“I’m going to die”
She cried compulsively as she buried her head into my shoulder; trying to remember the details of what happened the day she left all her belongings behind in her house. I put my arms around her and kissed her head in silence.
“There was mud coming in everywhere. I saw the wall coming down.” I didn’t know what to do. I heard someone shouting out to me; telling me to run. I ran as fast as I could but I’m an old lady. I thought I was going to die. I managed to escape just in time. When I turned around. I saw my house begin to collapse. I’d been there 40 years. All my photos are gone. All my clothes are gone. I’ve got nothing left. Where am I going to live? I’ve worked all my life. What am I going to do? I get 250 euros a month. I can’t afford to rebuild a new house or buy a new place. What’s going to happen to me?” she said almost in one breath, in a flood of tears. I continued to hold her in silence.
“Maybe it was better if I’d died. Why did I live to see this?”
This is just one of the many heart-breaking accounts I’ve heard since the 21st February 2010 and just a couple of the many questions people asked.
Everyone and their family had a story: Dnª Joana, Dnª Rosa, Dnª Ana, Helena, Dnª Ana (Nº 2), Dnª Graça, Sr. José, Sr. João, Dnª Maria, Dnª Edoarda, Dnª Leonora, Dnª Rosa, Dnª Helena (Nº 2), Fam. Silva, Fam. Fernandes, Fam. Teixeira, Fam. Camacho, Dnª Maria (Nº 2), Dnª Albertina, Dnª Idalina and all the people who are not mentioned here because the list is too long. They all have an account to share in some way, and this is just a partial list of people who were made homeless and came to stay in the army barracks with us for a while.
In the field, out in the countryside, there are hundreds of thousands more accounts. In my estimation, it’s fair to say that there are probably as many accounts as people living on the island. Everyone was affected in some way.
Although it was internationally publicised, on the 20th February 2010, Madeira island was hit by a “freak storm” that flooded the capital city of Funchal, isolated the towns of Tabua and Curral das Freiras; caused immeasurable damage in Ribeira Brava and Serra D’Água and provoked severe landslides in other areas of the island like: Jardim da Serra, Trapicho, Monte, Santo Antonio, Santa Cruz and many more. The disaster was of proportions nobody could have foretold.
Many, within a matter of hours, lost everything they possessed. They were barely saved from their homes with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing. Many lost more than that. They lost their loved ones; a husband, a child, a son, a daughter, a father, a brother, a wife.
One young man lost his entire family; eight people gone within minutes. One man, seeing the mud coming and trying to protect his family, told his wife and child to run out of the car to what he thought would be safety, as they were trapped in a shopping mall car park, but they died and he survived. One family took refuge in another family’s house, thinking it would be safer from the mud; only to have a crane fall on the house and kill all nine people.
Shopping malls and underground car-parks were filled meters high with mud. Thousands of cars were destroyed in the streets. Hundreds of video clips and photos circulated on the Internet. These living memories, and images, are just some of the traumas facing the collective conscience of the people who live in Madeira and those who are watching abroad. They need to be overcome effectively for the Madeiran community to have half a chance of any kind of re-establishment of “normality of life” in the future.
It has already been noted that people are afraid to park in underground car-parks. I have also already spoken to people who refuse to shop in certain shopping malls because they feel they are graveyards. During one rainfall, a friend of mine called her partner 28 times. He didn’t reply. When he eventually did, they ended up having an argument. When she phoned me, she was fully aware that although she thought she hadn’t been affected, she was suffering with a form of post-storm trauma. Her compulsive telephoning behaviour was due to her preoccupation with his welfare during the downpour.
These are just a few examples. The worst repercussions, in my opinion, are yet to come. At present, we are entering summertime. The rain is subsiding. People are quickly trying to forget and avoid the memories. Nightclubs have registered an all time high alcoholic consumption. At Easter, an incredibly high number of Madeirans opted to leave the island for their Easter break.
At present, people are planning their holidays; talking about their suntan; thinking about their next vacation but nobody is really thinking about next winter and what will happen when the next storm strikes. I’m not saying the next storm will cause the same physical damage as this one did, but psychologically people will be affected.
Presently, people are using avoidance techniques to sidestep dealing with the real issues that underlie the fear that was instilled this last February. Yet, when next winter comes and we have torrential downpours, the memories and the fear will come back. Panic will set in.
