaster has brought me. Jon Faine suggested that the listeners at home might wonder “are you saying the fires were a good thing in your life?” And I would have to say, yes they were. But they were also awful. They’ve left me with psychological scars and have changed my relationship with the bush forever. If I had my life over, I would not have been on that mountain on the day. If I had my life over, those powerlines would not have sparked that blaze.

Last year, on the 9th anniversary, I wrote this poem.

If only
our subsequent tears
had rained
on those errant
sparks

Image contains: a circular path around a 10m high iron tree with a canopy of hand-forged eucalyptus leaves.
The Blacksmith’s Tree, Strathewen

This year, I was asked to write a poem to contribute to the City of Whittlesea’s ‘Growth’ commemorative event. I grabbed a notebook and headed to my local café, only to discover the notebook I had in my hand was the one that I carried for months after the fires. I mined it for this poem.

10 years since the fires

I’ve been asked to write
a poem

last week I sobbed
forecast 45 degrees
memories hot
raw dread fear

I’ve been asked to write
a poem

café, tofu and soba
old notebook
2009
full of lists

insurance policy numbers
building code advice
real estate agents
grants to apply for

Phoenix Taskforce
documents to find
wound clinic appointments
support group dates

donated goods
people to thank
contacts at Grocon
trauma psychologists

what we need for the baby
relationship counsellors
re-establishing contents
family lawyers

I’ve been asked to write
a poem

walk to the café
scribble down words
boys are at school
barista knows my name

flick pages
catch breath
frown at names
no longer recognised

at home
greying dog
freshly picked plums
ready for the preserver

post photo online
new friends, new fella click ‘love’
profile now declares me
a poet

I’ve been asked to write
a poem

my green notebook
2009
full of lists
a poem

Image contains: view up from underneath Australian tree ferns, with a shaft of sun shining through
Ferns at Tarra Bulga National Park, close to where the Callignee fires swept through in February 2009


Thank you to everyone who has supported any person affected by the 2009 fires. Thank you for remembering. May we all continue to heal.

learning to swim

These past few months I have been attending weekly swimming lessons. It’s an adult class, full of panicked folk eager to combat their fears and teach their bodies skills that most people raised in Australia take for granted. When I started I couldn’t swim a single lap, hated putting my head in the water and would pull up short of the deep end every time I struck out for the far end of the pool.

I’m a determined soul. I pushed past the feelings of imminent drowning and now swim several laps in a row and tread for many minutes at a time. I happily swim along with each of my sons in turn, while the other does his own lesson. I resent it when work or other commitments come between me and my opportunities to get in the pool. The calm meditative nature and attention to breathing is all very soothing really, once you get used to it.

Years ago I was given the label of cyclothymia – cyclical variations in mood, a bit like having bipolar disorder, only milder (and apparently unrelated). I used only to recognise the down swings and be fearful of them. The times when I felt really well and productive went unnoticed – or perhaps were not freely expressed during my previous relationship and periods of very intense work. I was frightened of these moods and what they might mean for my health. I’ve been working at managing them for many years, gaining skills to cope but powerless to alter the biological ebb and flow.

Now that I’ve learned to swim, I can bob on top of the moody ocean, rather than be crushed on the rocks on the foreshore.

learning to swim

in deep water waves reach
incredible height
giant continuous sinusoids
smooth peaks and deep broad troughs
over which a swimmer
might bob oblivious
to the forces shaping
her gently exhilarating ride

as the waves approach the shallows
they grow taller still
towering steep and jagged
the sea bed drags at their base
tops racing away in chaos
their arcs crumble to mayhem
swimmer tossed breathless and gasping
lucky if she arrives battered on the shore

I’ve been learning to swim these ocean moods
finding courage to brave deep water
yet all this time
it was the shallows I should have feared

carbon dioxide

Happy writing doesn’t come naturally to me. I worry about sounding trite or, worse, soppy. These past few months have been the happiest I can remember, so I haven’t much felt like writing.

Last year I wrote my first love poem – for my beloved’s birthday. I was 45. It didn’t completely suck. He has a copy on the wall by his bed, so I guess he must like it, or at the very least like that it was written.

