I woke up with the ceiling in bed

So said  the young woman on the supermarket checkout to me this afternoon. We had a wild old night here in Melbourne last night, with some mighty thunder and lightning, and a month’s rain in the day.  I was somewhat surprised that I was getting conversation more than the standard Hihowareyouhaveyougotaflybuyscardschequessavingsorcredithaveagoodday incantation, but the young woman was clearly shaken by what had happened to her. She rattled off words at machine gun pace describing going to bed with the storm raging, and then waking up with plaster all over her, and wet from a leak that had come through the roof.

I found myself leaning in closer, “really” I said, “It must of been a shock” “It was” she said. “I’m still pretty shaken up from it” I said “That’s perfectly normal,” doing my best Rob Gordon impersonation, “you go to bed and take it for granted that the ceiling is going to remain in place over night” She laughed. I asked her if she had someone who could help her and whether she had somewhere to stay. She said her mum was coming over after she finished  work to help clean up”. “Good luck “ I said and pick up my bags. I didn’t need to hand over a business card. Her bonding social capital was strong and supportive.

A couple of things struck me about this encounter. What is seemingly a small scale event in the scheme of things (no Herald Sun screamer headlines), clearly had an impact. It is probably not a lasting impact, however I suspect the next time there is a storm, there will be a seed of doubt in that woman’s mind about whether the ceiling will stay up. We see this a lot. As a result of our floods, people I speak to around our area get nervous when there is heavy rains. My mother always wanted to know where we were on a day that had a high winds and temperatures. I always thought she was being irrational, us  growing up in suburbia. It is one of the things that tend to get discounted.  Her hometown was ringed by fire in the 1939 Black Friday bushfires. My own experience of a near crash landing at Kathmandu Airport in 1989 has scarred flying for me. Some of these things stay with us. Sure the stress of a ceiling falling in is not comparable in the public’s mind to truly traumatic events, but I am sure there would be a case of what ifs, what if the roof fell in. Again this was enough of an impact for her to talk to a complete stranger about her experience.

It got me thinking about certainty and uncertainty, and the nature of disasters. In my mind, understanding this is one of our challenges. Disasters shatter our assumptions, the certainty of our routines, networks, familiarity of places, relationships, and objects. We go about our daily lives, varying from coping well to not coping for various reasons, taking most things for granted. OUR environment is generally benign. A number of people in Christchurch said to me, one of the things you take for granted is the earth (Think of the saying “feet firmly planted on the ground”). It’s not supposed to bend and buckle. That really challenges reality.  As humans, we like to be in control of our circumstances. It is very unnerving when disaster events come along and change these truths that we hold to be self evident.

I see the disaster process of moving  from certainty to uncertainty, and back again. I describe periods or stages of disasters as moving from a low threat environment, high certainty through to an increasing threat, high levels of threat , high levels of uncertainty about what is going to happen to the individual, then as the threat subsides  , the uncertainty about what is going to happen remains high (the turgid management speak in me would call this outcomes), and this uncertainty either quickly or gradually reduces to where people are in a situation that they are certain about what course their life is going to take (ie if there is no or low impact, then it is almost business as usual, if there is high impact, then it is adjusting to the life that you value living, as Anne Leadbeater calls it, or “the new normal” as others call it). This helps me think about what we should be doing at what point (and moves us away from, it’s day 7 and we really should be doing X).

I have had many people say to me over the years, I don’t know what is going to happen next. We read of uncertain futures of townships, will people return to Marysville?, will towns be rebuilt?, should they be rebuilt?, where they were or at all?. We had people saying in the Alpine Bushfires in 2003 that threatened Bright and Mt Beauty, they wished that the fires would come and burn the places out, as they couldn’t stand dealing with the uncertainty.

I see our role to help reduce this uncertainty. It may be through information to enable people to make decisions, or providing places for people to share stories and experiences, or safe places for people gather their thoughts, or appropriate, inclusive leadership that validates and is sensitive to what people have experienced.

So, it’s late, and I am hoping that the young woman from the supermarket is able to get to sleep tonight, and that her uncertainty quickly becomes certainty.

One of the greatest piano solos in pop history, The The’s Uncertain Smile!

2 thoughts on “I woke up with the ceiling in bed

  1. There is a wonderful psychoanalytic term called ‘negative capability’ which I often think about. I’m over simplifying it (and apologies to the psychoanalysts out there) but it is about our capacity to deal with the unknown or with change, and some of the expected avoidance behaviours we have to manage anxiety in this situation. What I like about it is that it builds being in the unknown as a ‘capability’ that I can work with, rather than just a ‘situation’.

    On many occasions it has been helpful for me to think about my own or someone else’s negative capability with a particular situation or event and to think about how I might better support them. There are some good articles on this by Robert French.

    I like your thoughts on how we can help. Essentially, creating some certainty or consistency in an otherwise ‘all over the place’ situation is possibly one of the best things we can do to help people feel safe and to manage the rest of the ‘unknowns’ in their long term recovery.


  2. unknowns is a great way to describe it, Deb, particularly as people crave certainty. It is why rituals are so comforting for people, post disaster, and memorials and commemoration.


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