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Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine: Personal experience of fleeing the war

The ongoing war, caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has resulted in immense suffering for countless individuals and families. PARTS & SELF has had the opportunity to talk about such an experience with Ukrainian therapist, Maryna Lukashenko, PhD.

Maryna is an academic and Systemic Psychotherapist currently living in Westfield, New Jersey, United States after fleeing from Ukraine because of the war. Maryna studied in the West Central area of Ukraine and has long held an interest in psychology, systemic therapy, and philosophy. This is Maryna’s story of relocation, connection, growth, and participation in the Ukrainian Relief Initiative, as shared with Shaun Dempsey, Deputy Editor of PARTS & SELF.

Shaun: Maryna, tell us about your pathway into being a therapist and an academic.

My passion for psychology and philosophy began at a young age when I was searching for ways to make the world a better place. I decided to pursue psychology as a way to understand how we can build healthy relationships and develop conditions for a happy childhood. So I earned my Master’s degree in practical psychology from Pedagogical University in my hometown Vinnytsia. I was fortunate to have inspiring professors who encouraged me to explore new ideas and passions.

After several years of work as a lecturer and practical psychologist, I wanted to continue my education in psychotherapy and joined the Ukrainian Umbrella Association of Psychotherapists. Through a series of conferences and seminars, I discovered my interest in group psychotherapy and completed a professional training course in Systemic Family Therapy. Furthermore, I conducted research on the functional state of students in order to optimize the psychological support program at Vinnytsia Medical College.

A systemic view of human nature on different levels (from a functional state to relationships) was always an area of my interest. My next step was to pursue doctoral research on the next level – the transformation of sociality in the context of information society formation. My scientific supervisor, Dr. Vitaliy Lyakh, is an incredible professor who helped me develop my philosophical thinking and refine my research interests.

During the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, my colleagues and I started an online philosophical-psychological club where we discussed interesting ideas and concepts. It was an opportunity for us to share our knowledge and learn from each other. I remember the first time we read about Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, and how it complemented my systemic view of human nature. I am now exploring this methodology further in my work at Donetsk National University named after Vasyl Stus. At that time the different parts of my professional life were coming together in teaching. For example, when I created the course “Philosophy of Happiness,” I discovered the internal dialogue based on the papyrus “The Dispute of a Man with his Ba.” The ancient Egyptians’ representations of the internal parts of a person were remarkably consistent with the ideas of IFS, and it was a profound realization for me. From studying the functional state and family systemic psychotherapy to understanding the transformations of human relationships at the level of sociality, my research interests have followed a trajectory toward a more comprehensive understanding of the systemic view of human nature.

Currently, I have a premonition that my attention will return to the internal system of a person through the IFS methodology. I am excited about this new direction in my research and look forward to uncovering more insights into the complex nature of human beings.

Shaun: How did you come to relocate from Ukraine to the United States of America? Please feel free to give as much context as you are comfortable with to help readers connect with your personal story.

From childhood, when I heard my family’s stories about the Second World War, learned the history, or read books about wars, I always thought about the parents’ response. Little did I know that I would one day have to make that decision myself. On 24 February 2022, the first day of the war in Ukraine, my family and I had to take responsibility for ourselves and our youngest daughter. While my husband and mother wanted to stay and help those in need, my three daughters and I had to leave for our own safety.

As we left our home, I saw the best in people. Strangers in Moldova shared food, warmth, and support from the very first day. It was incredible to see such kindness during a time of war. While some were killing and hurting others, there were people who were opening their homes to strangers from Ukraine. We were lucky to meet an amazing family in Bucharest through my middle daughter’s volunteer work at a musical festival in Belgium. When the war started, they invited us to stay with them and treated us like family. We spent half a year in Romania, and it was the greatest discovery for us. Romania will always hold a special place in my heart, and I miss our friends there dearly.