Yesterday I ventured out to a poetry gig. Later, we saw Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Paterson’ together, in which Paterson the bus driver writes poems deeply entrenched in ordinary wonder. The film is a calm mindful view of what might be considered mundane until transformed by the poetic lens. Unlike the two women seated next to us who talked and looked at their phone screens throughout, we were quite captivated. Hands clasped across the restaurant table we discussed the film and the kangaroo gargoyles on the building opposite. Perhaps it was the film that triggered an especially mindful moment this morning and the subsequent urge to write it.

carbon dioxide

face sleep slack
your lips whistle slightly
with each exhalation
your right cheek
rests on the pillow of my left elbow
our noses close enough
for the hairs you won’t let me pluck
to tickle

my right arm drapes
across the soft pelt of your back
fingers seeking the smooth valley
of your spine
I enjoy the play of texture
squash my breasts against your chest
rest my right knee
on your thigh

though your breaths are quicker
than mine
I synchronise my intake
with each lip whistle
brave those ticklish hairs
breathe in your waste breath
so that I might merge further
with you

in my slack muscle trance
lost in the detail
of the lines round your eyes
each fingertip on my skin
my idling mind wonders
if your excess carbon dioxide
is responsible for the giddiness
of love

(PS My beloved is cool with me sharing.)

Image

Portions of this program not affecting the outcome may have been edited…

Portions of this program not affecting the outcome may have been edited…

I said.*

He laughed, kissed his way up my arm and wiped the tears from his eyes. Those eyes, wet with mirth and, I dare say, blessed relief. I had cracked a joke – riffed on his involvement with game shows – when referring to his censoring of responses he felt just added ‘noise’ to the conversation. I smiled. Tentatively.

And in saying that I reflected on another conversation, last night, about the carefully curated selves we tend to present on social media. Whitewashing troubles and the danger inherent in comparing our lives to those portrayed by others. My friends were there because I had spent most of the preceding day sobbing. I couldn’t work, sleep evaded me, had no appetite and could do little more than lie on the bed. They were surprised by the message “I have fallen apart after the women’s weekend”, for the images posted over the weekend were of a radiant, joyous me. And those images were true – I was filled with joy and excitement and some bubbly wine. It had been a wonderful adventure for me. Of course, I had not posted any pictures of me sobbing. Of smudged cheeks, red eyes and knitted brow. I had taken a selfie as I lay in bed. I had thought about posting it to Facebook. Instead I kept my misery more local. I whitewashed my story.

I guess it’s a fine line between a heavily redacted fairytale social image and ‘oversharing’ personal woes. There have been times when sharing my pain online has gained me support I would otherwise not have received. I’ve seen whole communities rally when they fear someone is at risk. There are times when the sharing then becomes another ‘job’ – of replying to messages or fending off those drawn to crises who are sometimes less than helpful.

Portions of this program not affecting the outcome may have been edited…

I played dress ups on the weekend. Fueled by excitement, effervescent wine and sparkling women, I tried on an astonishing array of frocks. Nearly all of us did. These are the subject of the Facebook photos: sans bra in a black baby doll frock, hands on hips in a sequined purple strapless number with a Dolly Varden skirt and the wedding dress. In those mock bridal photos I look as radiant and joyous as any bride. The lingering massage oil may have contributed to the glow, but my delight at seeing myself in that frock is what illuminates those pictures.

I had never been to a Women’s Weekend before. There’s no way I would have contemplated such a thing until recently. Even so, the notion of it filled me with anxiety. I knew only one other woman there. I was deliberately pushing myself out of my comfort zone. It was a chance to get away. To relax. Connect. Most of all it provided space to STOP.

I am frenetic. I rarely sit still. I am busy. Some of this is necessary – after all, I am a working sole parent without family close by. Much of the busy-ness is self-imposed: a result of perfectionist drive, of anxiety and of distraction. The venue, at Hepburn Springs, was nestled in close to the bush. It was hot. I panicked when I got there. Almost got back in the car to leave.

But I stayed. In the company of those women I relaxed. I sat. I walked at dawn without headphones, climbed a tower to watch the sunrise. I did yoga for the first (and second) time. I can’t say I completely let go of the busy-ness or of the anxiety, but it was quieted. And I STOPPED.

And here’s the rub…

Portions of this program not affecting the outcome may have been edited…

All that busy making means little time for feeling, for deep connection with my psyche. Stopping triggered some sort of release. I first noticed it during the second yoga session when I started crying in the savasana (corpse) pose. After I returned home a wellspring of grief and exhaustion poleaxed me. I could not stop crying. I had no joy. I am usually adept at finding joy in the smallest of things: a leaf curled just so, a ripening quince, soft dog hair. I had no joy. The radiant, joyous mock bride was gone. In her place a husk in a black dress.

Today I am wearing a pretty striped dress in shades of blue, green and pale grey. I have cried a little and grieve some more. I have been to a yoga class at my local gym – I didn’t cry during the savasana but I found it profoundly restful. I did get teary when I spoke to the instructor. My abdominal muscles hurt.

I will survive this crisis. Perhaps it is catharsis. Perhaps cyclical. I am glad I stopped. I will press pause on the perpetual motion machine that is me from time to time. I may cry, but it will be good.

* Actually, to be pedantic, I didn’t manage the whole phrase just ‘Portions of this program blah blah may have been edited…’