The Stress Doc closes out his series on war-related stress with an incredibly powerful drama and reflections of a woman caught in the horrific clutches of war.
A Woman Who KNOWS War
My recent essay "Who KNOWS War" has sparked a good bit of interest and comment. (For those who would like a copy of the original essay and/or the responsive notes, just email firstname.lastname@example.org .) But a letter from my brother's girl friend brutally and poignantly conveys the horror and injustice that often is a part of destructive anarchy and systematic abuse of power. Teresa was an international aid worker in Kuwait as the Desert Storm of 1990 was building. Here's her email address, email@example.com, and her compelling story:
Mark, I've KNOWN war. Loved your segment. Here's one excerpt from my unpublished book, which isn't, perhaps, even the most harrowing experience. It's from the chapter entitled, A Question of Identity. This experience comes from my journal of memories, noted during the war. For what they're worth, here are just a couple of thoughts from a war vet:
1) A person's faith in God (or whatever a person places faith in) is tested and either strengthened or severed during such a trial.
2) The thing that struck me the most during the war was "time." "We often read about war in the media. And it's a known fact that the aggressors sever communications links with the outside world. That's normal war policy--isolation. It breeds fear, chaos, and insecurity. This may sound strange, but that kind of isolation also makes time appear unreal--twenty-four hours is no longer a day, it's just a passage of time marked only by the increasing intensity of artillery attacks when daylight fades. Then the days blur into weeks, and weeks into months. Severing communications is a very effective weapon. In some cases, it's deadly." Mark, the day-after-day routine of fear and the unknown just goes on and on. Your mind does nothing but think, and it goes back over every remarkable memory you have. Straight from the depths of your unconscious come both joy and pain, and you have to deal with those memories. Potential war victims need to know how to deal with "time," and the effect it has.
A Question of Identity
... I turned on to Tunis Street behind a truck full of troops. At the traffic light ahead, the road would take me on to the Magrub highway. The light turned red and the troop-truck screeched to a stop. There was no room for me to take a right turn, and I couldn't drive my car (it was a low sports car) over the kerb. "Move! Go right!" One of the soldiers on the truck screamed in Arabic. I kept my eyes straight ahead, careful not to make eye contact. He thinks I'm Arabic, I thought. "I said move!" I prayed silently. Lord, you said You'll put words in our mouths when we face trials. What language should I use? English or Arabic? I didn't know the fate of Westerners. That's why I was hesitant to reveal my nationality. My silence made the soldier angry, and his colleagues taunted him. "She's a woman! You will let her ignore you this way?" To save face, the soldier jumped off the truck and ran toward my car. I trembled but was unwilling to allow him to sense my fear. He banged on the car window with his hand-held, rocket-grenade launcher. "Get out!" I ignored him. He spread his feet apart, took up position to fire, and aimed at the car. Knowing the soldier wouldn't think twice about shooting, I started to open the door. Before I got the door fully open, he yanked me by the hair and slammed the butt-end of his gun repeatedly into the back of my head. My tender flesh parted, and warm blood poured down the nape of my neck, turning my multi-colored Arabic garb red. My head hurt. And I couldn't focus properly. Twisting my body round, I kicked the car-door shut to prevent Bubble (my cat) from running out on to the busy road. My main concern was his welfare. The noises terrified him and the sight of strangers were enough to make him hysterical. I knew that if he managed to escape from the car, he would be killed on the road. With all my might, I kicked that door shut. A word to the reader: Perhaps you think it irresponsible to worry about an animal when my own life was in danger. That's OK. I understand that everybody views animals and their role in life from different perspectives. Bubble was an integral part of my life -- as all my animals have been. On that note, I guess I'm asking you to refrain from judging my actions, and to simply accept them for what they were -- an innate element of my character. The soldiers dragged me toward the back of a large, white apartment building. Pain shot through my feet as my heels slammed into the edge of the sidewalk, splitting the flesh open right down to the bone. The front of my dress was now red with the blood that spurted from the deep wound on my head, leaving my hair sticky and matted. Blood seeped into my eyes. I won't let them cut my hair, I thought. They 'll have to stitch the wound some other way. There's something to be said for vanity: it kept my mind off the horror of that moment -- for a moment. I accidentally bit my tongue when they slapped me roughly in the face, forcing me back against a concrete wall. I tasted salty blood and saw blinding lights. But I wouldn't let any tears flow, even though I ached with intense pain. I've always shadowed pain, no matter what form it takes. The sounds of war seemed far away. Above, an azure-blue sky was tinged with thick, black smoke as building after building, and person after