Millions of people in the world have experienced—or are experiencing—torture. For those who live through the ordeal, the mere feat of survival is a miracle, and the chance to return to a life that resembles normalcy is another miracle still.
The road to rehabilitation is a difficult one. Increasingly, U.S.-based organizations like the Program for Torture Victims are utilizing massage therapy to help the afflicted.
Massage isn’t an instant cure-all for the sometimes very serious physical damage and emotional trauma that torture survivors have endured, but it goes a long way toward restoring survivors’ ravaged bodies and bringing peace to their troubled minds.
The exact number of torture survivors worldwide is not known. As a source at The Center for Victims of Torture puts it, global torture statistics are a “sticky wicket.” The lack of a quantifiable number comes from the fact that political torture is largely carried out in secret.
Because torture is a clandestine activity that generally occurs in parts of the world that are experiencing great social upheaval, no records, medical or otherwise, are being kept or, if they are being kept, are being made public.
What is being measured, albeit roughly, is the prevalence of torture among refugees who have been taken in by the U.S.
An estimated 3 million refugees have been relocated in the U.S. since 1975, according to the U.S. Department of State. A 2015 report published by The Center for Victims of Torture used a meta-analysis of several existing torture prevalence studies to estimate that 44 percent of refugees have survived some form of torture, which would place the overall number of torture-surviving refugees living in the U.S. at 1.3 million.
Although the statistics are sobering, there are organizations dedicated to helping torture survivors in the U.S., and many of them employ massage therapy. One of the most prominent, the Program for Torture Victims, recently received a community service grant from the Massage Therapy Foundation to further its mission of rehabilitating torture survivors.
The Massage Therapy Foundation, which awards several grants each year to promote working partnerships between the massage therapy profession and community-based organizations, selected the Program for Torture Victims based on its 35-year track record of serving immigrant survivors of political torture in Southern California.
MASSAGE Magazine caught up with the director of The Program for Torture Victims, William “Trip” Oldfield III, to delve deeply into the work the organization is focused on and the scope of the torture rehabilitation issue. The reader is forewarned: Much of the information based on torture survivors’ stories that follows is grim, and at points very explicit.
Most torture survivors have experienced a form of complex trauma that can include “sexual violence, physical assaults, prolonged periods of detention or isolation, psychological persecution, intimidation or threats, community or state violence, trafficking, domestic violence,” said Oldfield.
His program serves survivors from Armenia, Bangladesh, Cameroon, the Congo, China, Egypt, El Salvador, Honduras, Iran, India, Mexico, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Ukraine, Russia and Syria, among other places.
The survivors the organization works with report a range of experiences of being violated, including being confined in small spaces for weeks or months; being kept in unnatural postures of having their hands or legs tied or stretched in painful or twisted positions for long periods of time; being repeatedly kicked, beaten, struck with objects, cords or batons; being sexually assaulted or gang raped, even while pregnant; being sodomized; being forced to ingest chemicals or unknown substances; being subjected to prolonged sensory deprivation, such as being kept in a dark room for weeks on end—which is some cases results in partial blindness.
In addition to the physical scars left by these horrific events, the emotional trauma that results from torture is often severe and long lasting. In Oldfield’s estimation, “about 85 percent of the survivors that we see at the Program for Torture Victims are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and over 90 percent are diagnosed with depression or anxiety.”
In a video about torture survivors, Oldfield explains the predicament of torture-surviving refugees arriving in the U.S.
“Individuals who are tortured abroad … generally get here to the U.S. without money, without resources. They can’t work, because even though [they] file an asylum application in the U.S., it may take 11 months or so to get a work permit. The asylum process can take from one to seven years. And during that time [they] have to deal with a new culture, but also the impact of [their] torture.”
Oldfield goes on to say, that in addition to PTSD, depression and anxiety, “About 30 percent [of the survivors] have medical issues directly related to their torture. Combine all of that with living in a new society and trying to function—that is why torture rehabilitation is so vitally important.”
In Oldfield’s view, the goal of torture rehabilitation, whether through massage therapy or other means, is not to restore the survivor to the state they were in before their torture, but rather to “engulf and embrace” the experience and move on.
