Guest Blog by Jolie Wills
Okay, this may sound a little odd, but it strikes me that working in recovery is a lot like first-time parenthood.
When you embark on the journey you know it will be one of the most meaningful and valuable roles you will play, but also one of the most stressful. If you are lucky you might know others who have been there before who can speak of the challenges, but this will provide you with an incomplete appreciation of the magnitude and nature of the task ahead. Nothing can really prepare you for the relentlessness, the sleeplessness, the exhaustion, the anxiety, and, hopefully, the satisfactions.
Most people who work in disaster recovery are working within their own communities and so, more often than not, have not walked this path before. I count myself in this category. And so we embark into what is for us, unchartered territory, meeting challenges that are complex and novel, stretching our creative thinking abilities, and chasing a forever moving and morphing target. As with parenting, just when you think you have finally worked out the solution to the current challenge, a new challenge presents itself. You know that what will work for today may be irrelevant to the needs of next month or next year. And truth be told, as satisfying as this work can be, it also has the potential to be downright scary. I have found myself over the last three years perched on a precarious seesaw teetering between excitement and terror.
Not having done this before, how will we know for sure that we are up to the task? In reality, we don’t – not until we come out the other end, whatever or whenever that may be. And so, entrusted with this role, we want to prove ourselves to be capable – not just to others but to ourselves. Given this pressure, how difficult it can be then to admit that there are times when the sheer relentless and enormity of the task threatens to overwhelm us. And how refreshing it can be to learn that other parents (or recovery workers) we respect and emulate, have faced these same challenges and feelings too – that this is an expected and normal part of the process and not in any way a reflection on our capabilities.
In a conversation with a wonderfully committed woman who works with residents in temporary accommodation in a tsunami-impacted community near Sendai, the relief of this realisation was palpable.
“I do the best I can. I try to make the right decisions, but how do I know what I am doing will be the right thing? I worry. And I have been doubting and blaming myself and thinking that I am weak. Now you are telling me that other people feel these things too? I realise now that I am human. I feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders.”
So much so that I was invited to dinner and asked to please share the same sentiments with a colleague who had experienced similar worries.
Just like this dedicated woman, as parents we ruminate over decisions made, or potential missteps along the way. I am reminded that no matter how hard we try, we will not always get it right. This does not make us incapable – just human. Besides, have you ever met a perfect parent?
And just like in parenthood, there is the constant feeling that whatever challenge you are now facing is a new one. Parenthood and recovery are humbling. Both keep us feeling like novices – no matter how far along the path we find ourselves, we are still learning. Sometimes when the path ahead feels daunting, I have found it really helps to turn around for a moment. As parents, whether we have a three month old infant, a tantruming toddler or a tempestuous teenager, even though right now whatever challenge we are facing may be new, stretching our experience and knowledge and sometimes leaving us feeling inadequate – when we look back we are reminded of how far we have come and how much we have learned.
In recent meetings with phenomenal people with decades of experience in multiple disasters my training wheels have felt as large as tractor tyres. Yet as share insights and experiences, it becomes clear, that as much as we in Canterbury are still learning because our recovery continues, we have also developed and acquired knowledge through our experience thus far. It is empowering to stop and reflect and realise that we too have valid and valuable knowledge to contribute. So when the darling toddler is tantruming and you feel like shutting yourself in the pantry (I really did do that at one point) or the demands of recovery feel overwhelming, it might help to take a moment to turn around, look back, and celebrate all that has been learned and achieved. Take a moment to savour those achievements, and that hard earned knowledge. Go ahead – turn around!
Jolie Wills led the psychosocial recovery for two years for New Zealand Red Cross in earthquake impacted Canterbury. Jolie is now working as the Psychosocial Knowledge Sharing and Research Advisor working to learn from, capture and inform some of the psychosocial aspects of recovery.
Awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship, Jolie visited communities and organisations with experience working in disaster recovery in Australia, Japan, Europe and the United States over 7 weeks in May and June 2014 with the aim of learning:
How do we support those people who are working so hard to support long term recovery often whilst impacted themselves?