Embers of pain stir in young hearts

BLACK SATURDAY – ‘There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.’ —Graham Greene

MATTHEW is an outdoors boy. He likes fishing, his scooter, his motorbike. Aged 10, he swims and plays basketball and has a dry sense of humour. On Black Saturday, he was eight. That afternoon, he and his mother left their house to take refuge with family. While others fought the firestorm roaring outside, Matthew was told to shelter inside. “What do you want me to do, Mum?” he demanded.
“Once he got past his initial terror, he was right into it,” says his mother, Tania*. “He was still frightened but he kept himself busy.” He put towels under doors and fetched wet face-washers for other distressed children as they all choked on the smoke.
When the fire passed, the house they had been protecting was safe, as were they. But a bewildered Matthew still found himself encircled by loss. His home and everything in it had been burned to the ground. His grandparents had lost their home, which had been the much-loved hub of the family for decades. His school was gone. His neighbours and two schoolfriends had been killed. The landscape of his life — the bushland around Kinglake — was a blackened ruin.
The door to the future had opened.
For Matthew, it was a future strewn with panic attacks. With choking fits that made it hard for him to eat. With nightmares about fire, in the early days, which were followed by dreams of being chased, or of being trapped, or of losing his mother. Even during the day he was often tense. He rarely laughed. He shrank away when anyone mentioned Black Saturday. Young as he was, he understood enough to know he was struggling. He told his mother: “I think I’m going crazy.”
That’s a scary thing for any parent to hear. It’s even scarier for parents who are struggling themselves.
Two years after the Black Saturday fires — the anniversary is on Monday — the physical world is beginning to heal. Trees are leafy and paddocks are lush and neat new houses have sprung up; not enough for everyone to be back under their own roofs, but enough to be a heartening sign of progress.
Emotional wounds can take longer. In bushfire areas, there are still young children wetting the bed, and having nightmares and insomnia. Some have even talked of killing themselves, at an age when kindergarten is only just behind them and the very concept should be foreign. Older children have been caught nicking antidepressants from their mother’s supply in the hope that a single “happy pill” will stop them feeling so sad.
There are children who become hysterical at the sight of a red sunset because it reminds them of flames in the sky. When mist swirled across a wintry road one morning, students on a school bus screamed because they feared it was smoke.
Bushfire-affected teenagers are showing strain too. Lesley Bebbington is a local mother who began a teen youth group in Kinglake after realising that many were coming home from school and locking themselves alone in their rooms night after night.
She says: “We are really concerned at the moment because there are a lot of kids who have just now started to experience their trauma. There are high levels of truancy and more kids accessing welfare officers now than at any time since the fire. That gels with the trauma model, which says that for some people, years two to four are the worst.
“We also noticed last year there was an increase in the use of alcohol and drugs, promiscuity — definitely an increase in that risky behaviour. Kids are talking about suicide, and ‘What’s the point?’ — both face-to-face and online with each other. They just feel there’s not any future so you may as well go the full max and not think about the consequences.”
At the heart of all these problems lies a force with which modern psychology is starting to come to grips: disaster trauma in children.
Children touched by the fires had their first encounter with mortality long before they were ready to make sense of it. Perhaps they nearly died themselves; perhaps friends or family actually did. To that mourning, and fear of sudden death, add the loss of a home and a whole order of life, as well as parents who are themselves distraught and distracted by having to rebuild, and you have a potent mix of pathogens. Survivors of the recent floods and the Queensland cyclone will face similar problems. The good news is that much is now known about how to help children heal.
Dr Paul Valent is a Holocaust survivor and a retired psychiatrist who specialised in trauma. He says it works this way: “Something major has happened that’s implanted in the brain. It’s like a big, dark, gravitational force. Everything has imploded in there. It’s invisible but it’s got enormous energy. You can’t think about it, you can’t talk about it, and you don’t have words for it. It’s overwhelming.”
He says that within weeks of suffering the trauma, the person begins to cut off from feelings about it that are too painful. Those feelings might be expressed instead in physical symptoms. In children, that might be bedwetting, stomach ache or headache, or through behaviour such as screaming or clinging to a parent. Very young children will
re-enact trauma through drawings and play. Valent says a survey in South Australia after the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983 found 23 per cent of children in a bushfire community had psychiatric problems, and that in one kindergarten, fire games were still the most popular games 10 months afterwards.
