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