In our international projects, our healing work for torture and war trauma survivors is conducted through group counseling. Groups typically meet for 10 weeks. This is the fourth in a series of posts by Veronica Laveta as she follows the counseling group cycle in Jordan. Veronica Laveta is CVT’s clinical advisor for the Jordan project.
Read previous entries in this series:
– See more at: http://www.cvt.org/blog/healing-and-human-rights/jordan-counseling-group-session-four-honoring-our-life-storyriver-life#sthash.22LkoSGB.dpuf
In our international projects, our healing work for torture and war trauma survivors is conducted through group counseling. Groups typically meet for 10 weeks. This is the fifth in a series of posts by Veronica Laveta as she follows the counseling group cycle in Jordan. Veronica Laveta is CVT’s clinical advisor for the Jordan project.
Read the previous entry or the next entry in the series.
Session 5: Difficult Moments (part 1)
After having survivors dip their toes into the trauma waters in session four, in this session we feel we are jumping into the deep end. In session four we encouraged group members to briefly touch on their trauma without going too much into it. In sessions five and six the counselors “zoom in” and explore a “stuck memory” of one difficult moment that is causing the survivors significant distress.
The counselors describe the process to the survivors as “cleaning a wound” to help it heal properly. Understandably, we all had anticipatory anxiety about these sessions knowing we would be accompanying the survivors through the details of their horrific stories. The facilitators worried about managing intense emotional reactions, both the survivors’ and their own. The psychotherapist trainers and I entered these weeks wondering how we could best support the facilitators and survivors through these challenging sessions.
We prepared well. We did a lot of trainings and practice sessions with the counselors. The counselors conducted individual check-ins with the clients to review coping strategies and prepare them for the processing sessions. Survivors were given choices throughout the process about what to share and when to share. Some survivors were not ready to do this intense processing in a group and were given the option of processing individually.
Counselor Noor reflected on the check-ins, the sessions up to this point and her experience in session five.
The check-in sessions gave me positive feedback about the new things we have been doing the past four weeks, especially the river of life. The survivors mentioned how they are using the cognitive triangle to manage their thoughts and feelings that were brought up from drawing their river of life. They are using their table legs for strength. One client had been having fainting spells and she realized that these were being caused by her emotions and thoughts from the trauma. Now she can manage these better and is having fewer fainting spells.
In session five, we heard a very difficult story in my group with co-facilitator Ghadeer. I knew the client before, because she and her son had been in a family session. She was so flat and depressed back then, she was numb and couldn’t cry. Last session, in the difficult moments session, she finally told her story of having her brothers killed, some right in front of her. The women in the group were so engaged with her. Even when she was crying, she was also conscious about people around her. She received support. I was so admiring of her courage and patience. She managed so much when she was under stress and under fire. She was still standing. I reflected that to her.
Women can’t talk about these stories at home because they don’t want to burden their families. Here she was able to release all of these emotions and felt the benefit. All the clients were very engaged and supported her through the process. They were inspired and said, “We can’t believe there is a woman who can tolerate all of this, the stories she told.” I felt heavy but I was also amazed. After we finished, she was so relieved. She says she now trusts and believes in the process of cleaning the wound so it can heal.
In the men’s groups this week, the counselors (pictured) had unique hurdles to overcome due to strong social and cultural prohibitions against men showing weakness and tears in front of other men. Furthermore, many are primary torture survivors and specifics of their torture cause them overwhelming shame and guilt that is difficult to name in front of others. This includes sexual torture and humiliation as well as being forced to witness the torture of family members and not being able to prevent it. We saw this resistance in comments at the beginning when they were invited to share their difficult moment. “Can you leave me alone?” “I can’t do it.” “I don’t want to harm others.” “I’m embarrassed to share these feelings.”
The counselors normalized these fears and gently encouraged them, explaining the benefits of this process. Other men in the group powerfully shifted the reluctance to share by saying, “It is good to cry” and “We can’t cry anywhere else, this is the place we can share our pain.”
A few brave souls started to share. One man shared his intense feelings of guilt not being able to prevent the death of his cousin who was him killed in front of him. He said, “I have never shared this with anyone.” In telling the story, the man felt some relief from his guilt and shared his appreciation of the group. “I feel strong because of all of you. You were the hand that lifted these burdens.” The survivors who helped support him benefited as well. One survivor noticed, “I feel better because I provided support.” One man who witnessed the rape of a family member could not bring himself to share in front of the group and was offered individual sessions, but he still was there to support the other group members.
During these intense weeks, our group supervision sessions are critical for providing support for our counselors. In our small group, many spoke of how difficult it was to hear all these stories because of the deep empathy they feel, bringing tears to their eyes. The counselors also shared the challenges of wanting to talk about what they’ve heard, but also needing to honor privacy and spare family members the horrifying details. One counselor remarked, “It’s like I have a secret life, I can’t talk to anyone.” I felt this as well as I heard many excruciatingly painful stories. It becomes hard to know where to put all these intense emotions that arise when hearing about experiences that make you question the state of humanity. Just like the rock exercise in session one, in our supervision group we practiced sharing the burden through support and exchanging ways of coping with these stories.
One counselor shared how she made sure she didn’t form a picture as she was listening to the stories and this helped protect her. Another talked about using the grounding skills and breathing while she listened to stay calm. We validated the tears that come to our eyes unbidden in the face of such pain and how this deep empathy can be healing for survivors.
I brought up the concept of “vicarious resilience” and asked if they had experiences of feeling inspired in the sessions. The counselors immediately chimed in about how they feel so moved by the kindness and compassion the group members give each other, a glimpse of the best of humanity that is an antidote for the despair one can feel about the state of the world.
At the end of one of the groups this week, an elderly man burst out loudly, “Now I understand why you did the rock exercise the first session! It didn’t make sense then. Now I feel the support of my brothers in lifting my burden and I feel so much better after sharing.” Like this survivor, by the end of our supervision group we all felt lighter and were able to laugh again. We had lifted our burdens together.