Dr Judy 24/7
Wednesday
Feb032010

Boy Scouts In Haiti

MEDIA: FOR FREE USE OF THESE PICTURES, PLEASE CONTACT VANESSA KIM, 646-484-9890, Vanessa (at) oneworldexp (dot) com

Dr. Judy trains Boy Scouts in Haiti to offer comfort to children and wounded in the earthquake aftermath

 Port-au-Prince. January 21, 2010.

On Wednesday morning after the horrific earthquake in Haiti, it is 6 a.m. and I am asleep in my tent on the church grounds where Father Wismick and I are staying during this mission to his home land.  We have come to try to retrieve the bodies of the ten young priests he has trained who are buried under the rubble of the school in which they were teaching.  They were like his “sons.” Six nuns from his order are also missing.  We fear the worst, that their bodies are under piles of rubble like innumerable others and will not be found.  We have also come to assess the psychological needs of his cherished church community, and to see how else we can be helpful.   

I am startled awake by some sensation that the earth is moving though I think I am dreaming.  I later heard CNN’s Anderson Cooper say the same thing in his report.  But I am alarmed at the commotion outside my tent. I unzip the tent and rush outside and a man tells me in French that there has been a big aftershock: 6.1. People are praying, led by the head priest Father Quesnel Alphonse.  I suddenly notice a familiar site:  a brown uniform I recognize from my childhood that my brother wore.  It’s a Boy Scout.  Memories of their motto, “Be Prepared” flood my mind.  I did not expect to see Boy Scouts here, but why not?  I know there is a worldwide Girl Scouts and Girl Guide organization because members were on my panel a few months ago about youth initiatives for peace, at the United Nations NGO conference on Disarmament in Mexico City.

A light goes off in my head: how perfect for the Boy Scouts to be here.  They would be ideal for the role of “comforters” for the suffering children at the church here and for the patients at the hospital at which we have been headquartered.  The President of Hopital de la Communaute Haitienne (HCH), Georges-Michel Celcis, had welcomed us as family, saying “Vous êtes de la famille,” so how perfect for the Boy Scouts to be part of that family.  Apparently, the scouts have been assigned to this church to help out with practical tasks like food distribution, but why can’t they also be taught the simple comforting skills that I have used to train other community leaders in disasters, like basketball coaches and school teachers.  These comforters as I call them, need primarily to have a “heart” and be “caring.” The Boy Scouts fit that bill, with their training for community service.  My brother was a Scout and he was caring; and I was a Girl Scout for years, so I know well the spirit of scouting.

Father Wismick appears from the church grounds where he was staying - literally across (what is left of) the street - where he has been sleeping on the ground in open air in the sleeping bag we brought along.  Dozens of other people spend the night in open air to avoid being trapped under collapsing buildings in the case of aftershocks. 

I describe my plan to enlist the Boy Scouts, and he loves it.  So we describe it to the Scouts gathered in the churchyard.

They all are enthused to take on this new role to help others  I can sense that they all would be wonderful, from my intuition about people’s personalities honed from years of being on the radio and knowing in an instant from a person’s voice whether they are warm and caring. 

I get to work right away, guiding the young men to a somewhat quiet corner of the church grounds.  They only speak French (no English) so I am grateful for all the years I spent studying the language and even reading Descartes and Camus in French when I thought I might major in French in college (thanks to my mom) and spent an intensive summer studying in Geneva.  My accent is rusty and some vocabulary fails me, resorting to English words like “breathe” until I remember “respirer.”  Since Father Wismick is  impressed with my French, I feel reassured.  Of course, Creole is another matter.

There are two tasks ahead of me.  Task 1 is to teach the scouts simple ways to cope with their own stress, as I know they have also lost loved ones and have been traumatized.  Task 2 is to teach them simple techniques they can use with children and patients.  I delve mentally into my “toolbox” of techniques that I have developed over the years working in trauma situations, that I catalogued in a paper I wrote for a professional book aimed at teaching graduate students, to pick techniques I think would work in this culture in this situation.

The Scouts are eager. They are Deneu, Sincy, Marcelin, Jhonny, Jean Bathiste and Antoine. 

I tell them that my goal is for them to feel strong “dans le corps and le coeur” (in the body and the heart). The first step is to achieve Calmness, using the breathing technique of exhaling to one more count than inhaling.  Using this breathing, the next step is “Grounding,” to feel secure within themselves, by squiggling their feet into the ground to feel rooted into the earth for a sense of solidity “comme un arbre” (like a tree).   

Another one of the techniques – one of my favorites – is aimed at feeling safe, since achieving a sense of safety is absolutely fundamental in any crisis.  This technique has been very effective in many cultures after disaster.  In this 3-part Security Exercise, they start out holding their hand on their heart saying “Je suis en securite” (“I am safe”); then turn to a partner reaching out their hand saying “Vous êtes en sécurité” (you are safe), and then make a circle extending to all the others “Nous sommes en sécurité” (we are safe). 

