WORKING IN TIMES OF WAR
Taras Levin from Kyiv, Ukraine
Dear colleagues, let me thank you for the opportunity to address our meeting. I am very grateful to Maria Eugenia and all the EFPP board members who provided this time so that the Ukrainian delegates could tell you how we live and work during the war, which is now in its second year.
Of course, it is impossible in this short message to describe the full scale of all the catastrophic changes, all the horror of upheavals and all the variety of bitter experiences, even limiting the description to psychotherapists alone. This experience may be different for those who stayed at home and for those who fled inland, for those who found shelter in Western Europe and for those who ended up in occupied territory, for those who live near the front lines and for those who stay away from the battle zone. Perhaps there is something in common for all of us. At 5 am on February 24, 2022, we all jumped out of our beds, awakened by the heavy, deafening sound of exploding rockets. In a single moment, while the earth is still humming, the walls of the house are trembling and the fragments of broken windows are ringing, when the body is moving from paralysis to the tension of all forces and readiness to act, and the soul is recovering from shock, sharpening all the senses and mental abilities, in this single moment we all realized that our former life was destroyed irrevocably. The chain of time was torn. The past broke away and sunk into oblivion. The future got hidden behind a formidable smoke screen. The present piled on the burden of an endless ordeal, making all our bones and tendons crack. The dream was shattered, and with it the illusion of peace, security, normal life. Sometimes it seems to me that this moment was an eternity ago. Sometimes –that it still lasts, stretching for 9000 hours.
What happened next? For me –hiding from rocket fire for a couple of weeks in a cold basement, feverish preparations and flight from the encirclement that was ready to close around my city, many nights on the floor in the hallway of friends’ and strangers’ houses, who offered shelter to my family, standing in endless lines to buy gasoline or to pass military checkpoints, life under the howl of air raid sirens in anxious anticipation of where the next missile will fall, the destroyed buildings and blood-drenched streets of my hometown, the pitch mute darkness of long curfew hours, the endless winter in an unheated house, without light and communications. Far from the worst situation, really. For many of my fellow citizens – it is life in the trenches under enemy fire, the death of relatives and friends, destroyed housing, loss of work and livelihood. For all of us – it is the constant obsessive browsing of news feeds, the digestion of disturbing rumors, life in constant readiness to face danger.
However, there has been a different experience, too. There is the inspiration of the Ukrainian people, who feel strong and united in our determination to fight back the enemy, which is superior in number and strength. There is the pride in people who continue to work in inhuman conditions, rebuild what was destroyed again and again, donate the last they own to help the army and the victims of the war, weave camouflage nets after work and shelter strangers left without a home. There is the pride in my country, in which, despite the hail of rockets that has been raining down on it for many months now, administrative offices and food markets, banks and pharmacies, schools and universities continue to work, and public transport keeps running on schedule. There is an endless gratitude to our Western friends and colleagues who stand as one in our support, accept and provide assistance to millions of Ukrainian refugees and help those who remain in Ukraine in every possible way.
As for psychotherapeutic practice, in hospitals and outpatient clinics, in social assistance centers and on hotlines, it is filled with soldiers physically and mentally affected by the war, the bereaved relatives and the multitude of other people experiencing acute and chronic traumatic stress. The private practice, which almost died out in the first months of the war, is now filled with patients suffering from post-traumatic, anxiety and depressive disorders. A large proportion of the practice is occupied by volunteer work. Also, the share of online therapy has significantly increased.
At the cost of great efforts, our Association has managed to secure and maintain our training program. The organizers and conductors, who during the pandemic had already begun to see each other on Zoom more often than usual, have now turned into an emergency team that is in touch almost continuously. Groups that had previously met in face-to-face blocks were transferred to a weekly online format. During the entire period of the war, there were hardly more than two seminars that we had to cancel completely. Of course, working under special circumstances has its own special features. Group participants and group conductors have been scattered throughout Ukraine and beyond. At times, participants can go online from a car or from a bathroom, because in their wanderings they cannot find a more appropriate secluded place. Some can be sitting in front of the screen of their laptops or phones in a cold apartment, wearing a coat and a hat, wrapped in a blanket. Some can sit in the dark by the light of a flashlight or a candle. Some go online from a bomb shelter or an underground metro station. Sometimes the sounds of artillery fire can be heard in the background of a participant’s screen. One way or another, we’ve learned to appreciate the resource and significance of the group situation, the need to see and hear each other, stay in touch, find commonality and support.
