Friday, November 6, 2015

Transitioning home: Contact! unload

Hall and stairs of Ponderosa Annex F, UBC

As Remembrance Day nears, I wear my poppy and think about war veterans. When Dad returned from World War II, the only support system for men after combat was the Legion, where old war buddies met to remember -- or forget -- by sousing themselves in beer and rum.

Today, thanks to a program developed through Men's Health Research at UBC, there is a better way for veterans to release trauma: Contact! Unload.

November 4, in UBC's shabby but historic Ponderosa F on the ancestral lands of the Musqueam, I witnessed a unique theatre production. Men released their traumatic wartime memories by playing out scenes from their own lives.

This unique intervention was created through a Network devoted to reducing male depression and suicide. An interdisciplinary collaboration involved John Oliffe from Nursing, Derek Gregory from Geography, Marvin Westwood from Counselling Psychology and George Beliveau from Theatre Education. They worked with returned vets to evolve scenes from their lives in combat into a form that they could remember, relive, and perform. In this way, the extreme emotion of the memories became manageable for the participants.

Art was a part of the project as well. Carver Rick Xwalactun created a tribute pole using two caskets. The use of ritual to create and raise this totem pole to honour and release the memories of the men was therapeutic. So, explains counsellor Marvin Westwood, is the dramatic re-enactment.

From a theatrical point of view, challenges arose in choosing and shaping scenes from the all-too-real memories of the participants. The goal was to give the audience an experience by proxy, to let them witness at close hand what it feels like to belong to a "band of brothers."

This unique veterans' program has helped many men to overcome depression, anger, addictions and other symptoms that typically follow the trauma of combat, and 580 men have already benefited.

Such interventions are sorely needed. In 2014, we were told, 56 Canadian vets took their own lives. Not surprisingly, these men are at a much greater psychological risk than the average person, yet many other Canadian men also suffer alone in silence.

An important aspect of the learning experience was to listen to the men answer questions after the "show." They balanced the heavy experience of acting out their remembered traumas with zany jokes and laughter. One fellow mentioned that two core personality characteristics required by the special forces are cheerfulness under adversity and a sense of humour.

Naturally there was a serious side to the conversation. One young man who had volunteered for military service at age 18 clearly thought of it as his calling. He spoke of the leadership skills he had learned, and of securing combat zones to keep women and children safe. Hard as I found it to imagine being called to such service, I had no trouble at all believing in his passionate conviction.

This unique show will be performed again on December 10 - 12 at the Davie Street Armouries. The group is also on schedule to share their show in London, at Canada House. The devoted volunteers and professionals who did the hard and emotionally groundbreaking work behind it deserve great credit, and the groups that supported it--Movember, the Peter Wall Institute and more--deserve warm thanks. May the courage of the men who have overcome trauma by voicing it inspire other depressed sufferers to be brave enough to step up and ask for help.

Walking at dusk across the leaf-strewn lawns of the campus of my first alma mater, I was plunged into memory. For a long time now, a book I've been planning to write based on my father's letters from convoy duty in the WWII North Atlantic has been sitting in the proverbial drawer.

Maybe it's time to get out that manuscript. Sitting in the car, I remembered the sudden knowing I felt working on Letters to the Twentieth Century a few years ago. Intimately connected to my veteran father and his war service was a lostness I carried with me, and couldn't seem to shake.

As the cozy darkness fell along Marine Drive, I was filled with gratitude, knowing that whatever caused that lostness and whatever it consisted of, I have finally left it behind.

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