You know you’re in crisis when casseroles appear unbidden on your doorstep. It’s what people do when they don’t know what else to do, right?
I dare say many casseroles have been deployed across Australia in recent months. Yes, even though it’s really hot, and even though there hasn’t necessarily been a doorstep left to leave a casserole dish upon.
I have a lot of casserole stories, because I’m a psychotherapist; so many of my patients have been through crises of a scale beyond concealment from their social networks.
Mental and physical illness and injury, grief, trauma, abuse, all these sadly common things in uncommonly perfect storms of casserole-grade suffering.
But we all know there’s a point at which the casseroles stop, usually in the months after a crisis. Is it a sort of forgetting? Or trauma fatigue? Is it ok? Or have we just stopped asking if it’s ok?
In my practice I sometimes use the idea of the “post-casserole” period, because it’s the window that I think determines so much future surviving and/or thriving.
When you are moving through a crisis, whether you began at its epicentre or were only involved at its margins, you will likely grapple with this question coming from at least one small part of you:
“Um, if it’s okay, can I just go back to doing what I was doing before, please?”
This question will be asked a lot around Australia as the heat passes and the media cycle moves on. The human urge to revert to Situation Normal is deep and strong.
And not without merit – we would be crazy to throw out all our habits in response to a crisis they played some part in. But which habits get to stay? And which ones have to go? Where is our limited energy best invested as we get back on our feet, or help someone dear back on theirs?
They’re the kind of questions that drive post-crisis psychotherapy work in my practice.
Not that therapy is the only place that healing efforts like this can go on. A good “post-casserole” friend or family member knows the value of staying steady and available, supporting you as your needs evolve after crisis.
You can be a good friend of this kind to yourself too, recognising your changing needs and seeking help accordingly, so you don’t just go right back to old habits as soon as the alert level drops.
I think our poor old half-burnt island needs that essential “post-casserole” care from us. Some activists will rightly urge us to maintain our rage, but rage alone isn’t what’s needed.
It’s more complicated than that.
Something as simple as a casserole is fine to begin with, but the best gift you can give a crisis survivor is permission for things to be complicated.
Because of course they are. Things stay complicated long after the majority of that complexity has retreated from public view.
An example: The bushfire recovery from Black Saturday in 2009 goes on still, now mostly in private. I come across swaths of regrowth both when I drive the Hume and in my work, as I meet those who were affected by that crisis, directly or peripherally.
Plus, if you know where to look, you can find the signs of Ash Wednesday 1983 in our forests. It’s never quite the same as it was, even though the shoots come out so soon after the smoke has cleared.
All that regrowth in the forests happens without thought, designed by history to burn again and again.
But we humans can do better, if we are willing to work at it. We can choose to re-approach the pain of crisis after it naturally recedes, so as best to learn its lessons.
“What do you think this crisis wrote on the wall?” I will ask patients when the time is right. Too soon and it risks overwhelming them; too late and there is less motivation to examine the lessons of crisis and chip away at change accordingly.
Right now it seems like our whole country is the wall the writing is on for the whole planet.
But I fear this moment of clarity won’t last. We are human, and hiding from pain is a big part of how we have always coped.
Though many patients of mine will stay with me as we sift through the charred rubble in search of clues to preventing future fires, others seem only able to flee.
It is important to be compassionate about this need to hide from pain, but on the issue of our planet we must be firm: change is needed, now.
Because our kids need us not to flee back to the land of Situation Normal. We have borrowed from the military the word SNAFU for good reason.
It isn’t all f-ed up, though. Not yet anyway.
And so in this summer of fire, we start with crisis survival. We eat the casserole left with good intention on the doorstep. We exercise, breathe, rest, get through the peak of the crisis.
Then – and crucially – we commit to the long haul, to not letting go of the questions posed by the crisis until they have good-enough responses to help us face our planet’s uncertain future.
It is after all, a future made for us over so many centuries and millennia before our own, by survivors of crisis.
We can do better than just survive. We can thrive, but only if our planet thrives too.