Women in war: A psychologist helps Ukrainian soldiers’ families
Maryna, whose son died in combat in 2014, counsels soldiers’ partners and mothers as she worries about her army-bound foster son.
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Lviv, Ukraine – Maryna Manyevska has become skilled at identifying patients who, after having fought on the front line in Ukraine over the last eight years, are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I can see these cases right away. More than 50 percent of them have addiction issues and often show uncontrollable aggression,” says the 51-year-old.
Maryna is a psychologist at the Lviv Centre for the Provision of Services to Combatants in western Ukraine, which offers free legal, psychological and social support to soldiers and their families. She is used to seeing soldiers who have served in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where government forces have been battling Russian-backed separatists since 2014. But since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February, her workload has increased.
“They’re living in tension and are hearing explosions constantly, so it’s difficult for them to get used to life without the euphoria of survival,” says Maryna, a woman with a piercing gaze and a solemn expression who has a commanding air about her. “There’s a sense that they’ve seen things that most people haven’t, and that it earns them the right to be aggressive. The easiest way for them to let it all out is by drinking or abusing drugs.”
The centre has been open for the last seven years. Its interiors resemble a medical clinic, with its pristine white walls and doors lit up by the sun streaming in from the windows facing the street. In the main reception area, Ukrainian flags and notes from patients lend a burst of colour to the space. Maryna’s room is much the same: Her work desk is tidy, with a small pile of books and a diary where she records her appointments. Stuck to her keyboard is a note to call one of her patients, and a little plant grows out of a humanoid-shaped pot by her computer. The rest of the room is nearly bare.
It is the middle of the day, and she speaks to Al Jazeera after typing up some patient case notes.
From the beginning of the Russian invasion on February 24, she has been offering several counselling sessions a day and has about 30 patients in total. “Most of the people who come to me now are women who have family in the military,” she says. “I hear a lot about the number of divorces going up after 2014 [when fighting first broke out between the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country]. There’s often conflict within families when men come home from war feeling like heroes but forget that they have other responsibilities to look after at home.” She describes these women as suffering from secondary PTSD, a form of distress that results from sharing in the aftermath of another person’s trauma.
She says she has spoken to many women who feel resentful that they have had to play the roles of both mother and father to their children, while their husbands are away at war.
‘Mothers want to talk about their children’
Maryna has twin motivations for pursuing this sort of work: her own past and the desire to deliver much-needed counselling to those who suffered through Ukraine’s conflict-ridden recent history. “I have a lot of trauma myself,” she says. She was sexually assaulted at the age of five, and at 12 her father took his own life. “I lived with this question for years: Could he not have ended his life? I concluded that regardless of how bad our life situations are, there must surely always be a solution,” she says.
She has always been drawn to the difficult task of helping disenfranchised communities and her career in social work brought her into the orbit of prisoners and HIV-positive people. But everything changed in 2014 when her 22-year-old son Vlad was killed while fighting for Ukrainian government forces in the Donbas region. She decided to channel her grief into re-training to support those experiencing trauma as a result of war. “Doing this work is my way of honouring his memory,” she says quietly.
Sometimes, her job hits her where her pain is still raw. The cases she finds toughest are the bereaved mothers of soldiers, who she says look at her as someone who has undergone a similar ordeal, and knows what to say to comfort them. “I still live with the pain. It is immense. It used to be hard to distance myself emotionally when counselling them, but not any more,” she says, explaining that time has helped her separate herself from her grief while she is working. Often, she says, the women are scared of excavating their pain and are worried that their sadness will be too all-consuming if they try to confront it. But ultimately, the need to talk about their experiences usually prevails. “All mothers want to talk about their children,” she posits. Being gentle with them, she adds, makes them much more willing to share.
