Hitting the Wall

Breaking the radio silence of a few weeks!  I’ve been away on a well overdue break. I had scheduled a break back in March, but as it approached, thought “Nah, I’m OK, and got plenty to do after a busy-ish summer”. It’s interesting, our day jobs are not sitting round with our feet on the desks, waiting for the big one…we actually do other things, so when the big one, or even the medium size one happens, all the day job stuff gets put on hold, and piles up on the desk or in the inbox. So I didn’t take the break…. I think you know what is coming next.

In one of my earlier posts, I talked about writers block. I noticed that everything was hard, I wasn’t getting traction on any of the work that I was doing, and what would normally take a few days, seemed to be taking weeks. I realised that I was pretty overwhelmed, tired, grumpy and ineffective. This really hit home to me on the day that I was leaving work, I needed to find out how many children had died in the Victorian fires for the University of Melbourne project that I am involved in. Not being able to find the figure easily, I went through the Royal Commission reports, reading each of the reports into the deaths. I should say, these are reports that I had read many times before, and have taken them in my stride. This time was different, and I felt profoundly disturbed by them.

During the school holidays, we were in a bookshop, and my younger daughter showed me a book, which has a very sad ending, and I couldn’t hold back the tears. Yep, there is a wall in front of me, and I had just slammed straight into it.

This is not the first time this has happened to me.  A few years back, I was in a hotel room in Brisbane, and also very exhausted. I had to go to a meeting of a group that I used to chair, and the agenda read as though the group had not moved on in the 4 years that I hadn’t been associated with it. For some reason, this provoked a reaction in me, and I felt like I couldn’t go to the meeting. Strange how little things can provoke big reactions. I had to have a month off.

We carry so much with us, when we work in this area. We are inextricably linked with the events of the day. The chronic complexity of the impacts weaves a web around us as well. Despite our resilience, and I know that I have generally great reserves of resilience… I have been dealing with people’s misery for 25 years now; this web will find ways to get in.

This is why self care is so important. Working out what is important to you to maintain balance. It is different for everyone, but this should be one of the questions we ask at interview. What self care strategies do you have? If people don’t have self care strategies, then don’t employ them. Sounds harsh, but you can’t afford to have people hitting the wall. It’s not fun. And it’s unproductive.

One of mine is kicking the football with a bunch of friends on a Sunday morning. This helps release me from the every day, as I try to recapture past glories, of spectacular marks not taken, tackles not laid, perfect passes not struck. IT is also a good opportunity for a brief chat, whether it be on football results, new albums, or the latest political crisis. Interestingly, in the last 4 months, I have been carrying an injury. This has slowed me down, made me more tentative and reduced my enjoyment of the Kick. I wonder if this has helped reduce my resilience, this time around.

Another is music. Being able to get lost in songs, in pieces of music, that also take you away from the present, is wonderful. I have coping playlists. Tonight I’m fortunate to be going to see Philip Glass, the great American Composer, play a solo piano concert. His rhythmical music has helped calm and soothe me over many years. I learnt how to play guitar very badly after sitting in a hotel room in Washington, late at night listening to Bill Frisell and thinking it would be wonderful to be able pick up a guitar and strum. After the Black Saturday Bushfires, I’d come home at 1 am and strum for an hour, until I was ready to go to bed.

If you go back to look at one of my earlier posts about All Right, these 5 strategies are fantastic; Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning, Give. All pretty simple. You’ve just gotta do them.

My time away was great, with my two daughters and their friends (unfortunately my wife had to work) down to the beach. No phones, no computer. We had a fabulous time, board games, movies, trampolining, reading, playing spotlight with the torch.  It brings you back in touch with what is important. My second week away, all I did was read, play guitar, watch some DVDs (EAST WEST 101 is fantastic), went for a swim, did some mountain biking (I think those mountains have grown in the last 25 years), and slept.

And the result? I feel fine, and ready to go again.


