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Why do some people who experience terrible trauma or suffering come through it largely intact, while others suffer psychological injury? What happens in our brains when we experience a deeply distressing event, and how does that affect our memories and the stories we later try to tell? What can keep us safe, and help us heal?
I'm Stephanie Nolen, The Globe's Latin America correspondent, and these are the questions that consumed my days recently on a fellowship at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University. In my 24 years of reporting from 76 countries I have covered everything from the liberation of Afghan women from the Taliban to the efforts of survivors of mass rape in the Rwandan genocide to rebuild their lives. This week in New York was a rare chance for me to step back from my day-to-day job and think a little bit about my work reporting on violence and human suffering, and about how I might do it better.
Trauma, as they think about it at Dart, is about power and powerlessness: about who inflicts violence, who gets away with it, who gets help and who gets to tell the story. We also had an amazing lecture from Kate Porterfield, a psychologist who runs a clinic for survivors of torture at New York's Bellevue Hospital, on recognizing and responding to trauma – she explained so much about the range of reactions I've encountered over the years interviewing survivors of war or disaster. Some recount events in a voice devoid of emotion – dissociating, as they did to survive in the moment – and others weep and tremble, their brains recreating the state of hyperarousal they experienced in the moment, a physiological response now embedded in the memory. And some were distressed, but essentially fine – because humans are, mostly, astoundingly resilient, as Porterfield's research has shown, and I will draw comfort from that knowledge.
The best part of the fellowship were the presentations from my fellow fellows, veterans of trauma coverage from around the world. Laila Al-Arian, a senior producer with the show Faultlines at Al Jazeera, told us about the pain she encountered while making her powerful film Heroin's Children. It opens with a recording of a 9-1-1 call from a child who has found his parents dead and it made my blood run cold. ProPublica's Hannah Dreier talked about the experience of reporting for three years on the implosion of Venezuela. Dreier's work there was incomparable – I am haunted by her story for the Associated Press of how a little girl skinned her knee and tumbled her family into a struggle for survival. And filmmaker Michele Mitchell told us about making her documentary The Uncondemned, about the first time rape was prosecuted as a war crime – and spoke bravely about the post-traumatic stress injury she brought home from Rwanda, and how she healed.
Another great pleasure in what we called "Sad Camp" was just being with my tribe. At dinner the first night the television journalist on my right made a joke about a war crime and I cracked up, and then froze for a second before I remembered that I was with my people – those who share the terrible, dark sense of humour of reporters who choose to cover this kind of thing. In class, Dr. Elana Newman, an expert on PTSD in journalists, told us this is a perfectly respectable coping mechanism. The next day I noticed that Peter Nickeas, who reports on crime for the Chicago Tribune, had a large tattoo on his forearm – it said, "The closest bonds we will ever know are bonds of grief, the deepest community one of sorrow." No butterfly or heart tattoos in this crowd. And I love them for it.
A portion of the fellowship was devoted to self-care and how journalists who cover traumatic events should and can do it. I usually roll my eyes at the words "self-care" and I wasn't the only one in that room full of people who've spent years building up their protective bristly skins. But Australian psychologist Cait McMahon helped me understand that there are already things I do to cope – such as throwing a party the next day every time I come home from a particularly grim reporting assignment. It usually feels surreal, being in my sunny Rio garden with laughing friends while scenes of horror still run through my brain, but being surrounded by people I love, and forced to connect, helps bring me back to my reality. (The word "gin" also appeared pretty often on the list of coping strategies McMahon had collected.)
What else we're reading and listening to:
It's also helpful to seek out reminders that there is good in the world, however hard that sometimes is to believe. I appreciated this piece by my colleague Joanna Slater, The Globe's New York correspondent, about a Liberian who fled that country's civil war as a desperate refugee but was just sworn in as mayor of the U.S. city – Helena, Mont. – where he built a second life. And, while in New York last week, I listened to this Longform podcast on a walk up Broadway in the snow: The urgent exhaustion of reporter Jodi Kantor, who broke some of the original reporting that kicked off #MeToo, bolstered my belief in the value of journalism. And that, I learned last week, is the single best protector a reporter has against post-traumatic stress injury – a little magical shield I can carry in my pocket, the next time I'm headed for a scene of certain suffering.
Shelley Wiart remembers watching her dad suffer with Type 2 diabetes in 2015, and thinking how susceptible she'd be if she didn't make changes. Having struggled with her own weight issues – at 21 she was 220 pounds – the 37-year-old Métis woman and mother of three living in Lloydminster, Alta., decided she needed to learn how to eat and exercise properly.
Doing it on her own was hard, and she remembers thinking about how others must be struggling just like her. She thought of the many Indigenous people in her community, especially women living on the nearby reservation of Onion Lake Cree Nation – they didn't have access to programs that could help them lose weight and live healthier lifestyles.
So – with no money – Wiart created Women Warriors, a program for Indigenous women and mothers to focus on fitness, goal setting, self learning and Indigenous pride at a community gym. The program includes bootcamp sessions, education on healthy eating based on the foods Cree people eat – like wild game and picked berries – as well as round circle discussions, important to Indigenous culture. They use a talking stick to encourage active listening, and allow participants to open up about their health, families and lives.
"When you're a woman who's very shy or doesn't get a lot of social time, that's an important part – it almost became a confessional and getting support from other woman," Wiart says.
Wiart found instructors who were willing to donate their time. The program runs for free at the community gym, where children can play on one side, and their moms can exercise on the other. And sometimes, the kids join in. The group went from 10 people, to 27 seven months later, and is still growing.
Dr. Sonja Wicklum, who had worked extensively with Indigenous people who have diabetes, helped Wiart set up the program and write proposals for grants through the Alberta Recreation and Parks Association. They applied in June 2015, and by January 2016, Women Warriors had a $50,000 grant.
Wiart recently went back to school at the University of Athabasca for sociology and women's studies in order to study social movements and work better with Indigenous people. She hopes to move Women Warriors right to the Onion Lake Cree Nation reserve so the families don't have to travel as far to participate. And she wants to see Women Warriors spread across more communities – starting with a Calgary pilot in March.
"There are all these major roadblocks to being healthy," Wiart says. "I just wanted to help."
– Shelby Blackley
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