How sticks and stones can actually help with healing
Mohamad Alo fled Syria after the war. Narrative Exposure Therapy helped him process the trauma he didn't even know he had.
Mohamad Alo sits across from me at the wooden picnic table just a few feet away from a coffee truck in Clarkston. Between full time work and volunteering at the Kurdish American Medical Association he’s got very little free time. But he drove down from his home in Snellville to meet me because he’s passionate about the topic we planned to speak about - a form of therapy that has been life-changing for him.
Mohamad, his parents, older brother and younger sister fled Syria almost ten years ago, soon after the war broke out. His family, ethnically Kurdish and originally from the city of Afrin in northern Syria, had been living in Aleppo. Mohamad can still remember the way the buildings shook when the first time he heard a bomb blast on his way home from school. “It was so loud,” he said. The family escaped to Turkey, where he and his brother worked at a plastics factory (“we were working in the worst conditions with the hardest job”).
Mohamad and his family were granted asylum in the U.S. and moved to North Carolina in 2016, before eventually settling in Clarkston in 2018.
He secured a place at Georgia State University. But in his third semester there he began having trouble focusing on his premed classes. Something was making it hard for him to study, to get things done. “You know when you have a problem but cannot define it? That was the case,” he said.
His leg was also bothering him. “I was feeling pain in my leg for some reason.” He went from doctor to doctor, hoping to figure out what was wrong. He got X-rays taken. Painkillers prescribed. They couldn’t find anything and nothing seemed to work. “I couldn’t get any help. I was going through treatment options…but I couldn’t benefit from them.”
When he bumped into Dr. Mary Helen O’Connor, a professor who had initially helped enroll him in school, on campus one day, he opened up to her. He told her he was having trouble focusing, but he couldn’t find the words to define or describe what he was experiencing. She suggested he look into something called Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET). He read up on it and was intrigued.
The image that sticks in Mohamad’s brain about NET is one invoked by Dr. Johnathan Orr, a Clinical Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program at Georgia State University. “He described it like…imagine you have broken glass in your skin and you try to take it out. So it doesn't hurt you again.”
When he ran into Dr. O’Connor again, this time in Clarkston, he told her he was ready to participate in NET. He signed up and things got started.
After an initial zoom session, Mohamad sat down at the library of GSU’s Perimeter College campus in Clarkston with a therapist. She brought a box with all the tools they would need - string, flowers, stones, sticks, postcards, and markers. He started by recalling his earliest memory. At every subsequent session he went through events that stuck out in his memory - good ones and difficult ones.
For each difficult memory, they placed a stone on his lifeline (the string). These difficult or “hot” memories as he called them - took time. Sometimes an entire session. He says recounting them in such detail made him physically feel like he was there, reliving it again.
Joyful moments were represented by flowers. Postcards under the stones and flowers described what had happened. After 13 sessions, they had strung out his entire life. “It was like seeing your life as a movie,” he said.
The lifeline Mohamad created with his therapist. Photo courtesy of Mohamad Alo.
The process is set up to help desensitize traumatic memories, and stop people who’ve suffered trauma from perpetually being in fight or flight mode, said Dr. Ashli Owen Smith, a Behavioral Scientist and Assistant Professor at Georgia State University, who has been leading efforts to provide mental health resources to communities in Clarkston. “When you start to place traumatic events in the chronology of your life and think about what came before and what came after that, the construction of that autobiographical narrative helps to process the traumatic events in a more proactive way.”
Mohamed says the therapy made him realize just how much he had been through since his family left Syria - and gave him the words to describe what he was experiencing. "I’m an adaptable person but I was shocked..between [the] exchange of different cultures and situations and places. Every time I [went] through something, I blamed the situation or blamed the government or my country or the people…it’s like you blame everyone as you transition from this older life to a new life.” Taking the time to carefully look at the events of his life in sequence made him realize that some of the tough events had led to some good too.
And, he says that after completing the therapy, his leg pain had gone away. “A lot of pain actually was kind of psychological or mental.”
NET has been offered to people who have experienced complex forms of trauma - especially those who’ve experienced war, natural disasters, human trafficking, and sexual violence. The International Rescue Committee - Atlanta and Georgia State University have recently received funding to pilot a program this fall to both offer the therapy to residents and to train residents who have undergone it themselves, to offer it to others in the Clarkston area, where there’s a need for more mental health resources. Four out of ten residents surveyed said they have needed counseling or therapy since 2020, but have not gotten it, according to a needs assessment report by the Georgia State University Prevention Research Center. The initial program, said Dr. Owen Smith, will focus on offering the therapy to women from Afghanistan - specifically mothers - with a history of trauma.
Now that Mohamed is certified as a NET therapist, he hopes to convince others in his community of its benefits. “I think everyone has some traumatic events [that] happen in life. But a lot of people…[ are] getting impacted by this trauma, but they don't realize it.”
These days, Mohamed is on his summer break. When he’s not working his summer job at a restaurant, he’s working on social media campaigns for the Kurdish American Medical Association, to help raise awareness of mental health. In the fall, he’ll be back at GSU studying pre-med. He says he hopes to be the kind of doctor who prioritizes mental health. “I understand more how mental health can really impact physical health. So one thing I would like to do if I become a doctor, is to guide my patients to get mental health checkups. The same way you go you test your blood to see if there's any indicator for future diseases, the same for mental health...if not even more.”
Mohamad at the Doctor for a Day Conference in Atlanta in 2020. Photo courtesy of Mohamad Alo.