person, exploded or were set alight. And somewhere in the distance people screamed inhumane sounds as their lives came to an end. Close to my right eye, a small insect slowly crawled across the wall. Despite the blood clouding my vision, I concentrated on that seemingly insignificant life, wishing that my world could be as simple. That insect went about its daily business with no thought to what was happening to me -- just a few inches away. And I realized that there were perhaps people in my own life who were going through trials, who were just as close in physical proximity, but I hadn't recognized their pain. I made a mental note to be more observant toward those whom I loved -- if I lived. Suddenly, several of the soldiers ripped their clothes open, exposing their aroused state. They laughed loudly. They were planning a gang-rape. A cold, calm passed through my body. Rape. The ultimate violation. I believed that, psychologically, I could not survive such a debase attack. Without thinking, I yelled, "Khalas! Anna Inkiliziya!--Stop! I'm English!" Confusion and commotion broke out. The soldiers shouted at each other. A couple of them ran away. "She's a Westerner," the soldier who had originally threatened me said. "We cannot harm her in any way--yet." Yet. How drastically the addition of a small word can alter the meaning of a statement. What power there is in wordsmithery. Shoving me to the ground, the soldiers kicked me repeatedly in my right side and the base of my spine. That was how they saved face. I felt like I would die. Oh ... the intensity of that pain. Swirling dust made me cough. I focused on the tiny granules of dust in my mouth, grinding them between my teeth. Anything to take my mind off what was happening. Anything to stay conscious. All the while, their boots continued to slam into my broken body. Minutes later (to me, an eternity), they ran back to their truck, leaving me in a pool of my own blood. (It's amazing how much blood a person loses when wounded.) But I knew where I stood and shouted after them, "Don't you dare touch me again!" The fact that they had orders to leave Western women alone instilled bravery where moments before uncertainty reigned. After that harrowing experience, I spoke mostly in English to Iraqi soldiers. "I want this war to be over," I said out loud, dragging my sore, bleeding body back to my car. As I approached the vehicle, my eyes filled with tears when I saw Bubble looking at me out of the car window. His bright, round eyes were fearful. Opening the door slowly, I gingerly eased myself into the driver's seat. My little cat hopped onto my lap and gently brushed my face with his paw, mewing softly. His gentle breathing calmed my soul, and his body became a living comfort-blanket. Only a fool believes animals are dumb, I thought. Bubble's demonstration of love brought a tentative smile to my face, yet emotions threatened to explode from within. Struggling violently to control graphic thoughts of something terrible happening to Bubble, I stroked his silky fur and decided there and then to store old memories of my time with him, and to record new ones for as long as I could. Still, nothing could ease the pain of leaving him when I was finally taken to Baghdad to be used as a "human shield." This is no time for tears, I cautioned myself. Besides, my wounds were already too deep to bleed.
I often feel that, in the midst of war, there are victims other than soldiers, and perhaps they suffer more or less in the long run. Who knows? The other two categories are the civilians (my case), and the loved ones back home. I certainly know how much my own family suffered not knowing what was happening to me, or even if I was alive or dead.
Civilians are less prepared for the horrors of war. Anarchy is alien to the natural state of humanity, and to suddenly have your world, as you know it, turned upside down, rocks your faith in the status quo to the very depths of your being. It kind of makes you want to live your life in a constant state of non-status quo, if that makes any sense. I guess it's the old principal of the higher you climb, the harder you fall. So, if you only climb half way up, the landing isn't so painful.
Teresa, you've pulled back the shroud from a world that is so frightening it's hard to imagine. And while your faith in the status quo may be shaken, your raw courage and spirit is undeniable and unconquerable. And I know you will keep climbing. Amen.
Until next time...Practice Safe Stress!
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Mark Gorkin, "The Stress Doc," Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is a nationally recognized speaker, workshop leader and author on stress, reorganizational change, anger, team building, creativity and humor. He is also the internet's and the nation's leading "Psychohumorist." The Stress Doc is a columnist for the popular cyber-newsletter, Humor From The Edge -- HUMOR FROM THE EDGE HOME PAGE . Mark is also the "Online Psychohumorist" for the major AOL mental health resource network, Online Psych -- ONLINE PSYCH: THE STRESS DOC and Financial Services Journal Online -- . And he is an offline writer for two mental health/substance abuse publications -- Treatment Today and Paradigm Magazine. His motto: Have Stress? Will Travel: A Smart Mouth for Hire! Reach "The Doc" at (202) 232-8662, email: Stress Doc@aol.com. The Stress Doc's website was selected as a USA Today Online "Hot Site" and designated a four-star, top- rated site by Mental Health Net.