Steve Evans

Bushfire trauma haunts South Coast one year on | The Canberra Times

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A year after the bushfires, Grace Hornby is still grieving. She breaks into tears as she thinks of what she went through and what she saw. Her childhood home burnt down and it felt like her memories went up in smoke. She saw burnt birds falling from the sky and she can’t get the image out of her mind. The trauma has shattered her mental well-being. “I’ve never felt anything like it before. My body shakes and my heart feels like it is going to come out of my chest,” she said. The events of a year ago put a strain on her relationship. The family had to leave their home in Batemans Bay three times, ending up in the evacuation centre at Hanging Rock. In the panic and pressure of fire bearing down on them, she and her partner, Nick, argued over what was important to take. He wanted to take a baseball cap which had sentimental value. She rounded on him. “There were so many times when we were so angry with each other,” Grace says. In the end, a last minute change of wind saved their home but the discord of those pressurised moments remained. It very nearly destroyed their relationship. They are now working to rebuild it for their own sakes and for the sake of five-year-old Finn and two-year-old Cooper. The mother said that her oldest son still talks about the fires. “It is still very real to him,” she said. The fires didn’t create the tensions in a relationship but they brought existing tensions to the front, according to Grace. Fault lines deep down were exposed. Aware of a hidden problem across the bushfire territories, the mental health organisation SANE Australia has set up a special project to support people with “complex mental health issues”. “There was a lot of feedback to suggest there were gaps in the service,” according to Ariane Forsythe who manages the project. The gaps they detected were in support systems for people who already had illnesses like schizophrenia or who were dealing with previous trauma, perhaps involving long-running family violence. “Life after Bushfires” offers support with plain advice and counselling but also ways of keeping in contact with other people in a similar situation. The worry is that the upcoming anniversary of the fires will re-trigger trauma, according to the organisation’s deputy chief executive, Dr Michelle Blanchard. It’s a balance between remembering events but not being overwhelmed by the memory, according to Dr Blanchard. As the anniversary approaches, she urges people with serious and on-going mental issues to avoid too much news coverage. But there is help: Butch Young from Moss Vale knows about the fires and he knows about how to develop mental health. He is a hero. “I can’t stress how super proud of him,” his wife, Michelle, says. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1988. Since 2001, he has learnt how to cope with it – he says he is now “well”. With the fires a year ago, he went and helped others with mental health issues in and around Batemans Bay. “When I got home, I was exhausted. I hadn’t slept properly in weeks. You’re still there – spiritually, you’re still there. Your soul is still there,” he said. “I told the kids to stay away from me. I had to work through stuff.” He says he needed both the closeness of love but also some distance from his wife and daughters, Hope, Joy and Magic. His advice on the first anniversary was to recognise what happened. “Initially, you’ll see nothing but the pain. You’ll see the burnt trees. You’ll see houses that are no longer there,” he said. “But when you look deeper, you see green shoots, you see green grass, you see sunshine with no smoke. “The thing that gets you through is humility, people, love, understanding: the simple things in life. “You’ve got to look for the only flower and you’ve got to make it grow.”

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