Shaky relationships post-quake

Posted 25 Mar 2012 by Swiggs Popular
Posted in Health/Wellbeing


How are you coping? Philip Matthews has a look at the post-quake fallout on our lives and relationships.

So, how are you feeling, more than a year on? No-one in Christchurch needs that timeframe spelt out. Slightly more than a year on now: 13 months.

And what did the anniversary do for your mood, for your memory? What kind of tensions did it produce or revive?

Perhaps it reminded you that you were not where you felt you should have been on the day. Maybe you went to work when you should - on reflection - have gone home, to check on family. Or maybe the reverse: you went home when you feel you should have worked.

This is not an uncommon scenario, and family tensions can follow. What happened when one partner had duties that required him or her to be unreachable on the day of February 22, 2011, and the other was at home, with children, during the worst of the aftershocks and facing the wider uncertainty? What does that say about priorities?

Then, in the grim weeks afterwards, one partner might have wanted to take the kids and go somewhere safe and the other wanted to stay in Christchurch, with the home. Again, what are your most important loyalties?

You hear such stories. You might expect that it was men absent on the day and men who wanted to stay with the home in the weeks following the quake, but the stories are not always "gendered" along such lines, as Michael O'Dempsey, clinical leader of Relationships Aotearoa in Canterbury, points out.

"Everyone experienced the earthquake differently," O'Dempsey says. "If you were in different parts of the city, it would have felt like very different things. There were people worrying about where their partners were or if they were safe, those feelings of 'where is he or she when I need him or her?'

"They can be held onto like resentments and can surface later. We can hang onto those resentments very strongly, especially if we had always believed they would always come through for us. The thing is that often the reason why they weren't where we wanted them to be is because there was something they saw as much more urgent right in front of them that they were attending to, and they thought we were OK.

"They were very frightening events and when we get very frightened, we get triggered back into very basic functioning. We don't function like we're in our 30s, 40s and 50s. We function from a much more vulnerable state. We'd be tapping into experiences of being abandoned or our own parents not coming through for us. But for people who are used to sorting things out with their partners not there, that feeling of where are they when I need them is less likely to be present."

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Christchurch psychologist Alan Prosser has encountered these stories, although "only very rarely - which is not to say that it's not happening".

A person working in a service - fire, say, or ambulance - might have a lot of personal investment in such work and "the person at home may have some genuine difficulty understanding where their partner's coming from", Prosser says.

This is the notion of: you've got a family so where are you for us? "The person in the services might now be feeling quite caught. Where are his loyalties? It can be a real logjam.

"When push comes to shove, and it becomes a life or death scenario, there will be some folk on the front line who will find it hard to switch themselves back to their personal, domestic scenario," Prosser says. "I'm speaking in fairly black-and-white terms obviously; there are huge amounts of shades of grey in among it."

As O'Dempsey points out, some families in this position - military families, especially - often have their own support networks for such times. But the Christchurch earthquakes were different: they were unpredictable, open- ended and home was threatened this time, not just the world outside.

The disaster also threw relationship roles into stark relief. "There is somebody who does the worrying about home, and making home safe, and very often, there is somebody else who has more of a bias towards being in the world: earning a living and making money and who has maybe less involvement with things like childcare," O'Dempsey says. "So there's one person whose role has fallen to checking everything is all right and the other is in the hunter role, for want of a better description.

"Our biology has set us up to recognise risks, run away from them or fight them. Our biology has set us up to deal with predators trying to kill us. With the earthquake, we keep getting all those chemicals except you can't fight this, and when it's actually rolling it's hard to run away from it. It's enormously challenging. Then there's that very powerful desire to want to protect the children and take them somewhere safe, and the contradictory of repairing things and rebuilding and protecting the house and defending the territory."

Here is some unsurprising news: people who deal with relationship dysfunction and various forms of human sadness in Christchurch are busier now than ever. Relationships Aotearoa was previously known as Relationship Services. Before that, it was Marriage Guidance. Each name change has indicated a broadening of its counselling work.

O'Dempsey worked for the agency in Christchurch from 2002 to 2008, and then came back to it as clinical leader last December, after three years away. "And compared to 2002 to 2008, it is monstrously busy."

Of course, there are different kinds of stresses now than before. "One of the things is that we're not going to know the earthquakes are over even when they're over," he says. "In 20 years, we still might be thinking, there may be one more. There is that level of uncertainty, and we've lost large areas of the city. We've lost very important, iconic reference points. For a lot of people, their support networks have relocated.

"Right after the earthquake, there was a strong feeling of camaraderie and connection. Us all pulling together; that was fantastic. By June, there was more fatigue. The fatigue is very strong at the moment. We're seeing people coping through drinking and people whose ability to manage stress is often very low.

"In our normal everyday lives, we have one problem we have to solve at a time, or maybe two or three. The earthquakes have brought us a phenomenal amount of very threatening uncertainty, about jobs, about houses, about physical safety."

Fatigue is the word O'Dempsey uses. When he talks to other counsellors, and they tell him how busy they have been since Christmas 2011, he hears that "the fatigue is really crashing in".

