Why is this terrorist attack being medicalized? How can we get over
what is still going on? Every day there are articles in the newspaper
teaching us that the "profound sadness, recurring nightmares, hyper-alertness,
horror, edginess, anger, numbness" we experience are symptoms. The
risk for many of us, we are told, is that our "normal reaction to
an abnormal event" will turn into a full-blown disease. Our feelings
are to be identified as symptoms in order to diagnose an increasing
variety of syndromes that may result from the traumatic event. Depression,
panic disorder, PTSD are all threats. If this is the case, many of
us will not "recover" from our traumatic symptoms, but instead spiral
down into a syndrome.
"If they don't get treatment, sometimes they never get over it."
Stress Looms, Newsday
"A variety of therapies tailored for trauma survivors,
including methods that gradually desensitize survivors to their
memories or teach them to reconstruct how they interpret their experiences,
can be effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder. Depression,
once identified, can be helped with psychotherapy and medications.
// As the weeks unfold, the memories laid down last week will work
their way into people's minds and souls. But their damage may not
yet be entirely done, Dr. Shalev said. [We can still get help to
But what if these are not "symptoms" at all, but real responses to
an ongoing situation? A terrorist attack of immense scale and horror
has happened. It was not done by "mad, irrational, brutes", but by
a reasoning, calculating group of terrorists who have tried before
and will try again. The terrorists' goals are not simply to disrupt
our lives. They have international goals; their main one may be to
goad the U.S. into a global
indiscriminate war that will convert others to their cause. The
horrible acts were committed by people willing to die to succeed,
and their real motivations are unknown to us.
- Stress from Attacks, NYT
On September 11, we were successfully attacked by people who will
continue to do so. We were not and are not safe. Our friends and
loved ones were killed for some bigger picture that we were not
privy to. Whether we were ignorant of it, refused it, or denied
it; we now know viscerally that we are part of that bigger picture.
September 11 was an event. The situation is ongoing. We are not "reacting"
to the trauma of one event, but living with and struggling with the
situation. These distinctions are not simple word games. The notion
that there was an event in the past that we are reacting to, sets
up the language of syndromes: if the event is over, then there is
some residual reaction that we may experience, but in time it should
pass. If those reactions don't pass, then we are no longer reacting
normally, we have become mentally ill.
"One large survey of Americans' mental health found that of those
who said they had been exposed to trauma, about 25 percent developed
the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder. Experts said
that figure might provide a rough estimate for those traumatized
by the New York and Pentagon attacks."
- Stress From Attacks, NYT
But Sep 11 marks an ongoing situation. The feelings we have of
"profound sadness, recurring nightmares, hyper-alertness, horror,
edginess, anger, numbness" are real. These feelings are significant
now and for the future. They signal a political awakening to a global
situation of terror; a situation that we share with most nations
on earth, now, since Sep 11. Our feelings are politics.
Israelies and Palestinians have been living with this kind of terror
for decades now. Many of them either know someone who has, or have
seen people who have been blown up by a surprise bomb. Everyone
there has seen it happen on TV too many times, too close, and rubble
is always visible. If we are experiencing numbness, sadness, anger,
and anxiety - and want it to stop - we are in solidarity with
all of those who have been living under terror in the whole world.
"In a city full of loudmouths, everybody needs to talk
The anxious, inchoate feelings of loss that motivate us to talk to
people in the street that we would have avoided a couple of weeks
ago - this is the feeling of solidarity: a shared sense of a situation,
a shared commitment to make it through, to do something so that the
situation will change. This feeling we should cultivate, realizing
that we share it with almost everyone in every country living
- MSNBC article
The feelings we have of profound sadness, so deep we seem numb,
even if we have only witnessed the events on TV - this feeling
is compassion, a word meaning "sharing pain". Yes, these feelings
are a reaching into our souls and finding that we can, and do share
the pain of those who are unconscionably killed and traumatized.
The very same compassion that seemed so distant when we watched
cities being bombed on TV in other countries before September 11,
is now activated by that same TV because now it "us" that has been
devastated. This feeling we should cultivate, and understand that
it is there (however repressed) whenever we watch or hear about
others being devastated. September 11 reminded us that those others
are "us" too.
The anger, resentment, vengeance, even hatred we feel toward unknown
enemies - these are desires for peace. We are bloody angry that
we can no longer sleep soundly at night; we are vengeful against
all who participate in violent attacks on normal people. We want
this violence, this disruption, and this horror to stop now and
in the future. Peace does not mean an abdication of responsibility.
Desire for peace is a primal, forceful emotion, an insistence that
the world is not right, is not okay, and needs to be changed. If
we are told that peace will come through bombing others, then we
will desire this. But what we really desire is peace, and we need
to think through whether bombing leads to peace. We definitely need
to stop future terrorism, everywhere, but we do not want generalized
war to replace it.
All of these feelings are not reactions to an event that is past.
They are ongoing political feelings appropriate to our ongoing situation.
We are living our politics out loud - our solidarity with subjects
of terrorism everywhere, our compassion for victims of terrorism everywhere,
our desire for peace without constant fear. We must not allow this
to stop. We have a chance: with September 11, everything changed...
if we help it change.
