Wasn’t he just my father instead of a mentally disturbed person?

In February, my father committed suicide. This open letter is not a revenge for almost 25 years of fruitless mental health service, but a call for more empathy.

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The phone call I had feared for more than twenty years came on a cloudy Friday in February. “Your father has passed away.” Even before the word suicide was uttered, I knew that he had not died a natural death. Throughout my childhood, I have seen how my father several times attempted suicide. I still remember how I, as a little boy, tried to convince him not to jump in the car and to throw himself off a bridge or how I visited him in the hospital after overdosing on antidepressants.

The last five years, our father-son relation was almost non-existing. After he separated from my mother and he burned down our new house, we had only contact through mediation. From a distance I saw how, in spite of supervision, he failed to get out of his vicious circle. He continued to suffer from mood swings and could not come off his antidepressants. Moreover, he was not able to build a new life. His circle of friends was limited: he only encountered other psychiatric patients.

Brake on antidepressants

My father had no severe mental illness such as schizophrenia. 25 years long, he was sent from one psychologist to another psychiatrist to identify his mental problems. He was diagnosed with once a bipolar, then an obsessive-compulsive disorder. According to the latest studies he had a mild form of the Asperger syndrome. Am I allowed to find it frustrating that he has been labelled so often so differently? Often I have wondered whether the label itself was so relevant. Wasn’t he just my father instead of a mentally disturbed person?

Every time, I was surprised how antidepressants seemed to offer the only way out. I saw some psychiatrists conveniently prescribed drugs to immobilise my father. It may sound harsh, but that is how it is. The antidepressants made of him an addicted junkie who panicked when he did not have his medicines. The dependence plunged him deeper into the abyss. There was no brake on the antidepressants he was prescribed: he could easily drop by several doctors to get new prescriptions. Our cupboards at home were bulging with antidepressants. I think there should be a database where all the purchased medication is registered. Antidepressants work like drugs. My father has died as an addict.

And our family was in the sinking boat as well. My mother had to work twice as hard to take over the duties of my present, but absent father. She has sacrificed her entire social life for me. My father was physically present, but mentally he almost constantly moved through life like a zombie because of the antidepressants. I rarely played football in the garden with my father. Instead, I played against imaginary opponents.

Bureaucracy stifles empathy

I was never careless. At home I often had to stand in for my father. I was mature quickly. I have missed my puberty. I had no energy left to build my own social life. What did I have to tell to my friends? That my father was once again in the hospital? For the outside world we had a happy family life. Keeping up appearance. I have become a good actor. Never a psychologist has paid attention to me nor to my mother. Didn’t we have to bear a burden as well? Did we have to take the punches alone?

I’m not looking for someone guilty. I do not proclaim the truth. I just know what I have seen and experienced. The death of my father has made it very clear again: bureaucracy stifles empathy in mental health care. A call outside working hours? Impossible. A listening ear? Just sign that paper now. A comforting hug? We have no time for that. Those little signals, however, are so important for the family.

The immediate family is always overlooked. I am fortunate that I could count on a great mom to help me to through the difficult periods and to keep me motivated to study. For other children, whose voice in the media is not heard, it is much harder not to be dragged into this destructive spiral. Mental health problems have a huge impact on family life and the personal development of everyone in the family.

The power of empathy

I am convinced that mere empathy removes a large part of the burden. Attention is healing. I started talking about my real family situation only recently. Only when a good friend lent her ear to me, my personal healing process has started. As long as mental problems are a taboo, there is no discussion possible. It is so important to receive the signal that you are not different. That you can build a beautiful life as well, despite the grief at home.

I do not question medicine. I do not point the finger to anyone. I do not want a big revolution. There are many political, institutional and financial constraints to reform mental health care. Yet, I believe it can be done differently. I just ask for some understanding and empathy. Break the taboo and listen to each other. I believe in the power of empathy. Let us please not forget that it is about people like you and me.

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Wasn’t he just my father instead of a mentally disturbed person?