We returned to Ukraine during the summer, hoping that the war would soon end. Sadly, that was not the case, and a few days after we returned home, more than 25 people in my city died in a missile attack. During this difficult time, my best friend from university, Svetlana, and her husband offered us their support in the US. They enrolled my youngest daughter in school and took care of us as if we were family. They are the reason we are now temporarily living in the United States with our friends.

Being in the US has been my second discovery. The compassion, empathy, and charity from the host country, along with the help from great teachers, volunteers, and neighbors, have made our transition easier. I am grateful for kindness and support as we all work to overcome the language barrier and start anew.

Shaun: How did you become involved in the Foundation for Self-Leadership initiative and exactly what does it involve?

As I mentioned earlier, I was interested in IFS therapy even before the war started. When we had to leave our home with just backpacks on our backs, I took with me one book only – “Internal Family Systems Therapy” by Dr. Richard Schwartz. When we arrived in the US, it was tough to be so far away from home and everything familiar, especially with the war still raging back in Ukraine. But my friend Svetlana and I talked about our passions in life and what gives us strength during difficult times, and she suggested I look into finding IFS therapy here.

I began researching and found a post about the support for Ukrainian people from the IFS Institute and the Foundation for Self Leadership, with contact information. I reached out and received a response from Dr. Julia Wartenberg immediately. The next day, I had a Zoom meeting with Dr. Toufic Hakim (the Foundation’s Executive Director), and it felt like a miracle to be part of something so important during such a challenging time. Being able to share this initiative with my colleagues from the Ukrainian Umbrella Association of Psychotherapists, search for interpreters, and anticipate the start of program support was the best way for me to feel sustained.

I was thrilled when almost one hundred psychologists and psychotherapists responded to the call to participate in the program. Through the program, I have met new colleagues from the National Psychological Association in Ukraine and IFS psychotherapists. I am now part of the first IFS-oriented peer-to-peer support community, which includes 15 Ukrainian psychotherapists, 3 IFS therapists, 3 interpreters, and facilitator Dr. Tom Holmes. We started working on February 13 and will be meeting online every Monday for 16 weeks. Even though we are all in different countries, it’s been amazing to share experiences and support each other.

Having access to this support and the opportunity to connect with other therapists has been incredibly important for me in finding emotional stability during these challenging times.

Shaun: What does it mean for you to be involved in this initiative? What are you hoping to achieve?

In times of war, I often turn to the teachings of Viktor Frankl and Philip Zimbardo, who remind us not to attach expectations to time. Engaging in this initiative has prevented me from getting stuck in the past, present, or future, allowing me to learn and grow while maintaining balance in my life.

This community of like-minded individuals with a shared passion for therapy connects with my professional part and provides a source of joy and purpose for me during these tough times. The IFS method has been particularly effective in helping me and my clients navigate trauma, update internal managers, and access self-energy. I hope to continue sharing its benefits with others and find a circle of kindred spirits and friends in the process.

This initiative helps not only me, not only now. It helps to create a better future in the nearest time, to create a positive change. Moreover, when I return back to Ukraine, I will be able to share all gained knowledge and practices with others.

Shaun: What helps you stay centered during your involvement in this work and also therapeutic work in general?

Congenial work is what helps me to stay centered. It is the central doctrine in the philosophy of Grygoryi Skovoroda, who is a prominent Ukrainian philosopher, and December 3, 2022 was the anniversary of his 300th birthday. Skovoroda’s teachings emphasize the importance of finding one’s role in life, which resonates with the work of Dr. Tom Holmes “Part Work: A Path of the Heart.” Congenial work is easy to do and it brings happiness. I think I have found mine.

When the war started, my focus on lectures, seminars, and psychotherapy sessions was my escape. It was difficult to concentrate on anything else besides work, news updates, and organizing aid, but the support of my colleagues and the power of networks gave me the strength to keep going. The sense of unity and togetherness that emerged from these interactions helped me stay centered and reminded me of the beauty and resilience of the human spirit.