There is likely to be misplaced guilt over what the person did or did not do during the crisis, Valent says, with children particularly prone to blaming themselves. After Ash Wednesday, one girl believed she had caused the whole disaster: “Magical thinking is more prominent in children. She had wished harm to someone, and harm had come.”
He says adults and children “don’t join the dots [over emotional problems causing the physical symptoms] because behind that lies thoughts like, ‘Life has no meaning because I didn’t save so-and-so’ or ‘because I killed so-and-so’. So they disconnect parts of their minds: emotions, thoughts. But when you kill off parts of yourself, you can’t negotiate what you will kill off. If you kill off guilt, you also kill off love. If you cut off from fear, you experience psychic numbing. You can’t be loving and creative and whole any more.”
Young Matthew blamed himself later for not having been brave enough during the fire, his mother, Tania, says. “He felt a lot of guilt. He felt like he wasn’t being brave because he had cried at one point. He was, in fact, amazingly brave but he didn’t want to hear that. He was being very hard on himself.”
Hardest for both of them was Matthew’s loss of faith in her ability to protect him. In the early days, he would ask what if they had done this or that during the fire, and the outcome had been different. She told him she would never have let him be hurt. He retorted that the parents of dead children had probably said that too.
Principal Jane Hayward is looking after a school full of children who have trouble feeling safe, even though the new Strathewen primary, cut into a hillside overlooking the once-devastated valley, is built to withstand near-apocalypse conditions: huge water tanks, a sprinkler system, metal shutters on all windows and doors, GPS positioning in case helicopter water-bombing is needed. “We can go into complete lockdown,” says Hayward.
Half the students here lost their homes — some were convinced they were moments from death as houses burned down around them — and four parents and several grandparents were killed. Many others were displaced because their homes were too damaged to live in, and the school itself was incinerated. “The children have experienced so much trauma, and their individual stories are so extreme, that it’s going to be a long haul,” Hayward says.
She went to bushfire workshops and was discouraged to hear that families “would be fine after three months”: that’s not what she was seeing. It was more than a year later, when she met a psychotherapist experienced in child trauma, that Hayward learned more.
“The kids have developed ‘hyper-vigilance’ because they know that in the blink of an eye, your world can be turned upside down and changed forever.” This means that when they are told a parent has phoned, their first reaction is fear: “Is everything all right?”
While the school still has high expectations of academic performance, that has had to be tempered with understanding of new problems. “What we found with learning is that children seemed to be chugging along and learning normally. And then you would do a test, or score a piece of work, and wonder, ‘What have I done wrong?’ because there were obvious learning gaps.” The psychotherapist explained to Hayward that after trauma there are often Swiss cheese-type holes in concentration, exacerbated by tiredness from lack of sleep — a phenomenon locals call “bushfire brain”.
Sleep is a precious commodity right across bushfire communities. Says Hayward, “On a windy night when the wind roars through [sounding like a bushfire], no one sleeps. The sound is enough to trigger the fear.”
And then comes the occasional crisis when it becomes clear what is at the heart of an individual child’s distress. Bebbington tells of a boy who had a flashback to when his family was fleeing the fire: “He suddenly remembered that when his dad stopped the car, to tell the mother and the rest of the family in the car behind that the road was blocked by a fallen tree, he had felt his dad had left him to die. He had a complete meltdown, out of the blue.”
She says: “I defy anybody to match the resilience of my community and the kids in it, but just because they are resilient and keep going every day doesn’t mean they’re not extremely sad and traumatised.”
At Whittlesea Secondary College, 19 members of the school community died in the fires, including four students and two whole families, as well as parents, staff and school councillors. Sixty families and seven staff lost their homes. A survey found that 392 of the students had been directly affected in some way.
Principal Terry Twomey says: “If you come into the school, you wouldn’t notice anything. There’s plenty of routine and lots of terrific things going on. But there is a lot happening under the surface too. Many are missing friends they lost in the fires and many are missing not living where they used to live. There’s a whole lot of frustration over the rebuild, and there’s all of the financial and relationship issues that have emerged . . . You can never listen too much.”
