"Wave," a new book by Sonali Deraniyagala, out on 3/5/13, tells the harrowing, nightmarish story of the author's experience of surviving the catastrophic tsunami in Sri Lanka in December, 2004. In that disaster, her husband, two young sons, and parents perished. The book is a narrative of pain and resilience.
Back in the day, during my internship at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, a teaching site for Harvard Medical School, pathology was emphasized in our work with patients. Understandably, as we needed to recognize and treat those matters which limited functionality. We sought balance in our work; we still do. The challenge is to embrace pain and then try to find ways to add contexts that might make it tolerable enough so that relationships and individual consciousness are possible.
On a day to day basis, distractions are available. Among these are: Exercise, meditation, vocational success, observation of nature, cooking.
The pain remains. As Ms. Deraniyagala notes: "I am left feeling as if I've blundered into a stranger's life."
That profound alienation is a carapace. A pretense that the author uses to try to make it seem as if the traumatic events she went through happened to someone else. The words reverbate, and have me thinking of a patient who told me of the effect on her life of having been through horrors in Somalia: "I don't feel as if I am from this world."
What can psychology do in the face of this evisceration?
The great poet Anna Akhmatova suggests a response. Waiting outside a vast Stalinist prison with other women who for many months awaited word of the fate or condition of sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers, she wrote:
"One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
" 'Can you describe this?'
"And I said: 'I can.'
"Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face."
Art offers a chance of witnessing, and perhaps psychology can employ its parameters in understanding loss and horror.
Additionally, joy and humor are woven into the work. What was life like before the nightmare? What kinds of joy can we bring to the lives of our patients?
That is our challenge. I have been enjoying an ongoing conversation with Dr. Pratibha Shah, an ayurvedic doctor based in the Boston area, and she and I have reached this conclusion: "If people don't leave our offices feeling better than what is it we are doing?"