I also teach them techniques to help ameliorate headaches and stomaches. Somaticizing  emotional distress by having a physical symptom is very common for people, and especially children, particularly in non-western cultures where people do not traditionally talk about feelings. 

Every intervention has to be sustainable.  So, I tell them that whatever they have learned, they can pass on to others, who can teach others.  In emergencies, things have to be done immediately, so I ask them to find any children who may be suffering, and let’s put the techniques into practice right away, under my supervision, until they can do it on their own.  Jean Bathiste brings over a young child, and asks in Creole if he has any pains.  He motions he has head aches. 

I watch admiringly as the scout repeats the steps I did with him, instructing the young boy to imagine taking the head aches out of his head, and finding a remote hole in the ground and burying it in the hole.  The boy does it willingly and tells JB that he feels better.  It’s a start.  I tell JB I am proud of him; everyone needs reinforcement.

Another important part of psychological first aide in trauma situations is acknowledging the helpers, who themselves are suffering losses or certainly stress.  Wismick has told me that such appreciation is even more helpful in Haiti as people are not used to being told nice things about themselves (parents don’t tell children that they are wonderful; even if they say so to others). He thinks it would be wonderful if parents complimented children verbally. I reflect about how my mother was always so encouraging and openly admiring of her children, constantly telling my brother, sister and me how smart and capable we are, bolstering our self-confidence.  I note this is an important aspect of psychological care for this culture.

The scouts come with us to the hospital.  We start a meeting with staff about future plans, but one of the staff interrupts, saying that they cannot talk about the future, since there was a 6.1 aftershock this morning and they have to get busy. She impatiently asks, “We are in a crisis, what can you do now?”  Of course, she is right; this is an emergency; time for action, not talk.  The scout motto flashes across my mind, “Be Prepared.” We roll up our sleeves and go out to offer support.

We gather bottles of water to hand out to patients. The Scouts are enthused about their new role, despite some having normal shyness when thrown into such a new role.  But they are so courageous and kind-hearted.  I watch as they approach the patients lined on blankets under sheets or tent coverings, and talk with them in Creole.  I can see that they are doing exactly what they need to do: offer essential life-sustaining water and provide a caring presence.

At the end of the day, we gather for debriefing, and the Scouts are all enthused and excited about what they accomplished. 

Father Wismick and I are thrilled. 

The next day brings more volunteers thanks to the hospital social worker, Jean Yves Valcourt, a social worker who runs the AIDS clinic.  He sends out an email to students, that goes to a wide network of interested youth who want to help.         

That next morning, we meet the Scouts at the church grounds for another day at the hospital. Father Wismick corrals a flatbed truck so the scouts can pile into the back and we get in the cab. Such things like transportation in such a crisis have to be done sometimes “catch as catch can.”  You can prepare as much as you can for an experience like this, but then you have to improvise and go with the flow “on the ground” given the situation. When you see a possibility, you have to act on it immediately, as in the case of  finding the right vehicle to cart all of us the few miles to the hospital.

We are delighted when we arrive at the hospital to find that Jean Yves’s network has resulted in 30 students showing up, ready and willing to be trained to be comforters.  The Boy Scouts have already had a day’s previous training.  We set to work.     

Saturday
Nov282009

GIANTS of Broadcasting honored by the Library of American Broadcasting  

"At 5'3", I have never been considered a Giant, Katie Couric announced from the stage when accepting the coveted "Giants of Broadcasting" award at our big annual luncheon for the Library of American Broadcasting at the Hyatt Hotel October 1st. You'd think everyone would recognize Katie by now, as the first female solo news anchor and after her years of success on the Today show, but humbly she chided that someone came up to her in the bathroom and said, "I loved you in the Golden Girls." The audience howled.

Tracing her career, Katie started out as a desk assistant, then graduated to Pentagon correspondent.  Later, she became best known for her on-air colonoscopy test (inspired by the death of her dear husband from colon cancer), causing a 20% increase in colorectomy tests, called the "Couric effect." Since then she noted she has been "humbled" by the magnitude of events" to which she has been given a front seat, singling out “memorable moments with the Central Park jogger (showing the world personal power); reminding David Duke of the dangers of anti-Semitism; flying over Afghanistan poppy fields with Defense Secretary Gates; probing with Sarah Palin; as well as being serenaded by Sam Donaldson, and realizing 'damn, I'm old.’" She recalled Walter Cronkite's synonym that objective journalism and an opinion column are as a similar as [a respectable newspaper] and Playboy, and she shocked members of the audience and even me, using the word "gravitas", and explaining it is the Latin word for having testicles, actually seriousness that men were expected to have to cover stories with substance. The word “Testicles” out of Katie’s mouth certainly added spice to the afternoon!  

