...reflections from a Compassionate Listener

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Life near the Gaza Border

Life and Trauma Treatment near the Gaza Border
(photos by Leah Green and Ellen Greene - below, Gaza Wall and Border)

On June 3rd, our Compassionate Listening delegation visited Shaar HaNegev Psychological Services Center, located at Sapir College in Sderot (near the Gaza border). This is the most important psychological center in the Northwest Negev for those suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They also have an educational unit that works with the schools, kindergardens, and preschool children, including physiotherapy and occupational therapy.
Tvi, Fajerman, Senior Clinical Psychologist and General Director
There are 230 therapists working in this project. We’re studying a lot about what happens here. We have no access to Gaza, we tried – we wanted to help train trauma specialists there too, but we are denied access. We know that the suffering in Gaza is more than here.
I work here at the Center in Sderot, but I don’t live here. So at night I am safe. Sometimes we have questions, what does it mean to work in this kind of psychotherapy - sometimes you’re with your client working and suddenly you have a rocket alarm…all the therapists and all the clients and all the staff run into the shelter and have very interesting meetings and discussions there.

When the rockets fall, and you go to the site and try to help, you also pick up “Acute Stress Response.” What happens with those who help? The helpers run to the site – with an illusion as if they are totally safe. Five years ago a person was wounded and we saw that the helpers returned with a feeling that they really helped a lot, and that it was something they were removed from. We had a meeting a few days later, and I asked them how this experience was for them. And suddenly some of them started to cry. We see this phenomenon that the helper becomes “superhuman” and loses all fear as they are helping. We work with them to return them to their normal state – the first step is to realize that they suffered too.
We think a lot about ongoing trauma…The situation that we are in is not like September 11th in the United States - one very traumatic event, and you treat people for post traumatic stress. Here, there is no “post” – it’s ongoing traumatic stress disorder. I treated a 4 year old, and in one of the last sessions, there was a rocket attack. She jumped, and she looked at me, and I kept my balanced attitude. Just seeing the mother or the care-giver staying calm, the child will stay calm too. We accomplished wonderful work with this family, and one year later, a Qassem Rocket fell on their home and destroyed part of the home. The next year a third rocket fell and wounded the father. At times like this I ask myself, what am I doing? How can I help when there is no end to the trauma?

Or Tal, Staff Psychologist
I’ve worked here for six years. I have two small children. I live in Kibbutz nearby.
I had an experience here a year ago, during the war in Gaza. In the war, every time when I met with parents and children, I really identified with them, but not totally, because at 3:00pm or 4:00pm I would go home and be safe, since I do not live here where people have experienced the worst of the rocket attacks. But we received bullet-proof vests and helmets and it was clear to me that I would continue my work – continue coming to the center.
I was in the car driving when a rocket alarm went off. My kids were asleep in the car. I had 1 minute to get to a shelter (here at Sapir College, you have 15 seconds to get to a shelter, just to show you it matters where you live). In that one minute, I had to choose what to do. You have no control of what will happen. I was screaming at my 5 year old to wake up and I took my small son into the house. This was a very crucial experience for me, not just to empathize with the people I work with, but to feel it in my entire body. After that, there was no question that I can identify with what people go through here…

Shimona, Educational Psychologist
I started working here 8 years ago and as of 6 years ago, I now live in a kibbutz close to the Center. It’s terrifying when the rocket alarm goes off. It literally says “red color, red color….” Even small children, age 2 or 3, know that they have to get to a shelter. When I look at my children, in a way it makes me feel proud, but in another way, I have to ask myself hard questions. Why am I living in a place where I’m exposing my kids to this danger? In the difficult times, as I’m driving in my car, or walking along a street or in a park, literally every 200 meters, the thought comes to my mind, “if the alarm goes off now, where will I run to?” Depending on where I am I may have 15 seconds or a minute. So it’s a constant process in my mind.
I don’t want to talk about politics – I know the Gazans suffer much more than we do…
Three years ago, I gave birth to a child. I also had a 6 year old. I was near a safe place in a park when the rocket alarm went off, and I had 15 seconds to get to a safe place. I had a 1 month-old baby. What will I do? I told my friend “Take the baby” – I knew my friend knew what to do. And then I ran again to my older child to see that she was safe, but I knew I was out of time. It was the worst ten seconds in my life. I know it sounds strange, but those ten seconds confirmed my decision to stay and live here. I don’t think I can explain exactly why. For me, it confirmed that there is no safe place – it’s an illusion we try to tell ourselves in life – that we can create safety.

