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Men’s Health – Shaken!

After the country’s worst-ever natural disaster, the (mostly) men of Christchurch have been clearing away the rubble and are rebuilding and repairing the city. But not all is well under the staunch façade, as Michael Herman found out.

‘Shaken but not stirred’ is a phrase that pops up often in conversation since the season of earthquakes started on September 4, 2010. In fact it has so captured the popular spirit of the city that you’ll also see it boldly proclaimed on t-shirts and bumper stickers, defiantly telling nature to give us the worst it has to offer and to hell with it.

But for many people living in Christchurch there’s a grim reality hiding behind the chipper bravado and staunch ‘she’ll be right’ position we kiwis default to.
It’s a reality in which not just the foundations of houses have dropped or cracked or in which homes are classified unsafe for habitation or are frustratingly yet to receive a definitive classification; it is a reality where the underpinning of actual lives have been hit by emotional forces as strong, as alarming, and as devastating as the primal ones discharged underground.

A year on from the destruction wrought by the earthquake that changed life for so many in the Garden City, we’re in a much better position to understand the effect 10,000 shakes—and counting—over magnitude 2 have had on people not just on places.

Few who lived through buildings falling and people disappearing beneath the rubble, or who witnessed the devastation unfold on screens, will easily forget the key facts and the haunting images but for many people–and particularly men-the same isn’t true of the emotions (feeling states) attached to these tragic events.

For many men, feelings get in the way of life and are a distraction from actually getting on with the job of getting the job done, thus they get swept under the rug or pushed aside to be dealt with at some mythical time in the future.

Mensline facilitator Jeff Clark has noticed a general increased experience of isolation and powerlessness since the start of the earthquakes in the men who attend this enduring men’s group, with many reporting a flow-on effect of intensified frustration and diminished self-control.

“Definitely more isolated and more powerless. From there it leaps to more frustrated and from there it leaps to more angry and then you suddenly have more stressful relationships,” says Clark.

“Often they present with, for example, a child access problem but behind it is an earthquake problem. Earthquakes are a precipitator for change… maybe ‘my job has gone’ or ‘my employer has disappeared’, or ‘some of my family has moved away’.”

Clark says earthquake tension is another common effect that has been corrosive of relationships.

“I’ll hear things like ‘it’s really spooked my wife so I get shitty with her then she gets shitty with me,’ and on and on. They don’t usually come screaming ‘earthquake’, they’re complaining about the ‘bloody ex’ or so but the earthquake is there, it is a precipitator of so much illness in mental health in men in Christchurch and it will be for some years,” he says.

Clark views the earthquakes more as a magnifier of pre-existing issues than as a malevolent force directly causing feelings of anger, frustration or isolation.
“The earthquakes have focused (on what was wrong in) a relationship or on the frustrations the man might have had in his life already and it’s tweaked it up, it’s exacerbated it.”

For Sue Waight, Recovery Coordination Manager for the Social Work Department of the Salvation Army’s Earthquake Recovery unit, financial hardship is a common experience for many people who contact her team of five social workers, commonly arising from entering unemployment or being burdened with new expenses.
Activated as a new initiative under the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) in response to the September 4 earthquake, the Sallies assumed full responsibility for Waight and her team in June 2011.

Initially set up by MSD to address earthquake effects, the team largely supported families with housing and insurance issues that were a direct consequence of the quakes. Over time their work has grown to incorporate a range of issues beyond the original scope of operation.

Waight stresses the service is available to anyone not just members of Christchurch’s faith community. The social workers support the Sallies Community Ministries Centres in Belfast, Hornby, Linwood, and Sydenham, providing easy access to the greatest number of people affected by the earthquakes, as well as making home visits when requested. Additionally, the Social Work team receive referrals from external agencies and also refer on to other community supports as appropriate.