In another humorous admission, Couris noted that the honor came in handy with her children that morning , when one of her daughters spoke sharply to her, to which she responded, "Don’t do that, I'm a Giant of Broadcasting." (The attempt fell on deaf ears, she noted, as her daughter responded, "Whatever...")

The problem with being the last acceptee, Couric noted, is that the jokes are already taken by others, as it was by former president of the Radio and Television News Directors Association Barbara Cochran, who had previously noted that at 5'3" she was surprised to be a called a "Giant."

Board members posed with winners including Couric (center, flanked by me on the left and CBS-TV Sunday Morning host and radio talk show veteran, Charles Osgood).  To Katie's and my left is radio guru Norm Pattiz, head of radio Westwood One, a company that once syndicated my popular "LovePhones" radio show.

Other honorees included documentarian Ken Burns (fifth from left), who has produced award-winning films on subjects others might not tackle, like about national parks and the Brooklyn Bridge (about which my most powerful memory was that ather and son builders died in the construction, getting the bends while descending below too fast- something that always haunted me while scuba diving).    

Other honorees this year included radio empire builder Norm Pattiz, the brains behind giant Westwood One syndication, and in memoriam for Bea Arthur (the real Golden Girl Katie was mistaken for) and long-time Johnny Carson sidekick Ed McMahon (who curiously died debt-ridden).  Pattiz’s beginnings are inspiring, as he took his own $10,000 from the bank to syndicate Motown programming when no one else had the idea, and went on to develop formats for country, black, Spanish-language and of course music. Pattiz impressively acknowledged his wife, who interestingly left radio DJ'ing to become a psychologist. .  . 

The Library of American Broadcasting is an important entity, as it houses the history of radio and TV broadcasting. As a great appreciator of preserving history, I am proud to be a Board member. The Library houses unique collections that students can learn about the business, not available in any other place!

Past honorees include greats in front and behind the scenes (e.g. in engineering and sales). 

It is also delightful that Osgood has been the host of the luncheon event for years. With his characteristic engaging story-telling style, he introduced each winner. I am particularly fond of him, being that his show did a feature about my work in China years ago, which was shot in China, covering the trainings I had been doing for years of medical doctors teaching them about techniques to become more "holistic doctors" in the tradition of complementary medicine and liaison work I had done at Columbia Medical School decades ago, introducing psychiatry into other disciplines for total patient care. The training focused also on AIDS education and taking sexual histories and giving simple advice about issues to improve partner’s "harmony" (the word used in China for healthy relationships). I had worked with producer Alec Sirken from CBS-TV  for years and the reporter was Barry Peterson who was CBS' Asia reporter. Interestingly, the part where I talked about doing the work for free became a piece may people remembered and talked to me about, since few people are willing to ever do that, but for me it felt like 'giving back."!

Tuesday
Oct132009

“I Want”: The Journey of TV Talk Show Personality Jane Velez Mitchell from Addiction to Spiritual Awakening”

“We are all addicts, the difference is your drug of choice,” television investigative journalist Jane Velez Mitchell announced to the full house at the lecture and book signing in New York City for her just-released autobiography “I Want: My journey from addiction and over-consumption to a simpler and honest life.”

The list of “stuff” we are addicted to is endless: work, gadgets, love, sugar, food, alcohol, drugs, sex, and drama.

“We are all victims of over-consumption,” Velez-Mitchell explained, including herself in the revealing public confessional about her own addictions to all that “stuff” and the inspirational account of her journey from addiction to spiritual peace and activism.

Jane signing copies of her book "I Want"Jane's friends at her booksigning: Hilary Barsky (right) Soshonah Wolfson (left) Dr Judy (middle) who worked with her at WCBS-TV news 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  “The book wasn’t supposed to be about my life,” the veteran investigative reporter-turned talk show host and pundit, announced.  “It was supposed to be about getting over addictions that millions of people have, and about how the Twelve-step program works, but as I got into it, my editor wanted me to tell my story.”

Smart editor, since every word and anecdote in Velez-Mitchell’s book is exceptionally compelling. She certainly had “Issues” – appropriately the name of her hit TV talk show airing nightly on Headline News Network.  On “Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell,” she passionately tackles tragic dramas of the day – from party mom Casey Anthony accused of killing her little girl to animal killer Michael Vick being rewarded with a TV show to Americans’ waistlines growing to deadly proportions. 

“I Want” is filled with brilliant psychological truisms: “The desire to own status symbols actually reveals low self-esteem” “No material product would ever fundamentally alter my inner emotional state” and “You consciously push away what you subconsciously seek.” It’s also an exceptionally accurate description of the steps towards recovery.

