When I went to the first anniversary of Black Saturday in Marysville, we sat in shock and mourning on a green oval in a black town that had been levelled flat by Australia’s most catastrophic fires. It was like sitting on the moon.
The landscape was collapsed and featureless. It was as disorientating as finding yourself at the end of a line and realizing that there’s no end-point in sight.
Standing in Marysville for the ten-year anniversary, there’s both the feeling of being caught in a circle and that something is finally ending – like the quiet closing of the door on a past that at times had felt less like real life and more like a bad dream on replay.
That’s one of the crunch factors of Post Traumatic Stress after a natural disaster: you get to re-live the bad day and its aftermath over and over, and you never know what the triggers are going to be. It’s like someone else is holding the remote and they have full control of colour, speed and volume, too.
When it came to PTSD, I received two distinct diagnoses – first a positive, then a negative one.
The positive diagnosis was made by my GP. I went into the city to see him several weeks after the fires. I told him of the problems I was having going about my everyday life and he responded by scheduling a raft of appointments with specialists within a three-month period.
The negative diagnosis came from Doctor X, who visited late on a Sunday night as an out-of-hours home call. He examined my pulsing toothache and found nothing untoward. I suggested that maybe I had been grinding my teeth due to my nightmares and replays and PTSD. He found this information infuriating. He had come from a war-torn nation and declared that it was negative that I had any trauma from the fires but a positive that we all took mental health too seriously. PTSD didn’t exist, he scolded, ending the consultation by writing a prescription so inappropriate and addictive that the pharmacist forbid me from filling it out.
The trouble with my PTSD diagnosis is perhaps unsurprising. Back then, PTSD and mental health weren’t such a trending topic. It was much like the fire advice itself: it was considered a fair choice to either ‘stay or go’ in fire conditions, so people had planned to fight the flames because we all thought that ‘people save houses and houses save people.’
I figured that maybe Dr X was right and PTSD didn’t exist. And anyway, my daily experience provided me with a much simpler term for it: exhaustion.
It was an exhaustion borne from the sheer impossibility of trying to live two lives at once. There was the past that I had on constant redial because I couldn’t unwind the puzzle that kept twisting in my mind, that somehow a whole town in Australia had burnt to the ground and disappeared.
When I had stood with my family at Marysville’s smoking edges praying for a bit of news, communications had fallen shockingly silent. The police station was locked up tight and we’d had to drag the ladies at the Tourist Bureau out to the street to alert them that a fire was closing in on us. Meanwhile, the pool was still open and the locals were sunbaking and swimming.
At the same time as I’m trapped in this scene that plays on a loop, I try to live an everyday life full-time back in Melbourne because I’m just too terrified of Marysville to go back. Not only I had my positive and negative PTSD diagnoses, but I was also running two lives.
When I went to the local supermarket and the checkout server asked me how I was today, it forced me into a double-take. Over in potatoes, I’d been deep in my car in thick smoke. Here at the checkout, I snapped back to an ordinary life of vanilla ice cream and little party cones.
In the car doing school pick up I was fine, but take me out of my comfort zone, take me on an errand too far away from, and I start getting flashbacks. I’m hyper vigilant to clouds, which always seem to darken to a smoky haze that tinges red. Next, the trees start to tilt and sway from a fast and fierce wind change and I’m re-living the flames roaring down on a group of people. My car will end up in a side street, the windscreen wipers unable to erase the stream of tears.
The only place I can begin to marry up my two selves is in Marysville itself, which is undergoing a full reconstruction. When I finally return after two years of avoiding the place, I pick my season carefully. It’s midwinter when I chat on the frosty back lawn to a friendly local with the unlikely name of Mark Heart.
Mark Heart is a man of his word. He reminds me of an older, wiser Charlie Brown, but without Snoopy. He has a wide, open face with a smile that crinkles. Today, in my garden, he’s got my back but on Black Saturday he had the back of the whole town.
When it became obvious on that catastrophic day that something was circling above and closing in on us, Mark Heart went home and put on a bright orange jumpsuit. Surveying his garish image in the mirror, he took the slightest breath in and murmured ‘game on.’ He then returned to the town centre as a visible beacon – an SES volunteer seemingly happy to step into a nightmarish role on the day other services had shut their doors.
Mark Heart herded as many ducklings under his wing as he could but, inevitably, he couldn’t protect them all. There was no prize for sticking around as a town stalwart. He physically survived the day but was headed for a trauma that stalks him to this day and that he cannot hide, try as he might.
‘Struth, I bloody cried in a government office,’ he tells me. ‘A grown man, too.’ He shakes his head at the memory of it. It’s a confusing thought, one that clearly astonishes him almost as much as seeing a whole town burn to the ground.
I drop my guard and tell him that I’ve been struggling with the aftermath.
‘Yep,’ he says, knowingly. ‘There’s a few, no counselling, that slipped between the cracks.’
He’s developed a friendly, jocular relationship with his own Black Saturday demons. To my surprise, I learn that nearly the whole town have. They’ve all got it. PTSD is now the measles of the bush.
He laughs at this, scraping his dirt-ingrained hands gently on his khakis.
‘You’re no different to anyone else in this town,’ he reassures me.’ We’re all on the same page.’ He sighs wearily, though, betraying a hint of bone-dead fatigue.
After two years of avoiding it, I return to the deeply scarred town on a part-time basis. Marysville and I have started going through a rebuilding process at approximately the same speed. Sometimes there’s progress, and sometimes it skids to a standstill for months at a time. Winter sets in and things get very dark and muddy.
Other times, progress appears suddenly and in unexpected fashion. Like when out-of-town planners made out-of-town decisions with a large pot of money and suddenly a new concrete stadium was dropped next to our tiny cricket oval. This causes much merriment to the rival Kinglake team when they arrive in Marysville for a summer match. ‘All future fixtures to be scheduled to Marysville,’ they roar. ‘It’s like playin’ at the bloody MCG.’
Then, somehow, the years collapse and a town’s gone up and I’m in a new Marysville, facing the ten-year milestone of the Black Saturday disaster. We gather first at the church, packed tight in the steamy humidity of a threatening storm. Ten years on from the fires and rain threatens our big parade. There’s barely breathing room in the chapel.
Then we file over to Gallipoli Oval. The one-minute silence sounds. The whole town moves over to the rotunda next to the creek and shares a community dinner in the open air. We talk into the night. Laughter sometimes punctuates the balmy air.
Mark Heart, of course, is there, in a blue uniform this time, surveying and checking the crowd, with a word or three for everyone. Tonight, he’s low-key, even relieved, like he’s successfully got a group of people into a recovery position and they’ve all let out a collective exhale. ‘I think we’ve finally put it all to bed,’ he says definitively.
That’s the thing about Mark Heart: he’s definitive. He picks up on the pulse of the town.
He gets the rhythm of things, the endless ups and downs until it’s ‘same-old, same-old.’
But on this tenth anniversary, it feels like a line has been drawn in the sand. It tells me that cycles don’t have to repeat in an endless loop. Life has stopped fragmenting and there’s a celebration of regrowth even as we carefully remember the past. Today, ten feels like a full circle.