An ‘occupational’ view of the Christchurch earthquake

The picture – what greeted us as we walked through the front door – and that sparkly stuff on the ground? It’s all my crystal in tiny sharp shards…The wooden thing you can see is the bottom of our sideboard, and to the far right, the doorway.

It’s not often I post with a specific focus on ‘occupation’ as the occupational therapy profession defines it.  This is not, I hasten to add, because I don’t think it’s important, it’s more a case of my posts being about the processes that underlie effective engagement in ‘occupation’ for people with chronic pain.

But today, in the aftermath of the horrific earthquake in Christchurch one week ago, I’m taking time to reflect on some aspects of the earthquake that people have commented on, but possibly won’t reach the attention of the media, or even health care commentators generally.  I wasn’t in Christchurch for the actual quake, we arrived home on Thursday, the second day after it, but even I have found this experience unsettling and perhaps even ‘traumatic’, to use an over-used term.

These are the things that have struck me:

Our normal routines are anchored in the rhythms of sunrise, sunset, temperature, wind, sunshine (or not).  They’re also tied to hunger, thirst, need for sleep and need to socialise.  In my return to home, I still have these routines to sustain me.

What has gone are many of the other routines that are present but taken for granted.  Things like the sound of vehicles in the morning, the thud of the newspaper as it is delivered outside, the beep of the alarm clock as it goes off in the morning.  Without power and roads that are broken and cracked, these cues are no longer present.  I wake in the quiet of a morning without vehicles.  It’s like a Sunday morning or a public holiday.

Manly Jack has already got up and out in the dark, waking to his wristwatch alarm, and heading off to Burnham Military Camp to start his day’s work with the Disaster Victim Identification Teams.  It’s a drive of about 35 minutes normally, but takes another 15 minutes longer right now, depending on the state of the roads.

Getting up used to be a relatively leisurely affair – morning paper, coffee, breakfast, blog a bit, then rush around having a shower, doing face, hair, getting dressed and getting out the door.  Now I make coffee using the gas camp cooker, no paper so I’m reading a book.  No shower, so I have a wash (with twice-boiled water – water is unsanitary at present and we need to boil it well).  I don’t bother with makeup or fussing with my hair – I’m not working currently, I’m on annual leave.

The constant rumble of heavy earthmoving equipment, along with the sound of someone’s diesel power generator and an occasional car is present all day.  This noise doesn’t stop until well after dark.  It accompanies me wherever I go, as does the dust from settling silt.  Dust is everywhere.

Things can take a lot longer now.  While cooking is no different, apart from the gas camp cooker sitting on top of the stove, cleaning takes greater priority.  Because there is no power, and the water is not safe, and we have no sewerage system (just the porta-potty!), it’s vital to keep things clean.  And I mean really clean.  This is not easy – we have two 20 litre containers of water, and a collection of old 2 litre plastic milk bottles filled with water picked up from the corner where the Church people have been providing food, water and other essentials.  That’s it for water supply.  The water shortage applies across the city, even in areas that have water… I’m using a powerful spray and making sure every surface is dried.

I wash my hands multiple times a day.  I mainly use alcohol-based hand gel so my hands are cracking.  It’s the cleaning thing – without power or water, it’s really difficult to clean up the contents of my pantry that were hurled to the floor.  Washing dishes is about using the smallest amount of water to get the maximum cleaning – and remembering to heat the water while eating so it’s ready for cleaning afterwards.  Not so different from camping, but unfamiliar in my home.

It’s difficult to get out and about to buy things like milk, bread, fruit.  While some supermarkets are open, my local one is not.  It takes longer to figure out a menu so that it’s made of things that don’t need refrigerating.  Ice is not so easy to find – I use it to keep the food chilled in the camping chilly-bin (Eski to you Ozzies).

The end of the day comes quickly.  It’s now tied more to sunset than the time TV programs finish.  It’s dark and I stop reading about 7.30pm because light has faded and the gas light isn’t bright enough to continue.  We sit in the ‘romantic’ light until it’s time to get to bed – Manly Jack usually having arrived home about 8.00pm or so.  Once again, night sounds are different.  No noisy boy racers! Just that rumble of heavy equipment until 9.30pm.

What I’ve learned is that I rely on habits and routines to keep my life organised without having to really think.  When the cues that help keep routines and habits in place are gone, it takes longer to think and plan and get organised.  When the things we take for granted such as power, water, heating, light are different – more difficult to do, take longer, use different skills – the toll is taken in fatigue, a feeling of  ‘dis-location’, confusion and a sense of both loss and derealisation.

I usually live with pretty regular routines.  They make my life much easier in that I don’t need to think ‘where did I leave my car keys?’, or ‘when do I need to get ready to go to work?’.  When everything is different including basics like water, food, power, toilet, roading, shopping – then it requires far more energy.

We call this ‘self regulation’.  The ability to organise oneself to achieve what is important, and to adapt to suit changing circumstances.  All of us develop self regulatory skills as we mature.  Some commentators go as far as to say that maturity is all about the ability to self regulate.  Without the ability to decide what is important – then proceed to engage in behaviour to support that goal or value, life can be pretty chaotic and fatiguing.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of human functioning that occupational therapists can support is the development of effective self regulatory behaviour.  And in this earthquake aftermath, let’s not forget that for most people in Christchurch, self regulatory fatigue is likely to occur.  This is when occupational therapists can (and should) be visible and available to the most vulnerable people in our community.

McClelland, M. M., Ponitz, C. C., Messersmith, E. E., & Tominey, S. Self-regulation: Integration of cognition and emotion. The handbook of life-span development, Vol 1: Cognition, biology, and methods (pp. 509-553). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Inc; US.


  1. Hello Bronwyn

    Wishing you and yours well- especially at this time, and thank-you for the ongoing thoughtful posts which despite the obvious difficult circumstances are truly appreciated (I also work in pain management)

    take time, take care. kind regards,Ruth

    1. Thank you so much Sue – and all the people who have commented and been so kind about this quake and the effects on us Cantabrians. It’s quite strange being on the ground here and out of the ‘info loop’ of the news – without power, I’m just not catching up on the way it’s all being reported. From what I can see, there is no exaggeration, just a lot of repetition, and it can’t ever replicate the dust, smells and noise of being here…

  2. A really moving account of your experience Bronnie, and as usual, beautifully articulated. I love the occupational focus of the post, and the reminder of the importance of the occupational patterns – roles, habits, activities – that so often we take for granted and how any disruption – from developmental milestones to disability to earthquakes – can alter the sense of rhythm in our lives. Take care out there – and extra big hugs to your Manly Jack, the work that he is doing must be so harrowing but is so important. X

    1. Thank you Ellen, you’re so right – anything that disrupts occupational patterns can become a challenge to identity and health. It will be interesting to discuss this with you and your colleagues – and reflect on how the occupational therapy profession might be more influential in supporting people as they cope with disruption to habits and patterns.
      Don’t worry – Manly Jack gets lots of hugs (and the occasional lick or two from Sheba-the-wonderdog!)

  3. Good to hear that you are safe even if a little insecure in the current situation. I am assuming that your house is OK even if the contents aren’t. You must have wondered what you were coming home to. Always a bed down here is you want to get away from it all. I would have to say that I was happy that I extracted your writing out of you before your left for holiday – it can’t be much of a holiday though.Thanks for sharing your experiences … is there a journal article arising out of the rubble??


    1. You did well to get my writing out Linda!! Yes, there could be an article out of this, although I’m trying not to get distrac—-oooh! is that another journal article to read?!
      PhD MUST be the focus, must, must, must!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.