The book chronicles vivid examples of Jane’s real-life experiences, from doing an early-career TV report wearing a bikini, to screaming “RRRAAAIIISSSAA” to get the attention of the then-First Lady of Russia Raisa Gorbachev, to sparring with a shopper over the use of plastic bags.

Despite her humility, Jane’s story is a tale worthy of being told, and learned from, as she goes from “insanity to clarity, egocentrism to altruism, alcoholism to activism.” It’s chick full of confessions, like that “I couldn’t go through a day without having 3 drinks.”  

In true multi-addiction style, she also had “gadget lust” (buying flat screen TVs, sound systems and fancy bikes), co-dependency on love interests, and an obsession with diet soda. 

On top of all that, she was “over functioning” at work (a word from the addiction vocabulary, which she lists in a helpful glossary in the back of her book), going overboard with clever tricks to “get the story” like the inside scoop on Michael Jackson’s child molestation trial, or “one-on-one” comments from Robert Redford about saving the whales or from Raisa Gorbachev about world peace. 

So how did she finally kick the habits?

With true psychological insight, Jane acknowledges the multi-dimensions of the “disease,” “bottoming out” and getting sober. The one-time party-girl lush and so-called “kissing bandit” was doing “snake bites” (downing whiskey while sucking juice from a lemon in someone’s mouth), when she kissed the gay host, knocked him down the stairs and passed out.  The next morning, she panicked thinking her then-boyfriend had abandoned her (the bed was empty; he was on the couch); remembered a friend bugging her to get sober; and realized that at 39 years old what she was doing was “not pretty” anymore.  She called her friend, went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and has been going to meetings and sober ever since. That was 14 ½ years ago. 

“I called lots of people and said I was sorry for how I behaved,” she told the book signing audience at the 92 Street “Y.”

The Twelve-step meetings, and therapy, helped.  “It’s a journey,” she explains, “to live a life that is kind, compassionate and of service,” with emphasis on the word “service.”

“You have to get over your ego,” she said wisely, spelling ego as “Edging God Out.”

“When you’re an addict, you play God,” she explained in her typically engaging and articulate style.  “If it’s a rainy day, you say, oh, I’ll have a drink and feel better. When you surrender in the Twelve-step program, you say, ‘I’m not God.’  You get humility.” 

Velez-Mitchell is a brilliant spokesperson about addiction and recovery, and even about life and love. As a psychologist, I am continually impressed with how brilliantly, eloquently and accurately she describes deeper dynamics and analyzes human behavior, evident in her book title “I Want” and her outlining of the emotional requirements for recovery: learning to sit through and deal with feelings instead of escaping them, drowning them in drink or avoiding them with other ego-based over-indulgence (bigger cars, more clothes, more “stuff”).

Addiction is genetic (her dad was an alcoholic) and also psychological.  You get caught in a vicious cycle, Jane describes: (1) the “high of the buy” (if you’re a shopaholic); (2) remorse afterwards; and (3) when the remorse wears off, returning right back into the craving.  The only way out:  Instead of indulging the substance when you feel bad, do something else to feel better to fill the aching hole:  jog, go to a move, get a massage; call a friend.

“It’s not will power, it’s a disease,” she explains.

Her talk at the “Y,” and her book, is replete with quotable, succinct “sound bites” --

the television term for clear explanations in a few short seconds.  No wonder Walter Cronkite called her an “excellent reporter” when encountering her in the CBS-TV cafeteria, and why HLN host Nancy Grace (a major talk talent herself) gave her a break to express her opinion and not just the facts of cases she was covering. 

Ashleigh Banfield, a fellow television journalist interviewing Jane at the book signing,   told the audience that she “howled” at the story in Jane’s book when she went to Woodstock and barged into a stranger’s home to call in her story to the TV station (the farmer went to get his shotgun when he discovered her on his phone).  But Jane is tough on herself, wryly calling that an incident of workaholism, and recalling her nickname “One More Bite” referring to how she would always seek one more interview or video shot to perfect a story.

After she got sober, she had “a moment of clarity” that “one more” didn’t matter.  Her workaholism was even more evident to her when reflecting on how, during a vacation with a lover, she propped a camera on the pool’s edge, giving a running commentary on healthy vacationing, instead of spending intimate time with her partner. 

To set boundaries, Jane advises, “You have to decide, is my work making the world a better place.”  For someone like me who works a lot (though I love every minute), it was certainly issues to reflect upon.

There were also more surprising changes in store with sobriety:  For example, she came out as a gay woman. Jane had publicly announced that fact a few weeks earlier in a radio talk show interview with Joey Reynolds on his syndicated WOR Radio show.   She had also previously, yet hurriedly, mentioned her attraction to women years earlier on a gay man’s radio show, after feeling hypocritical discussing Idaho Republic Senator Larry Craig’s gay scandal in an airport bathroom.  Her own same-sex feelings, she describes in her book, date back to high school. Fearing those inklings at that time, she was purposefully rude to women she secretly coveted.

