Valya's story - Part I: How to heal
Written by: Ming Holden, Edited by: Clary Estes
The first thing I notice about Valya is that her eyes are unclouded. She is waiting for me on a late spring day on the train station platform of a peaceful Berlin suburb. She told me about her blue jeans and black sneakers, but her eyes are how I find her: direct, intelligent, clear, light, and blue.
Valya’s eyes are the only part of her that I am sure is much the same as before the war–when, she makes sure to tell me, her body was stronger and her hair thicker. I am guessing her voice was also less prone to shaking, and its pitch less likely to wander downwards in sudden grief.
Those eyes moisten with tears when she talks about her son. They speak to the reality of her exodus from Ukraine, and the fact that she could not force the people she loves to flee with her. Yet at first, Valya also resisted her own flight west. She still struggles to comprehend it, several weeks later, as any human would.
Valya’s son, her only child, is a soldier in his thirties. He has a wife who is as stubborn as he is in her refusal to leave Kyiv. She also happens to be pregnant. Valya’s son is the one who came to her house after the first of Putin’s attacks on her beloved home of Odessa. The attack made her windows rattle as she lay in her bed, petrified and numb.
At first, he just tried calling, but that didn’t work. Then he came to her home in Odessa, insisting that she leave the country.
“No!” was her simple answer.
Leave? It was inconceivable to her. To just pack up and leave the home she had worked so hard for, and the new career as a fashion designer that she had taken such joy in? It was like asking her to suddenly believe that two plus two equals five.
As she describes it, shaking her head, it’s clear how the idea of leaving simply did not compute. As we sit on the back deck of her German hosts’ house on a late spring afternoon, under a canopy of new leaves, Valya shakes with the effort to put words to the indescribable.
Throughout our time together I hear parts of her story come to the surface and other parts fall away quickly, and I realize something. It is the time we are spending together that is more important than Valya’s story of exactly how she came to Berlin.
It’s a universal, human symptom of sudden trauma: speechlessness. But telling her that does little to lift how weird and shameful Valya feels as she recalls her son standing in her apartment as he watched her pack her belongings. The memory itself still does not make sense to her. A limbic hijack overtook Valya, making it impossible for her to know what to throw into her bag as she prepared to leave. It speaks not only to the senselessness of a foreign power invading one’s home, but also to just how difficult it has been for millions of Ukrainians to make the choice to leave the lives they have spent decades dreaming about and working to build.
For Valya, a self-described “image-maker” (which I interpret as both a fashion designer and stylist), living in Odessa was a lifelong dream decades in the making. Her childhood was spent in Crimea, where her parents moved as part of a Soviet intercultural exchange program, and where she points out that such a program ensured she was fed, clothed, and schooled. They may not have had the same rights as a Western democracy, she reasons, but in terms of human needs, hers had been satisfied.
She eventually enrolled in medical school, but dropped out soon after, finding herself with child at the age of nineteen. Details of her marriage, its dissolution, and her professional path during her son’s youth remain scant. She prefers not to dwell on the less savory details of her personal history, but it’s clear that the father of the child was a dud and that their marriage left a lot to be desired. He used the fact that she left him as the reason not to pay any kind of alimony or child support through the 80s and 90s.
For all intents and purposes, Valya was a single mother, dealing with the same set of obstacles that most single mothers across the world do: where will the money come from? What adjustments must I make to my own dreams to raise this child? For Valya, the answers to those questions included living in Kyiv, putting her own dreams of fashion design on the back burner, and founding a social work organization that often brought her to London.
This is not a straightforward account of Valya’s story. There is a simple and trauma-informed reason for that: she does not want to dwell on those things right now, and it would be a mistake to make her do so. Instead, Valya speaks quickly and openly with me about energy and the role it plays in healing.
Memories and emotions overtake her suddenly and unexpectedly as she thinks of her son, the shame of not knowing what to pack when her home was suddenly bombed, and the anxiety of not knowing when she could return. But quickly, she returns to a buoyant and spiritually centered self. Valya had gone for a swim in her host family’s pool prior to our meeting. I note the healthy effect it had on her stress levels.
She drinks little, or not at all. As a result, she experiences the emotional roller coaster of trauma as it happens, without getting stuck or delaying it with temporary measures. She can both name her experiences and the emotions she feels about them. This skill has helped her survive the absurd saga she has found herself in during the awful weeks since Putin invaded Ukraine.
Naming one’s experience, and one’s emotions in response, is a superpower when it comes to surviving the kind of trauma a refugee undergoes.
I realize that, despite everything, Valya knows how to heal.
Next — Part II: A wound on the cheek