Waves of pain
The ongoing war keeps churning up a maelstrom of emotions for Maryna, who is from the Luhansk region of Donbas. “I came to Lviv in the 1990s because of widespread hunger. There were no jobs where I was, and I just had to leave to survive,” she tells Al Jazeera. She thought she would only stay for a summer but she ended up finding a part-time job while studying to become a social worker, and never left.
“I used to speak Russian, but I’ve switched completely to Ukrainian after Bucha,” she says, referring to the reported mass killings and abuse of civilians committed by the Russian forces in a city close to Kyiv in March.
Grief over her son’s death eight years ago has been hitting her in fresh waves since the war began, but she prefers to focus on her most cherished memories of him. There is one that she is particularly keen on sharing. In 2006, when the family’s finances were tight and she had to be careful about how she spent their money, her husband had given her 100 hryvnias (about $20) to buy gifts to put under their three children’s pillows, as was the tradition for Saint Nicholas Day. For context, she adds, eight hryvnias ($1.50) was the price of a can of deodorant at the time.
“I was walking around feeling sad because I knew I wouldn’t be able to buy anything nice that my children would like,” she recalls. She ended up purchasing some small presents for her children, including a bottle of hair gel for Vlad. It was not a special gift by any means, and not something that she thought would be treasured. On the way home, she ran into Vlad and her daughter Regina, who was 16 at the time. “I’ll always remember how they looked, Vlad was wearing a white coat with no hat, and he had gel in his hair. Regina was wearing a red coat. As soon as he saw me, he intuited that something was wrong,” she says, explaining that she must have looked despondent.
“’Let’s go home,’ he said to me, and was very reassuring about it,” she remembers. The next morning, when he found a bottle of hair gel under his pillow, he made a show of telling her that it had been exactly what he needed. “That’s when I understood that no matter what I bought, it wouldn’t have mattered to him,” she reflects. “I knew I had raised a good son.”
‘My biggest pain and my biggest pride’
Maryna sees her personal experiences of hardship – and joy – as having given her the strength to keep supporting other people who need psychological aid. “My colleagues are also surprised [by my resilience], that I am able to do this,” she smiles.
But recently, Maryna has been distressed by a new development in her personal life. Her 24-year-old foster son, Revan, whom she began caring for when he was nine, is insisting on joining the army since the invasion started. She scrolls through her Facebook account on her phone to try and show Al Jazeera a photo of him, but the screen freezes repeatedly because of the poor WiFi connection in her office. “We both cry a lot [whenever we discuss this]. I can’t go through this again. I tell him, I just want him to stay alive, but at the end of the day I need to respect his choice,” she says, her eyes misting over.
The therapy she has had for years, even before Vlad died, to cope with her work helps her press on whenever she thinks about the possibility of Revan entering combat.
Talking about Revan also makes Maryna smile. He starred in the 2017 edition of a Ukrainian reality TV series called Top Model po-ukrainsky (Supermodel Ukrainian-style), and she describes him as “looking brutal, but an absolute sweetheart”. She says she has watched every episode bar one, where he spoke about the violent household he was born into and being beaten so hard as a child that the “walls were covered in blood”. “I couldn’t bear to hear about it,” she says.
Born to an Azerbaijani father and Ukrainian mother, Revan was at first very angry and acted out regularly by screaming and shouting when he left his abusive home and came to live with her. But with great patience and tenderness, Maryna managed to help him adjust to his new life. Today, the two of them are extremely close. “I don’t know how a boy who grew up in a Russian-speaking environment ended up being so pro-Ukrainian. He is my biggest pain and my biggest pride,” she says.
Maryna has an appointment with a new patient, but before she goes she shares one last observation about the evolving nature of her work. “I don’t know what awaits me [in this job], but I know that as compared to 2014, soldiers feel less conflicted about what they do,” she says. “In the past, they were less sure of what they were doing, because it didn’t feel as much like the whole country was under attack. But now they’re all clear that they’re fighting for the freedom of their motherland.”
This article is part of a series telling the stories of women in the Russia-Ukraine war.