“I so vividly remember my first day as executive director of the Program for Torture Victims, when our founder came to me and I had this amazing conversation [with him],” Oldfield said.
“He said to me, ‘People who are tortured are never the same. You just have to remember that. Your job now is not to make them the person they were before they were tortured. It is to help them engulf and embrace that experience.’
“That has been one of the most amazing conversations I’ve ever had in my life, and I will always remember that,” Oldfield said. “That is really the essence of what we do.”
Torture Survivors’ Relief
The therapeutic massage services that the Program for Torture Victims provides are intended to bring relief to the suffering of torture survivors by alleviating pain, decreasing muscle tension and reducing stress. In addition, massage helps survivors regain a connection with their bodies.
“Survivors have been extremely grateful for the massage services provided, describing experiencing relief from pain and distress—sometimes for the first time in years of holding stress and trauma memories in their bodies,” Oldfield said.
“One survivor who had escaped to the U.S. about two-and-a-half years ago [said] he finally fell into a deep sleep for the first time since experiencing his trauma,” Oldfield added. “He [felt] the tension in his muscles leave him and felt the safety in the care and therapeutic touch of the massage therapist.
“Other [survivors] have described finding reduction and relief from chronic pain in ways that they have been unable to with standard medical care,” he said.
The massage therapists who volunteer with the Program for Torture Victims, such as Alberto Vazquez, L.M.T., are bringing real hope back to torture survivors.
“For many survivors, massage therapy is a powerful way to help people who have been physically and psychologically traumatized to reconnect with their broken bodies and disconnectedness of mind, spirit and body,” Oldfield said.
Oldfield explained that the human touch provided by therapists like Vazquez is transformative in nature, and that “touch that had previously been violating or abusive can be transformed to that of a healing experience.”
Another aspect of rehabilitation is guiding the torture survivors to understand their trauma and teaching them how to self-sooth between their therapy sessions.
“For some, and when appropriate, Vazquez provides survivors with education about their bodies and physiology,” said Oldfield. “With these useful pieces of information, survivors are able to make sense of the somatic connections and experiences felt and be able to learn simple ways of self-soothing even at home, in between sessions, that can promote wellness.”
A Sense of Safety
The number of torture survivors living in the U.S. means that the California-based Program for Torture Victims efforts are more of an example of how to approach torture-survivor rehabilitation rather than a wholesale solution for the entire population of survivors.
Providing additional hope are other organizations that are involved in similar work, such as The Center for Victims of Torture, which offers massage therapy, psychotherapy, medical care and other services to torture survivors at its Healing Center in St. Paul, Minnesota; Utah Health & Human Rights, which makes massage available to survivors experiencing tension, insomnia or pain related to their trauma; and the Heartland Alliance, which offers massage, medical care and other health services at its Marjorie Kovler Center in Chicago, Illinois. Massage therapists who have an interest in using their skills to help torture survivors are invited to contact these organizations for volunteer opportunities.
Of course, massage therapy is merely one facet of an overall rehabilitative effort —one that involves additional health professions.
As Oldfield explained, “Massage therapy in conjunction with a safe and solid relationship with a mental health therapist, case managers, medical professionals, legal representation and increased social engagement and connection can together restore a person’s functioning, improve well-being, increase positive mood changes and bring a torture survivor a sense of being whole again, being worthy of being taken care of and being healed body, mind and spirit.”
Ideally, the combined efforts of dedicated professionals will, over time, guide the torture survivor back to a feeling of safety.
“Survivors of trauma who have had to disconnect from having to feel safe in their bodies can gently begin to learn how to connect with themselves again in a gradual and safe way,” he said.
About the Author:
Phillip Weber is a San Diego-based writer and co-founder of The English Adept, a language-learning website where he blogs frequently. He writes news and features for MASSAGE Magazine, including “Massage Therapists Adopt the Food Truck Trend,” “Indy 500 Driver Gets Up to Speed with Massage” and “Massage Education ‘Perfect Storm’ Washes Out Oklahoma Students.”