Follow by Email

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Shockwaves will roll on

Shockwaves will roll on

Last updated 14:19 06/03/2011

"There's been another earthquake in Christchurch," said a colleague, passing on the street. These days, there's always another quake in Christchurch. I didn't hurry back.

Two weeks now and I'm still crying every time I see the footage. I talk to friends who survived, but it's hard to connect. I wasn't there. One year, 10 years, 50 years from now, people I know will be hounded for their stories. Reporters will maul over their memories. February 22 will never be just another day.

People who experienced the Christchurch earthquake belong to an exclusive club they didn't ask to join.

Where does that leave the rest of us? What right do we have to grieve when we can't comprehend what it was really like; when our tears are shed from the comfort of a house still standing, a glass of wine in one hand and a television remote control in the other?

There is a technical term that goes some way toward explaining how I've felt over the past fortnight. It's called survivor guilt. And it's OK.

"Look at Hurricane Katrina," says Ian Lambie, associate professor of clinicial psychology at Auckland University. "That drew America together. And obviously, we are a smaller nation. People are touched that much more closely."

Earthquakes, it turns out, expose - and heal - the cracks in our life. Too glib? Christchurch used to be the place other New Zealanders sneered at. A twitching, conservative, lace-curtained suburbia that just happened to have enough people in it to qualify as a city. It made the news for its boy racers, dreadful murders and lack of brown faces. In my four years in Auckland, I've lost count of the number of times I have defended the city where I lived two lives: suburban Avonside Dr with a dog and a dinner set that matched; and Montreal St where I played single girl bohemian to the best of my limited financial ability.

The Montreal St house, at least, is still standing. I see it every time the television cameras turn away from the Art Gallery-turned-Civil- defence-headquarters. Who knew the city that used to be the butt of the country's jokes would turn out to be the one we loved the most?

"One of the greatest things, in terms of getting over adversity, is to band together," says Lambie. "We are a community and we are united. There's a lot of good research that would say that one of the key things to help people get over this is their family and friends; the feeling that we are not alone.

"At the very least, most of us have been to Christchurch. But most of us actually know people who live there. Relatives and friends."

In 2007, the Ministry of Health released something called the "National Health Emergency Plan: Planning for individual and community recovery in an emergency event".

It came in the wake of New York's terrorist attacks, the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina and it said "public and government expectations have been raised for all aspects of response and recovery from emergency events".

The cliche that follows is, I hope, true. The Ministry of Health line on disaster recovery includes this statement: "Time helps." Within four months of the fall of the World Trade Center, for example, there was, reportedly, a two-third reduction in the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder.

But - and it's a big but - experts caution recovery may not be linear. "The natural process may include fluctuations, particularly in the first year following an emergency event."

Time does heal, agrees Lambie. "But it depends on how personally you or your property were affected. If someone has lost their house, or their school is gone, or someone they know has been badly injured or died . . ."

I know I am not the only person who once lived in Christchurch who expects, at some point, to recognise a name on the list of the missing. It is a relief, this past week, to glance up at one of the TV screens in our Auckland newsroom and, sometimes, see something other than earthquake coverage.

"The media serves a purpose for people living there, for people who are overseas or in the rest of the country, who want information," says Lambie. "But the vicarious, ghoulish sort of stuff, around people's suffering . . . I really question how useful that is at all.

"Too much exposure to this, you've got to think, 'Why do I need to watch this?"'

Obvious heroes emerged from this disaster. But, for me, some of the earliest were the Christchurch journalists who got the story out - even as buildings fell and they couldn't find their own families. I feel guilty that I can't bring myself to get on a plane and be part of that reporting team. But every night, when I go to sleep, I remember another person I know from the city I lived in for more than a decade. I wonder how they are doing and how much use I'd be on the ground anyway.

At least I can sleep. And take a shower, and flush a toilet. Four days after the earthquake, I got a text from a friend: "If you ever want to know how many baby wipes it takes to wash a 6 foot 2, 100kg male, I'm your man."

I laughed out loud, and thought, perhaps, it was OK now to ask about the building we used to work in. Funny how you couch your words. My unspoken question: "Did anyone I know die?"

He replies: "Not sure how building is. Was still standing when I ran screaming from it."

I don't know what to say next.

Another friend can't believe an entire tin of decaffeinated coffee made it through the earthquake when the real stuff didn't. I find out another friend is OK, away from the city, getting married. Way to get busted on your secret wedding.

Even as I write this, I hope people are not angry I am putting their stories to print without asking. I know I am collecting this minutiae because it's too hard to think about the bigger picture. When the conversation in Auckland turns, inevitably, to Christchurch, I have to have something to contribute that doesn't make me cry.

Last week, out of the blue, an email arrived from a man I interviewed before it happened. Before 12.51pm on February 22, Libya was leading the news and voluntary welfare agencies were worried about what the government's Welfare Working Group was going to mean.

"I feel the need to contact people with whom I had contact before the earthquake changed our lives," writes Michael Gorman, Christchurch City Missioner.

"Our beautiful city has had a heart attack and is suffering. The deaths have been tragic and families are in great sadness. Most wonderful iconic buildings are broken and in ruin and we are riding a rollercoaster of emotions.

"For me, the relief at being alive is now being replaced by the need to get the City Mission going again and, thanks to my great staff, we are well on the way to do this so that we can help those in need as the mission has been doing for over 130 years.

"Our own home has been red carded and this means that it is unsafe to enter. We have a few changes of clothes and our cars and are staying with most caring people who are looking after us and so we are very lucky. For the first time I have been glad that all our children and grandchildren are living away from Christchurch. This used to be a source of sadness but is now one of profound relief."

Writing, Gorman says, allows him to pretend for a few minutes, "all is as it was" - even as he knows it never will be again.

Lambie says I have to accept that I will never truly understand what it was like when the earthquake happened.

"You don't know what it feels like to be totally out of control . . . that feeling of total helplessness."

Thousands have left the city. "How people respond is how people respond," says Lambie. "If people are having nightmares and feeling anxious with every aftershock and feel like they need to leave, that is totally normal, they shouldn't feel guilty or hopeless."

Advertisements, fronted by All Black and Cantabrian Richie McCaw, are urging those affected by anxiety to speak to their GP or call the government's earthquake helpline, which can connect them to mental health services and providers. Ministry of Health's director of mental health Dr David Chaplow says a fact sheet for GPs responding to mental health concerns from the earthquake is being prepared with the assistance of the New Zealand Branch of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.

"The situation is being reviewed daily and we expect this information will be ready to be made available to GPs early this week."

What can ordinary Kiwis do? Be practical, says Lambie, and give money. In the short term, he says, friends, family, neighbours and workmates - people who are close - will help those who have lost all hope. Later, some will need professional help.

"No two individuals are the same. That's one of the great things about human nature. We have different personalities and different things affect us in different ways."

He struggles to find a comparable disaster in living memory.

"Something like this will be with us for a long, long time. The widespread devastation, the death, the destruction and the enormity of the whole thing . . . is having a profound effect on the whole of New Zealand."

Tailored fact sheets on coping with stress for families, children, adolescents, relief workers and other indviduals are available, along with regularly updated public health information for those in Christchurch: under "Christchurch Earthquake".

Healthline can transfer callers to mental health professionals for advice and support: ph 0800 611-116.

- Sunday Star Times

No comments:

Post a Comment