She Has Forgotten How It Is to Live Differently

Adolescents who are exposed to trauma, say the experts, are especially vulnerable. The recurrent motif in their stories is that the person they used to be is lost

If only she had gone straight home after school. But she had a lot of plans on that day, five years ago, on which she found herself face-to-face with a terrorist attack in the center of Jerusalem - and going straight home was not one of them.

Gili Kucik remembers herself at 14, "kind of mischievous, wearing heels and with a bag," coming out of the Experimental High School - just a couple of minutes from the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall - in the first week of the new school year.

In her endless mental replay of the event, the short walk has been played out to the minutest detail. So many questions have come up since then during the many sleepless nights she has endured. What would have happened, for example, if she and he best friend had stopped for a bit at some stall or hadn't stopped to buy a frozen ice on a stick at the corner kiosk?

The end of childhood: with those words Gili, now 19, sums up the meaning of the attack for her. Her life, she says, "changed direction." Since the fourth of September 1997, she has set herself a series of rigid restrictions: she does not travel by bus, she does not go to cafes or restaurants, she stays away from the center of the city and from crowded places generally.

Driven by an internal logic whose rules are sometimes comprehensible only to her, she bypasses places that she perceives as "suspicious," potentially dangerous.

On Kucik's imaginary map of Jerusalem, every place where a terrorist attack was perpetrated, even every place where there was an attempted attack, is marked in red: bus stops, restaurants, sections of streets; in some cases one side of the street is a red zone, the other side is available for walking on. This way of life demands rigorous attention to every little detail of the news, which of course only intensifies the anxiety. Open places are also scary, ostensibly for no apparent reason.

"There is no place to hide in them," Kucik explains. "I am not willing to go through the situation of a terrorist attack again, with all that it entails, and therefore I am careful."

Emergency procedure

In cases where she has no choice but to go through dangerous places, Kucik goes into a kind of emergency procedure: she walks quickly and keeps looking to the side, so that if a terrorist should suddenly dart out from somewhere, she will be able to run.

"I have internal radar that warns me against dangers all the time. I am always aware of who is in front of me and who is behind me." In crowded places it is difficult for her to tune in to her radar, so the fear quotient rises: "I walk along and tell myself, `Now you are dead, now you have been seriously or moderately injured.'" However, none of this is a matter of any great moment for her; it is part of the way of life to which she has become accustomed. In fact, she has forgotten how it is to live differently, without fear. "I live with it the same way a person gets along with crutches. It's a kind of disability thing."

She remembers the terrorist attack itself as a series of images: the face of Smadar Elhanan (who was killed) and seconds later the explosion, followed immediately by a tremendous flash of light, the tables of Cafe Atara, boards flying in the air and a huge fireball. There were three explosions, one after the other, and then silence - which seemed to last for eternity.

"I felt like a rat in a trap. Every time we tried to run there was another explosion."

Kucik's hair was slightly singed and she suffered a minor burn.

"When I got up I felt hot, I was covered with pieces of skin and blood that wasn't mine was leaking down my pants." All around people were screaming. "It was like Hell. I didn't think I was going to die or anything like that. What went through my head was, `I can't believe I am in a terrorist incident.'"

In addition to the fear, she was struck by the feeling that the adults were not functioning, that she and her friend remained alone, unprotected.

"We were 14 years old and suddenly we had to look after ourselves," she says.

A soldier who appeared out of nowhere and led them into a nearby store seemed to her to be a savior. But he disappeared as suddenly as he had come.

There was a group of helpless adults in the store. One woman gave them a strange look - she and her girlfriend were covered with blood - and said indifferently, "You should be taken to an ambulance," but made no move in their direction.

When Kucik's friend started to cry, the storekeeper became angry: "Why is she crying all the time?"

On the street there were scenes of sheer horror:

"The floor was covered with blood, and I slipped," she recalls. "On the way down to Zion Square, there were body parts with exposed bones. It was terrible, but I was in control the whole time."

The conversation with Kucik takes place in her parents' home in the Sharon area, where they recently moved. In her room, her legs sprawled on the bed, she still looks like a high-school kid. She is articulate, acutely observant, somewhat cynical and at the same time broadcasts vulnerability. During her high-school years she lived as though under siege and rarely left the house.