“I’m so happy I got sober, I got happy and I came out as a gay woman,” she told the “Y” audience.        

The lessons of “I Want” and Jane’s journey are not only psychologically valid, but also spiritually enlightened, not unlike a modern-day version of a classic book Jane (and many youth) read in high school, Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. Jane likens the Twelve Steps’ principles to the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path: right thoughts, right conduct, right livelihood and right effort – about practicing nonviolence, compassion and kindness.  Seek moderation rather than craving which only leads to suffering.   

With a knack to get the facts  (always responsibly warning her outspoken guests on her TV talk show not to indict a subject they’re analyzing before proven guilty), Jane also has uncanny psychological insight and ability to clearly outline dynamics.  It’s a quality as a psychologist I find tremendously impressive (and for which I give her an “honorary psychology degree”). When interviewing me about the cases in her book “Secrets can be Murder: What America’s Most Sensational Crimes Tell Us About Ourselves,” she brilliantly analyzed the cases; for example, tracing the demons of multi-millionaire record producer-and- convicted killer Phil Spector back to his father’s suicide, and analyzing his proclivity for shoving guns into women’s mouths as signs of phallic aggression.

Jane has equal insight into her own dynamics, weaving captivating stories about herself and even reflecting on her childhood lessons, like (1) don’t be boring; and (2) always DO something (never just sit there doing nothing, like mindlessly watching TV); and (3) express yourself in an interesting way.  She certainly does that, as a great story- teller.

Her upbringing, Jane reveals, was “eccentric.” Her Irish Catholic father (to whom she dedicates her book), a suave, debonair and successful advertising executive was sadly also an alcoholic, who died too soon. And her now 93-year old “flamboyant” Puerto Rican dancer and performer mom, sent her to endless classes – on elocution, tap, and Hindi dance. Both had major influences on her life and traits.  Her mom, sitting proudly in the audience, was always ahead of the curve, Jane described, teaching her (when she was only 6-years old) about veganism by serving guests vegan food, long before that lifestyle became well-known. 

Jane with her 93 year old mom AnitaJane grew up to become a major animal activist, along with friends like Peter Max (who is throwing her a book party), the head of PETA, and her first female long-time love, Sandra, with whom she made animal rights documentaries.

“There are more than 100 vegan restaurants in New York City,” Jane announces, explaining that it’s not impossible to be vegan and also live a full social life. It’s also a peaceful life.

“Peace is on your plate,” says Jane, referring to the PETA slogan that eating animal products amounts to killing.  “No matter what happens today,” Jane explains as her philosophy of life, “I am happy because I went through the day without killing something.”

In another take-away vignette – so typical of the conciseness and vividness with which she speaks – Jane explained that eating meat is the single cause of world hunger because the amount of grain that it takes to feed animals could feed the world’s poor. “We’re hogging our resources,” she declared.

Jane’s commitment to peace was evident to me when I was in Amman, Jordan at a conference, and she called me (at 4 am Middle East time), to be a guest on the radio talk show she was fill-in host for.  She wanted to talk about the lobbing in Washington D.C. I had just done with the Peace Alliance for a Cabinet level Department of Peace, spearheaded by Ohio Republic representative Dennis Kucinich.  Always on the cutting edge of issues, Jane had long been talking publicly about this issue:  “We have a department of war, called the Defense Department,” I have heard her say, “So why can’t we have a Department of Peace.”

Good friends figure largely in Jane’s current happy life, as does her love for her three Chihuahua mixes.  That Jane has a heart of gold is evident in the fact that she recently adopted an elderly dog to add to her brood of two cherished younger ones.

Going to AA meetings also helps. 

"Why do 12-step meetings work?” an audience member asked. 

Telling your story to others helps you realize you’re not alone, that your experience is not shame-based, and that others support you, Jane explained.  The reasons resonated with me, as they were the same reasons my radio call-in advice show listeners were so avid, feeling comforted knowing they are not alone, not the only one with their problem, and that help and support is available.  

Seeming motivated by talk of the value of such sharing, Banfield surprised the audience saying, “I was 190 pounds two years ago.  I struggle with it everyday.” Now, she explained, she has two children and no time for over-indulging.

Banfield, a gifted story-teller like Velez-Mitchell, also resonated with Jane’s commitment to protect the environment, evident in her carrying groceries in a cloth bag to avoid using plastic.  Tiny pieces of plastic get carried in the ocean, she explained, eaten by fish and then passed on to humans.  Frightening.  

The take-aways included the vivid stories and lessons learned.  Through her journey, Jane learned to distinguish between “want’ and “need,” and reached “psychological relief” from the pressure to succeed and control.  Even her breast cancer scare, and subsequent surgery and radiation, was a “wake-up” call to get in touch with her feelings and to change: to decrease materialism and increase efforts to make a difference.      

