Perhaps the best way to silence an intense psychological pain is to surround ourselves with a much louder noise, an external noise. A noise so loud and capable of silencing the bitter reality of what it means to be Lebanese today. Music, alcohol, and drugs—the night scene in Beirut—became a clear representation of the silenced screams of our weary souls. Yet, this escapist strategy is not new. The generation that endured the Lebanese Civil War were the pioneers of escapism in Lebanon. It is both a cliché and an honor to say that the Lebanese people partied straight through a civil war that divided Beirut in half. Inherently, that’s how generations in Lebanon were taught to tolerate the psychological distress they were confronted with: “party like there is no tomorrow.”
Every time they are faced with a new tragedy, Lebanese people choose to sing and dance their pain away, to place a band-aid on their deep wounds, and to keep moving. The booming, bar-hopping neighborhoods of Mar Mikhaël and Gemmayze are pegged as a representation of Lebanese resilience. Though, is it really resilience when we suppress our trauma instead of addressing it? We can’t deny that Beirut’s residents have continuously risen from the most tragic experiences, most recently pushing through a global pandemic, a massive explosion, and an ongoing, devastating economic crisis. But what is the secret behind all this ‘strength’? Is it merely the fast adaptation they’ve perfected over the years of destruction, loss, and bloodshed? Is it the power of processing trauma so fast? Or is it a temporary fix to a series of suppressed pain?
Cultural Perspectives on Trauma and Coping Strategies
When people grow up in environments that are chronically chaotic and unpredictable, they tend to dissociate to survive. This protection mechanism shields humans on a surface level, from what they are experiencing deep in their psyches. In those scenarios, a part continues with daily life and appears present, while another subconscious part becomes developmentally traumatized and deeply mistrusting. Though physically present, the mind is disconnected from reality. When the nervous system is accustomed to functioning in such chaos, it becomes home: a space so comforting where it becomes impossible to leave it and healing becomes a terrifying experience. That’s exactly how I would describe the collective psychological functioning in Lebanon.
While understanding Lebanese escapism and culture, it is inevitable to acknowledge all the good virtues, such as the traditions, the welcoming spirit, and the interpersonal affection that strengthen most in hardships. Part of being Lebanese is also growing up around the expression “ella ma tefraj,” which translates into “it will surely get better soon.” We learn to collectively dive into some sort of momentary unreliable accommodation, a quick fix passed on through generations to get us through the never-ending storms. Growing up, not only do we learn and acquire our parents’ coping skills, but also their trauma-based fears, their defense mechanisms, and the way they choose to face life’s hardships. It all lies in our education and how our parents teach us to act or react to threatening situations. That said, Lebanese people were broadly never taught how to understand, regulate, and process their emotions. They tend to develop unhealthy and distracting habits so they won’t ever have to face their trauma again or feel their pain, a mechanism also known as avoidance.
Collective Trauma: A Lebanese Inheritance
When talking about Lebanon, we can’t help but think of “shared pain,” a collective memory of a series of awful events that took place over the last few decades. Our collective trauma consists of dealing with constant threats to our lives and facing so much death and destruction. These events, which have led to hundreds of thousands of casualties, continuous exodus, and increasing rates of poverty, are extremely hard to live with. In that sense, escapism may seem like the only cop-out. With many feeling hopeless, anxious, depressed, and many deprived of their most basic human rights, Lebanese people need a regular distraction. Consequently, drugs and alcohol become the escape strategies for many: they numb the pain and help some forget their trauma to be able to survive. Perhaps facing reality is simply too terrifying. Unfortunately, over time, those substances used to escape from reality can completely take over, creating an addiction. Being frightened of our own reality and existence becomes the root of our anxiety, causing us to become stagnant and get attached to toxic habits and coping strategies.
In a recent interview with Lebanese Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist Wissam Kotait, he explained that Lebanon is linked to an accumulation of traumatic events and collective losses that have become intrinsic in the Lebanese way of life. Therefore, certain existential questions have emerged and are doomed to be repeated and inherited through generations. Dr. Kotait notes, “We are always in a stage of construction, destruction, reconstruction, and never in a stage of life, of desire, of accomplishment, strictly speaking.” Lebanese psychological coping mechanisms revolve around the issue of denial, and many completely deny the reality of these crises. Ultimately, the accumulation of existential questions puts us in a continuous phase of adaptation.
Collective traumatic experiences can lead to a vast range of mental health problems, with common ones including anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and dissociation. Too often, what really drives trauma survivors is a need for escapism. We, as humans, all want to escape from time to time. Whether it’s from our jobs, our home life, or general life stressors, no one can continue on without some sort of rest indefinitely. However, in Lebanon, it became unhealthy when people started using escapism as a means of memory retreat and trauma avoidance in a manner detrimental to their physical or mental health. Escapism is a way to try and make negative feelings dissipate, without having to work through the necessary steps to come to actual relief through mental resolution. It’s a false economy, a quick fix, a crutch, a placebo.