Ukraine’s feeling of neglect

Exactly one year ago, I visited for the first time Ukraine. The country has left a mark on my heart and soul. I have experienced how a new generation is eagerly waiting to discover the world, but doesn’t have a clear perspective to do so. The feeling of neglect is setting in, as only few foreigners find their way to Ukraine and opportunities to travel remain scarce.

I am so fortunate. Several times during my stay in Ukraine, I have found myself incredibly lucky to travel, to study and to have the chance to constantly develop myself as a person. Every time I spoke to one of my pupils, they confronted me unintentionally with my privileged position. Even during my trips to Ukraine, I had the good fortune to be surrounded by the most wonderful people, who took care of me as if I were someone very special.

That is definitely one of the reasons why I am biased when I write about Ukraine. I have only seen the country through a positive lens and know that the daily reality is different from the idealised life I have lived. When a taxi driver charged me 100 UAH extra, I didn’t bother too much. When I had to run through the mud after a rain storm, I loved the adventure. When I stood in a packed marshrutka, I found it something unique. But I realise that living every day in such conditions is often frustrating.

Magical Kyiv

The capital Kyiv is probably the perfect example of my idealised view on Ukraine. It seems like I know the city better than my current home Brussels. The Kyiv-Mohyla University has become my second alma mater. And I cannot stop talking about Kyiv’s architectural and subcultural diversity. The neighbourhood Podil with its beautiful Andriyivskyy Descent is more inspiring than the most hipster areas of Berlin. The atmosphere on the river bank in summer beats the relaxing mood on the sunny riverside in Lisbon. Overlooking from Volodymyrska Hill the scenic panorama of the left bank of Dniepr, no other word than ‘magical’ comes to my mind. Kyiv is an undiscovered pearl.

But I doubt if everyone in Kyiv would say the same. The grey building blocks in the sleeping area of the capital shine another light on the vibrant feeling I had when talking to the high-educated young Ukrainians. I experienced at the same time the huge potential of a new generation university students and the impotence of still corrupted institutions. With my generous Belgian salary I could enjoy a quite luxurious life in Kyiv, about which most Ukrainians can only dream. It made me feel uncomfortable. Was I moving in a Ukrainian bubble? 

Eye-opener

It was therefore an eye-opener to visit Eastern Ukraine, and discover the outskirts of Kharkiv and provincial city Hadiach. I was catapulted back in time when I arrived at my host family. Riding on unpaved roads, living in a 50s-style room and eating home-grown vegetables, I saw that Kyiv is not a benchmark for the whole of Ukraine. The most confronting experience was, without any doubt, the fact that I was followed by three teenagers when I had bought something in a shop in a remote village. Afterwards, they told me I was the first foreigner they had seen.

During long conversations with my teenagers in Kharkiv and Hadiach, I realised even more that what divides me from them is the chances I got and they don’t have. They dream about travelling to France, the UK or Italy. Most them hadn’t even been to Kyiv. But it doesn’t mean they are not informed. They know very well what is going on in the world. Instagram is part of their daily life. Netflix is well-known and Vkontakte is their Facebook. And that’s what frustrates them at the same time: why are we stuck here? They have so much talent, but cannot develop it fully.

“Why is nobody coming here?”

The feeling of neglect is omnipresent. And therefore I was, paradoxically, so welcome. I have visited several schools and always I was touched by the honest interest they have shown towards me. When I was speaking to one of the teachers, she asked why nobody was coming to eastern Ukraine. “We are the same. We are all humans. Why are so many people afraid to meet us?” She gave me five big sheets of paper with photos of the pupils’ hobbies with their contact details and asked me to bring them in contact with Belgian pupils. So far, no Belgian school has been willing to get in touch.

I am still writing regularly to my Ukrainian pupils, but with a certain unease. I am disappointed I cannot do more than talking, than supporting them with words. I cannot create the chances they need and deserve. I cannot take away the feeling of neglect alone. Politics can help, but foremost it’s about showing the same honest interest towards Ukraine. Towards people who aren’t that different from us, Western Europeans. I don’t know what the future holds for Ukraine. I am not an expert when it comes to Ukraine. I only remember what I have felt and still feel. Maybe I have indeed been living in a kind of bubble, but I am still convinced that the deep Ukrainian soul exists and is worth discovering.

