“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars”
~ Kahlil Gibran
Tuesday, June 26, was the United Nations International Day In Support of Victims of Torture. I spent the days leading up to it reflecting on psychological torture, and particularly the impact of psychological torture on me. Although it is difficult to delve into, I want to share some of that experience. I hope it will increase global understanding of the devastating impact of psychological torture, the remarkable courage of those who face it, and the support people need on their journeys of recovery.
My 9 month journey since my precious brother, Josh Fattal, was released after 2 years and 2 months of being held hostage by the Iranian regime, has not been an easy one. I continue to struggle to recover the very full life I once led and to transform the heart shattering experience into something positive.
According to the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984, art. 1, para.1),
“[T]he term ‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person…by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”
In a Physicians for Human Rights report entitled ‘Break Them Down: Systematic Use of Psychological Torture by US Forces,‘ ‘psychological torture’ is defined as ‘‘severe mental pain or suffering…including threats of death or injury and the administration or application or threatened administration or application of “procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality.”
Josh, Shane and Sarah clearly experienced severe pain and suffering, carried out by Iranian public officials, for a specific purpose – to blackmail the American government. Their loved ones also experienced severe mental pain and suffering, initially from the Iranian regime not acknowledging that they had captured them for weeks, and then from more than two years of constant threats to their lives and safety in the context of extremely limited communication with them and limited information about their well-being and ultimate fate. The psychological torture intensified each time the Iranian regime made a promise and then reneged on it, including multiple trial dates they cancelled at the last minute. We felt like we were on an extreme roller-coaster ride, with highs and lows like none we had ever experienced. Though I fought as hard as I could to FREE Josh, Shane and Sarah, throughout, that seemingly never-ending traumatic journey had dire consequences for me.
In an article in The Lancet, Christy Fujio from Physicians for Human Rights, states “The Iranian Government wants to break peoples’ spirits, they want to set an example…The Iranian Government has deliberately fostered an intense climate of fear in order to oppress the population and quiet voices of dissent”. Agents of the Iranian regime have continued to harass and threaten me since Josh and Shane were freed on September 21, 2011.
On June 26, I started my day by forgetting my keys in my door because I was so stressed about a meeting with a mentor, to discuss how to complete my PhD thesis in the context of my healing psychological scars. I expected her to be supportive and helpful, but facing the fact that I had to take an extended leave from my almost complete PhD, while Josh was held hostage, is painful and difficult. It is especially challenging because I have to deal with the numerous consequences of that leave, while still recovering from 2 years and 2 months of psychological torture inflicted by the Iranian regime. It is also very difficult for me to trust that authority figures have my interests at heart, after Iranian authorities inflicted psychological torture on Josh, Shane, Sarah and their loved ones, including me.
Despite the challenges, the meeting went well and I feel a renewed determination to complete my PhD against all obstacles. I went directly to an official event to mark June 26, that was a perfect segue into my journey forward. ‘Journey of Hope’ was hosted by the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture (CCVT), a Toronto-based centre within a global network of such centres, that offered me critical support and advice during Josh’s captivity in Iran. They not only understood and validated my experience, but demonstrated great wisdom in their advice to me; wisdom clearly gained from extensive experience with people in similar situations to mine.
One of the key elements in my journey of hope is calm. I seek calm spaces and calm communication. Communication that is not calm does not feel safe. It heightens my anxiety levels and pushes me to isolate myself for safety. I first noticed my heightened need for calm during Josh, Sarah and Shane’s captivity. I had a heightened sensitivity to noise, anger and unkindness. That was a significant part of the standard response I drafted for abusive comments on our Free the Hikers campaign Facebook page:
“Thanks to all for your comments. What we need now more than ever is your support in getting Sarah, Shane and Josh released. Peaceful communication is most supportive to us during this intensely challenging time, especially as it honors the values that Sarah, Shane and Josh hold so dear.”
This need was echoed in a comment from a child client that a CCVT counselor shared at the ‘Journey of Hope’ event: “You are kind because you don’t yell.”
My search for safe space has been a challenging one. During Josh’s captivity, I worked in an extremely psychologically unsafe environment that made dealing with the trauma far more difficult than it already was. It took me time to acknowledge and ask for the support I needed, because of course I was focused on Josh’s far more dire needs for safety. When I did ask for what I needed, my workplace did not acknowledge, let alone accept my multiple formal accommodation requests. Despite the intense global publicity about the case and my connection to it, they blatantly denied my experience, telling me “We don’t buy it.” They consistently put me in work spaces that re-traumatized me (tiny, dark spaces, with no view of a window, reminiscent of the prison cell that was constantly on my mind because Josh was trapped in it), until I had to take a leave from work due to complex trauma/PTSD.
For the year and a half since then, it has been extremely difficult to secure a calm and safe space for myself because Great-West Life, my employee health insurance company, has not paid me any of the long-term disability payments they owe me. They, like my former employer, treat me with mistrust despite the public nature of my battle and the extensive documentation from multiple health professionals I have provided them with. Shockingly, as journalist Jan Wong recently revealed in her memoir on workplace depression, such tactics are common practices among Canadian health insurance companies, particularly for avoiding disability payments for mental health issues.
Without the disability payments I am owed, I have been forced to move from temporary place to temporary place, while longing for the space I need. Though still experiencing extreme financial hardship, just last week I moved into my own space. When I found it, I knew it was the right space because I didn’t want to leave. When I moved in, one of my first thoughts was, “I can think clearly now.” I have the high ceilings, large windows and accessible outdoor space that I longed for. I don’t feel imprisoned, as I did in the workspace I was forced into for so long. Watching and listening to the breeze blow through the trees my place overlooks takes me to the tropical Kenyan coast of my childhood. It fills me with a sense that I am going to be all right.
As Johnny Nash sings:
“I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright, bright