We keep our sessions as simple and clear as we can: an introduction to fight-or-flight, stress, and trauma, answers to their questions, and three lessons.
Here they are:
1. Slow deep breathing with the belly soft. This, we explain, is the antidote to the flight or flight and stress response that the earthquake has inscribed in the kids’ minds and bodies. Soft belly will quiet their physiology, slow their racing thoughts, give them a little perspective on the flashbacks of dead bodies, the horror of loss and the ambush of fearful anticipation. Knowing—feeling—that they can breathe deeply and relax, they will have a small but important sense of control in world where so much—whether or not they can concentrate or sleep, where they live and how they will make a living—is, or feels, beyond their power to affect.
You can experience a relaxing guided Soft Belly meditation here, at The Center for Mind-Body Medicine’s website.
2. Later we do some shaking and dancing so they can let go of fixed patterns of physical tension and mental preoccupation; can feel their bodies moving freely; can raise their energy, lift their mood, and lower their anxiety. They clap and laugh and shout and afterwards, flop happily onto their hard seats.
3. We also explain the value of sharing here in the classroom, at home, or with a friend, the pain they feel and the fears and concerns that arise.
Many of the kids would like us to do more, to tell them where they can go to practice the techniques and talk to others. For now, I say, “you have each other and your families. We are giving you these techniques, written in French. Practice them at home and we will come back to your school. Soon we will be training many people, including some of your teachers, to do this with you.”
The story of how CMBM’s model helped Andre, a Haitian boy, overcome feelings of grief and guilt, coming soon . . .
The school is the College Canado Haitien, one of the best in Port-Au-Prince, we are told, before the earthquake and afterwards, too. The students, a few weeks after the school has reopened, are sharp in well-pressed maroon and khaki uniforms—the girls’ hair pulled through berets, the boys sideburns neatly trimmed, tout propre, I think.
Instead of the pre-earthquake concrete buildings, there are open sided wood and metal sheds. Sounds flow from one classroom to another, overlapping in a kind of reverberating clamor. Toward the end of one of our classes, when time of dancing is kept by nimble palms on desktops, the whole campus rocks.
Our equipe, our “team,” –the French is beginning to emerge from deep layers of my unconscious—includes six of us: Lee-Ann juggling logistics as before, with Cassidy, my assistant back home, here to help her and me; Amy, the social worker who is our clinical director, will come tomorrow. Today, Lynda and Kathy, psychologist and family physician, are with me. They are CMBM senior faculty who are adventurous enough to come and to commit to coming again and again. They and Amy will teach our Haitian colleagues and provide consulting and supervision as we build our program.
Today we have been invited by Frere Jacques Anthony Germeil, the principal, to College Canado Haitien. We will have an hour in each of four classrooms with eleventh and twelfth graders who have been told they will learn “lessons in dealing with stress.”
I lead the first class and the third, forty twelfth graders in each, sitting shoulder to shoulder at their desks. Lynda and Kathy, experienced with kids, but new to Haiti and to the trauma and loss that overwhelms the population, will lead the second and fourth classes.
We begin our classes lightly—a little goofily—“How do you breathe?”, I ask to general puzzlement, and then talk about babies doing it easily—naturally—their bellies rising and falling, while adults, and even high school students, cramped in chairs and on benches, barely move their chests. Laurent, my interpreter, and I act out the roles of cats in full fight or flight mode—hissing and growling at each other, and then stepping back to breathe easily. Lynda has her all-boys class—a surprise—consider Kobe Bryant, cool and relaxed, imagining his shots, inspiring the boys to imagine theirs swishing the net.
When we turn the topic to relaxation’s antipode, stress, the bravado of a few—“I’m fine, we’re all fine,” claims one boy; “it was simply a natural disaster” intones another—contends with the more complex memories of their classmates.
Soon, in each and every class, there is a rush of sharing of what happened on January 12th, of how surprise and relief yielded to horror. “I thought the shaking would be eternal. Then, it stopped, and I thought, ‘that’s not so bad, I am ok,’ and I laughed, then I saw my sister covered in dust like a ghost, and I was afraid. And then, underneath my neighbor’s house, there were twisted bodies.”