She went back and forth to school by taxi from the moshav she lived in, outside Jerusalem. Her social life was constricted. Her father, Yossi Kucik, who is usually a busy fellow - he was director-general of the Prime Minister's Office during the period of the Ehud Barak government - drove her as often as he could.

"I don't remember having a feeling of no fear," she says. "I live with it. People thought I was overdoing it, pampering myself, but if I couldn't have gone by taxi, I probably wouldn't have gone to school."

Despite the tough time, the gifted Kucik skipped a grade. She says she made an effort to finish high school early, mainly because of the institution's problematic location in the center of the city.

Not long ago Kucik completed a year of national service in an institution for children with behavioral problems. Because of the terrorist attack she did not do army service. She says now that she is changing and becoming more flexible.

"Once I thought that I would never return to the place where my childhood was stripped away. Today I wouldn't say that."

About a month ago, for example, she mustered her courage and for the first time went downtown to buy a present for one of the children in the institution. The visit to the city center was preceded by a decision that involved "working on myself." To be on the safe side, she asked her aunt to accompany her.

What kind of teenager would she have been, had she not been there in the attack? Would she have been a typical adolescent? Would she have laughed and chattered all the time or been depressed and insular? The answer to the question is not unequivocal.

"It was the start of my adolescence," she notes. "It was just then that I began to get to know the person within me. I think that if it hadn't been for the incident, I probably would have continued to be a group leader in the youth movement I was in and that after a year of community service, I would have gone into the army. In any event, I would have been less of a good girl and more rebellious."

A formative experience

A recurring motif in the stories of those who suffered from shock in the wake of a terrorist attack is the feeling that they lost their selfhood, that they were no longer the same person they had been before the event. Youngsters who are on the cusp between childhood and maturity find it difficult to speak in terms of "who they were," and their sense of identity therefore seems to have been even more destabilized.

Like Kucik, Irena Karp, a senior in Tel Aviv's Shevah High School, says, "It's hard for me to actually remember who I was before the terrorist attack, but I know that my life did not go back to what it was."

Only a little more than a year has gone by since Irena stood in line outside the disco at the Tel Aviv Dolphinarium site when a suicide bomber blew himself up. She emerged physically unscathed but has paid a heavy mental price.

"After you see atrocities like that, your point of view changes: there is life before and life after," she says.

At an age when people like to go out or just wander around, when there is a powerful need for independence, a return to dependence on one's parents because of fear - on both sides - can disrupt the natural continuity of development. Indeed, at that age a terrorist attack is sometimes perceived as a formative experience.

Violet Gez, the principle of Rene Cassin High School in Jerusalem, tells about the preoccupation of 10th-graders with terrorist attacks; many of them have been hurt directly or indirectly. The sight of classmates in wheelchairs is a living reminder of the grief and loss. Gez is disturbed by the possibility that the students' identities will be constructed around the attacks, and she and her staff are devoting much thought to the question.

"Children, as contrasted with adolescents, are considered more protected, because they do not have the ability to interpret the harsh sights and because they rely on their parents. Adolescents do not always turn to adults for support," says Dr. Ruth Pat-Horenczyk, from the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma (a branch of Herzog Hospital, in Jerusalem). "They have the cognitive ability to interpret the situation, but their perspective is short-range and tends toward the extreme."

In adults, Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTDS) can take one of several forms. It can lead to the development of avoidance behavior (such as not taking buses), or make people live with a feeling of constant alertness, or the opposite: induce a great deal of sleeping and cause insensitivity.

Like adults, adolescents, too, sometimes complain about physical sensations as a result of exposure to a trauma, but they may also express their anxieties in the form of behavioral problems, as happens with children.

Treatment of adolescents makes use of some techniques that are also used with adults: from classic cognitive behavioral therapy to hypnosis. The two Jerusalem centers that assist adolescents are today developing new methods of treatment. At Hadassah University's Hospital's center for the treatment of children and adolescents they are working on a type of group dynamics; at the National Center for Psychotrauma the intention is to organize creative writing groups.

Very few studies have been conducted either in Israel or elsewhere on adolescent trauma. The research that exists reports increased consumption of alcohol and drugs, eating disorders and phenomena of unrestrained sexuality. In general, teenagers "have a tendency toward nihilism, toward taking extra chances, because `you die anyway,'" Pat-Horenczyk says. She notes that there have been reports of a growing use of drugs in West Bank settlements of late, "and this is undoubtedly connected to the [security] situation."

