RU OK? Me, I’m not*

Today is RU OK? Day, a great initiative formed to get people to check in on each other. Me? I’m not OK. Haven’t been for about 18months or so, but I am now recognising it, calling it out and doing something about it.

The work that we do, goes without saying, is stressful. “You work in disasters, that must be stressful” It is, and we are pretty well looked after, when its happening. But one thing I think we don’t recognise, I didn’t recognise, the work that we do when disasters aren’t happening can be equally confronting, challenging, stressful and have an impact. I immerse myself in this work. I read, I talk, I think. When events like Grenfell or Christchurch or Hurricane Harvey occurs, I read every available account, and watch videos. It helps me understand, and make meaning of things, and think, how can that be applied here, what would we do, etc etc. I expose myself to a lot of stuff.

Equally, I have never shied away from difficult situations. In my nursing career, I always offered to take the difficult patient. Not to be a hero. Just because there is something in my nature that attracts me to it. In disasters, it is the same. Some of the conversations I have had with people, I can never recount publicly. They are etched on my memory. I am drawn to working with bereaved people. It is probably the hardest gig in disasters. And the most rewarding. A good friend and colleague asked me “how do you do it? What makes you resilient?” and I answered, “I don’t know. I just am”.

But like many, I have felt not superhero like, but resilient. And over the years there’s been a few wobbles. Like 18 months after Black Saturday, being in a hotel room in Brisbane, with a fly buzzing round, and realising that the committee meeting I had been asked to go to was dealing with the same issues as when I chaired it 4 years previously, and I hit the wall and had to have a month off. A serious reaction to a committee meeting!.

Over the course of the last 18 months, I have found my concentration to be poor. I was getting irritable at things. Not taking enjoyment in things that I previously had. Having terrible sleep. I was butting up against the same challenges at work, and felt like I wasn’t making any progress, and I was finding it hard to get out of bed to take the dog for a walk in the morning. The death of a beloved cousin, other family challenges, and serious illness of close friends all add to the burden. Add into that a restructure, and through that a very changed dynamic at work, I began to question my self worth. Am I any good at this? Do people still listen to what I have to say? Is there any point to my contributions etc etc. Maybe I should just bake bread. People like my bread. Throw into the mix a chronic  back problem, that has restricted my ability to do things that I take for granted, and draw a lot of strength from, like riding to and from work, like kayaking on the bay, and like running around with a bunch of old guys, kicking a footy. I’ve put on weight, which as contributed to poor sleep etc etc etc. Blah, blah, blah. It’s all felt like a slow downward spiral.

A few months ago I was running a session for a firm that had direct experience of the Bourke St tragedy. As I dutifully talked to the guys about what they may or may not experience, I was ticking these things off in my head. “Yep, that’s what you are experiencing” I told myself, as I walked out into the rain. I went home that night and said to my wife, Hanna  “I have a problem”. And it was liberating. She wondered why I hadn’t talked about it earlier. I am good at hiding things, I want to be the rock of Gibraltar, on which people can rely (and that is part of my problem, as I am finding out). And also, it took a while for all the signals to make sense.

And so, I am doing something about it. I am seeking professional help. This is helping me sort out a few things about self esteem. I also take great heart from my colleague, Louise Harm’s advice in her great book on Understanding Trauma and Resilience:

maintain a sense of competence, control, and pleasure in work, maintaining and revising a personal philosophy of death and illness, focussing on lifestyle management and stress relieving activities, distinguishing between personal and professional variables, and reviewing motivations for working in this area”

My trip to Iceland has done wonders for my self-esteem. To be asked to give the leading key note address in an international conference, and be feted afterwards, you know, does kinda pump up your tyres. It is helping me review my motivations for work.

I am fortunate to have such a supportive family, who have had to put up with me, but are there for me. And my friends, those that I have confided in, are there saying, just give me a call. One of my challenges is to get my body right, so I can get back to enjoying the camaraderie of the Kick. I am also taking steps to disconnect. Stop looking at the phone, and emails, spend time off line. One of the things I have rediscovered is listening to music, properly. Nils Frahm alerted me to this, in the sleeve notes of his album, Spaces,

“I wonder if it is possible to simply isolate the music from my performances by pressing it on a record, listening to it while vacuum cleaning or cooking for a friend? I guess spaces works best if you put it on a record player, with your phone and computer turned off, imagining you were in one room with me, where I play for you”

I sit in our front room, and listen to records, and do nothing else. It is fantastic.

I debated long and hard with myself about writing this post. It feels indulgent. It feels narcissistic. It is private, and I don’t want to force it on people. It exposes me to friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances.  But, I recall, when I was in Christchurch, and was asked to do a session on selfcare with some pretty tough and stoic Kiwis, who were doing it tough, but wouldn’t admit it, I threw away the script and talked about when I “hit the wall”. The dynamic changed, and people opened up. In the end I decided to because those of us who work in the sector, we do it tough(as do others in their own line of work), in many ways, some hidden, some not so hidden. And, it helps me to make a bit of sense of it too. So, I offer this up, to be open, and hopefully encourage others to identify in themselves, or others RUOK?


Nils Frahm. Says.