At the beginning of our work here, we taught guided imagery with the kids. We told them to “go to a safe place,” and the kids would say, “but there is no safe place.” So we changed the language to a “calmer place, when you feel good about yourself.” When I accept that there is no true “safe space”, I am forced to see that this moment is all I truly have. I can bring love and beauty to the world in every moment. Living here reminds me of my higher purpose – I want to love, to do good in the world.

The main problem here is the ongoing trauma. Sometimes we’ve had 50 qassem rockets per day. We have no theories for ongoing trauma. So we’re inventing it. The rocket alarms started 5 years ago.  
I had a patient recently who was 5 years old – she lived in Sderot, the most frequently bombed city. She wouldn’t use red in her paintings or in her language, because the alarm literally screams “Red alert, red alert”. So she had to block out the word “red” entirely.
In my psychologist’s hat, I can look and feel strong, but it’s a very different story as a mother. Being a psychologist can give me a feeling of safety and strength. I have a role, a helper…but as a parent, it’s completely different. When my young son was one year old, I picked him up during a rocket alarm and ran to a shelter. I was out of breath and panting. When we got inside, I looked at him, and he was panting exactly like I was. The kids mirror exactly what we do.

Why am I choosing to live here? Here, the community is highly important. As an educational psychologist, I believe that mental health is in community. There’s a sense of not being alone here. In difficult times for example, we prefer to eat in the park – we eat together. It’s less safe than to be at home, but we feel that sense of safety with each other. There are always people to talk with and share your experiences.
Many people live and also work here. It’s hard to always do the right thing in our jobs. There was a bomb alarm once, here at Sapir College where our Center is. Everyone knew where the rocket fell. Many of the teachers panicked and left their students and ran to their children, who are in day care or school here. The school needed so much assistance at that time. It’s not right to judge those teachers – it’s a natural reaction. Some of them were treated like traitors….we did a lot of work in the teacher’s lounge to bring healing to that situation.

When there’s a rocket attack, first, we go to the place of the attack. We help the people to vent – we let them speak - what were they thinking; what were they doing…what were they wearing. Next, we help them to normalize their experience – letting them know that whatever they did was okay – yelling, crying, peeing in their pants, etc. Saying it’s okay. If they are teachers, we talk about what they might expect to happen with their students, down the road. Often, the ones who used to talk a lot, now become silent, and the quiet ones become talkative. We tell them what to expect and what to look for.
I wanted to assist people from the Gaza strip who wanted to come for trauma training. They even asked me if I agreed to take part in it. But we were prevented from doing this.

PTSD is a felt sense of being injured or in danger of death. Israel is not safe in general. If I live in Jerusalem, there could be a suicide bus bombing, and if I live in the north, I could get hit from a Hizbullah rocket from Lebanon. You find a cavalier attitude – “drink today, we have no idea what will happen tomorrow.” We know that much of this comes from the experience in the holocaust and the famine and hard times in Europe and even here in the early days of the country.

In Sderot, very old kids, sometimes teenagers, want to sleep with their parents. We used to say, that’s wrong. Nowadays, we’ve changed our minds. It’s okay for your kids to be with you for periods of time, but we recommend that they sleep in a mattress next to the parents, not between the parents. We do what we can to make things easier...

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1 comment:

Babs said...

Dear Leah, Thank you thank you thank you for this post, for the facts and feelings, and values of the life here.
With deep gratitude,