The passionate personality now surprises herself that she prays. “I wake up every morning and ask, ‘Please higher power, help me to humbly be of service, and make my day not just about what’s in it for me’,” she says.

After her talk, as fans lined up to get a copy of her book signed, some could be heard commenting, “She has so much courage to go public with what she’s gone through.”

Jane had earlier addressed that issue.  “I don’t care anymore about how people judge me,” she had said. “It’s part of my spiritual growth.  As an alcoholic you judge all the time- yourself and others – now that I am sober, I don’t judge myself or others anymore.  I accept myself, and I am no longer ashamed of me.”

Her ultimate, ever-so-smart mantra at the end of her book marking the continuation of her journey: I do enough, I am enough, and I have enough.” 

Wednesday
Sep302009

Tsunami in Samoa recalls terrors of Asian Tsunami

With the tsunami tearing apart the Soth Pacific, echoes of the Asian tsunami resonate.  This is the article I wrote about the relief work I did in Sri Lanka after that tragedy.  The messages seem to apply to what people in another part of the world a few years later are experiencing. 

Posted on the New York Daily News website, February 21, 2005

When former Presidents Clinton and Bush Senior arrived in Sri Lanka yesterday, the heat swelled like a Florida day.  The two former U.S. chiefs, making their first-ever visit to this once-vacation wonderland yet undiscovered by Americans, came to survey the damage wrought in the region by the Christmas tsunami.  What awaited them was ruin and misery not unlike that in the wake of recent Florida hurricanes, but worse.  While tragedies cannot be compared, some 40,000 people from this small island were swept into the sea or killed by the deadly tidal wave and thousands more left deprived of their homes, livelihood and loved ones.

By the time the Presidents came, I’d already been in Sri Lanka for over a week, as part of a relief mission offering psychological first aid to the survivors living in camps and trying to rebuild their lives.  Our mental health team set up in the town of Batticaloa, a 10-hour journey by van to the northeast coastal area hard hit by the tidal wave – and already suffering from years of civil war between a rebel group, the Tamil Tigers, and the government - leaving the people in twofold trauma.  

The mission was organized by Fordham University psychology professor Ani Kalayjian, who spearheaded the Mental Health Outreach Project that has provided mental health support after disasters like earthquakes in Armenia, Turkey and Japan.  Our initial seven-member team coordinated with UNITED SIKHS, a worldwide humanitarian organization, to set up a unique ongoing mental health program, working with Ananda Galappatti, the local psychosocial authority, and local psychosocial groups to deliver services and identify local people who can be trained to offer emotional support to those affected by the disaster.     

Clinton and Bush Sr.’s visits to Sri Lanka, and the other Indian Ocean areas hit by the tsunami was at the request of President Bush, to head up private sector fundraising for relief and reconstruction.  On Sunday they met with Sri Lankan President Chandrika Bandaranayake Kumarathunga and set off today to tour the town of Weligama on the southern tip of the island, to visit a temporary shelter, see a water pump providing fresh water, and talk with an organization  providing trauma counseling for children.

From our experiences in the camps in the past week, I know what the Presidents will go through.  It’s heart-wrenching to see how people who once lived in lovely seaside abodes, now crowd into camps that are converted buildings or colleges, where large auditoriums are sectioned off by broken chairs to delineate families’ spaces. 

Children, not yet all returned to school, jump into my arms, while others fight to grasp my hand. “Mommy,” one orphaned girl calls me, as she wraps herself around my waist and looks up wistfully into my eyes.  I wish I could adopt them all.  I can give them a marble (the favorite toy here, as it is simple and easy to play with), but more important is a tight hug and a broad loving smile.

How can you possibly give them all the love they need? I worry. There are 1,200 people in just one camp our team has worked in.  I calm my frustration by remembering a story that President Bush Sr. told during his “1,000 Points of Light” campaign.  A grandfather was walking on the beach with his grandson, picking up starfish as they lay drying and dying on the hot sand, and throwing them back in the water.  “But grandpa,” the boy asked, looking at so many starfish, “How can you save all these starfish?”  The grandpa answered, “If I save only one, that is good.”       

Clinton’s charisma -- I’ve seen it first hand during a visit with him in the oval office – will undoubtedly touch some hearts of these beautiful souls struggling – and coping with bravery and spirit.

The trauma counseling for children that the former chiefs will see is getting under way in some places on the island.  Group play therapy is universal and applies to every culture, particularly drawing pictures as a good way for children to express feelings. I’ve had children draw their family, and themselves on a bridge (a technique developed by Israeli psychologists who certainly know a great deal about trauma from experiences in their country). Then I ask each child to announce a quality that makes them feel special, and the group all repeats that quality back to them, in a show of ackowledgment -- that brings a smile every time. “My mother told me I’m pretty,” said one girl.  Several boys and girls feel proud that they work hard at school.  Everyone claps.   

