The resiliency of the human spirit
by Tamara Cissna
After the tsunami recedes, the work of healing begins
A tattered window shutter rests on the floor of Deborah Pack-Patton’s office. Retrieved from 10-foot high rubble along the Indian Ocean shore only a few months ago, its odor of sea salt and musty earth bring Banda Aceh, Indonesia, back to her each day.
Not too long ago, this shutter opened an Indonesian Muslim family’s home to breezes and sun, but it was shorn from its place — along with the house and the entire community — during the December tsunami. The panel now symbolizes the catastrophe’s personal impact for Pack-Patton, assistant professor in the university’s Graduate Department of Counseling.
“You couldn’t look at the disaster without seeing individual people’s lives, and how they had been torn apart,” says Pack-Patton, who served for five weeks as a mental health volunteer for Portland-based Northwest Medical Teams International. She arrived in Banda Aceh, the city closest to the earthquake’s epicenter, a month after the tsunami.
For miles upon miles, she saw the heaped remnants of lives destroyed — bikes, children’s sandals, broken furniture, cement slabs where once stood homes, even a Mercedes stuck in a second-story window. The stench of decay and mud intermingled with auto pollution and cigarette smoke. Markers scattered throughout the debris indicated newly found bodies — 1,000 per day at that time.
She had seen television clips of the tsunami that ultimately killed more than 280,000 people and displaced more than one million. Those simplistic news bites did not prepare her for the extent of the destruction. She remembers questioning, “How could anyone have survived this?”
Pack-Patton had come to help people survive the emotional aftershocks in Banda Aceh where one quarter of its 400,000 residents died. The tsunami left survivors, but stole family members, property, and often livelihoods. For many, she says, the disaster wiped out one or more of the underpinnings for core human needs: significance, belonging, and safety.
As a trauma counselor, Pack-Patton listens to victims’ stories, and she assures them that their initial responses are normal reactions to abnormal events — most likely not indicators of mental illness. The aim is to help people tell their stories and process the trauma so they will not develop more serious psychological disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
“God gave human beings a whole range of emotions, and if these are denied or not expressed, they are going to come out in some way sooner or later,” she says.
When trauma is life threatening, people feel overwhelmed, realizing that there’s not much they can do to intervene or to protect themselves. This destroys their sense of safety and perhaps their sense of significance. Trauma also may undermine a person’s understanding of what is right and wrong with the world, or what should happen in life.
“So generally people need to process it,” she says. “They have to work through this in order to move on with their lives, or as we sometimes refer to it, incorporate it into the narrative of their lives — how they see themselves, the significance of the event, what it meant to them.”
Pack-Patton and Karin Jordan, director of the Graduate Department of Counseling, volunteered as trauma-counseling trainers with Northwest Medical Teams. Jordan worked in Sri Lanka (see sidebar, right). As part of the agency’s aim to “train the trainers,” the professors taught and supervised local community leaders — teachers, nurses, and religious leaders — in trauma-counseling basics. They also counseled one-on-one, especially with counselorsin- training who were themselves traumatized.
Pack-Patton was forewarned that the mental health field carries a stigma in Indonesia and that survivors would stifle emotions. Her experience was entirely opposite. People in “internally displaced persons” camps — base camps for the homeless — scanned name tags, and spotting her as a trauma counselor often approached, saying, “I am ‘trauma-ed.’ Will you help me?” Even Muslim men laid their heads on her shoulder and cried.
She says she was grateful to work within the mission of Northwest Medical Teams: to demonstrate the love of Christ to people affected by disaster, conflict, and poverty. But she did not try to share her faith in the strict Muslim region. The Indonesian government recognizes psychological needs must be addressed, especially in children, but charges volunteers to respect its culture. “We were told we could work there, but we were not to evangelize,” she says. “I am dogged in my belief that if that is what you agreed to do, you need to honor that.”
Government officials are particularly concerned about volunteers from the West. “In their belief systems, we are infidels,” she says. “Some Christian organizations came in misrepresenting their intentions and were escorted out of the country, jeopardizing the safety of others.”
Pack-Patton says they were allowed to answer questions, however. “People would ask, ‘You’re a Christian, aren’t you?’ It was fine to say, yes. Generally they would follow up with, ‘You’re also American?’ And I’d say, yes — not always quite knowing how they might react to that. And then they would say, ‘You’re not what I expected. You’re here to help us. I can tell that you really care about us.’”
She discovered that she did have a few lessons to learn about differing cultural perspectives. She met an 18-year-old Muslim woman in a displaced persons camp who had lost every living relative — 52 family members. Touched by her story, Pack-Patton asked the translator, also a Christian, to tell the woman she would pray for her. “I can’t do that,” he said. “I will tell her to keep praying five times a day. She would think that you are trying to control her mind.”
Pack-Patton was continuously reminded of the resiliency of the human spirit, even amid horrific loss. She spoke with many parents who had lost their children, some because they were not able to hold on to them. “I heard story after story of that kind of loss and the gut-wrenching grief, and people wanting to know, ‘Why my children, and why not me? I’m a faithful Muslim. Why would you do this, God? Why would you allow this to happen?’ When asking those questions, they were searching for an explanation, a reason, a way to find meaning or a purpose.”
Survivors, even those who had lost virtually everything, often tried to find meaning by helping others. One woman Pack-Patton met in a field hospital had lost all three of her children. She came to the hospital seeking people to care for in the maternity ward, where she found a mother who had given birth to her first child, a month after losing her husband in the tsunami. “So there the three were together — the woman sitting beside the new mother lying on the bed, breastfeeding her two-day-old little girl. The visual image of those three together will stay with me my whole life.
“That ability to go beyond their own pain and think of the needs of others is part of that resiliency,” she says.
People also leaned heavily on their faith. Most mosques, with their huge pillars and open-window structures, withstood the tsunami when everything nearby was destroyed. Taking comfort in this, people built camps nearby. “I believe God wired us as human beings to be in relationship with him to have a faith and a hope, and a future and a purpose in our lives,” she says.
So when people experience trauma, it’s often their faith or core beliefs about what is significant in life that guides them, Pack- Patton says. “I believe that a personal relationship with Christ makes all the difference in the world and gives a strength that is real. But if people don’t know Christ, I think they are still seeking meaning and a purpose, and this can be helpful to them.”
Some Islamic religious leaders attributed the disaster to God’s punishment on Indonesia collectively for the country’s lack of faithfulness and devotion. But because the Aceh region is such a devout region, they added a caveat: he chose Banda Aceh to bear the brunt “because we are so strong.”
In crisis, people are more amenable to change and reexamining where they find faith and hope, and how their lives are going to be significant, Pack-Patton says. She is well-attuned to these sorts of reflections. “God has wired me this way. I love the intensity of it.”
She plans to return to Banda Aceh this summer so she can further attend to the psychological and social needs of the people impacted by the tsunami. She says not every memory of her first five-week trip there is sad. “There is also a sweetness that I even had the privilege of being there, to be a part, to work with people and have them open their lives to me.”
She remembers that privilege each day as she sees and smells the shutter, tumbled and worn, snatched from someone’s home. “It will always remind me of the people there,” she says. GFJ