Ukraine’s feeling of neglect

A war full of paradoxes in Eastern Ukraine

In the first week of February, the war in Ukraine flared up again. The town of Avdiivka saw the worst outbreak of violence in several months. Since 2014, more than 10,000 people have been killed in Eastern Ukraine. But still nobody really knows what the fighting is about.

At the end of November I visited Kharkiv and had a firsthand account of the war in Marinka, a small city in the Donetsk region on the frontline of the war in Eastern Ukraine. In the summer of 2014, Ukrainian forces recaptured Marinka after pro-Russian militants launched attacks on neighbouring towns. Since then, it is shelled on a regular basis, but under control of the Ukrainian army.

It is, however, not completely clear who is actually fighting in Marinka. Most of the troops in the city belong to the Azov Battalion, a former volunteer paramilitary that is nowadays a regiment of the National Guard of Ukraine, but over which is hanging a lot of controversy. The United Nations has connected the Azov Battalion to alleged war crimes and the unit is linked to neo-Nazism.

The battalion’s extremist views have attracted hundreds of foreign fighters who are currently fighting under the Ukrainian flag. Not only volunteers from France, Lithuania and Spain have joined the Azov Battalion, but also Russian nationals are defending Ukraine’s borders. Most of them were not willing to tell me why they had left their countries and come to Ukraine.

However, in Kharkiv I had the opportunity to speak with a Russian soldier from Astrakhan, who was now living in Ukraine’s second-largest city without identity papers. “When I heard about the war in Eastern Ukraine on Russian television, I decided it was time to oppose Putin’s regime. I packed my bags and illegally crossed the border with Belarus to enter Ukraine. Thanks to the help of volunteers I joined the Azov Battalion and fought for several months in the Donetsk region.”

Last year, Vlad von Bummel – as he calls himself – left the battalion under vague circumstances. “I had seen enough. I had the feeling I had played my role. If I regret my choice? I don’t know. The experience of being involved in a war is priceless. Yes, I have lost my family and friends, but I needed to be here. A solution won’t be found soon, though. There are too many parties with contradicting goals. And my own future? Ukraine doesn’t want to recognise me and I cannot go back to Russia. Or I will survive or I will die. I cannot turn back the clock.”

When I was talking to him and looking in his fragile eyes, I could see how naivety had brought him to Ukraine and how war had destroyed his future. He spoke about idealism, but what I heard, was a desire to flee a boring life for imagined excitement. The same paradox I felt in the stands of Kharkiv’s football stadium, where the Azov Battalion has its roots. I was standing among the Ultras, watched their neo-Nazi banners, listened to their racist chants and saw them fighting in the stands.

But it would too easy to call them a far-right movement with Nazi sympathies. Some are extremists, but most of them don’t even realise what they are shouting. When listening to their stories, I felt how neglect and boredom drove them to violence. They adhere to any kind of ideology as long as it brings excitement to their lives. Promise them childhood desires and they will defend any political cause.

The war in Eastern Ukraine is not only a conflict between Ukrainian and Russian elite with geopolitical goals, but also a naïve window of opportunity for young men searching for the meaning of life. Politics is just one part of a much bigger story. It is a war full of paradoxes, where you can see so-called neo-Nazists bringing food and clothes to Jewish orphans. Where you can see so-called progressive feminists supporting racist machos. Where you understand that thinking in boxes is what prevents us of finding solutions.

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A war full of paradoxes in Eastern Ukraine

How volunteering in Ukraine has opened my eyes

During one month in summer I have volunteered as an English teacher in two Ukrainian regions. By exchanging thoughts with primary and secondary school children I have noticed that the gap between young people in Belgium and Ukraine is not as big as often is perceived. It has struck me how eager Ukraine’s youth is to discover the world. This is my personal story.

Before starting off this written adventure, I would like to point out that this blog post has absolutely not the intention to give yet another spin to the conflict situation in Ukraine, meaning the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas region. It is, however, not possible to ignore that context when volunteering in Ukraine. All my experiences are furthermore based on encounters with specific persons in specific parts of the country. It is, in other words, inappropriate to generalize my own perception of Ukraine.

