Debbie Bodkin has seen a lot of human misery in her job as a sergeant with the Waterloo Regional Police Service.
But nothing prepared her for what she saw and heard interviewing Darfur refugees in 2004 and 2005, as a volunteer for fact-finding missions by the U.S. and the United Nations.
Her experience was so emotional that upon her return to Canada, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
While in Darfur, she talked to young girls who had been gang-raped; consoled a man who'd seen his son, wife and parents killed before his eyes just hours before; and documented hundreds of stories of families killed, villages destroyed, and rapes at the hands of the Sudan government-funded janjaweed militia.
Ms. Bodkin returned to Canada with high hopes that the West would intervene to save the people of Darfur. After all, more than 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced from the region since 2003, and former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has called the killings genocide.
But still the West has done nothing.
Ms. Bodkin fell into a deep depression on her return - triggered not, she believes, by the horrors she'd seen and heard, but by her feeling of powerlessness.
She couldn't sleep, she couldn't laugh, she couldn't look at any of her 800 digital photos of Africa.
Her usual efforts to cheer herself up - a little chocolate, some nice red wine - tasted like ashes.
Then, a counsellor diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suggested that talking about her experiences would help.
Ms. Bodkin, who was one of The Globe's Nation Builder of 2007 nominees, started telling her story - to schools, rallies, civic groups, conferences - and she hasn't stopped. She has bookings through November.
Ms. Bodkin kindly agreed to join us online to answer questions about her experiences in Africa and about recovering from PTSD.
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Rebecca Dube, Globe Life reporter: Hi everyone and thanks for joining us, and thanks especially to Debbie Bodkin for taking time out of her day to answer questions.
I first heard Debbie on CBC Radio last year and I was so impressed with her integrity and her compassion, and fascinated by how this ordinary woman had become such a strong crusader for the people of Darfur. Sometimes global problems are so big that we feel powerless to make a difference and we just give up, but Ms. Bodkin didn't give up and she has made a difference in the world.
Of course, her decision to get involved came at a price. When she returned to Canada, she suffered from PTSD. Luckily she discovered that talking about her experiences helped, so she's shared her story with all of us. There are lots of good reader questions for Ms. Bodkin, so we'll try to get to as many as possible in the next hour.
Jesper Haaps from Hatzic Canada writes: It's getting harder and harder to live in a world that countenances, or at best ignores, such atrocities as those occurring in Darfur (and previously, in Rwanda). When I mention it to people, I get a blank stare or even discomfort. How do we live among our friends, neighbours, and even family, when we are confronted by their indifference and even callousness? I already have PTSD (from childhood abuse, among other life events), but I am currently dealing with a deep despair about people in general and I honestly don't know where to go with that.
Debbie Bodkin: I know exactly what you mean about sort of feeling like you just want to give up on the goodness of mankind when you see how people do not want to hear about anything that might not sit well with them.
My sister is very much like that, she is so sensitive that she can't deal with hearing a whole lot of horrible things happening in the world because she knows she can't immediately stop it and she can get so upset she wouldn't let her kids out of the house for fear of bad things happening.
On the other side of the coin, many of the police officers I work with who deal with very sad situations and often deaths on a daily basis don't want to hear about things like Darfur much because their plate is already overflowing with sad stories.
So, for me the secret is speaking to groups of people who are open to hearing about the situation and are anxious to do whatever little bit they can to try and change it. Speaking to hundreds of eager, energetic student who cry about Darfur but are ready to do whatever they can for it is a huge boost to my drive. Also going to Rotary, Optimist and Church groups which are made up of people who know we each have to do our part to make our world better fills me with hope....
So, in short I try as often as possible to get amongst other people like myself who are driven to do their little part and who make it part of their everyday lives, to help others. It is true what they say about volunteering... you give a part of your time and energy but you really do reap many more benefits from it.
NA E from Buckhorn Canada writes: Good Afternoon, Ms. Bodkin, I'm glad you're here to discuss the genocide in Darfur AND the reaction of any normal person to knowledge of what's going on there. I'm wondering to what you might attribute the lack of response from the West. Is it the lack of leadership on the part of the United States? Is it racism? Also, are we to assume that talking really does alleviate PTSD? Can any sufferer practice this therapy?
Debbie Bodkin: First to your question about what I feel is the reason for the lack of action from the West. I have come to the realization that the saying "money rules the world" is so, so true.
