'Apples the size of watermelons': A psychologist reveals what it was like to grow up in the Chernobyl fallout zone
- Janina Scarlet was just under 3 years old when the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant blew up.
- Chernobyl was the worst nuclear-reactor disaster in history. The explosion spread toxic radiation over large swaths of Ukraine, including Scarlet's hometown.
- Scarlet said she was often sick as a child, with a weak immune system and frequent nose bleeds. She still has migraines and occasional seizures.
- Scarlet now works as a psychologist and uses superhero stories (which sometimes include nuclear immunity) to help her patients heal and grow.
- For more stories go to Business Insider South Africa.
Janina Scarlet always knows when there's a storm coming.
"Migraines," she told Business Insider. "I get whenever the weather changes."
Scarlet was four months shy of her third birthday when disaster struck near the Ukrainian town of Chernobyl. On April 26, 1986 at around 01:23, a blazing fireball blew the lid off the area's nuclear reactor, spreading toxic radiation into the air.
Radioactive debris released into the atmosphere reached the riverside town of Vinnytsia some 321km away, where Scarlet's family lived.
"For the first couple of weeks, although we knew something did happen at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, we weren't told the extent of it," Scarlet said. "We were told it was contained, and that everything was fine. As a result, people in Ukraine continued going outside, and breathing the fresh air, and drinking un-boiled water, and eating raw fruit. And all of it was poisoned."
Although it's been 33 years since the Chernobyl explosion, the health consequences of that radiation exposure still plague people who lived near the plant. The Chernobyl disaster has been directly blamed for fewer than 50 deaths from radiation poisoning, but many researchers say the full death tally from the Chernobyl explosion and its lingering effects may never be known. The World Health Organisation estimates that eventually, the disaster may become responsible for some 5,000 cancer deaths.
After the accident, everything within a 30-kilometre radius of the nuclear plant was deemed off-limits. But Scarlet's family lived outside that small area, so they remained in the larger fallout zone for nine years post-Chernobyl. She remembers getting sick for long periods of time, staying home from school, and going to the hospital.
"Even a simple cold was something that my immune system had a really difficult time fighting," she said. "I would get nose bleeds that wouldn't clot."
Today, Scarlet works as a licensed psychologist and lives in San Diego, California, though she still gets weather-related migraines even there. She also suffers about one seizure each year and is forbidden from driving a car for that reason. Beyond her physical health, the lasting trauma of the nuclear disaster has influenced the trajectory of Scarlet's life and career.
Early memories of Chernobyl
Scarlet said tiny "snippets" of memories from the months after the disaster still linger in her mind.
"Gigantic fruit," she recalled. "Apples almost the size of watermelons."
Other consequences of living in the fallout zone were eerily serene.
"My parents tell me it was the most beautiful spring they'd ever seen because, apparently, it caused a lot of blossoming, a lot of booming," she said. "Unfortunately, a lot of it was toxic."
Kids who lived near the Chernobyl site have increased instances of thyroid cancer, and adults who helped with the reactor cleanup are more at risk of developing leukemia.
The American Cancer Society says "there is no threshold below which this kind of radiation is thought to be totally safe."
Scarlet said she wishes the government had been more proactive about warning Ukrainians like herself about the health risks.
"I did know a couple of people that were very young and developed cancer very rapidly and then died very quickly," she said, adding that a few years after the accident, "my friend's mom died of cancer when she was 35."
'Being a mutant, in a way, is actually special'
By the mid-1990s, the former Soviet Union was going through tough economic times, and ethnic tensions in Ukraine had intensified.
As people lost their jobs and violence escalated, Scarlet said, it no longer felt safe for her Jewish family to live in the country. They applied for asylum in the US, and after more than a year of background checks and paperwork (conducted quietly so their neighbors wouldn't know), Scarlet moved with her parents and older brother to a Russian-speaking neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York in 1995.
Scarlet was 12 when they arrived, and American junior high wasn't easy.
"That first year I didn't really have any friends and it was a very, very challenging year, getting used to the American culture, learning the language," she said.
As a teenager, Scarlet said, she used to studiously watch episodes of "Family Matters" with closed-captioning subtitles.
"I had a giant dictionary on my lap, and I'd try to translate as quickly as I could what I was reading and hearing on the screen," she said. She credits the show's nerdy, suspender-clad character Steve Urkel with teaching her English.
But knowing the language didn't change the fact that she felt like a "freak" at school, Scarlet said.
A few years later, Scarlet was introduced to the X-Men movie series.
"I saw that being a mutant, in a way, is actually special," she said. "Sometimes our adverse experiences give us superpowers. Sometimes our pain stories can give us more strength than we ever realized we could have."
The superhero world is replete with traumatic origin stories, but to comic-lovers like Scarlet, these challenges are not tragic flaws; instead, they're some of the characters' most endearing traits.
"Every single superhero has a vulnerability, and it's not despite of it but because of it that we like these characters," she said.
Wolverine, for example, lived through a nuclear bomb, according to X-Men lore. The character has something called "toxic immunity," which means that he is completely immune to diseases, and radiation can't harm him at all.
Scarlet's favourite X-Men superhero to this day is Storm.
"Storm can control the weather," she said. Because of her migraines, she added, "the weather typically controls me, so seeing Storm's superpower was really exciting for me."
Using superheroes in psychology
Today, Scarlet turns to superhero stories to inform her practice as a clinical psychologist, working with clients who may have symptoms of depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She often asks her patients - whether they're teens going through a rough patch or veterans returning from war - which superheroes they identify with most.
Like the beginning of a superhero comic series, a healing process might start with patients identifying their own traumatic origin story. Scarlet suggests patients look to a particular superhero whose tragic journey they identify with or understand well.
"For example, somebody who experienced a painful loss might then have a conversation with Batman," she said. "Batman might encourage that person to learn from their painful experience and become the hero of their own journey, helping other trauma survivors or meeting with other people."
This process of helping people find hope and meaning from their traumatic experiences is called post-traumatic growth, she said.
Scarlet is now putting a similar therapy technique to work in her forthcoming book called "Therapy Quest," which comes out in some independent bookstores on May 7 (with a wider release on June 4). Each chapter in the book teaches readers a different mental health skill, with the overall goal of de-stigmatising mental health and making healing fun.
It's a kind of superhero training course for real-world disasters.
"You might learn the mindfulness spell, or self-compassion potion," Scarlet explained. "At the end of the book, in order to fight the sorceress, you need all of these spells and potions."
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