Having written that, I do think that I can say that a lot of tourists would fall in love with Ukraine’s main cities, such as Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odessa, when they would travel there. I shared the same stereotypes about Ukraine as a dirty, grey and industrial post-communist country where you would feel like being catapulted back to the Soviet Union. And of course, Ukraine hasn’t shaken off the heritage of communism, but the centers of the abovementioned cities are surprisingly modern and vibrant. The country is still undergoing a huge modernization process, which can especially be seen in Kyiv, where the hipster scene is flourishing.

Ukraine’s capital is for me personally one of the most pleasant cities in Europe to walk around because of the youthful atmosphere and architectural diversity. Kyiv not only has to offer a rich historical and cultural experience, but also the urban mentality of modern metropolises. The same combination can be found in Kharkiv, which feels very Ukrainian, despite the closeness to Russia. Odessa is the place to be in summer, while Lviv shows Ukraine’s real European heritage. But the country has much more touristic potential than those bigger cities. For example, Kamyanets-Podilsky and Chernivtsi are cultural beauties, while the Sofiyivka Park and Carpathian Mountains are the perfect representatives of Ukraine’s untouched nature.

The country attracts me the most because it is neither ‘European’, neither ‘Russian’. Ukraine is in fact unique since it can pick aspects from both sides. I have noticed that the discussion about Ukraine belonging to Europe or Russia is from a cultural perspective a very artificial one, especially in Eastern Ukraine. Young people in Kharkiv understand their history and are now trying to develop a new kind of identity. I was talking to a refugee girl from the Donbas region, who told me that she was reading poems of Sergei Yesenin, but at the same time listening to British music, such as Sam Smith and Years & Years.

Ukraine’s youth is very eclectic in defining its own identity, often not realizing or thinking about certain political connotations. Because those teenagers want to open themselves for the world, they are eager to learn English and other foreign languages. Despite what media often tell, young people don’t give a political meaning to language. They are using Ukrainian in an official context, but are talking Russian on the playground, because that is the language their parents speak and they have naturally grown up with. I did, however, notice that in cities, such as Lviv and Kyiv, language is more a political issue as a maybe too strong reaction to the conflict in the country.

As a volunteer for the new NGO GoGlobal, I saw at first hand that the knowledge of English could be improved, but that young people already have an acceptable level of the language to have basic conversations. What often is forgotten is that my Belgian parents, when they were young, also were not able to communicate fluently in English. New Ukrainian generations will automatically be more exposed to English, because it will remain the international lingua franca for a very long time. Ukraine’s youth is also watching Netflix and Hollywood movies now.

It is thus not correct to say that teenagers in Ukraine are isolated from the world. They have access to many different sources via the internet and are often better informed than Belgian teenagers. Walking around with their smartphones and taking selfies, they are in nature not different from youth elsewhere in Europe. They share the same dreams. Of course, those teenagers have their own cultural background, but mainly less possibilities to develop their talents. It has struck me how every time I was asked to which countries I already travelled. Because for those young people travelling was something exotic. Most of them did not even visit different cities within their own country.

Keeping in contact also after my volunteering experience, I observe how that short cultural exchange has already changed them. Their perspective on the world has widened. I am very much touched when they tell me how I have been an inspiration for them and that they now understand that people all over the world share the same basic needs. But their struggle is much more intense than that of young people in Belgium. When I saw how just walking around in the streets with friends was their normal way of spending their free time, I realized how fortunate I am that I grew up in Belgium. I understood that disappointment of not having the chance to fulfil certain dreams feeds anger towards the political system and even the most recent revolution, the Euromaidan.

I have studied European Studies. I have written my master’s thesis about Ukraine. But going there, living with host families and seeing parts of the daily reality, has really opened my eyes. I cannot explain enough how the volunteering experience has also changed me as a person. The hospitality of the Ukrainians I met, will always give me a warm feeling inside. I will go back to Ukraine in the future. And I hope that more Western Europeans will join me, as a tourist or as a volunteer as well. To discover Ukraine, you should not only read about it, but travel there.

How volunteering in Ukraine has opened my eyes