In the situation in Darfur I think the lack of actions is a compilation of a few things: 1. The West really has no investments in Darfur or Sudan 2. China, however, has a great deal of money invested in the area because of the oil they are getting from there, and as a result they do not want to upset the Government of Sudan and have made that very clear during the United Nations sittings when they have argued against taking action in Darfur. 3. Because of China's stance, our Western politicians are remaining quiet and not speaking out about Darfur or really taking action because of the fear of upsetting our trading relationship with China. 4. Finally, and unfortunately, I do believe that even in 2008, racism plays a part in the lack of action, just as it did in Rwanda. If this was occurring in an area populated with fair-skinned people, I think the West would not be so quick to turn away.
As far as your question about talking alleviating PTSD. I am not an expert in the field by any means and I know my PTSD has not miraculously disappeared because I do my talks all the time. But, for me it seems to work best. I initially was going to a counsellor and discussing my feelings, then writing down my feelings, etc. I also go to yoga classes and massage on a regular basis as well. So I think my therapy is a combination of things and I would think what works for one person may not work for another. I presume that when the situation in Darfur is finally rectified my form of therapy will be to go back and help rebuild. So, I think the cause of one's PTSD likely has a lot to do in determining the therapy.
Rt. Revd. Malachy Egan from Halifax Canada writes: Hello Debbie. I can relate: I spent 7 years in Africa in the seventies, and sadly things are worse today. The feeling of powerlessness and perhaps frustration, because if there was a true will, we (the well-off first world nations) could do something. Yet sadly, there is no will; even the tiny amount of relief dollars that trickles through gets misappropriated.
My question: were you a spiritual person before your time in Africa (note I avoid the term religious: enough damage done there!) and if so, have you managed to hold on to your connection to the power of creation, God if you will, or have you lost it? My own experience with PTSD from even earlier experiences in SE Asia was that it was worse when the Spiritual void was in place and improved as Spirituality returned.
Debbie Bodkin: I would say that yes, I am a spiritual person in a sense but perhaps not truly to the point where I am certain about what I believe or don't believe.
I was raised in an Anglican household and still go to church with my family but my mother is well aware that I do not like the trappings, rules and totally undecipherable words used during services in the Anglican/Catholic church. During my career, while doing sexual assault investigations, I think I really lost all spiritual belief due to seeing young children being victimized. However, I have always thought there must be a greater being but I haven't decided how I feel about him/her or exactly what they are doing.
Lately I have been reading a lot of Buddhist books and went and heard the Dalai Lama speak and really found a lot of meaning in the Buddhist teachings, which are simple, basic ideas on how to be a good person and try to do the best you can everyday. So, I guess my true answer would be I am still searching for a complete understanding.
Janet M from Kingston Canada writes: Debbie, it was with interest that I read your story. I heard you speak at a conference on Sudan in November at the University of Ottawa -- straight talk and straight facts. You seemed a combination of senstivity and grit -- wish there were more like you. Africa was my home for two years and it is hard to describe that life can be 'closer to the bone' at times and at times painful to see. I have three questions:
1. You mention that sharing your experiences with others has helped you. I would suspect that this has helped diminish flashbacks but has it eradicated them? 2. Do you feel that the NGOs which send out humanitarian workers are doing enough to support this group, given what they are exposed to? 3. Do you have any personal feelings on a possible world response to the suffering in Africa, when you factor in the five million dead in the Congo and the carnage in the Sudan. Perhaps a UN 911 contingency force?
Again Debbie, I salute your commitment to Africa.
Debbie Bodkin: Thank you for your compliment about my speech. To answer your questions:
1. I never really thought of myself having flashbacks, but more like waking up and as I drive to work I start thinking about someone I met in Darfur and interviewed and I start wondering whether or not they are still alive, and if they are, what are they thinking about me. The girl from Canada who came and asked them to tell horrible painful stories about what happened to them and then just left their country with their stories and didn't do anything for them. So, my talking has not changed that at all really but now I think, if they are alive and wondering what is happening hopefully they will hear that I have not given up and am still trying to help them. I know from one of the documentaries about Darfur which I saw, they do get news of what is going on and they talk about how Mia Farrow is trying hard to help them and hopefully they will hear that I am too and they will stil have hope.
2. I doubt that there is enough support for the humanitarian workers from NGO's that go there but I can't really say for certain. When I went to Kososvo with the RCMP back in 2000 it was mandatory when we returned that we go for an appointment with a psychologist. When I went to Chad in 2004 with the U.S. NGO, the organizer was in the field with us asking all the time if we were okay and I am sure if we had asked for it, counselling likely would have been arranged. When I went with the United Nations, there was absolutely no support or check up upon return.