5 thoughts on “Hitting the Wall

  1. Hi John,
    Thanks so much for sharing your ‘wall’ story. It’s funny, every time I read your posts I think I must hop onto an actual computer and provide some thoughts, but this post has actually got me there (I’ll go back to the other ones, promise).

    We all have wall stories but so often they strike at the worst time, and there is not even a chance to really talk about them before, during of after. There should be more sharing of wall stories!

    My first major wall hitting event in recovery was around August 2009 I think. I was at home, and I took a call from a community member in Kinglake. He ripped through me for a number of general failings (of the Government really, but of course I was taking them personally). This was just another call on just another day – angry and upset people are part of the deal and that’s okay, but afterwards I found myself unable to leave the house. Kind of ‘stuck’.

    I rang work and told them I couldn’t make it in. I was suddenly terrified of my inbox and my phone messages and all of the other people who were going to be angry or needy or full of ideas that needed a response. So I stayed home for a few days, sought some professional help and recovered.

    My recollection at the time was of being highly embarrassed that this was happening and that I had let this happen. With more than adequate training in psychology and health I had missed (ignored?) all the signs for myself. And then my thoughts went to my team and how much more active support and intervention I needed to provide.

    Perhaps more interestingly, since 2009 I find that I cry more readily (happy and sad things). It annoyed me for a time, but I’m kind of comfortable with it now as just a part of who I am. A lasting legacy if you will.

    I have the utmost respect for those of you who stick with this work long term and have found ways to continue to look after yourself.


  2. Hi Deb
    thanks for your wonderful and honest comment. These comments are often so hard to make, because we are conditioned to appear strong. So called “weakness” is frowned upon (weakness is code for emotion, though). But I think we are all human beings, and last time I looked,, robot technology hasn’t progressed far enough to take on disaster recovery work, so emotions are part and parcel of what we do. Particularly I think for people who come “off the bench” and are drafted into recovery roles, last week they were preparing ministerial briefs, or dealing with accounts payable. Suddenly, they have to deal with the angry punters, frantic demands, and the knowledge that their actions, make up or contribute events happening in the public domain. Not to mention trying to do the right thing.

    I know too well that feeling being afraid of the inbox, or the phone. I wanted to hurl my phone into the sea in the first few days of my Wall experience. IT is the doubt that creeps into your mind. I am not capable of doing this anymore. Suddenly adverts for apprentice bakers in the local Bakers Delight take on a whole new meaning. Professional help is so important. I was fortunate with my “Wall”, I could ring the best in the business. He was able to pinpoint one particular thing, and give some advice on strategies. This helps recalibrate, and screw up those applications to be a baker.

    I certainly cry a lot more, particularly at happy things, or kids stories where they all get saved in the nick of time (I am unshamedly a romantic).

    Thanks again for taking the time to write, this is what I hoped that this blog would be for, a place for people to come and share and exchange and learn from each other.


  3. The other side of this story, John, is how many people you have helped survive their Wall experience (including me).
    A quiet cup of killer coffee at your place, a cheeky sanity check text message from you on your day off, a Noodles at Noon date or a “meeting” under a tree in a sunny park have all been ways you’ve connected with me, taken notice of my needs and given to me over the years.


  4. I was so concerned to read here John that I had contributed to your “wall” experience given I was the one you looked up the Royal Commission reports for- I had no idea. But having had similar experiences myself I also recognise that it is an accumulation of triggers and am so glad you stepped away so effectively. Self care is so important as is care for each other. I guess this is a reminder that we have to check on each other regularly – sounds like you are
    good at doing this for others. Have you seen the NZ alright website? It makes me smile – http://www.allright.org.nz/


    1. hi lisa, I wouldn’t been too concerned, i looked up the reports thinking, as i had 9 times out of 10, it would be a quick job, as you say, it was a trigger of a cumulative effect.
      Allright is great (I write about it on this blog, Ca Va?) I would like us to do something similar here when there is a big event.
      The ability to step away is important.


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