`Bombshell parties'

The fact that high-school students were the victims of a series of terrorist attacks focused national attention on this particular population. Trauma experts believe that the frequency of the incidents brings about a situation in which more and more circles are added to the first circle of casualties, those who are exposed directly to the trauma.

The findings of a survey conducted by Tamar Lavie, from the Psychology Department of Tel Aviv University, caused quite a stir. The survey, which encompassed 1,200 teenagers in settlements and in Palestinian cities, found that 30 percent of those in the settlements and 70 percent of the Palestinians were suffering from PTSD.

Another recent survey by Dr. Pat-Horenczyk focused on Jerusalem youth. Her study dealt with a sample of 414 students, aged 12 to 16, from junior high schools and high schools in Jerusalem and the nearby Gush Etzion settlements in the West Bank. The preliminary findings show that most of the Jerusalem youngsters feel afraid and helpless.

The survey also found that there have been many changes in the patterns of behavior of adolescents in Jerusalem in the wake of the many terrorist attacks in the city. At the same time, Pat-Horenczyk emphasizes, it has to be remembered that "the great majority of students are functioning and coping." Only 5 percent reported a decline in school performance or in the social sphere.

However, 57 percent said they now go to the city center less frequently than they used to; 33 percent spend less time in shopping malls, 35 percent have cut down on nature outings and 29 percent reported that they travel less by bus. More than 40 percent reported a direct connection to at least one terrorist event: though only 2 percent actually experienced an attack, about 20 percent said they had lost a person who was close to them in an attack and 20 percent also said that someone close to them had been wounded in an attack. About 65 percent stated that they experienced more intense feelings of fear, helplessness and shock. Close to half of the respondents (49 percent) said they are hyper-alert or are easily frightened, and 33 percent reported intensive preoccupation and a feeling of re-experiencing the traumatic events.

Adolescents frequently express their difficulties in a physical way, Pat-Horenczyk says. Thus, 14 percent said that they had headaches after terrorist events, 15 percent reported having sleeping problems, 9 percent had eating problems and 8 percent said they had stomach aches.

One of the characteristic reactions of the young people is to strike a cynical pose and indulge in black humor. It has already become a cliche to say that there are "bombshell parties" in Jerusalem. "The expression `See you later' makes them laugh," Violet Gez notes, "and the standard reply is, `Don't get carried away.'"

In addition to these symptoms, youngsters appear to adopt more extreme views and cling to superstitions under the influence of the terrorist attacks. At Rene Cassin High School, for example, a rumor spread that the chain of tragedies that befell the institution was due to a curse on the school. Some students took this seriously and asked for permission to have the mezuzas on the doorposts checked to see if they were still kosher.

In the past year, teachers from 10 junior-high and high schools in Jerusalem took part in workshops organized by the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma, which focused on spotting traumatized students and referring them for treatment. In some schools a kind of pact was drawn up and signed by students, which enables them "to speak freely in class about my feelings and thoughts concerning the situation," as the document at Rene Cassin stated. Trauma experts say that school activity is of enormous importance following terrorist attacks experienced by students, as teachers are prone to charge the event with meaning. The workshops project in Jerusalem is to be expanded.

"I am 17 and I am supposed to go on living my life," Irena Karp says. Many months after the Dolphinarium attack, she paid her first visit to the discotheque there and could not enjoy herself. Today, though, she says that there are many happy moments along with the harsh memories.

Recently Kucik, too, discovered that time works its own cures. Still, she reflects aloud, it could be that the change is due to the move to a different city, where she does not feel the same concrete danger she knew in Jerusalem. "Here you don't have to look behind, ahead and sideways all the time and watch for terrorists."

She will soon begin to study painting in a school run by an artist in Jerusalem, and the thought fills her with joy. Why did she decide to study in Jerusalem and not abroad, perhaps?

"In the final analysis," she says, "I want to live in Israel. It must be something in my education."

Adolescence, she adds, "is a shocking age."

"I walked around with the feeling that I was the most miserable person in the world, that I deserved it. But the older I got, the more I understood that everyone has his own case. Today I am at a point where I like myself and where I am in life. In one sense, I would not forgo the terrorist incident, because I would not want to forgo something of myself."