Day 8: April 30, 2010
It's hard to believe my time here is coming to an end. After breakfast this morning with the mother and daughter, I caught a bus to the central station and found one headed back to Santiago. Next to me sat a philosophy professor, who soon after hearing my reason for being there told of her own experience, particularly the search for her daughter after the quake, and relief upon finding her. So many have recounted that distressing period of ambiguity about the safety of family and friends, some ending in relief, others in heartbreak. While her own family survived, this woman told of other friends being gone. Later on the 5 hour ride I also heard more of earlier trauma under the regime of Pinochet, unforgettable by many in her generation. In addition to good conversation, sitting next to her was a blessing as she happened to be headed to the same metro line after arrival, and kindly showed me the right connection, and I had no problems getting to my final destination.
As I look back on my experience here, I see it as an incredible time to catch a glimpse into the trials and ongoing resilience evident here, and in the midst of that to offer a piece of the comfort that is lacking in the lives of many. I think what may be most difficult is not knowing how they will move forward, yet I'm grateful for what little part in the big picture I have had the privilege to play. Thanks for traveling this journey with me!
Day 7: April 29, 2010
Today was my last day in Putu, as I had been asked by an employee at the school to go see her cousin in Constitucion, a nearby city on the shore of the Pacific. I made a final walk around town and the school to say a few goodbyes to people I had met, including a huge hug from the 11 year old I'd met the first day, who asked that I would stay longer. After getting things packed up and a final lunch with the daughter of my host family, I caught a "collectivo" (like a public taxi) into town, and met with the woman who had asked that I come stay with her and her daughter. Over tea she began her description of all that had happened and the ongoing fears present. I then walked down to what had previously been a popular beach, and saw the damage from both the earthquake and tsunami. In the evening she also showed me around the central part of town, describing how beautiful it had been.
That night I heard more of her personal history, especially being suddenly abandoned by her husband after 30 years of happy marriage. Her daughter arrived home at around 9:30 PM and after more tea I listened to her pour out her heart for several hours (past 1AM), from the loss of a child, the pain of separation from her husband, the abandonment of her father, the current overwhelming fears, and the overall struggle of why God could allow such suffering. She and many others have expressed the suffering is a trying time in their faith, yet paradoxically, turning to him more on a daily basis when unable to move forward on one's own strength. We talked about what hope was still present, even though from our limited perspective it is impossible to fully understand what is happening on an eternal scale. After a long embrace at the end, she thanked me and expressed that she wished I would stay with them longer. In some ways, I too have mixed feelings about leaving.
Day 6: April 28, 2010
The mother at the home where I am staying teaches in a nearby village talked to the director about having me come and work with the children. So today I spent time with the different grades, first with the younger children using drawing, a puppet, and story telling to work through their experiences. The older children went more directly to telling of their experiences in the earthquake. My last group, with the 7th and 8th grade students, ended up being a very meaningful time with many tears shed and mutual support offered. When talking about what came out of the difficult time they identified the unity, solidarity, awareness of others' needs, and willingness to help that emerged. They also expressed that they hadn't had the chance to share their story like this, and that they were grateful. While there I also had a couple concerned mothers ask that I speak directly to their children, hoping for immediate diagnosis and solution to behavior problems and poor academic performance. I tried to make it clear that I was very limited by the short window of time, but was able to at least identify some important factors that needed to be addressed, such as parental conflicts. The challenge is that it's easy to suggest further therapy, but much more challenging for the families here to access it.
Similarly, shortly after getting back from the school there was another request for help from a single mother dealing with misbehavior of her 14 year old son. Condensing family therapy into a single session is difficult, yet we managed to identify means of establishing authority (e.g. consequences and rewards), without reverting to yelling. Mother and son both agreed to make an effort to change patterns, and the mom realized not all the blame lay in the son's lap, and family history played a big role. The challenges of living in a town lacking in any means of mental health care have quickly become evident, and in some ways it is a bit frustrating to leave knowing they are unlikely to get any helpful follow up.
*"Machismo," or the view of the male figure's authoritarian role in the house is still evident in the culture here, and multiple women have expressed their struggle with the negative consequences, whether in abusive relationships or rebellious teenagers.*
Day 5: April 27, 2010
On today´s walk around town I ended up at the house of a 103 year old man care for by his daughters (in their 40s) and his 21 year old great granddaughter, while the 3 year old great-great-granddaughter in is kindergarten. He struggles with constant pain, limited hearing, and sight limited to one eye, and has expressed that it would be easier to die. Despite all the struggles, the resilient daughters continue to smile and thank God for protection.
At the school one of the teachers wanted to see me, but rather than dealing with trauma she spoke of her troubles at home, fights with her boyfriend, and concern for her daughters, ages 9 and 11. She feels she has no one to talk to, and we discussed alternatives such as journaling. The couple is planning to see a psychologist in the closest city soon.
Later I went to visit a women at the earlier request of her son (who I met on my walk). We had a long talk, first listening to her traumatic experience and fear in recurrent quakes (we had two last night), then much more of her story, the questions she has faced about God, and sharing some of my own story. She asked that I speak to a pastor about starting a church here, saying the need for spiritual leadership is great.