The truth is, when we don’t know how to deal with something, we run away because it’s the easier option. Not having to face a trauma means not having to deal with the pain associated with it. Yet, in not facing pain of any kind, at a later date we find ourselves less in a position of being able to disassociate from that pain.
A natural part of any healing process is to recognise, feel and acknowledge pain, along with any memories, in order to disassociate the emotional attachment we have to them.
Personally, I’ve been working as a volunteer since the 21st February. I was brought on board as part of the psychological support team. Here in Madeira, I am the only person, to the best of my knowledge, who is a Transpersonal Psychologist with experience in Emergency and Crisis intervention and a solid background in the Transpersonal field.
During my time in the army barracks, I was also assigned to Caritas as co-ordinator for one of the main distribution depots in the army base; where the homeless were being received and temporarily housed.
When I got there, the depot was a mess. Clothes, shoes, and bedding were thrown in piles all over the floor. People were climbing all over them to get items. They were tossed and juggled. It was chaos and a mess. The people who had lost everything came in to get something and, understandably, started crying.
One by one, I escorted them out for a walk around the courtyard and gave them a defusing and debriefing session; all rolled into one. Yet, clearly I knew that wasn’t the only solution. When I went back into the depot, I kindly asked the other volunteers to transform the depot into a shop front.
My argument was: “The people who come to us for item have lost everything. They have, more than likely, never had to ask for anything in their lives. They are people with pride, honour and self-worth. We’re not going to take those qualities away from them as well. They probably see this as a bad thing. They probably feel like beggars. We need to restore their self-worth, their dignity and their pride. We need to make them feel like nothing bad has happened. By transforming this depot into something that looks like a shop, we can modify their concept of needing something from us. We can give them back something of their self-worth. If they have their self-worth, their pride and their dignity restored, they can start to rebuild their lives again. They can build a new beginning on that. If we take away that too, they have nothing left to build on.”
The volunteers understood and within a day, we had a shop front we renamed Zara RG3. RG3 is the name of the army barracks. From that time on, instead of crying when they came into the depot, people started asking if we had matching items. Some volunteers complained people were becoming a little too demanding and arrogant. Yet, it was better to see that little touch of arrogance than unrecoverable depression from which recovery could take years. If improperly treated, some people never even recover over an entire lifetime; which is sadly what happened with some of the soldiers who took part in the Falklands war whom I met, and who never received adequate post war counselling.
In fact, one such soldier, when I met him, had suicidal tendencies due to sever depression he couldn’t explain. He admitted he had had difficulties reintegrating back into society after the war. Yet, he couldn’t explain his depression. After talking to him for a while, we came to the conclusion, and agreed that his depression and suicidal tendencies were due to the fact that his conscience weighed heavy at having killed other human beings.
Killing was against his very nature. His philosophy of living was to preserve life and not take it. He had carried out orders as a member of the Forces but it contradicted everything he was “spiritually” programmed to believe in. This contradiction caused him severe inner subconscious distress. Once he learned forgiveness and to make peace between the material world; what was demanded of him under “exceptional circumstances” and the spiritual world; restoring his “spiritual state of being”, he was able to let go and start again.
In the RG3 army barracks, many tears were shed by the people who all lost something, many hugs were given and a lot of time was spent slowly, day after day, helping to rebuild confidence, trust and a vision that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and the future will be brighter.
Each case was different and had to be treated in a different way.
For one woman, physical separation from her aunt meant emotional and affectionate separation. For her, that loss was traumatic; possibly worse than the loss of her house. It was the loss of her point of reference; her security, her comfort zone, her family nucleus and such a drastic change in life that she didn’t know how to face the future.
I met her when she came into the depot for a pair of shoes. She was looking through the boxes and found one of a pair that she liked, but she couldn’t find the other one. She was there compulsively looking for the other. Instantly, I recognised, the issue wasn’t the shoe. I casually approached and asked her to escort me for a walk. That’s when I discovered her aunt had been taken into an old people’s home when she’d been removed from their home.
I tried to explain that physical separation didn’t mean emotional separation but I could sense that my words were half falling on deaf ears; not through any fault of the lady’s nor as any criticism or judgement. When a person is suffering a trauma or a profound sense of distress, although all the senses are somewhat heightened, all cognitive processing capabilities are weakened. On a cognitive level, a person appears almost in a surreal or semi dreamlike state.