During these dark times, I also rediscovered the therapeutic power of art. Whenever I felt drained and overwhelmed, I would visit an art museum or engage in painting sessions. It was my preferred “antidepressant” and “power bank,” and it allowed me to tap into my creativity and express my emotions. And lastly, spending time with my cat Kori, and walking through the park, river, garden helps to find joy in the simple things in life.

Shaun: What is your favorite quote or mantra that you live your life by and which you cannot go without?

For me, it is impossible to name just one quote or mantra. I think that my different parts are represented by different ones.

My first mantra, inspired by the Stoics, reminds me to have the courage and strength to change what can be changed and to accept what cannot be changed. Life is unpredictable, and not everything is within control. However, the power to choose how to respond to life’s challenges is ours, and this mindset helps me to navigate through difficult times.

The second mantra-like quote is about the transformative power of love. Love can overcome any obstacle and it is an essential part of living a fulfilling life. It is from the Bible: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:4–8a).

The third mantra, inspired by the idea of personal responsibility, speaks to the desire to take ownership of one’s own life and make the most of opportunities. It refers to the present and to the future: “Do whatever you must and whatever will happen.” Doing my best, even when it is challenging, and to continue living a life of purpose.

Finally, the fourth mantra is inspired by my curiosity part. To see, learn, read, investigate, and discuss something new every day of life. To live according to the credo Today is the first of days to come.

In conclusion, my mantras reflect the values that are important to me and that is the way to live my life.

Shaun: What else would you like our readers to know about the Ukraine relief initiative, the people you are working with, or indeed yourself?

As I think back on meeting Toufic (Dr. Toufic Hakim, Executive Director of the Foundation for Self Leadership) and learning about the Ukraine Relief Initiative, it felt like a miracle. Despite my limited English-speaking abilities at that time, I felt a profound sense of warmth and understanding from the team Toufic leads.

This team, in cooperation with Ukrainian psychotherapists, clearly undertook extensive preparation and organizational work before the program could start. I was told the prior planning included workshops to train volunteers in skills needed to support Ukrainian counterparts such as analysis of the situation in Ukraine, covering topics such as the country’s history, culture, and current struggles. I and my Ukrainian colleagues in the sessions really appreciated and appreciate this readiness and sensitivity.

Shaun: Yes, that’s right. Before the start of the work, a number of workshops were held for volunteer psychotherapists who responded to be moderators and facilitators in small and large groups. Some of these trainings included sessions by David Baird and Tom Holmes, who shared their experiences of using IFS therapy to heal patients in times of crisis. Mary Kruger and Amy Marcotte also shared their experiences of working with war-traumatized individuals using IFS, outlining the steps involved in planning and developing 16 peer-to-peer counseling support sessions. It’s truly wonderful that this expertise was able to be brought together to serve Ukrainian therapists.

Maryna: In the community the Foundation organised that I am now a part of, Tom Holmes serves as the facilitator, and he kindly shared his book I mentioned earlier with all the participants. Melanie Herf leads and supports our small group and her amazing dog silently accompanies our meetings, giving warmth.

Shaun: I understand that throughout the initiative, the team has been and is encountering various obstacles, including power outages, language barriers, and different time zones. We have some fantastic interpreters who courageously agreed to translate sessions, despite the emotional toll of listening to the traumatic stories of loss. Psychotherapist Irina Diyankova has been providing additional support to these interpreters, acquainting them with IFS and offering guidance throughout the process.

Maryna: Shaun- I’m so glad I found this support.

NOTE FROM PARTS & SELF: The team supporting Ukrainian therapists continues to provide vital and careful support to those in need. If you would like to financially support this initiative, please click here.

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  • Shaun Dempsey

    Shaun Dempsey, PhD, is Deputy Editor of PARTS & SELF, a Level 3 Certified IFS therapist and Clinical Psychologist in Australia.

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