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 the previous entry or the next entry in this series.
Session 4: Honoring Our Life Story/River of Life
After building a sense of safety and confidence in the survivors during the first three counseling sessions, we slowly enter the trauma processing phase of the group cycle. In session four, we have them first imagine themselves as birds flying over rivers that represent their lives. They draw their rivers of life, starting with birth, placing symbols and labels for traumatic events and for times when life was calm or happy (pictured). They drew dotted lines to represent the future and were encouraged to place a symbol of hope on their river.
There are multiple purposes to this exercise. Trauma tends to cause people to focus only on the difficult moments, and they forget that their lives are a combination of difficult as well as joyful times. This exercise gives them a bigger perspective. Also, trauma fragments memories and causes confusion about past and present. The river of life helps survivors start to put their memories in chronological order. They are better able to see that these events are in the past and that they survived. By seeing happy moments represented, they can have a glimmer of hope that there may be better moments in the future. Lightly touching on the traumatic events without going into detail begins to assist group members in overcoming avoidance, preparing them for deeper trauma processing in the upcoming sessions.
In the groups, most survivors struggled initially with this exercise. I could feel and see the tension and emotions rise when the exercise was introduced. Some resisted doing the exercise at all. Some could only name the traumatic events. And others could not see any future for themselves. I noticed my own tension in my body, not knowing what would happen. This is a completely new session from what we had done in our previous counseling model and I feared that the group members would not be able to overcome their difficulties in doing this exercise.
As the session progressed, the counselors gently worked with each person individually to create a more complete picture of their lives that included some better moments and to identify a hope that even something small could get better. My heart warmed as I saw the compassion and kindness that the counselors brought to the survivors who were distressed doing the exercise. The counselors helped the survivors manage their emotions by prompting them to use the coping strategies they have been practicing.
Following one session, I interviewed counselor Ruba about her reflections facilitating this new and challenging session:
In the beginning of the session, it was difficult. But the end was more relaxed. I was afraid that the survivors wouldn’t get the idea of putting their trauma experiences in a bigger perspective, that they would only talk about the difficult moments, and how I would deal with this since [their traumatic reactions] did happen. I was anxious, but this helped me tell them why we are doing this exercise, to help them understand.
I saw the biggest change in the women’s group. At first, they all drew or listed just the difficult moments. We had to help them see little happier moments here and there. Then they were able to include many happy experiences and then it was balanced. When they remembered their experiences through their life, it started to help to heal. The women said, “At first, we are a ‘stuck stone,’ we cannot remember.” I noticed that once they overcame avoidance and added happy memories, I saw positive signs in their faces while they were drawing and re-ordering the events. It is so helpful to remember difficult and happy moments together. It resulted in good feelings. One survivor reflected after the exercise, “I have a feeling now that this was in the past and this feels good.”
When we put the rivers in front of them, they liked how their lives were before, even though they experienced difficult moments. Looking back, they have a more positive take on it, saying, “We were able to overcome these events. This helps us have hope for the future.” Some had a hard childhood but now feel they can be more positive. Others identified the people who helped them along the way. They remembered family members who supported them. They saw their strengths that could give them hope for the future. I had them share one of the good moments to their children. One woman said, “I want to tell my children about being with my brothers and being happy.”
As the week went on, I noticed my body and mind become more relaxed as I saw the transformation from the painful expressions and emotions to relief and calm as the group members were able to gain perspective on their lives through “zooming out.” The reflections I heard from the survivors as they looked at their rivers all together were truly profound: “From up here, everything seems small.” “It is beautiful.” “Life is short, let’s try hard to be positive and make the best of life.” “Whatever happened, life continues, with the joy and sadness.” “Seeing what I’ve gone through, I see my strength.” In my own life, I can so easily zoom in on the challenges, and this practice of seeing the joys and sadness gives me perspective as well. Thinking of the huge difficulties the survivors have faced, I thought to myself, “If they can make this shift, so can I.”