Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Play therapy and body awareness with traumatized adults

It's the strangest thing. For the past few weeks, during their time off, I've been giving the serving boys here a few swimming lessons. I'm no championship swimmer but I like to poke around in the water and relax. So that's what I have been training them to do. Water and relaxing in water are not in their comfort zone. It's something to think about. 

When the boys get in the water they panic. It's like they're in acid or something. I can't calm them down when they go past their comfort zone, that is, approximately up to their waist in water. They start to choke, they move awkwardly, they lose control it seems. Some people say this behavior is common because of the tsunami. But some of the boys lived far inland. And we're not talking ocean here. This is a swimming pool bounded by tiled concrete walls, where no part of the pool is more than four feet deep. I think this discomfort with the water is culturally mediated. Somehow I sense that it has to do with the way people perceive their own bodies. For example, people here don't like to get their heads wet. They think it will lead to disease. Actually it's strange. Now that I've been here for awhile I've begun to like keeping my head "dry." You sweat enough so that there's always some wetness around anyway. 

So part of the strangeness seems to be that  "eastern"concepts we have, like balance, centering, using your core etc. are things that are alien to these people even though in some settings they come by it quite naturally and can be very graceful. It's not that in the west we are necessarily super "body aware" but it's different from here. Hard to describe but different. Anyway I developed some very very basic exercises for the boys like kicking and putting their fingers together to make your hands kind of like paddles and breathing. Mostly things to just get comfortable in the water, have a feel for the water and what it does, what its limitations are, and what your limitations are in the water. Awareness. 

So yesterday I was at the pool just by myself and there was a family there who were taking off for May day, one of the zillion Sri Lankan holidays. May first had been a Sunday. Monday was declared ad hoc as a "bank holiday." So here were two bankers, the wife of the older one and (I think) sister of the younger. They had a super cute two-year-old and a seven-year-old. So first I started talking baby talk to the baby because that's kind of my thing. The family spoke English and they're pretty affluent Muslim family from Batticaloa town. The kids' mom had just barely a scarf over her head. People are a maybe bit more liberal here in Batticaloa town than Muslims who live close by in Kattankudy, just south of here. 

Anyway they were on holiday, had spent the night here in an AC room to beat the heat. They were pretty good natured and so was I. We got to talking a little bit and I said hey I can teach your big boy how to swim. By the way there are swimming lessons here every Saturday and Sunday and the real cream of the crop bring their kids to it. The parents hang around and the kids chatter and splash in the pool and for this part of the world it's an extremely rare and exciting moment. 99% of the people here don't know how to swim and more to the point this group of parents and children would have been a supremely soft target for the military or the LTTE or roaming paramilitary groups just a few years ago. So the fact that they can gather here and just chill out is really really really incredible. These people knew of the swimming lessons I think but demurred about sending their child. Maybe because they're Muslim? I know the lessons are open to everyone and I told them so. Would be great for him to join his peers in the pool on the weekend. 

Anyway back to the "swimming lessons." I was showing a few things to seven-year-old and then the father said he didn't know how to swim either. So all I did was try to show the father and his brother in law how to put their face in the water and breathe out. You can't imagine the panic and the total disconnect with their bodies. They just couldn't make themselves do it. They were holding their breath, breathing in water, forgetting to exhale, forgetting to breathe in when their faces were out of the water. But after about half an hour of practice I was able to take the adults to the next step. Bending down in the water and letting the water be over their head and breathe out. Mom of the boys was sitting up on a chair and cheering them along. You can't imagine how much laughing  and fun there was. At 10 o'clock after about an hour and a half they had to leave. But the father was so overwhelmed with happy. He told me all their lives they could only stand in the water up to their knees and splash water over their heads. 

This was like so crazy revolutionary and it was like doing less than nothing. So it takes me back to the low expectations thing I have going with my students. People are pretty disconnected from learning, from their bodies, from the ability to relax. I work with my students at home to help them connect with learning and exploration, work with their hands, relax and enjoy themselves while experiencing science. Here in the pool with me yesterday were these affluent people, pretty accomplished for who and where they are, and they couldn't even put their head into the water. This is something I predict most of us take for granted in the west. And strange. They got the most intense and incredible "swimming" lesson from me and all I did was kind of just laughed through the whole thing with them. Low expectations, informal, fun. 

So is it that "people aren't right" here? I know that 30 years of warfare, communal disharmony and distrust, extreme random violence from every angle, profound social isolation, and to top it off, the tsunami did a number  on people here. I wonder what the fear of water or best case scenario the discomfort with water represents. How it fits in with other, perhaps more profound dissociation with their immediate environment. And I wonder, because that's all I can do--I'm not a psychologist or occupational therapist or swim instructor--I wonder how a simple thing like these rudimentary exercises I tried might be a key to opening up a better future for people here. 

I know it's a huge jump. But I do wonder how better body awareness might contribute to more well-being in a population like this, where people were traumatized for so long and from so many angles. Is it worth pursuing this kind of play therapy with adults? Where would you take it? 

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