Time heals all wounds. This premise is now being considered as anachronistic. It may still be true in the physical but not in the emotional aspect. Physical wound will sooner or later turn cold and run dry with the passage of time but emotional wound does not automatically fade and if not treated properly, will be embedded in the deepest recesses of one’s psyche, which time only prolongs the pain, suspends the feeling and keeps it waiting for a moment when the person can no longer endure it.
Self-healing is a necessary but insufficient condition for healing. A person may try to forget what happened, wage a solitary battle within and live as normal a life as possible but cannot be completely healed. He or she will remain shackled by the bondage of trauma that is manifested in a continuous experience of countless sleepless nights, awakening sighs of nightmares, and flooding sheds of tears.
What is Trauma?
According to Natal1, the Israel Center for Victims of Terror and War,
“trauma is a painful emotional experience, or shock, that creates substantial and often lasting damage to the psychological development and well-being of the
Healing therefore is not just a process of recovery from injury but a continuing effort to liberate oneself from a state of hopelessness and anxiety. It is not just a mere acceptance of reality as a closed space without an exit but a room for change and self-transformation.
Healing should transform a painful experience into a motivating force for a liberating
action2 – that is, to put the energy in working for the good of humanity.
Traumatic events are usually caused by natural calamities, war, serious accidents, death, injury, or serious illness and other violence-related stress including the psychological effect of enforced disappearance.
Enforced or involuntary disappearance is now considered a worldwide phenomenon as a crime against humanity. Enforced or involuntary disappearances occurred in Latin America during the1960s when most of the countries in this region were under the military-controlled governments. But today, enforced disappearance is no longer just a Latin American experience but it is already happening everywhere in the world.
The Psychosocial Rehabilitation
Psychosocial rehabilitation is one of the service programs that the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances provides to the surviving victims and families of the disappeared in Asia. It was first introduced in Indonesia in December 2004 with the recognition that the phenomenon of involuntary disappearances is not just political in nature but it also has social and psychological ill-effects. The program aims to provide a therapeutic mechanism for the families of the victims as well as for them to cope-up with the trauma caused by the unexplained disappearance of their loved ones and to deal with the hardship of daily lives such as the economic dislocation and social stigmatization. It also intends to create a venue for the families of the disappeared to have the opportunity to relate with one another, share their stories and find a common ground with their painful experience and depressing situation.
AFAD believes that the key to the psychological healing process is to have a collective catharsis. According to Aristotle, a Greek philosopher,
catharsis is a purifying act of the emotions that is brought about by a tragic drama through the evocation of intense fear and
pity.3 In psychology, it is the process of bringing to the surface repressed emotions, complexes, and feelings in an effort to identify and relieve
It recognizes that trauma is both an individual and social experience. To confront it will also require a collective social action of the victims themselves and those who share the same aspiration with them to make the world a better, safer and freer place to live in.
I had the chance to observe, for the first time, the Psychosocial Rehabilitation Seminar of AFAD which was organized by Claimants 1081 as AFAD’s Philippine member-organization. It was held on November 16 -18, 2007 at OMI Retreat House, Fairview, Quezon City. The seminar was conducted by Ms. Cecilia Liaonag, the psychologist who guided the participants in understanding trauma in general and their individual situation in particular.
The Declaration of Martial law in 1972 by the late dictator, Pres. Ferdinand E. Marcos was considered as the darkest period of the Philippine history because of the gross and widespread human rights violations including cases of involuntary disappearances.
When Pres. Marcos was overthrown by People Power on February 25, 1986, democracy was restored. Human rights victims demanded justice for the violations committed against them. A class suit was filed in the US Federal Court of Hawaii where Marcos was exiled by almost 10 thousand victims and survivors, who claim to have been illegally detained, tortured, summarily executed and disappeared during the period of Martial Law. The court later found Marcos guilty as charged and ordered the reparation for the victims.
But until now, the victims have yet to receive their rightful claims despite the fact that the Philippine government has already recovered the ill-gotten wealth from the Marcoses, hidden in their Swiss account as part of the US District Court order.
In order to put pressure on the Philippine government to heed to their demand for justice, the surviving victims and their families decided to organize themselves into an organization which is now known as Claimants 1081.
Healing is a continuing process…
When AFAD’s psychosocial rehabilitation program was introduced to Claimants 1081, I happened to know that most of its members were apprehensive. In fact, they even expressed opposition to the idea. They argued that they already learned to cope up with the trauma on their own after more than three decades. They asserted that even if they had not yet completely recovered from their traumatic experiences, what they needed now was social rehabilitation rather than psychological. Besides, they believed that it was already too late because most of them are already too old and sick to undergo the process.
The seminar eventually became an eye-opener for them to see that healing is a continuous process. It is never too late to heal because healing process is not for the individual but for the society as well.
Different Lives, Same Stories of Pain and Hope
The key to start the healing process is for the participants to open-up and to tell their
stories. Storytelling is a healing technique.5 It doesn’t only help the person recollect or relive the traumatic experience and to understand the circumstances that lead to a tragic situation but it also connects oneself to other people.