"The act of prayer is a highly effective anti-stress technique
- Sense of dread part of aftermath, Gazette
"Stress all the things that are still safe, psychologist urges"
- Talk to kids
The Revolution will be Medicalized
It is not so simple of course. Article after article tells us the
opposite. Experts tell us that these feelings are not political
at all, are not conscious at all, but simply bodily, neurochemical
reactions to horror. We, cultural and symbolic beings, are affected
by this interpretation. It is a terrifying reframing of our lives:
in the face of our bodily selves crying out to the world in solidarity
and compassion, we are told to "Wait, and the symptoms will pass."
If they don't, there are treatments. Treatments so that you will
be numb to your numbness, so you will no longer be angry at your
anger, so you will be happy in your distance, so you will be able
to work without thinking of your fears.
Notice the individualization of this approach. The psychiatric
approach to political trauma is to make it each individual's problem.
If you are shaken up for a few days and then are able to go back
to work, you are normal. If not, you are the problem. This is so
backward it is scary. It should scare you. These feelings are social,
not individual; they are political, not medical. Just because you
are able to bottle up all of those feelings of solidarity and compassion,
and desires for peace and go back to the way you lived and worked
before September 11 doesn't mean you are normal. It means you have
"Experts on terrorism say it is good to get back to normal"
And far worse: if you still feel the anxiousness of solidarity with
those who live under terrorism, the sadness of compassion for those
who continue to be terrorized and devastated everyday, and the anger
and resentment of a desire for peace - if you still feel all this,
your friends are directed to take you in for counseling and/or medication.
Why aren't we talking with people in Israel, Ireland, Kosovo, and
so on? These are places where people have learned to live while fearing
(rather than having to choose between one and the other), where they
have learned to laugh while profoundly sad. They are not in therapy.
They are struggling together to make sense of their, our, wounded
world. So many people in so many places have been, and are working
for peace, in solidarity, even as they have not been able to solve
the terror in their lives by themselves.
"If individuals continue to exhibit symptoms after several weeks,
Liebman said, they should see a family physician or go to their
local clinic. In that case, they will undergo therapy that could
last several months.
"In the worst cases, some people might have to take anxiety
- Sense of dread part of aftermath, Gazette
"There are some people who are so overcome by the events
that they can't get past the trauma by themselves, North said."
Of course people can't get past it by themselves. It is a social and
political problem that we are living. We have been woken up... Will
we go back to sleep?
emotional aftermath, by Linda Carroll and Charlene Laino, MSNBC
Helping is not therapy
"Any title with the word 'therapy' in it has a friendly
ring this week, when everyone feels in need of it."
Story after story describes how people have woken up to a desire to
help others, to listen to them, to find out their stories and to tell
their own. They are doing this spontaneously, out of their awakened
sense of solidarity and compassion. And yet there is an ever-present
suggestion that helping others is a form of individualized therapy.
It is a way of working through events, to process them - so that
one can return to work, to not helping, to not listening.
- Gazette, Montreal
"Thousands of people streamed into blood centers in Wisconsin
and around the nation, donating blood as a kind of therapy, a way
to do something - anything - to help."
Helping is not therapy, it is political consciousness. We have awakened
to our interconnectedness, to our shared terror, and to an uncertain
future that we share with the world. We are working to change and
heal this world that we no longer feel comfortable in. It is the world
that needs change therapy, not our selves.
- Rush of donors, Milwaukee Journal Sentinal
And it is our world, not a lone America, that was attacked and
needs healing. We say, "it should not happen here", when we mean,
should not happen anywhere." This was not a unique terrorist
occurrence. If you cannot name at least five other countries attacked
by terrorism in the last decade, you need to get informed. These
are all fellow victims. These are people who felt and feel as we
do. Inform your desire for peace by learning how terrorism is fed
and grows and festers.
The medical image goes still further: we are told that terrorism
is a cancer in our world that we must destroy. But if we are not
careful, we will end up waging a war on symptoms. If terrorism is
a cancer, then we cannot hope to succeed by inventing better and
better means of screening and detection devices, nor by bigger and
better surgical, chemo, and radiation weapons. These are important
and will, as with cancer, succeed in locating many outbreaks early
on and saving lives (at no small cost). But cancer rates are not,
and cannot be, reduced by these methods.
When the Oklahoma bombing was revealed to be committed by Americans
who didn't look "different", the response was a deep questioning
within the press and in homes over "why" this happened. No longer
was the idea that this was done by "mindless, irrational, barbarian
fanatics" enough of an explanation. We needed to know what drove
some people like us to kill hundreds of innocent people. How did
they come to have so much resolve, so much hatred and revenge, and
so much cruel rational planning to carry out such a terrorist act?
(These are also the same questions that we ask of the school kids
who, after weeks of planning, gun down their schoolmates. We want
to know why so that we can heal the causes along with the wounds.)
Helping remakes community. Helping out of a deep sense of solidarity
and compassion is political work rebuilding the world so that it
is inclusive, so that we feel comfortable in it once again. Healing
the wounds that we feel through helping can only be a collective,
ongoing process. It is hard, conscious, informed work to remake
a world that is out of joint. Our wounded world and wounded selves
will only heal if we cultivate, not medicate these feelings.
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