While tradition here holds that people do not talk about their feelings, when given a chance to share their terrifying experiences, emotions poured out. “Emotional release is important in every culture to purge intense sadness and fears in order to prevent long-term suffering,” says Kalayjian, who has developed a six step program to help survivors heal. The traumatologist knows expression helps, even from her personal experience recovering from long-term effects of genocide in Armenia.

After expressing feelings, taking some action to reduce fears helps. In a psychological technique called “in vivo desensitization,” the counselor goes through the steps of the dreaded experience with the person who has a fear.  Typical to combat fear of flying, for example, the therapist would actually go with the person onto an airplane. Since nearly all the survivors in the camps expressed fear of returning to the sea, with ten children and some parents we piled into our van off to the beach, at steps along the way, practicing stress-reducing breathing techniques and repeating “I am safe, you are safe, we are safe,” and then playing.

The next day, all of the members of the group say they slept peacefully for the first time. Associating the sea with joy, rather than pain, is healing.  

A few days later I took the group to the beach again, this time with another group who expressed fears of returning to the sea – to pass along the healing.  

At the beach, we pass artificial sand dunes made of piles of remnants of TV sets, electrical sockets and scraps of clothing created by the swirling tsunami waters, and reach the site of one of the women’s houses. I pick up a torn scrap of gold Indian silk, once her beautiful sari, and a red-suited Santa Claus stuffed toy – a gift on that fateful Christmas that the tsunami hit.  One of the children warns me not to pick it up because it is dirty from all the sewage, but I encourage them to help me wash it in the sea, as a ritual of transforming ruin into renewal.

As the mental health resources of the country have been minimal -- with reportedly only a few dozen trained workers in the country of millions and only one psychiatrist in the northeast district where I was – recruiting local helpers is key.  Implementing services is an overwhelming task, but being done with great care, by local authorities like Galaps, and the district officer of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, Sylvester Solomon. As the local psychosocial group, Shade, knows, listening and empathy are basic, but effective. 

Despite the cultural tradition of not talking about feelings – complaints are physical, like headaches, stomach aches, difficulty breathing – given a chance, emotions pour out. Sad but sweet faces and heart-wrenching stories now echo in my head as much as nightmares of the raging sea torture theirs.  The night before the former Presidents’ visit, as I sipped wine and danced in the disco at the 5-star Mount Lavinia Hotel in Colombo, my mind drifted to 13-year-old Nialini who at that time I imagined was trying to fall asleep while lying on a mat on the stone floor.  I clutched at the pink hairclip I am wearing, wishing that I had given it to her.

Images of their losses flood me.  A mother who survived when a wave catapulted her over a fence but lost her husband, three children, and her parents, cried about the loss and persistent thoughts of her son being ripped from her arms by the raging waters.  A 30-year old man who lost twenty members of his family including his wife and two children said, “I was holding my two children one under each arm when the second wave hit and snatched them from me.  I can still hear my daughter’s voice calling on me, saying, ‘Father, help me’.”

A preliminary assessment showed that frequently expressed feelings were of fear, sadness, guilt, flashbacks, and recurring nightmares.  Nearly all the people from age eight to over sixty were afraid of the sea and that the tsunami will reoccur.  Survivor guilt was also common; eighty-five percent of people expressed feelings of guilt that they could not save their loved ones who died, many of whom were washed out to sea.

A focus of our group sessions has been on identifying strengths, finding new meaning in life and identifying what is being recognized as “post-traumatic growth.” Young children were congratulated for being able to survive, by running to safer ground, climbing houses, coconut or banyan trees, or hanging on to logs. A young man was encouraged to be proud of how strong and heroic he was, despite his slight frame, to carry a heavy older woman to safety. “If you can survive this, know that you can face anything, and do anything,” they were told.

“People’s faith has been tested,” notes Kalayjian. One man told the group that he could not pray since the tsunami because he had lost faith in God, but that the exercise in the group where people stated their hopes was the first time he was able to pray again.     

To address children’s nightmares, I led a group teaching them to change the ending of a dream. One little girl who kept dreaming about herself in a coconut tree watching her mother being washed out to sea crying for help, reframed the dream so that her mother was smiling at her saying, “Even if I die, know that I am okay and you must live and be happy.” 

Children are taught simple breathing exercises to reduce their anxiety, and encouraged to allow themselves to express their feelings.  One young girl whose grandmother told her not to cry role-played with the counselor to ask her grandmother to hold her while she cries, knowing that once the sad feelings are expressed, you can be happy and play again.

Ultimately, I know from doing mental health relief at so many disaster sites around the world, that it is not the technique that makes the difference, but it is coming with an open heart and love. Sharing love makes people feel comfort and some joy again. 