Alan Prosser has similar things to report. "The most notable comments that people make are things like, 'I just feel so tired and I don't know why'. It's like a mental, psychological fatigue. They're still sleeping OK but they feel washed out."

He says it's because people in Christchurch are dealing with a true anomaly. It is unusual to have two - if not three or four - serious natural disasters in a cluster, plus a series of smaller quakes, which "get people primed to have another strong emotional or physiological reaction. How safe is it to actually come down, to relax our defences?

"We like to know what's upfront," Prosser says. "We like to have some sense of predictability and consistency in our lives that allows us to feel reasonably secure within our own orbit. When something like this comes along and disrupts that sense of security tremendously it profoundly affects our fundamental belief systems, that the world is fundamentally a safe place or my environment is fundamentally a safe place, or the world is fundamentally full of good people not bad people. Those fundamental beliefs that we have but don't usually think about consciously are suddenly brought up onto the screen. How do I explain this to my children? How do I tell them that the world is still a fairly predictable and safe place?"

That said, it can seem like children are sometimes coping better than adults because they lack an overview. They may remember the quakes, and they may know that some buildings are no longer there, but they cannot see the big picture and are not carrying it around with them in the same way.

"I think that's a perfectly fair statement," Prosser says. "Every parent and every set of parents are going to have their own unique way of dealing with this phenomenon as well. What tends to frighten children is when they see their parents suddenly looking at a loss as to what to do next or looking disarmed. Most parents can gather themselves together, and for children, that's like a booster shot against the evils of the world, but mum and dad might be struggling privately themselves with the continual shakes, wondering whether they should stay in Christchurch and maybe getting gradually worn down over time, getting fractious with each other."

Not long after the February 22 quake, a piece of advice circulated. It was along the lines of "if you are a parent and you need a cry, go and cry in the shower". Keep it away from the kids. It had suggestions of parents carrying a terrible burden.

"We need to walk very carefully around those kinds of guidelines because, as a clinician, I will frequently find myself saying to people, despite what you might read in the newspaper or in books, we're dealing with a pretty atypical scenario in Canterbury," Prosser says. "I often say to people, you don't appear in a textbook. I try to reassure people that there is no one or right way of dealing with it."

Is there a danger in that stoic, resilient "cry in the shower"-type advice of repressing the emotional impact by acting in public like it's no big deal?

"You're absolutely right," Prosser says. "I know some clinicians might disagree with me but I would say quite adamantly that this is not a scenario where you can put out a rule list.

"The parents might be crying about how distressing it was five days ago when we had that horrendous quake, and the children might become tearful with the parents, but the parents might be able to say 'we're all feeling very tearful at the moment, but we will come right'. I would regard that as a perfectly normal way of dealing with it. Whereas if children don't feel they have permission to be tearful because they have never seen their parents being tearful, you might argue that's not very good modelling."

As for the fatigue Prosser observes, this has increased with time. "For example, my wife went to see her GP the other day - not for a quake-related matter - and in talking with him, he said to her that she wouldn't believe the number of people that are coming into his office now presenting with depression, more so than six months ago.

"I'm not giving myself a tick here, but I said to a number of GPs and my own colleagues that we are not going to be inundated so much with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder-type scenarios, but we are going to get inundated with depression. That's exactly what is happening and it makes sense because it's gone on for so long and people are not getting any kind of reprieve from it."

There is more to come. He suspects that there are still a lot of people in "hunkered down" mode. "My theory is that as time goes by, we will see an increasing number of people presenting with depression."

Would a drink help? This is another story one hears: the numbers of Cantabrians drinking their way through it.

There are pluses and minuses. Prosser was recently reading a journal article that examined current evidence around alcohol and trauma. A drink can calm and soothe, which is why soldiers have historically been given alcohol before battle.

On the other hand, alcohol also acts as a depressant, especially when used to excess. Depression can be exacerbated.

How about memorials - do they help? O'Dempsey sees that the recent anniversary of February 22 "gave permission to talk about it again". He says that it can be "quite isolating" to feel that other people are fed up with hearing about it.

For Prosser, "every single one of us is going to have our own thoughts around the anniversary. Looking at it from a psychological perspective, there will have been many, many people who will have found the anniversary day very helpful. It lent acknowledgement to what happened, especially to those who lost loved ones. On the other hand, for some people - this is anecdotal and also from one or two people that I have spoken to, both clinically and outside of the clinical scenario - it might have been better just to have left it alone, because it brought it all back again."

Christchurch clinicians and counsellors are also getting first-hand experience in something they may not have prepared for - scenarios for which there are no real guidelines or timeframes.

"This is different from our training," O'Dempsey agrees. "In our training, the problem happens to someone else and often we're witnesses to it. This time, it was up close and personal and there was no way of pretending that 'that could never happen in my life'. The earthquake happened in all of our lives; it shook us all. You'd have to be in a very strange space to come through completely unmoved by it if you were in Christchurch."


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