Mannar’s trauma healing Nun

2 Jan

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The elderly yet sprightly nun is hard to miss on the thoroughfares of Mannar.  White habit spotlessly clean and wimple neatly pinned in place, she can often be seen whizzing by on her trusty black scooter to save yet another damaged soul, ravaged by war or the after-effects of war.

Sister Christabel became a novice of the Jaffna Holy Family Convent at the age of 18, when challenged by a classmate to take up service as a life calling. More than 50 years later, she is still going strong. “I was inspired by the nuns teaching at our school, especially our principal who was a European Mother Superior,” says Sister Christabel. “I would actively take part in social service activities arranged by the school, but one day a classmate scoffed that once we left school, we’d forget all about it. I said I would not – and on thinking about it decided that family life would hinder such service, so I elected to become a nun.”

The sister in a group training session

The sister in a group training session

She spent 25 years serving her ministry as a Mathematics teacher before the war intensified and demanded higher services of her. Becoming displaced within Jaffna in 1990, she stumbled upon Father Selvaratnam’s counseling training for community elders, to combat the growing problem of war related trauma.  Mental health at that time was a taboo topic in Jaffna. People simply opted to lock up relatives who exhibited signs of mental ill-health and hushed up the matter. The war however has forcefully brought the need to address mental health in the open. Far too many people were succumbing to the pain and stress and their relatives realized that it was best to address the problem rather than brushing it under the carpet. Sister Christabel, who had intensively trained with Father Selvaratnam and then become one of his trusty coterie of counselors found herself at the heart of it.

“Due to the war, attitudes to seeking mental health treatment changed. Many people needed counseling and they realized it.  People seek me from afar to counsel their near and dear because they realize the problem could get worse if not treated.” According to her, two of the most common symptoms she sees are withdrawing into oneself and not being functional, and staring into space without registering anything for long periods of time.

“Concerned spouses or parents bring such people to me recognizing the problem, and the effects of counseling. Now they bring even the terminally mentally ill – whom we refer to the psychiatrists, as we can’t help them on our own.”

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It’s an uphill battle though. There are not enough counselors to meet the need and so the Sister, who trained extensively at the Institute of Anslem, UK, to be a psychotherapy trainer has been involved in also training more and more counselors to meet the demand. She founded an organization called Familian (Re: Holy Family Convent), through which she does a variety of psycho-social work for the affected of Mannar district. She has a Kilinochchi branch too, sponsored by Father Chandrakanthan from the USA in honour of his mother, and thus named ‘Annai Illam’. Currently, there are 15 staff counselors working under her, most of whom she has trained herself; 10 of whom have been with her for more than a decade.

The psycho-social service need is such that she and her staff also conduct ‘befrienders’ training for able village volunteers. Not enough people are developing as counselors, so they have resorted to training volunteers as ‘befrienders’ with basic counseling skills, to serve in their rural communities.

Alcoholism, says the Sister is the most rampant problem in Mannar district now. Mannar has always been famous for its toddy and none appreciate it more than its own populace; particularly the male segment. “The problem with alcoholics is that they go irregularly to work, and these are mostly daily wage earners or fishermen. This leads to even more poverty than the rest of the community, family conflicts, health problems and so on. These days the latest fad is ‘vadi’, a type of alcohol they make from local resources including powdered iron. They boil a variety of materials together and then strain it, thus the name (vadi means strain / filter in Tamil). It is even more addictive than normal alcohol and the local youths are heavily addicted to it.”

Where the alcoholism is too hardcore to be treated by home counseling, Familian has a partner. Father Vincent of CRADA (Center for Rehabilitation of Alcoholics and Drug Addicts) is another well-known figure in the community. He commands enough respect that he can drop by at any village on hearing of a hard-core alcoholic and order him in for residential rehabilitation at his center in Thirupumunai, Mannar. In Sri Lanka, where white vans used for abductions are infamous, the Father’s white van used for collecting alcoholics is a famous local joke. “Watch out, there’s a White Van. Father Vincent’s coming to get you.”

Apart from alcoholism affecting most of the men, many others especially the women and elderly, are suffering from post traumatic stress or depression due to the war. “Those who find it the hardest to cope” says the Sister, “are those who are still not sure if missing relatives are alive or dead. They have no sense of closure, and are unable to move on with their lives.”

Many parents are still trying day in and day out to find out what happened to their disappeared sons and daughters without much success. Others, who fled in the mass exodus of the last days, leaving dead bodies behind, are only now feeling the shock and grief. Either way, they have to be counseled to pick up the threads of their lives and move on – No easy task.

The Sister counseling a group of school students

Counseling a group of school students

And what are the problems affecting the youths? Some do suffer from PTSD but mostly, like youth the world over, they have other pressing problems too. And in a culture where ‘love’ is still a bad word, they have it tough.

“I was conducting a group counseling for youths where I was cautioning them about the problems of projections and over-hyped expectations leading to disaster in romance when one boy got up and demanded why he couldn’t have heard it sooner,” recalls the smiling Sister.

“This was at a school. He couldn’t have been more than 18 and the advice was too late for him it seems.” She says that most parents not condoning romantic relationships were giving rise to a number of hasty youthful elopements. And being typically youth, they did not consider the issues of livelihood and means to support themselves before embarking on such ventures, leading to tragedy. Either they stuck together and had children in extreme poverty or they split up, with the woman especially, often unable to fall back on her parents for support, because they had disowned her. Inter-caste and inter-religious marriages are still frowned upon within the community. Parents prefer to arrange their children’s marriages as romantic relationships would not necessarily confine itself to caste and creed.

The flip side of this is that many with youthful exuberance do not get to interact long enough to find out whether they are compatible before eloping. Leading in a chain to a high rate of divorce and separation as well as extra-marital affairs.

The Sister is not sympathetic to the parents’ rigidity but she does caution young people to be careful too. Extreme control from one end as well as extreme heedlessness of the future on the other, is leading to many broken families whom she has to help mend. She has a repertoire of a number of heart-breaking stories, in this regard.

But amongst this minefield of broken relationships and minds that she has to navigate, she still retains her cheerful persona. She too was displaced and suffered during the war, but her call is to heal others, not be broken herself. And so her white robed figure on her black motor-cycle can still often be seen flying over many a village interior road – on her way to ‘save the day’.

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