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  • Melania Zilo

Beirut: The Aftermath

Updated: Oct 30, 2020

This week I had the pleasure of welcoming Natalie Assaf, founder of @path2empowerment, to our podcast. We discussed the importance of prioritizing our mental health after something as traumatic as the Beirut explosion. Keep scrolling to read the highlights of our very important conversation.

Melania Zilo: Hi, Natalie! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Natalie Assaf: I'm a Lebanese psychology student at the American University of Beirut, and I recently started a mental health page, @path2empowerment, on Instagram. It's a platform that brings mental health issues to light and shares advice on coping with them. I've always been fascinated with psychology and spent a lot of my time writing about techniques and mechanisms that help me personally. I realized that if this is something I enjoy doing, and if this is something that could help others, I have to share it with the world.

MZ: How has being Lebanese influenced your decision to create your platform?

NA: Being in Lebanon has pushed me because there is such a big stigma around mental health in the Middle East. For example, going to therapy is seen as something to be ashamed of, when, in reality, I think everyone needs a therapist at some point in their life. I wanted to start this page to contribute to the normalization and destigmatization surrounding the discussion of mental health.

MZ: So let's talk about why we're here today...

NA: Two weeks ago, Lebanon experienced one of the largest explosions in history. It was very tragic for everyone; if you weren't affected physically, you were mentally and emotionally. People are struggling to cope, and so this is a conversation that needs to be had.

MZ: Can you walk us through August 4th, 2020?

NA: That day marked the end of Beirut's lockdown, so everyone was out and about. It was around 6.00 pm, and I was having coffee with a friend. As I reached for my coffee mug, I hear this loud sound, and everything began to shake. Naturally, I thought it was an earthquake, so I quickly hid under the coffee table. Suddenly, there was another loud sound, there was glass everywhere, and everyone started running. Everything flashed before my eyes. It was a terrifying experience. When it was all over, you couldn't call your family members or loved ones because the lines were down, so it was really traumatic. Luckily, I didn't see anything too graphic, but I can't say the same for others. But what I want to note is that every person in Lebanon experienced this day differently; therefore, we are all going to heal differently.

MZ: What happens next? How are you feeling? What are some common things that people could be feeling right now, days after this explosion?

NA: There is definitely a feeling of numbness or shock, which is normal. Some people fall into denial and want to act as nothing happened. Personally, I turned my phone off for 3 days, which might not have been the healthiest decision as I believe that facing a situation head-on is the best way to cope better. It's totally normal to cry, to not cry, we are all in shock. For the next few nights, before I went to bed, I kept hearing the loud noise and replaying the events in my head. This event reminded me to be closer to God and my religion. Others might feel the opposite and begin to question their faith. There is no right way to grieve or cope, and I felt all the feelings. What matters is what we do from this point on.

MZ: Watching this all happen from abroad, was terrifying for me. I was stuck in this cycle of guilt and helplessness. And so navigating through that and having to deal with the fact that here I am, sitting in my air-conditioned home in South Florida, with my electricity running and my windows perfectly intact, and I still felt so broken. And so for the longest time, I felt so guilty, because how dare I feel like that when I did not experience it firsthand, and also helpless because I am thousands of miles away and there is nothing I can do to help the situation broke me. And I know we talked about the feeling of helplessness and survivor's guilt, and how this seems to be a universal emotion, no matter where you are. Do you have any advice on how to work through all these unresolved emotions?

NA: So, your feelings are valid. Every Lebanese was very, very affected, even if they didn't experience the tragedy firsthand. The important thing is that you realize that you should not feel guilty for something out of your control. You need to put that notion in your head. Instead, try to channel those emotions into more positive outlets. You can do your best to spread awareness to other people abroad, donate what you can, or even offer a listening ear to someone who needs it. When we contribute in ways big or small, those emotions of helplessness begin to diminish.

MZ: How have you been coping?

NA: I have found a lot of comfort through journaling. It's an amazing way to get all your thoughts together and work through those emotions. You can write anything, from your worst thoughts to your best ideas, and you're the only person who will ever read it. Emotional self-care is essential during this time, and this is just one way to do that. Also, I think it's really important to get a strong support system going. Especially in vulnerable times, you cannot afford to surround yourself with people who are going to bring any negativity to your life.

