MEXICO’S EARTHQUAKE 2017:  My Experience as a Psychotherapist

November 30, 2017 - 10 minutes read

It is the hours before Rosh HaShana (The Jewish New Year) and the phone rings. “IsraAID” (the Israeli-based humanitarian aid organization that responds to emergency crises and engages in international development around the world) is calling me.

“There is a humanitarian delegation being organized to go help in Mexico, are you coming? We are leaving tonight!”

Tonight?!?!

I had been following every new news item in the various media outlets since hearing of the terrible earthquake in Mexico, and I was anxious about my mom and friends that live there.

My husband tells me to start packing, he’ll make Rosh Ha’shana dinner and we both hope I’ll be able to join him in the meal before I leave, but it is clear to us both: ‘How can you not go’, he says, ‘It’s your people!’

The earthquake was not as hard as the one 32 years ago but it hurt Mexico City and the cities and villages in the area just as much. So strange, it happened the exact same day that 32 years ago, what are the odds for that?

We arrived there, a group of 5 women from IsraAID —a Mexican nurse, another psychotherapist that spoke some Spanish, two coordinators, and myself, all from Israel. Later on others would join us too.

When we reach Mexico City, we find total chaos. Too many people, totally disorganized, Everyone trying to help in any way possible and creating more commotion than the one Nature already had.

It was y 2 days after the earthquake and many delegations had showed up.  Our task was to bring psychosocial support for the survivors, especially with trauma and grief.

We decided to go to the little towns and villages that were mostly forgotten by everybody else.  We heard that Jojutla, a city south of Mexico City was strongly hit and that many people were donating food, water, blankets, mattresses and giving help there.

People, lots of people, were driving back and forth on the broken roads to bring supplies and offer help. Even the poorest of the poor, the old lady that makes quesadillas in a corner, was giving them away for free. This terrible event brought out the best in most but also the worse in many others. Fortunately the majority of people gave from their heart.

We went to many towns where numerous houses and buildings were destroyed, and many more cracked and in danger of falling. Many schools and hoses could not be fixed and were in line to be demolished. The people who lived there were terrified and living outside, literally with their beds in the street, unable to go back in the house but less able yet to separate from the little that still stood.

Everyone was walking around in a daze, there was nothing really to do, traumatized, looking at their broken walls. Most schools and churches were destroyed and life came to a halt.  People looked at us with suspicion, and even greed at first, with “what will you give me?” in their begging eyes. But their real need was to be able to express their panic. Most had to stay strong in order to support others, especially their children, so they had not talked much about their experience. We discovered how most everyone thought that that was the end of their very lives.

When we came to a village, we would get off our jeep, and with a loudspeaker we’d call for the children to come join us for an activity. Like inviting them to a party!

Once some children arrived, mostly out of curiosity, wondering what sweet thing we’d have for them, we started different activities with them. We made sure to create a group that jelled, turned on the music and invited them to dance and move in order to ground them. The activities began softly and slowly till we had many of children ready to express themselves through colors. Sometimes we used colored chalks to make a “mural” on the ground right there, where we happened to be.

I threw in a game that included the “Butterfly Hug”, an EMDR technique for self-soothing that they could use on themselves and with each other. The Butterfly Hug was quickly transformed by these small kids into “The Guardian Angel Hug” and they loved it! 

When the mothers and grandmothers, and a few men, surrounded the children who by then were truly enjoying themselves, I would invite all the grownups to come with me to a special activity for them. Popular Latin music would be playing, so, through dancing, I’d invite them to join in and follow me. They did… both embarrassed and surprised by the fact that, in spite of the anxiety, loss and desperation, they even felt like dancing to “Despacito”. This very popular song became the “anthem” of this adventure, which we used in many activities… Despacito, pasito a pasito… Slowly slowly, step by step, to recover, repair and rebuild our lives.

In the small and devastated town of San Pablo Hidalgo, while the children were making their mural on the floor, I took some 40 adults to a little plaza across the street. We sat in a circle by a big central tree. They all wanted to talk about where they were when the earth started to tremble and undulate and how they each reacted. Most of them said that they fell on their knees and prayed, so much faith in people’s hearts!

I jumped right in helping them release the fear caught in their bodies with some EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), as we all said togetherEven though everything shook and I was sure that I was going to die, I chose to relax and feel safe now! Tapping mixed with EMDR somehow mixed wonderfully with the fabulous Psycho-Social IsraAID program: helping them find and strengthen their inner resources, so that they would be able to move forward and rebuild their life again — which they all would have to do – many of them from scratch.

We trained a large number of teachers and school directors so that they could go back to teaching, with or without actual schools and in spite of the still hanging fear of a recurrent quake. They told us that they were finally able to laugh and connect with their own creativity which they needed so much of in order to re-create an atmosphere of normalcy.

What I did in Mexico, helping people through this disaster, is pretty much the same thing I do in my private practice in order to help people overcome and raise above their personal tribulations, physical, mental and emotional challenges; to find the resources that they already have, to help them manage better and get over their anxiety, depression, self-doubt and grief.  When adversity knocks, there are very effective ways and tools to build your resilience to overcome and get over the cracks on the road and, not only to stay alive, but to truly keep fully living.

As we were leaving each town, our hearts burst and our eyes got teary by all the people waiting for us by the sides of the road waving their good byes and holding big signs blessing us and thanking us for our support.

What a Rosh Hashana gift! A New Year’s omen of service and purpose!

Shulamit Lando

Body Mind Psychotherapist & Medical Coach

*Photographer: Linda Lasky

 



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