“We recognise that for some people the idea of going into somewhere like a Salvation Army Community Ministries Centre may be difficult if it has not been in their life experience before so my guys will predominantly see people in their own homes because that’s where people are most comfortable,” she says.
Lost jobs and businesses for those who were self-employed has created a group Waight refers to as the ‘new poor’. Many among them are perhaps for the first time in their lives having to seek welfare assistance, a “hugely difficult” step for those who are accustomed to living “in what may be seen as a nice house or area,” she says.

“For a start, they may not know what the support systems are and how to access them. It can be especially hard for them to come in to somewhere like our Community Ministries Centres and line up for a food parcel; for some it is just too hard and so they go without.”

And with more people out of work and others having to travel further to work if their workplace has shifted or if they’ve had to get another job, many families are also experiencing increased costs to their basic living expenses because of the earthquakes.

New or greater financial hardship has been worsened for many by the need to buy appliances to compensate for periods without electricity or from using extra electricity to keep warm in a draughty house during a bitter winter. And, adds Waight, there are also the associated medical bills from living in a home that no longer meets weather safety and healthy living requirements.

While these experiences are not unique to dads, men can generally be more inclined to withdraw into themselves, locking up their feelings about how their lives have been affected by the earthquakes and not reaching out for support until their situation has become critical.

“I think men can put a lot of expectation on themselves to be the strong one, to be the supporter, to be there for people to lean on. But you can only be leant on for a certain amount of time before you fall over,” she says.

Self-care is an important factor in caring for others and dads need to ensure they have in place support systems they can activate when they’re feeling depleted, when they need a break, or when they need a hand up.

Stress, particularly ongoing stress over a prolonged period, can fuel frustration, depression, and anger, with tempers fraying more easily and more often. Small things that may not have elicited an uncontrolled response before September 4 and the stress of subsequent earthquakes, might now spark an outburst, or worse, with stress levels across town up and rising.

Knowing how you’re being affected by earthquake stress and checking in with yourself when things start to feel rough or aggravating are useful ways to avoid conflict with partners, children, and colleagues, as well as the troubling feelings of regret that usually follow heated exchanges.

“It’s about learning to hear that inner voice (that says:) ‘I’m starting to bubble here; I’m starting to get angry.’ And learning: ‘How do I manage this? I need to walk away, I need to acknowledge to people that I can’t stay in this situation, I need to go for a walk around the block or find a way to clear things for myself before it gets to the point where I get really angry.’”

Dr Tienie Bekker, who specialises in trauma counseling, agrees that it is much easier to diffuse conflictual situations if you’ve already recognised you’re feeling more stressed and hence are more vulnerable to fly off the handle.

Dr Bekker suggests the simple strategy of actually stepping back physically when you feel the heat rising and anger starting to boil, something that’s much easier to do if you’ve already acknowledged to yourself and others the presence of increased stress in your life and the greater likelihood this extra stress could trigger moments of fury.

While taking a step back might seem like a questionable pop-psychology manoeuvre, he says brain research has shown that the act of moving away, even by one step, from the space in which conflict is arising commences an emotional power-down and creates the opportunity for both parties quite literally to get out of each other’s face and for feelings to cool down.

“The big thing is beforehand to acknowledge that ‘I am more stressed and that conflict might therefore be a bit easier to develop,’ so that when it does happen you can say (to yourself) ‘wow! I might have been expecting this,’ and immediately step back from the situation,” he says, adding that we have to be “very mindful that quite a lot of the kids in Christchurch have also been traumatised by the earthquakes,” says Dr Bekker.

To be effective in their role as father, men need an outlet for their feelings so they can deal with the emotions and reactions increased stress has introduced to their lives, as much for their own good as for the good of their kids. But as Waight points out, this can be hard for many in a society that is still subject to “big boys don’t cry” social conditioning.

“For Fathers – as for anyone – it is important to find at least one person they can talk honestly and openly to about what is happening for them, someone you can really trust with your feelings. For some this may be difficult, but there are professionals such as social workers and counsellors who can provide the listening ear that many need,” she says.

“Don’t feel ashamed if you need this help… many who have never needed support services are accessing them at this time.”

Next: Around the World With Kids

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