And the stories come—many, we learn, shared for the first time—and the classmates’ losses pile up: a mother gone, an older brother, “my best friend,” “almost my whole family,” We hear of bodies discovered under rubble and strewn on sidewalk, of dogs chewing on corpses.
When we ask if there are questions, a small forest of hands rises: “How do you go to sleep when these memories keep coming in nightmares?” “How can you breathe deeply to relax when the air is so bad?” “How do you deal with family members who now are arguing all the time?” “What do you do with your belief that another earthquake is coming, or as some say, ‘a tsunami’?”
More about the techniques we use to address these questions coming soon . . . .
We talk in today’s workshop, do drawings, and talk more about what they’ve drawn. My French is emerging from the caves of my unconscious and I seem to be speaking comprehensibly, but I very much need Star to translate the kids’ replies and descriptions.
It takes the kids some time to do their drawings. Several had asked for pencils to outline what they will later crayon – this is a first in my experience — and Lee Ann fortunately found both pencils and a sharpener. But all of them are measured and methodical, controlling, it seems to me, the little in a dangerous and chaotic world that they can control. When I ask 13-year-old Remy why he is hesitant to begin, he tells me that he fears “it will not be good.” I show him my decidedly childlike effort. “This is not,” I assure him, “about being ‘good,’ just about drawing;” he laughs and starts to sketch.
I’ve told them to draw themselves, or friends, or something they like to do, or a house. The majority draw houses – several are many-colored and splendid; one is elegant, spare, as carefully ruled as a blueprint. Every child who has drawn a house tells me when we ask – Star now translating in Creole -that his or her house has been “kraze,” “destroyed;” when she follows up – “kraze completement?” – they nod solemnly. The drawn houses are memory and hope.
We ask thirteen year old Jime, the architect of the elegant house, where he is now staying. “Dans la rue,” he tells us. This is surprising. He is well groomed, tall and handsome and wears a blue button down shirt that is clean and has sharp creases in its arms. Katie Couric, who is interviewing me and the kids, asks him again, “Really? In the street?” “Oui,” Jime says as if his two month residence there were ordinary. I ask him, “How do you keep your shirt so neat?” “I iron it,” he says.
I’m back in Haiti, with Lee Ann, who manages our programs for population-wide psychological healing and Star who translated for us last time; Rosemary is in DC taking care of business. We are exploring partnerships, doing workshops for kids and caregivers. In Port-au-Prince there are no fewer people living in tents or on the streets, but more of them seem out and about, vertical even animated – selling and shopping, crowding toward tanks to fill bottles of drinking water (lots of small kids have been designated for this job) talking and moving with volume and even grace.
Last night and today we spend time at the University Hospital, where we are received with great courtesy by the Director Dr. Alix Lassegue and Marlaine Thompson, the nurse who acts as his deputy. Everyone there is working heroically, at and beyond maximum capacity: only 30% of the physicians have returned to work and 50% of the nurses: “Some, Dr. Lassegue says, have died, some have left the country, and some….” His voice trails off. Most of the work of the hospital, which is Haiti’s largest and most important, is still conducted in the tents which fill its grounds. This is slowly changing, Dr. Lassegue tells us, as engineers ensure, department by department, that the structure is safe; soon the emergency room will once again be indoors.
Today we do a mini-workshop for kids at the Hospital, gathering them from the tents where they have been staying, and from the line outside the pediatric out-patient department. A sweet shadow-thin teenage girl, Vania, has insulin dependent diabetes; Ruth a tiny six-year old girl and seven-year old Roberto have infections that resist all antibiotic assaults; Ruth’s mother walks beside her holding her IV bottle. Almost every child, we learn, has lost a family member or someone close to them.
To be continued tomorrow . . . .
I’ll be on NPR’s Talk of the Nation this coming week, either Monday or Tuesday, for a show tentatively titled