*but I’m doing something about it

25 thoughts on “RU OK? Me, I’m not*

  1. John – you are not being indulgent. Sharing your realization and steps towards healing for yourself is refreshing and reasonable. I spent 3 years studying safety & risk behaviour in the Queensland Fire & rescue Authority (to 1997) and another 3 years working as manager of the State Community Safety functions. The Stresses of operational life were evident very quickly during my studies with the operational side of the Authority and subsequently while managing within the organisation. Emergency professionals bear a burden most of us, as beneficiaries of their efforts, never have to face. Best wishes to you and those like you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Paul, those insights from over 20 years ago are important to reflect on. I feel like we can now be more open about these issues. IT’s been normalised to a degree. Thanks for taking the time to comment, it means a lot to me.


  2. A very courageous, generous, insightful and caring post, John.

    Congrats on having the self-awareness and courage to recognise, admit to and ‘do something about’ your situation.

    And thanks for sharing. I think it is helpful for us all.

    Go well with your own personal Pilgrim’s Progress.


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Dudley, and thanks for giving me breathing space, when I needed it over these years. Being the welcome committee at the airport and looking after a fractious 2 year old meant the world to me.


  3. Ah, John. Do you know so many thoughts and feelings arise for me when I read this post. We don’t know each other well but you have influenced and encouraged my work and no doubt enormous numbers of other people’s work too. The knock on effect (we all hope) is that communities everywhere benefit a little more because of that. So hard to measure but know it to be true. It can be a bumpy road to ‘recovery’ – that word doesn’t seem right – let’s say being well? I wish you well!

    For what it is worth, for different reasons I have had some similar experiences. My ‘committee meeting moment’ was about the availability of appropriate coffee cups. Er, time to take an immediate and extended time out!

    I too have learned that certain natural and professional interests when I am researching or reading can get to me more than I would like. I’m getting better at self-care on that.

    Thank you again for sharing. It really matters.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. isn’t it amazing Deb, the small insignificant things, have the biggest impact. Flies, coffee cups. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, it also matters to me.


  5. Well done John. I’d argue you are OK. You’ve recognised that you’re struggling and found ways to cope. I can relate to the pleasure of listening to music (as you’d know!). I also have the Nils Frahm album. Liz and I listen to it while we have a slow start to a weekend day sometimes. Take care mate. I’ll join the cue of people who are always there if you need me. A guy I’ve known since I was a teenager who was probably my best friend for over 10 years had a cancer scare recently. We aren’t as close as we used to be but keep in touch via FaceBook etc. When I found out about his health I called him. It was re-affirming that he told me he’d considered who he’d like to be his supports if the worst happened. I was one of two people because I know him far better than most and I’m not part of his immediate environment. Maybe someone like that (not necessarily me) would be good for you. I might even take some of my own advice and look for that person too! Cheers mate.


  6. i’d always call you if I need Joe, anyone I’ve sat on the back of a bike nudging 140 on the south eastern, is someone I trust! Its good advice, and I am very much looking forward to catching up next week.


  7. Hi John – I always take so much from reading Sastrugi, because you always bridge the personal and professional facets of our worlds so beautifully. So today’s courageous, honest piece just goes another whole step further – in sharing and leading so deeply in the territory of self-care. Thanks – and I hope the next steps for you are really helpful ones. And at the risk of fuelling a serious caffeine overdose, a coffee is always just around the corner!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Lou, while in Iceland, one of my travelling companions was an esteemed gastroenterologist, specialising in the liver, and he said chocolate, alcohol, cheese and coffee were all good for you. So, coffee sounds good. And I hear congrats on the new role!


  8. John, what an honest, insightful and generous post! I wish you well on your journey towards healing. You have a loving, wonderful, supportive and understanding family and network of friends who will help you through this.
    Your work is, by its very nature, stressful, and as one wise psychologist, whose name escapes me, said to a packed room of teachers 20 years ago, if you even think about work at any time of the day or night you are working. We all need to take more time to nurture ourselves, ‘smell the roses’ or engage in our passions as you are doing, listening to music that moves you.
    That beloved cousin, my wonderful sister in law, who has recently left us, has left a huge hole in many hearts. Grief, often underrated, can compound those other major, and often seemingly minor, life hurdles and irritants. May your therapy restore you and help you to accept and understand life’s twists and turns.
    Look after you. x

    Liked by 1 person

  9. A great honest and real truth piece of writing, sharing experiences capturing what most of us in this sector face but rarely talk about. Thanks John, much appreciated.


  10. Nice read Horse

    The path to redemption is to firstly recognise that the problem does exist. Thereafter, you can address this on a personal level, with your beloved or as you have with this article. There are no rules to this.

    But, and now that you are out in the open, it seems as though you have done what’s best for JR


    Liked by 1 person

  11. JR,
    What can I say? Indeed.
    Thank you, is a start.
    So much of this- is very familiar.
    God, just listening to music. It’s the best meditation.
    Look forward to chatting, soon.


    1. Thanks matt, likewise I look forward to a gas bag. I remember say to Emily after PT interviews, gee I wish I had had Mr Green as an English teacher, I leant more then than in school!


  12. I loved this post – sorry I missed it on the day. Been going through a rough patch myself – seeking help and re-sorting out priorities and seeking to restore a better balance.
    Thanks for sharing

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Hi John, I got to this a bit late but thanks – your post was thoughtful, powerful, generous and helpful. Take care and have confidence that your contributions are always highly valued.

    Liked by 1 person

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