The humanitarian effort is progressing slowly, despite a background of politics that always plays center stage. One newspaper story reported how the Indian government was concerned about the U.S. deployment because of heavy Indian Oil Corporation investment in the region.   

Politics aside, it’s high time to care for people’s hearts.  Our team has identified several needs besides psychological first aid, including funeral services, since a vast number of survivors have never located the bodies of their lost loved ones and therefore have not been able to go through the mourning process.

Another need is for public education, especially in the remote areas of the island, given pervasive fears and questions about what a tsunami is, and widespread rumors that circulate in the camps that another tsunami is coming.  After an earthquake in Australia, a radio station suspended its regular programming for me to take calls from listeners about overcoming fears like children’s school phobia and older people’s fear of going out of the house. 

Financial aid has poured into the entire Indian Ocean region affected -- $500 million from Japan, $350 million from America, more millions from Australia and Germany -- but some of that money needs to be funneled into the all-too-neglected area of mental health.  “While jobs, food, shelter and medical care are certainly essential, we want to encourage people to donate funds to the mental health relief effort to insure emotional healing,” says Kalayjian.

Some of that money can go to identifying local people, including translators, with good communication skills and innate sensitivity who can be trained to offer support to others.  Malcolm the basketball coach turned translator, married to a school career guidance counselor, says with pride, “I’m getting even better at helping people than my wife.”

Another translator, Sudhan, a 25-year old computer technician, living in one of the camps when he was identified as having the necessary skills, says, “My uncle and two cousins died in the tsunami and our whole house was washed away, even the ten computers and laptops I was fixing for people, but I don’t care about any possessions.  I don’t care if I have any money, any clothes or things.  I only care that I am helping people.”        

In a closing group ritual -- one of my favorite techniques that I use around the world in disaster areas – people stand in a circle and throw multi-colored balls of yarn to each other, creating a web.  One ten-year old girl expressed the intention perfectly:  “It shows that we are all one family.” An older man who also got it, said, “The tsunami took us no matter what religion we are, and now we are one, no matter who we are.” 

 

Wednesday
Sep302009

Courage to the Samoans

 In the wake of the tragedy of the tsunami in Samoa, I am riveted with pain thinking about the people's suffering there. My prayers are with all the Samoans.  

I remember my visit to the island years ago, when I met a most wonderful woman, Tisa, who runs Tisa's Barefoot Bar, a wonderful beachfront restaurant which was noted in airplane magazines as "the" destination at the millennium.  

We sat at the wooden tables with the water lapping the beach, eating freshly caught fish which Tisa cooked herself. 

The conversation was intense in contrast; in fact, about Tisa's decision to run for office (Governor). She was preparing to challenge the male-dominated societal traditions, with a platform including women's rights and openness about "taboo" topics, like domestic violence.  She was even willing to publicly share her previously secret personal experiences with such abuse.  I called the local television station, who responded by agreeing to do a public service show on the topic.  I talked about the psychological issues; my sister-in-law discussed legal issues, and Tisa shared her story. 

Below is an article about the television show, and also an article about Tisa's campaign. 

This seems an appropriate time to share her story here, shoring up the courage of the people.

An email to me in September, 2000, from Rosalia Tisa Faamuli, told the story of her courageous run for office, mobilizing a "Tisa Team." About her running mate, she wrote: a woman who was to run with her pulled out at the last minute and she was replaced by a long time American Samoa resident and social activist, Jim McQuire, and her campaign issues -- the environment, women's rights, family abuse, illegal labor practices and the economy.

Tisa was optimistic. "As a woman, I think I know more about these issues than my opponents," she wrote. "Take business for example, the guest register at the Barefoot Bar in Alega lists thousands of patrons from all over the world who have found American Samoa to be a wonderful and beautiful island with beautiful people."

She was confronting great tsunami odds of a different nature, but not unlike the environmental pounding of today.  She said, "You know our culture is pretty much run by men with high chief titles. I derived from royal bloodlines, I argued that point, the bill was tabled. The old boys club has made it possible to block all the supporters from me by using the food give aways and lots of money. So far the cost to gain a vote per person, is $70.00 USD. In the normal state like California, the cost per voter is $6.70 USD. You realized, my campaign is about no fraud waste and abuse, meaning I am determined to run this campaign with little or no money. The small island paradise, is all related to the big tree. Meaning the big brothers continue to bully the sisters around, the children and youth, our leaders have gained their way into the western way and perverted the hell out both Samoan culture and American. Not to worry, I stick to my guns and charging straight ahead. So far have accomplish one goal to be the first indeginous woman to run for governor ever in the history of our little island and Hawai'i as well."

In March of 2001, Tisa emailed me, "Our little paradise needs friends in big world out there." 

Yes.  Now even more than ever.