After the walk, I told her to go and relax somewhere and that we’d find the shoe. We did. When I gave her the pair, she clutched them as if they were gold dust. In an absurd kind of way, they became her new point of reference.
Meanwhile, a few days later, we found out in which old people’s home the lady’s aunt was. I, personally, drove the lady and her husband to the home so they could restore the bond with their aunt. After the visit, the lady, her husband were completely different people. The husband, who had barely spoken since he’d arrived at the barracks, didn’t stop talking. The lady was happy and talkative. That night, the shoes were stolen from her room in the army barracks but she didn’t care. She had restored her original point of reference. She had her family nucleus back and intact on a physical, mental and spiritual level.
Although this was the first time I had held an “official” emergency and crisis intervention post, this was not the first time I had been involved in situations where I was able to apply Transpersonal techniques and further study transpersonal approaches and their efficacy in Crisis and Emergency Intervention.
In 1996, I unofficially devised and studied the efficacy of transpersonal defusing and debriefing techniques with hotel clients and English speaking Cypriot citizens who endured the 6.8 earthquake that was followed by a hail stone storm, of great magnitude, the following day.
In 1997, in Cyprus, once again we lived in a state of Emergency as we became under direct threat of war with Turkey. Since Cyprus has no real army to speak of, my colleagues (the barmen) kept machine guns, hand grenades and gas masks on standby behind the bar; in case of attack. Early in the mornings, we would awake to the sound of Turkish jet fighters being chased by Greek ones.
Once again, it became an opportunity for me to unofficially test my own Transpersonal debriefing techniques. For a while, we all lived with the impending uncertainty of life or death. It was also a time when I re-evaluated my own personal beliefs and my own perspective on life.
In 1998, I unofficially experimented these Transpersonal techniques on US seals in Oman who had been employed in the Gulf war and were suffering post war trauma. The classical symptoms were nightmares, feelings of persecution, paranoias about their personal safety, avoidance and denial.
Furthermore, in 1998,1999 and the year 2000, I unofficially tested my theories further about transpersonal techniques and their intervention efficacy with US, Arabic and British Forces in Bahrain and Dubai, pre and post gulf assignments.
Prior to these dates, in 1995, I had worked on Forces bases in Germany in Minden, Osnabrück, Monchengladbach and Gütersloh. It was there, with the constant bomb checks and other safety procedures that I started to wonder what psychological repercussions arise in a person.
Using myself as a study subject, I slowly noticed how my awareness grew and my habitual carefree patterns of life and living began to change. I started taking my safety less for granted and from a psychological point of view; fear had crept in. My behaviour was changing by mere suggestion of what could be and not by what “actually” was.
Yet, my love for psychology really emerged from being a professional entertainer. As I performed night after night, my curiosity arose from how music had the ability to manipulate people’s moods and emotions and completely change the atmosphere in a venue; sometimes effortlessly and sometimes with a great deal of effort. So, in 1993 I embarked on my Psychology degree.
Yet, I was consciously aware that not all entertainers have the same ability to make this change in people nor touch the inner being of people in the same way. When I completed my degree, I still couldn’t find an explanation for this occurrence in conventional psychology and that’s when I realised its limitations and turned to the transpersonal approach.
In 2001, I tested my theories a little further about psychological transpersonal techniques and interconnectivity in Shanghai, China: 1) In cases of child/adult abuse and with young girls forced into prostitution as a means of survival, and 2) with police officers when I was arrested in the airport and spent a considerable amount of time in the chief of police’s office. The outcome was I made new friends in unimaginable places under unthinkable circumstances.
All my tests and experiments were unofficial, unwitting and for my own satisfaction. They were never officially recorded anywhere nor were they officially declared to any presiding psychological society. Yet, with a little push from a couple of very nice colleagues here in Madeira, I feel that the time is now right to start bringing my research out into the open little by little, making it official and perhaps make a little bit of a difference to someone somewhere; even if that be by helping another psychologist to help a client/patient.
The transpersonal models I have created are guidelines for swift simultaneous “attachment and detachment” methods in order to create instant bonds and safe environments between people in moments of Emergency and Crisis Intervention.
Until 2008, I didn’t even know the techniques I was using were determined “Transpersonal”. It was only when I came to study with Atlantic University that I was finally able to assign the label “Transpersonal” to the methods I’d been using. Until then, I’d just entitled them “Humanistic” psychological approaches.