Thanks to the generous donations received by our Association through the EFPP network, we have been able to organize and sustain a number of activities that would not have been possible without this support. From the very beginning of the war, we organized the collection of information about the location and personal circumstances of the members of our Association, their need for temporary housing, employment, confirmation of professional qualifications, organization of events for psychological assistance and training. Based on the information collected, 12 members of the APPU, who found themselves in an extremely distressed situation due to the war, received direct financial assistance.
The horrors of Bucha, Irpen and other Ukrainian cities, in which many children and adolescents were orphaned, raped and tortured, prompted us to seek guidance in working with this extremely difficult category of patients from specialists who have such experience. In cooperation with the representatives of the Committee for Psychoanalytic Assistance in Crises and Emergency of the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA PACE), we organized the project “Trauma and Childhood”, which includes a series of lecture seminars with the participation of Genevieve Welsh, Valerie Sinason, Laura Ravaioli and regular sessions of two Work Discussion Groups led by Monica Cardenal, Carlos Vasquez, Gianna Williams and Banu Ismail.
The challenge of dealing with an influx of traumatized patients is exacerbated by the fact that psychotherapists themselves are under continuous exposure to severe stress, which makes psychotherapeutic work in Ukraine particularly difficult. The end of the working day never means the end of contact with intolerable emotional content. Responding to the need of helping the helpers, in cooperation with the Israeli Institute of Group Analysis, we initiated the sandwich project “Walking Together Through Difficult Times” led by Robi Friedman and Kathrin Albert along with 15 Ukrainian group analysts. From March 2022 to the present day, this
project brings together up to a 100 Ukrainian psychologists, psychotherapists, psychiatrists and social workers, providing a space for exchange, reflection and containment. It is amazing that each block of the sandwich, overcome with such great effort, filled with despair, anxiety, rage and grief from so many losses, always ends with a feeling of inspiration, unity and renewed hope. One association from a large group reflects well our attitude to this event. We swim in cold water under a thick ice crust, and each new block of the sandwich is a hole in the ice through which we can float to the surface, breathe in some air and thaw a little. And every time we know that we must swim to the next ice hole – if only there was enough air in our lungs.
Last but not least, there is a weekly group led by John Schlapobersky who has been keeping the APPU staff in working order, accompanying us through all the hardships of the war since the spring of 2022.
Needless to say, all foreign colleagues joined this work on a voluntary basis. Our expenses are limited to the costs of technical support for events and payment for the services of translators.
The past year has taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears from us. But it also gave us confidence that we will persevere. When peace finally comes, we will have more work to do. It will take many years to heal the wounds, restore the lost and build the new. I am sure that psychoanalytic psychotherapy will have a significant place in this process. This year on October 20-22, we are planning an international online conference “Thoughts and Dreams”, where we will try to look into the future of Ukraine as a full member of a united Europe. After all, the ability to dream creates opportunities for dreams to become reality. We are pleased to invite you to participate in this event. It will be a privilege for us to have you among our guests.
I would like to conclude my speech by expressing deep gratitude from Ukrainian colleagues to all of you for your sincere sympathy, reliable and helpful presence. Thanks to you, we feel included and keep the faith that our struggle is meaningful. On my own behalf, I especially want to thank Maria Eugenia Cid Rodriguez, Hansjorg Messner, Cristina Călărășanu, Uri Levin, Anna Zajenkowska and Gila Ofer, whose care and attention I have felt throughout the past year.
There are a few more words I would like to say to our Russian colleagues. For me, like many other Ukrainians, Russian was the first language. Before the war, we could freely speak Russian in any Ukrainian city or village. Now we only speak Ukrainian. Not because it is forbidden to speak Russian, but because it has become embarrassing to speak it, and no one wants to identify themselves with the Russian heritage. This is very sad. I am sure that Russian culture has lots of valuable things to offer humanity. But all that Russia offers today is the right of brute force, medieval cruelty, unjustified claims and projected fears. I want you to know, that we are not fighting against the Russian people. We defend our sovereignty, independence and the rule of law on our land. I think this is our common struggle. As one Russian colleague of mine put it, the only way for the Russians to win this war is for Russia to lose it.
Thank you for your attention!
Taras Levin from Kyiv, Ukraine on 3 March 2023.