Voice of Real Australia: Think the Summer of the Not-So-Random Apocalypse didn't impact you? Think again

Voice of Real Australia is a regular newsletter from Australian Community Media, which has journalists in every state and territory. Sign up here to get it by email, or here to forward it to a friend. Today's newsletter is written by ACM digital news editor Janine Graham.

Think you might have "survivor guilt"? Photo: Shutterstock

Think you might have "survivor guilt"? Photo: Shutterstock

How are you? No, really - how are you?

Let's cast aside the usual day-to-day small talk and social norms when we ask someone by rote and ignore the answer. Let's get real about this.

Why now? Because everything right now feels so damn abnormal.

Barely a day of 2020 has gone by without Australians having to face up to something completely out of the box.

Fire. Rain. Dust. Hail. Presumably, pestilence is next and with the most serious outbreak of desert locusts in 25 years spreading across east Africa right now, well, errr, let's not even go there.

Regardless of your first-hand involvement in any of the above events, there's something else gnawing away - and it seems like it's just not me.

I've been "involved" but largely untouched by the Summer of the Not-So-Random Apocalypse. And I feel bad about it.

Yes, my neck of the woods had its own fire crisis early in the piece but I'm not alone in thinking, by comparison to so many, we got off lightly.

Of course, this is nonsense - utter nonsense. There was a tragic death, there was loss on a heartbreaking scale and there will continue to be hardship for an inordinate amount of time.

Suzie West lost her home in bushfires on the NSW Mid-North Coast in November. BlazeAid is helping her rebuild.

Suzie West lost her home in bushfires on the NSW Mid-North Coast in November. BlazeAid is helping her rebuild.

Yet when a friend admitted to getting teary at scenes from Mallacoota and the NSW South Coast and losing it when Kangaroo Island virtually exploded, I got it.

No amount of donating, of collecting scraps of material for people cleverer than me to sew into animal pouches, of signing up to take a more active role in local groups will make it right.

It's survivor guilt.

I've stayed safe while all around me has burnt to a cinder (or been flooded out, covered under a carpet of red dust, hailed into submission).

Or, even worse: I didn't suffer enough.

Consider another friend who, with her partner, faced down an enormous fire for weeks on end. They knew it would arrive and inevitably it did. In her words: "We got out of it OK." Not all her neighbours were so fortunate, many lost everything.

They all expended the same amount of adrenaline and exhausted the same emotional wells. Yet they felt they shouldn't go to the community's recovery barbecue over the weekend, because "there were so many people who are worse off than us".

They felt they didn't really belong there because their perceived suffering wasn't on the same scale as others.

So, here's the rub: it is.

We all know it's not a competition and that everyone's experience is as relevant as the next. But ... there's always that "but".

Chris Bogusis lived through the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. Photo: Tara Trewhella

Chris Bogusis lived through the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. Photo: Tara Trewhella

Chris Bogusis was diagnosed with PTSD after surviving the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria. Yes, he survived, but his life was inexorably changed.

"It took seven years for me to be diagnosed and it only came because of an accidental conversation with a friend who was a trauma counsellor," Chris said. "In those seven years I lost my marriage, my business, my house - I lost everything because being undiagnosed is an incredibly difficult thing to go through."

But he, too, is mindful of the long-term, silent damage.

"... it becomes dangerous when you put yourself in a situation where your nervous system is going into flight or fight and you don't deal with the emotions after."

And that is what we all need to remember - whether you have dealt with the situation at the frontline or from a distance.

Talk to your loved ones, talk to acquaintances and strangers; access mental health services and, most importantly, listen.

Janine Graham

Digital news editor, ACM

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