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The first step to addressing any challenge is understanding the nature of the challenge. Little has been chronicled about the realities of working in recovery. Without understanding the challenges involved and the realities faced it will always be more difficult to provide relevant support. Despite best intentions we will most likely get it wrong. So what are the realities of a role supporting recovery in a disaster-impacted community?

Many described their role in recovery as one of the most meaningful they have ever been involved in. Life views, priorities and perspectives had changed, usually for the better. However, nearly all interviewed also talked about the challenges involved and costs incurred – for which they were typically unprepared and which support efforts struggled to address.

Anne Leadbeater (formerly of Murrindindi Shire Council in bushfire affected Kinglake, Victoria), in a conversation which occurred prior to this research, described the journey of disaster recovery from the perspective of an affected resident. It takes little imagination to apply this analogy to those working in recovery.

The process of recovery is akin to cumulative trauma – like carrying an increasing number of bricks. Before the event you are carrying bricks because life is busy and not without its stressors. Then the event happens and you find yourself carrying extra unexpected bricks. But over time the bricks don’t disappear, in fact they just keep getting added – you have extra financial burdens, you worry about your elderly parents and their situation, your insurance company loses your file… And three years later your knees are wobbling under this incredible load which only seems to get heavier. And then the question you are often asked, without understanding your reality, is, “It’s been three years, aren’t you over it yet?”

This analogy appeared to ring true for those with a role in recovery with sentiments expressed akin to... “Yes! That’s it! And you are asked with some kindness if you are looking after yourself so you can last the distance, but then in the same breath three more bricks are handed to you to carry! Or if you are managing your bricks (barely) you will be considered capable and given Mary’s bricks too! Or if you are struggling then you are judged as not coping or not capable yet the inhuman nature of the task and the inhumane weight of the load is not given any thought.”

It is worthwhile exploring exactly what these bricks or juggling items are – to understand how we might support someone who bears the responsibility of carrying this load, but also so that we might avoid adding bricks unnecessarily. The list of stressors are varied and numerous, but interestingly similar across contexts and cultures.

The commonly described stressors seemed to fall fairly naturally into three broad categories. Click the buttons below for more on each category.