In Qassam-battered Sderot, Mental Therapy Center Is Calmest Place in Town

P., a mental patient in her 60s, sat yesterday at the Enosh occupational therapy center in Sderot, making clay flowers. She stuck the round flowers onto a mask inspired by her son, who is hospitalized in a psychiatric ward at Be'er Sheva's Soroka Medical Center. He has yellow curls, like the clay flowers.

For the past three years, P. and her son have been receiving treatment at psychiatric facilities since they were brutally attacked by burglars in their home. Since then, P. has been home alone, visiting her son once a week. She came to Israel eight years ago, and has spent most of her life here in the shadow of the Qassam - she hardly knows what "normal" life in Israel is.

"Last Thursday, a Qassam fell near the house. All the glass shattered. Neighbors helped me clean everything up," she says, her speech slurred, a side effect of the pills she takes. Recreating the event makes her gasp for breath as if it just happened. She hides her face in shaking hands, shutting down. Her anxiety is much greater than that of anyone else here.

P. is one of 40 Sderot residents being treated by Enosh, a non-profit organization promoting mental health. Each one has enough baggage and a tough enough story without the rockets. Each one lives alone, without family, far from their children, making their dealing with the Color Red alerts and concomitant dangers difficult to the point of despair.

"They have a warped perception of reality due to a traumatic event," Enosh's Esther Dikin says. "The helplessness and uncertainty push them to extreme anxiety, which is expressed in pronounced shaking, outbursts of crying, loneliness and withdrawal - screaming and terrible panic."

Despite the harsh atmosphere at the center, which is under fire, it appears that Enosh is the sanest place in town. "These people flourish and don't flee," says Enosh's Inna Plotkin. "What we are experiencing is no kind of life. It is surreal, but this is still a place where people create, do artwork. You won't see these people on television crying or looking for sympathy. On the contrary, they want to contribute, to create, and pray for quiet. They make this the most special place in Sderot."

A. came to Sderot seven years ago. He has suffered mental health problems for eight years and started coming to the Enosh center a few months ago. "I connect to art, especially to sculpture. I keep myself busy and it is also a kind of therapy," he says.

Like P., he also forgets his complex personal and social problems when working with clay. When there is a Color Red alert, he has trouble deciding where to go for shelter. "I put my hands on my face," he demonstrates, "and duck."

At home alone at night, he gives up. "I take a pill and go to sleep so I won't hear the sirens. If I live, great, if not, then I'm done living," he says. He has been alienated from his two sons for eight years, and only recently made contact with one of them. Last Saturday, he reports glowingly, one of his sons texted him: "Shabbat shalom, Dad. Take care of yourself and take cover."

In the afternoon, all the patients leave for home. Only P. is left, unwilling to go home to the loneliness and the Qassams. "Quiet here. I heart no strong - need quiet," she explains in broken Hebrew.