Since 2007, I have been healing people online and offline using an integrative methods of Transpersonal Psychology and Natural Medicine. There are testimonials on my website. www.venerinaconti.com
In 2009, while debating whether I should continue with my Doctorate in Natural Medicine, pursue a Doctorate in Transpersonal Psychology, or start from the beginning and pursue a degree in Medicine, I visited Nepal. While I was there, I volunteered in a Tibetan Nunnery Clinic. I also visited a Tibetan refugee camp. It was there that I finally found self confidence in the craft I had turned into an art form - I finally realised my methods of Transpersonal approaches are completely cross-cultural.
Reflecting back on this, I can only award this very important factor to having worked with, interacted with, learnt from and assimilated something from all the people I have met in life. For that I am truly grateful. They were people literally from all over the world. I have lived among, worked with or met and learnt something from someone from just about every country on this planet.
They are people of all ages, from all walks of life, all socio-economical backgrounds, all traditions, cultures, beliefs and religions; and they have all left me with a new piece of knowledge.
I’ve always been of the opinion that conventional psychology is limiting. I wrote an article about the Psychology of Past lives and Reincarnation where I explicitly state the need for a more integrative approach to psychological intervention that falls outside the outdated models currently being used.
Now, as I sit and reflect upon the flood events in Madeira and my previous experience, I am resolute in my opinion that Clinical Psychology needs a shake up. If Psychologists of the future are to offer better services to their clients/patients then they need to have a more holistic training, more complete tools and a better approach; one that integrates mind, body and soul.
I believe that in situations like emergency and crisis, the least “clinically” said, the better. People just need to be heard, comforted and reassured. Emotional distresses need to defused and/or debriefed but not in a clinical way.
Formal clinical training is an essential part of training for psychologists, but there are no clinical models that can help in an emergency situation, and every human being will react and respond in a different way. It’s all a question of trial and error. What works with one person may not necessarily work with another. Assumptions should never be made and parrot fashion text book style approaches are useless.
One mistake many psychologists make, in an emergency and crisis situation, is saying: “I understand,” at the end of a “trauma” person’s sentence.
Unless we truly go through what people in this situation have been through, we cannot begin to understand. So, there is nothing we can inwardly draw upon to even begin to understand. A simple statement like this can make matters worse. It’s better to be honest and say: “I can’t begin to understand what you’re going through but ....” and offer reassurance or comfort.
Honesty is a must. If you are dishonest, trust will be broken and the person who has just lost everything will fall further into depression and harbour feelings of resentment; not just against you but also against fellow colleagues in support positions.
As psychologists working with Transpersonal methods, we need to learn to respect all beliefs, traditions and religious faiths. This is easier for me, since, as a Buddhist, part of our philosophy is just that.
One day, as I was walking through the dining hall, two women stopped me and asked me why God punished the “more humble” by destroying their houses; making them homeless and apparently never took anything away from the rich. My first question was: “Do you both believe in God?” They replied: “Yes.” So, I said: “Do you have faith in him?” “We don’t want to lose our faith” They replied.
So, I sat with them and began to explain the reasons Funchal flooded. I began to explain the physics of river length versus depth and width. I began to show them the potential architectural structural differences between the houses that were destroyed and those that weren’t. I made them think about geographic choice of locations for more humble abodes versus more upper market properties. I offered them scientific data for climatic changes and so on, until one of them said: “So, really it has nothing to do with God punishing anyone.” I simply smiled at her.
Then, the other lady hit with a question I wasn’t expecting. She said: “What about the people who died?” My reply was honest, I said: “I don’t know. I know it’s not a punishment because God is a God of love. Maybe, with all the disasters everywhere in the world at the moment, God can’t help us and protect us all at the same time. So, maybe he needed some extra Angels to help him watch over us from up there.”
In situations of Emergency and Crisis Intervention, a psychologist (or any individual in a support position) needs to be able to:
Attach and Detach simultaneously.
Show compassion and kindness.
Respect spiritual, traditional and cultural differences.
Be calm within themselves to project and instill calmness in others.
Be empathetic and sympathetic but not patronising.
Recognise their own limitations.
Be honest and open hearted.
Practice, teach and offer integrative alternatives to conventional methods of psychological treatment.
Recognise each case as an individual case.
Anyone, regardless of whether you’re a psychologist or not, can apply these few principles when helping someone to overcome a difficult situation in their life.