Like a lot of people who follow Syria, I’ve struggled greatly over the past 36 hours to come to terms with the news that upwards of 1,300 people around the nation’s capital were almost instantly wiped out in a chemical attack by Assad forces early yesterday morning in an attempted genocide of Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. This genocidal mass-murder was made all the more shocking considering the fact that a team of UN Chemical Weapons inspectors were in Damascus to investigate alleged chemical weapons use from a few months back.
As I absorb these images and the devastating testimony by survivors and doctors, I am unable to adequately articulate in feelings the utter sense of hopelessness and outrage, primarily at these barbaric criminals and their supporters, but also at myself, for even becoming accustomed to reports of wholesale massacres of Syria’s innocents. It is this context in which this episode exists despite the higher-than-usual body count, scale and nature. It is simply the latest instalment in a cumulative string of shocking war crimes that have been steadily and bloodily taking place with increasing intensity and barbarism since the day Assad’s troops decided to meet peaceful forms of dissidence with violence 29 months ago.
Confounded in a sea of intense reactions, I am reminded of a story related by Arnold Mindell, Jungian psychologist and pioneer of ‘process-oriented psychology’, who has extensive experience working with people diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar, psychosis and other ‘extreme’ states of consciousness. In a radio interview he gave a while back, he spoke of a notable experience early on in his career while in Switzerland working with a woman who was a patient of one of his clients in the medical field. The whole hour-long interview on Arnold Mindell’s fascinating work and personal experiences in the field is well worth listening to, in my opinion, although for the purposes of this article I’ll at least encourage any readers to tune in to the 27:20 minute mark and hear this particular story. It lasts about 4 minutes, and I’ll provide a brief summary below:
At the behest of his client, he visited her at the mental hospital in which she was holed up. Arnold explains that this was at a time when medication to temper the prominent symptoms of mental disorders was not widely available. When he went into her room to see her, Mindell found her under her bed, having been told by the staff there that she was very ill and had ceased to talk or even come out from where she was. After wondering for a few moments as to what he should do, Arnold went under a chair at a distance from her. Suddenly she spoke and told Arnold, “It’s no good being a person. I am in a fish bowl and I am a fish.” After being awestruck at her revelation, the psychologist again deliberated on the best way to respond, having never encountered such a situation before. Eventually, he went ‘blub’, imitating a fish sound. She then responded, ‘blub blub’, and the two of them ‘blubbed’ around together as she remained under her bed. In this way they learned to communicate with one another. A couple of months later, Arnold found her walking in the street, when she explained to him, “I said it wasn’t worth being a person and the reason was because my father came from a country that has done some very bad things to people, and he was involved in that. [And] as soon as I found out that he was involved in doing some really bad things to people, I decided that it wasn’t worth being a human being anymore. I didn’t want to kill myself and suddenly I found myself becoming a fish.” It took her some months before she told this story. Arnold recalls crying together with her, and that she was ‘normal’ from there on out, “People heal us by bringing up marginalised experiences,” explains the psychologist.
Though the story of this woman and her psychologist references an unnamed country, I instantly and profoundly empathised with her firstly as a Syrian but foremost as a human being with intimate family ties to a country helmed by authorities that do ‘very bad’ things to people, to utilise Mindell’s heavily understated terminology. You certainly do not have to be directly related to the war criminals that are pestilence to our home soil to feel utterly ashamed at calling yourself human, who lives, breathes, talks, has goals and some form of occupation, as other humans who not only inflict such atrocities upon innocent lives with pathological calculation, but share those same basic human traits as vast scores of others – yourself included – who permit through inaction or puerile, time-wasting intellectual debate these very same crimes.
Then I think that there are possibly hundreds of thousands of Syrian victims of Assad’s crackdown and the resulting war conditions who, like the woman who abdicated her human identity and ‘became’ a fish, are undergoing extreme states of consciousness engendered by those devastating experiences. Such experiences as detailed above that involve going through introverted psychotic episodes with the support of a psychologist and a mental institute are facilities that many Syrians, especially refugees (both external and internally displaced) are denied. They continue to suffer the trauma from losing loved ones and/or their homes, neglect, poverty, rape, exploitation and other forms of abuse at the hands of Assad forces, shabiha, their former captors (and to a far lesser extent, rogue rebels and foreign jihadis that run amok in certain parts of Syria) largely in solitude and in destitute conditions, be they in camps or ramshackle shelters. Having said that, this sort of understanding and acceptance of the many psychologically volatile symptoms exhibited by many survivors of the Syrian crisis is essential in learning to communicate and help them overcome such horror as we are currently seeing. I hope that medical teams will treat Syrian victims and their conditions with empathy, respect, understanding, and validation regardless of what they’ve experienced or how they choose to express themselves in their various mental states, and that they are not simply viewed as ill subjects to be routinely diagnosed, studied, medicated, and then shunned. While medication is vital in some cases (especially surviving victims of chemical warfare), the focus must predominantly be on teams who make human communication an imperative. Anything less than that is simply unacceptable.
The damage in Syria runs deep, and will continue to do so for quite a while to come. As I browsed the newsstand at my local supermarket earlier today and gazed in pallid disbelief at the front cover of the Daily Mirror and The Times, I couldn’t help but lament the thousands of victims of this gas genocide, many of whom experienced extreme symptoms in rapid, fatal, and painful succession and then perished before ever having had the chance at overcoming them. Chemical injuries aside, it is not too late to help and support through therapy the many surviving Syrians experiencing all kinds altered forms of consciousness. Going forward, such therapeutic support will be extremely important in dealing with a lot of the psychological trauma that many Syrian victims and their families continue to suffer in the throes of this conflict.
To quote Madness Radio’s description of Mindell’s ‘process-oriented psychology’, the idea is about “seeing whatever the person is going through no matter how bizarre or strange as potentially meaningful and stepping in and joining them as if they were joining a dream, which becomes helpful to the person.”
Call it ‘process-work’, ‘solidarity’, or anything else, but we all need to learn to talk like fishes.