After everything Lebanese youth have been through during the past few years, including forced migration and separation from loved ones, most of them had to adapt to their new realities, as bitter as they were. When you live in a place where nothing is stable and the ground is shaking under you all the time, you live in a state of urgency. You have no choice but to live in the moment. With the bleak economic, social, and political situation, it’s almost impossible for today’s youth in Lebanon to project into the future, so they’re faced with only one option: live in the present. For those who weren’t able to leave the country, staying here came with an expensive price. But there have been some positive consequences of increased exodus. As Dr. Kotait puts it, “With time, these new generations were able to travel a lot, to bring with them another way of being in the world, of representing themselves and existing. They are therefore in some ways more in tune with their feelings and expectations, and more inclined to hope and work for change. They also brought with them the demand for their fundamental rights and ideals, related to mental health, to psychological wholeness, to constructive questioning, and therefore, to a different vision of asking for help.”
The Lebanese Night Scene: Escaping a Painful Reality
Clubbing is a key social element in the lives of many across the world but Lebanese people are particularly drawn to this activity as a tool of escapism.
In a dim atmosphere where music is booming loudly across the speakers, young people say they feel free. It is understood that most people who go to clubs do so as a means of escape from their daily lives; a place where they can indulge in their desires and separate themselves from their daily struggles. On a more scientific note, going to a nightclub and having a good time with friends generates hormones like oxytocin, which helps maintain emotional balance by reducing stress and anxiety while increasing feelings of well-being.
We are a generation defined by instability, learning to fall in love with escapism and nostalgia every single day. We crave freedom and the rush of adrenaline in our veins through which we try to compensate for all the pain. For the Lebanese youth, clubbing is mostly about craving a life away from sobriety and real responsibilities because at one point, normal life became too much. The weekend offers an escape from the problems that overwhelm them during the week. But then Monday morning arrives, reality strikes hard, and they would simply wait until the next weekend to feel alive again. They simply did not want to deal with the present.
Maybe most of us are convinced that taking the most that life could offer us after everything that we have been through over the years is living. In those practices, what made the reality less bitter and easier to cope with was the burning sensation of alcohol in the throat, the throbbing music, the curiosity for trying drugs, and the risk of becoming addicted to this monotony of living for the same kind of nights every weekend. Young people are so involved in the night scene because they are encouraged to “live in the moment” while they still can. Death comes knocking so often and so unexpectedly in our country that “living in the moment” seems like the only logical way of life as tomorrow is not promised. After the port explosion, we were again reminded that tomorrow is not promised. Every Lebanese lost a part of themselves. We lost the joy, the will, the motivation, and the pleasure to live life. We stopped looking forward to the future, and living in the past seemed just as painful because nostalgia was also agonizing. But “living in the moment” cannot always apply. This very compelling idea of “running away” from trauma and loss can also be very toxic and reinforce addictive behavior. We start looking for a sense of security in the wrong places, and we overcompensate and attempt to fill the voids caused by a series of traumatizing events. As Sophia Wu in How Living For The Weekends Made Me Feel Lonely And Unfulfilled puts it:
“We remember our nights as blurred and vague; they are a montage of faces, a girl tossing her hair over her shoulder, loud shouts over the music, a burning cigarette curling down. Yet, there is a sense of inherent emptiness in our world of dressing up and binge-drinking.”
Whilst we all seek an escape route from the pressures of reality, we may find ourselves facing increasingly challenging mental health circumstances that may manifest in acute sensitivity to pain, anxiety and depression. Overusing escapism to run away from life’s obstacles, can have a variety of negative effects and potentially lead to further problems. People can become addicted to anger, drugs, or alcohol, or retreat into a fantasy world.
Going out today, just as it was during the Civil War, is not just an escape. It is a gesture of defiance, a small flare of dignity. Many of those who lived through the Civil War say that this was the only way they could sustain a semblance of normal society, and to keep hoping for a better future. When reminiscing, many of the Civil War generation remember having the best time in the shelters singing, dancing, and drinking with their friends and neighbors: they rarely delve into the gory details of the other side of the coin.
In Beirut, it is a point of pride that the party never stops, even during war and protests. Today, for a lot of Lebanese youth, nightclubbing is an escapist strategy that shields them from the “outside world” and saves them from the daily anxieties and questions of “How much is the dollar rate today?,” “I can’t, I don’t have electricity,” “My best friend left the country today,” and “Where can we find this medicine?”
When the youth can barely secure their education, healthcare, or jobs, they are left with very few options. For those who can’t leave the country, staying here came with an obligation: adjusting to the current situation. And let’s be honest, this seems quite impossible at times. Escapism can be the only way through if we, as a collective, were never taught how to face trauma and cope with its painful scars. On the contrary, we were taught to sing and dance our pain away, to rise above every time and convince ourselves that nothing can break us.
Elodie Rouhana is a licensed clinical psychologist and certified practitioner in both Lebanon and France. She moved to Paris at the age of 23 to complete a second Master’s Degree in Psychopathology. Her work is mostly centered around analyzing the impact of psychological trauma on the human body and different behavioral patterns. Despite the deteriorating living situation in Lebanon during the past few years, Elodie decided to move back and offer her support to the people of her country. She then joined the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) scholarship program at the American University of Beirut as a Student Counselor. Elodie is a member of a polyclinic where she provides individual therapy sessions. She is also passionate about art, philosophy, poetry, music, and enjoys writing and reading.