He says staff are working hard to try to keep students connected to school, because they know they are at risk. “Ash Wednesday data found a lot of young people became disengaged from learning and didn’t go on to tertiary education at all, and there were some significant mental health issues for that cohort down the track . . . They need to see purpose and a future for themselves.”
It sounds like a discouraging cocktail of troubles. But Ruth Wraith, a former head of the department of child psychotherapy at the Royal Children’s Hospital and the trauma specialist who helped the Strathewen teachers, is neither surprised nor alarmed to hear such stories.
Parents should not fear that children are irreparably damaged when they scream at red sunsets, she says, or even when a very young child talks of suicide. “These are symptoms, or reactions, that are messages from the child about what the meaning of the traumatic experience is to that individual child. To understand, we need to know what need the symptom is fulfilling.”
Of talk of suicide, she says: “What does the child mean when he says those words? It might have a very different meaning for a child than it does for adults. It might mean they want to get further away from trigger reminders, or from fighting in the family. They might want to ensure they will never face bushfire again. It may be that somebody has died and they have overheard an adult conversation that this person is at peace now, so perhaps they have concluded: ‘If I die, I will be at peace.’ ”
The same principle applies to understanding troubled teenagers who are relying too much on sex, drugs or alcohol. “In adolescence, it’s normal to feel immortal and invulnerable. That’s why they take the risks they do. Part of adolescence is learning you’re not Superman; learning what the limits are, in a way that allows you to understand the realities of life, without losing your curiosity and your sense of adventure. These teenagers had all that stripped away in an instant, without the chance to develop a gradual understanding of their mortality.”
She says sex for some might be like an addictive drug, an instant good feeling; or a chance to be close to someone without getting involved; or quasi-medicinal — something to numb the pain. US research suggests teenagers who have experienced trauma are more likely to marry and have children young, she says, either because they think they “may as well get on with life and live it in a hell of a hurry because there could be no tomorrow, or else because of a desperate need to be close to someone, to be held and understood”.
If parents are worried about their children or their families, they should act on that awareness and seek advice, she says.
For Matthew, counselling was the key to recovery. Tania says: “He hated counselling. He used to sit with his arms folded, looking out the window. Then one day she said: ‘Tell me about the friends that you lost.’ ”
Matthew began with his schoolfriends, but the dam really burst when he started talking about one of his neighbours — “The shape of his arms when he used to lift Matthew over the fence, and how strong he was, and how funny he was.
“Then he turned to me and said: ‘And I should have gone to his funeral!’ It had been one of the first funerals, and we were struggling, and I had thought: ‘We won’t do this.’
“And quick as a flash, the counsellor said: ‘You need to have your own funeral for him. You plan it and you conduct it the way you want to.’
“So Matthew invited me and my mum and dad. We all had a balloon. We all wrote a message that we kept private and we tied them to the bottom of the strings.
“Then we let them go at the gravesite of the man and his wife. Then Matthew asked my parents lots of questions about the funeral. His main question was: ‘Were they in the same coffin together?’ They said: ‘Yes, they were.’
“Then he just picked up overnight. I noticed he started to laugh more and enjoy things more. The biggest change was when he was faced with information about the fire, or people were talking about what happened to them. He is now able to hear it without it affecting him.”
Her boy is different to how he might have been had there been no fire. He is more perceptive, more compassionate; a little wise beyond his years, she feels.
Jane Hayward says the same of her charges at Strathewen, who are almost painfully attuned to suffering they see on television, such as the Christmas Island boat disaster, or the New Zealand mine catastrophe. “They’ve got an incredible insight into death and loss. It’s a very adult understanding. They have such insight, and empathy . . . They have a real social conscience, a strong need to do good in the world, to fund-raise for our sponsor child. They haven’t got that childhood innocence, where you can just fluff around and have a good time. They are going to be amazing adults. I think they will change the world.”
* The names of Matthew and Tania have been changed to protect Matthew’s privacy.
For help or information, visit www.dhs.vic.gov.au/em/bushfire-recovery/emotional-support, or call Lifeline on 131 114.