MZ: Let's talk about the role that social media plays in this situation. In an age where we have all this content at our fingertips, social media can be simultaneously beneficial and rewarding and detrimental to our mental health. Being abroad, I was glued to my phone for 6 days until I finally shut down and felt the need to step away for a little bit.

NA: It's definitely helpful to get off social media when you need to. I personally took 3 days off, and I felt so much better afterward. Not only are there constant triggering images, when I turn on my phone, but it's just a consumption overload. I also think many aspects of the media are exaggerated. For example, we've been seeing many news channels invite psychics onto their show to predict the future. What good does that do? It's all added stress that we don't need and frankly can't handle. It's important to stay informed, but I think everyone needs a break once in a while.

MZ: At first, I felt incredibly guilty for having the privilege to just turn off my phone and forget about it when this is people's daily struggle now, and people can't just close their eyes and make it go away. And so I did feel selfish, and this happened to fall on the week of my birthday, and I felt ashamed for even thinking about celebrating my life when I know in my heart what's going on back home. I really want to make it a point to everyone that it really isn't selfish. Wanting to take care of yourself is not selfish. It may seem so at first, but at this point, when things seem so helpless, the only thing you can do right now is to focus on your well-being and your inner healing. So Natalie, can you talk to us about what this looks like?

NA: So let's say you've done everything there is to do, right? You are donating to different NGOs, volunteering on the streets, raising awareness, and basically doing everything in your control. Feeling guilt, or any other type of negative emotion towards yourself, is not serving anyone. I really feel like self-care is super important during this time. Reflect on your feelings, look inwards, take a day off, spend time with loved ones. Give yourself permission to cry and express your emotions when you need to because even if you feel like you don't deserve to cry, this was a traumatic event that we all need to heal from, regardless of how we experienced it. We're talking about the third largest explosion in history here.

MZ: Let's talk about some realistic self-care tips and how people can utilize these techniques to cope and move forward. What should we be focusing on right now?

NA: So there are two types of self-care: emotional self-care and physical self-care. I spoke about journaling earlier, and it's honestly the most rewarding thing in the world. Even a couple minutes at night can make all the difference. You'll come to realize just how much you are releasing and letting your bottled up emotions out. Another personal favorite is listening to inspirational ted talks or podcasts that I enjoy. It shifts my focus off what's happening, and I can get lost in it.

Most importantly, build a support system. Spend time with people that make you feel good and bring you happiness. I also think many people are struggling with routine, and are finding it difficult to get back into it. My advice is to start slow. Add simple aspects of your daily routine, like waking up at a specific time to eat breakfast, and then add more complex parts like getting back to your workouts.

MZ: I think, especially now, this is the time to celebrate those little wins. If all you did today was get up and brush your teeth and shower, celebrate that because that's a step forward. Don't get discouraged because healing is a process. I think it's most important to move at your own pace. I see people who have seemed to move on and are already back in their daily lives, and then I see others struggling to make it through the day.

NA: All of us cope differently, and we were all exposed to the trauma differently. Our healing process is not going to look the same, and that's ok. It's also important to realize that just because you see people moving on doesn't mean that they are being insensitive or have forgotten what happened. It just means that they're doing what's best for them, and that's what matters. I would love to see less shaming and hate towards people who have chosen to move forward. I don't think anyone is in a position to be channeling any additional negative feelings. I

MZ:This is difficult for all of us, and we're all just trying to navigate through this time of change and adjustment. We're all just really figuring it out, so I want to point out that this is not the time to judge people for how they cope. This is the time to come together and build each other up, to be someone's support system. We need to do whatever we can to take care of ourselves and to take care of our loved ones, to lean into our relationships, and have conversations with people, and do what is in our power to focus on what it is we can do to all move forward, push through, and do better.

NA: This is also the time to emphasize how we are taking care of ourselves physically. It's ok to indulge once in a while, but the foods you eat really play a part in your overall well being. It's really important to stick to a relatively healthy diet, eat your fruits and vegetables, and regularly move your body. Treat your body with extra love and care, and again, just take it day by day.

Love always,

Melania and Natalie

For our full conversation, head to The Mad Love Club's podcast on iTunes, Spotify, and everywhere else you get your podcast fix.

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