At a mental health provider training that I attended not long ago, at one point the facilitator was attempting to communicate how survivors of trauma often feel frighteningly out of control even in the most secure and benign situations. In a tone that suggested he planned to make a brief point and move on, he directed us: “Those of you who feel perfectly safe right now, raise your hands.” In a conference room of nearly one hundred professionals, not even one of us moved in response. I could tell the presenter was taken aback–clearly this was not what he expected when he posed his question. He tried to rephrase his words, to clear up the misunderstanding: “You’re here in a conference room at a hotel in suburban Lisle. You’ve got iced water and a complimentary breath mint in front of you and we’re about to break for lunch in five minutes. Not even one of you feels completely safe?” Again, not one of us responded. Our presenter had wanted to challenge us mental health providers to take the perspective of a client with PTSD in order to underscore how different their perspective was from our own way of encountering the world. He had not guessed that not one of us there had to conjure up an imagined and abstract concept of danger–that in actuality each one of us had, in a deep and immediate sense, a certainty that danger and loss and terror were a constant possibility.
As a group that day, somehow we had wordlessly decided to acknowledge Danger’s mandate to step into any space at any time and assert its limitless power, and we had collectively decided to protest against the assumption that feeling unsafe was an aberrant and unreasonable response. The crane-hung piano plummeting from a high-rise to the street below, the rogue wave cresting over the lakefront path toward the cyclist one winter night, the stray bullet tearing through a playground, the cancer cells swarming undetected inside, the “nuclear button” perpetually an arms-breadth away from one unstable world leader or another: Maybe I and the other mental health professionals in that conference room had heard too many stories from our clients of the horrifyingly impossible becoming, all at once, a simple and irreversible fact. Or, more likely, maybe we’d each discovered that fact firsthand, in big and small ways.
The field of mental health does our clients–and ourselves, the practitioners–a disservice when perpetuating the myth that feelings of anxiety, fear, helplessness, and futility are an unreasonable and abnormal response to our unsteadily spinning world all too full of blows and losses both staggering and mundane (and staggeringly mundane). We do our clients a disservice when we rush to diagnose and medicate (certainly necessary and helpful in many cases, but quite probably less often than we imagine) in responding to a client who gives voice to these universal fears. We do better when we practitioners communicate to our clients that these responses are in fact a reasonable posture to adopt in a world that demands an unreasonable level of equilibrium and resiliency from us in order to survive its caprices. And yet only communicating this message is not enough. We must then go further and encourage our clients–and ourselves–to cultivate a perspective that seeks out and creates moments of beauty and tenderness and support–and activism–that are every bit as real as Danger and that help to plant our feet more firmly on terra so rarely firma. I write this on November 6th, when masses of Chicagoans are not only casting their own votes but also mobilizing to help their neighbors who have have less access and mobility to also take their places at the polls. Indeed we open ourselves to those life-affirming possibilities when we seek out even the most modest opportunities for kindness and compassion toward each other and ourselves–whether over cups of tea or under protest signs. By recognizing and creating everyday moments of agency like these, we have a limitless capacity to regain and generate our own realm of power, for ourselves and those around us.
Meg Kelleher, LCSW