3. Actually the UN911 group idea is something that I heard being discussed amongst some UN workers when we returned to Geneive from Darfur. There was rumour that they would gather names of people of various vocations who would be available on short notice to respond to a crisis quickly. I was very interested and kept checking the UN website for advertisement of a position like that but never saw or heard of it coming to be. The United Nations really needs some revamping in so many ways in order to make it entity that actually works proficiently. I keep thinking I need to go back to school and get a degree in humanitarian work and world politics so I could implement that change...
Claudia Casper from Aix en Provence, France/Canada writes: To recover from PTSD do you have to suppress or forget the memories of what you saw and heard? Does writing them down help release you from the grip of the memories, or change their effect on you in any way?
Debbie Bodkin: During my counselling sessions I talked more about how the feeling of powerlessness was bothering me more that specifically the horrific details to the stories I was told. I think having been a police officer for 20 years, it wasn't the sad stories that haunted me as much as the fact that I was used to catching the culprit of the offence and stopping it from happening again, but in this instance that wasn't happening. I will sometimes open up the notebooks where I have all the interviews documented and read them over in order to keep reminding myself of the people, so that the everyday things in life don't overshadow the fact that I still haven't finished helping them.
So, in answer to your question, I guess I am okay with reviewing what I heard and thinking about the people and my memories, as long as I also continue to do something about them. When the crisis in Darfur is finally stopped I hope to be able to go back and help the people rebuild in some way and I hope that will close my little chapter of PTSD.
Janice Wranich from Bothwell Canada writes: Debbie, Your dedication to this cause is admirable; the repercussions and consequences you have suffered make it obvious that you are committed to help change the plight of the people of Darfur. Are you encouraged by the media attention that celebrities such as George Clooney and Mia Farrow have drawn to this situation, or do you believe it requires a political champion to incite the UN member nations to take action?
Debbie Bodkin: I am definitely encouraged by the attention that the celebrities have brought. (Maybe George Clooney will ask my assistance some day :) But, there are also some politicians very much involved in Darfur activities. A few Canadian politicians very involved are Irwin Cottler, Glen Pearson and David Kilgour. I have seen them at many of the rallies and conferences I have attended. In the United States, Barack Obama has spoken out about Darfur and is on a clip on YouTube doing so.
I think it is going to be numbers which makes the difference. If thousands of Canadians keep writing to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs about Darfur they will not be able to ignore it. Irwin Cottler has said that it is the letters from citizens that direct the politicians to deal with what the people feel is important. That is why I always silence anyone who spends their time complaining about what the politicians are doing but yet they have never once picked up a pen and written to the politician to tell them what they want done... So, I think we have to force someone, like Harper, to step up and be the political champion for Darfur.
Carolyn Libin from Calgary Canada writes: I was shaken by Ms. Bodkin's account of life in Darfur. I am most interested in her thoughts regarding what we, as individuals, can now be doing for those in Darfur. Many thanks for your insights.
Debbie Bodkin: The best way to start being involved in and understanding Darfur is to spend a little time going to a few of the websites that are available. They not only give you information on the history of Darfur and what is happening there right now, but there are also many campaigns on the go that you can easily take part in.
Some of the websites are: www.sdcanada.org, www.standcanada.org, www.miafarrow.org, www.sudanreeves.org and finally I have a website not quite running yet but open for you to sign up for further information at www.debbiebodkin.com.
Once you go on these websites you will discover the Save Darfur Canada postcards campaign, The Genocide Olympics campaign, the Divestment Campaign and simple directions on how to write a meaningful letter to the appropriate politician or your local MP or one of the companies sponsoring the Olympics in China. There are also many agencies you can donate money as well.
So, it may sound time consuming, but within an hour you could have a clear understanding of the situation and have done your part by firing off a letter or two. That may not seem like much because we don't see quick tangible results but I believe that is what will work.
Thank you for your interest.
Rebecca Dube, Globe Life reporter: That's all the time we have for today; thanks to everyone who participated in the conversation, and sincere thanks to Debbie Bodkin for joining us. I've added the web sites she mentioned to the "Links" section on the left-hand-side of the page, so you can click there to check them out. Thanks again Debbie, and any final thoughts you'd like to leave us with?
Debbie Bodkin: Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to chat with me. I hope that you can also take a few minutes to do some little thing for the people of Darfur. Then, collectively we will have done a lot for them!