During the first day of the rehabilitation session when the participants were asked to give their expectations, without consciously knowing it, they were already too eager to tell their stories and to find connection with each other’s lives.
But listening to their stories, I noticed the differences on how trauma is manifested in their lives. How each of them deals with it was very evident. There were those who were able to move on with their lives and had accepted their tribulations as part of the sacrifices they believed one should endure in the course of the struggle to change society. However, there were also others who were still lurking in agony and state of denial.
The story of Mang6 Frank (not a real name) had a glimpse of hope. He was a labor union leader in the
70s. For fear of his life, he went underground after the declaration of Martial law and at the same time, in his conviction to continue his work for social emancipation. After a few years in the underground, he was captured by the military and was subjected to physical torture and solitary confinement. He later escaped from captivity when he befriended his guards. When Marcos was toppled by a popular people power, he went back to the fold of the law with a renewed faith in God whom he now believes has saved him from the near-death experience. He is now inspired by a new mission of helping those who are now languishing in jail to also see God as their personal savior.
The same testimony of survival was shared by Mang Jose and Aling7 Sion.
Mang Jose (also not real names) was also an activist during martial law. He was imprisoned and was also subjected to physical torture. He was later released by the authority on the appeal of his family. Without any means to support his family after years of incarceration, he discovered his inherent talent in photography and used this not only as his means of subsistence but to translate his unwavering principles by capturing the face of social reality through the eye of his camera. He is now a multi-awarded photographer.
Aling Sion on the other is a wife of a desaparecido. According to her, her husband was a labor organizer. She believed that her husband was nabbed by the military on his way to factories where he organized the workers and was never seen again. Her search for her husband’s whereabouts proved futile. But the memory of her husband has inspired her to join other families of the disappeared in their search for truth and justice.
But not all stories have inspiring ending. The story of Aling Clara (not a real name), also a wife of a
desaparecido had caused everyone shed tears. She was still in a state of shock when she related her life story. It was really hard for her to understand the reason of her husband’s disappearance because she was not politically involved as her husband was. The burden of shouldering the responsibility of raising her family all by herself with little or no means to do so had only aggravated the situation as she became powerless in watching her family fell apart. Her son, who is blaming her husband for their misfortune, has become bitter and has turned to drugs. He even joined the Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit (CAFGU), a civilian anti-insurgency unit to settle the score with the insurgents whom he believes has deceived his father for sacrificing his life and his family for a wrong cause.
Art as a Therapy
Art therapy combines traditional psychotherapeutic techniques of understanding of the unconscious aspects of an individual through their creative
Art therapy was used during the seminar in order to help the participants increase insight and judgment, cope better with stress, increase cognitive abilities, have better relationships with family and friends, and to just be able to enjoy the life-affirming pleasures of the creative
The concept which the participants were asked to work on with their art materials was to draw a
“Mat of Life,” – which would show their existing fears, regrets, hopes and aspirations.
Through the use of art therapy, the participants were able to draw out their creative skill to express themselves. In group sharing, the participants said that they felt good while doing the activity. Ms Lioanag explained to them that art is a means to release their hidden feelings and emotions. She also added that art could also describe a person’s state of mind. Looking at each drawing that the participants made, I noticed that some drawings were very clear while others were blurred and undistinguishable. When asked one by one to explain their drawings, the participants realized that what they were drawing was actually their own image.
The Looking Glass Self
We usually look at ourselves in front of the mirror for the purpose of ensuring that we look presentable in front of other people. But have we tried to talk to ourselves as if talking to a different person? This was what the participants did on the second day of the rehabilitation session.
During the activity, the participants conveyed different reactions. There was one who felt conscious to talk to herself because she knew that the other participants were also looking at her. There was also one who laughed at himself for noticing how old he has become. There was also one who cried after seeing the pain in her eyes.
Through this activity, the participants learned to view themselves on the perception of other people and to understand themselves better.
The Cycle of Healing
The end goal of healing is not just to help the individual cope-up and be able to manage the trauma but also to become an instrument of healing. Para-counseling offers the opportunity for the victims to become healers by helping other victims in their healing process. It follows the precept that “it takes one to know one” which means that no one understands better the situation of the victims but the victims themselves. It is also believed that co-victims can provide the atmosphere of trust, belongingness, mutual understanding and solidarity.
Transforming the victims to healers is also an empowering experience as the victim discovers a purpose in life and the ability to help. A personally-empowered victim–turned healer will have a renewed commitment and re-energized spirit to join others in the struggle to re-create society and make it a suitable place for social healing.
1 NATAL is a non-profit, non-affiliated and an a-political association. The website is http://www.natal.org.
2 Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed,1984
3 Aristotle, Poetics
4 Encarta Dictionary
5 Cecilia Lioanag, in her presentation during the seminar
6 Mang is a Filipino term used to address and elderly man to pay respect.
7 Aling is a Filipino term used to address and elderly woman to pay respect.
8 Wikipedia, Free Encyclopedia