*There are many flies here, and I′m told they came with the quake and the subsequent dead fish and animals which attracted them. I never would′ve thought of that.... *
Day 4: April 26, 2010
One of the people I met today was a grandmother whose daughter works at the local school, leaving her to care daily for her 9 month old son. She still faces the fears of earthquakes, particularly at night, and the prospect of not being alert enough to escape with her family if one should occur prevents her from taking prescribed medication to improve sleep. She has few friends, and is lacking in motivation to do much more than care for her grandson. Each night she prays for her sins to be forgiven, to ensure her entry to heaven just in case she might die. She has fewer flashbacks than earlier, but finds each day to be a struggle for motivation to get up.
When I went by the school I finally met the director and clarified my focus on trauma, at which point she noted that a couple of her employees had been struggling in the area. I met with one of them, a woman who has flashbacks and can′t go to the second floor in her house, in fear it would collapse if another quake hits. She believes it is very possible another will come, and finds herself ruminating on potential outcomes (e.g. what if the bridge collapses?). Whenever hearing or feeling vibrations from a truck going by she reacts, prepared it will get worse. She believes it is likely God is angry with the world, and is not alone in that belief. After some sharing and processing, I introduced breathing and visualization to reduce anxiety. She acknowledged the Bible, and recognized God loves her just as she loves her own children. Yet, with the strong Catholic roots here she and others function more out of fear than trust.
*I′ve discovered that a fear of the sea is much stronger for many than fear of quakes for many, particularly in the prospect of tsunami destroying the town, even though it is 5 km from the water. Often the concerns aren´t grounded, but the ongoing uncertainty has reinforcement in aftershocks.*
Day 3: April 25, 2010
Today I went with the house-building teams to Cohipué, after ensuring there would be a way to get back, as the remainder of the group was going straight back to Santiago, their weekend finished. At one point I had the chance to talk to the husband, who told of the destruction that occurred, yet was grateful he hadn′t lost loved ones, mentioning his elderly mother with arthritic knees, who would′ve died had she been home in her adobe house.
After finishing the windows, door and roof, we returned to the nearby meeting place. I ended up having a long wait for the other locals who would be returning to Putú, but on the way back was invited to stay at one family′s house after they heard I was the only one staying and would be at the school, and I responded that I should first check with the school. On arrival the director was not there, nor any messages left, but the halls now had the resident children, with no separate place for me to be. I ended up finding the place where the volunteer work was based, and after some time in the cold building, eating potatoes and listening to the plans for other house-building requests, I went home to their beautiful home. There I heard more stories of what had happened there, particularly from the 18 year old daughter, who now puts her energy into helping others. Each person here has a distinct experience and response to it.
* Many locals find it to be amazing that there has been no rain since the earthquake. This has allowed more time for building shelter.*
Day 2: April 24, 2010
Today began around 6:30 am, less than 4 hours after arrival. After breakfast and a devotional, the first group left to build houses while the rest of us stayed, did some cleaning, and walked around town inviting people to come to the planned activities at the school (free haircuts, manicures, a trampoline for kids, and crafts for women). It basically was a chance for a break from the daily challenges as they rebuild their houses and lives. On the walk one older woman started talking to me, telling bits of her story. I barely said anything (particularly because I didn′t understand everything), but at the end she made a comment on how meaningful it was.
During the day I was introduced a number of times with the comment that I was a psychologist from the US who would be staying the whole week, met with comments on the need to come see me later. I had some brief conversations with children as well, and shortly after telling one 11 year old that I′d be there if she needed to talk, she gave me the craft she had just finished, accompanied by more than one big hug. The need is great, and I′m only scratching the surface.
* About 80% of the houses are made from adobe (a clay). These are the ones that collapsed in the earthquake. However, adobe is far better insulation (summer and winter) than the wooden houses being built. *
Day 1: April 23, 2010
On April 22nd I took off from Norfolk and that evening, after a layover in Miami, I boarded a plane to Chile. The flight was long, but in some ways meaningful as I considered how on my birthday I was headed toward the country where I was born. Now I'm going back as an adult, with a much-needed gift to offer those whose lives were badly shaken by the earthquake in March. I am excited to see how things will play out as I use the skills from the training in traumatology. I will be going down with a team that visits on weekends to help meet practical needs of rebuilding houses, particularly as the weather starts getting colder. After they return on Sunday, I will stay through the week offering services as needed or requested.
This morning upon arrival in Santiago I had a longer wait than expected, as there was confusion about who would pick me up (each person thought the other would...), but I eventually got ahold of a friend from the same church sending the team, who kindly picked me up and brought me back to her place to stay until departure in the evening. While there I received a phone call from the woman organizing the weekend team and my own work. She had previously found a family I could stay with during the week, but upon visiting and finding they had no bathroom, thought she might look elsewhere. Amazingly enough, the local school where the larger team stays on the weekend gave me permission to remain there during the week. Not only is this a place to stay, but a chance to work with the children and their parents as they continue to deal with the repercussions of the traumatic natural disaster. What an incredible opportunity! In a couple hours I'll be boarding the bus for the 6 hour drive down there. The adventure begins!