Ordinarily, the weeks leading up to the holidays are very busy in any psychotherapist's office. Worried and self-conscious clients schedule extra visits to cope with the normal stresses of the "most wonderful time of the year." They fret about looking ugly to relatives, getting criticized by relatives, awkward silences with relatives, just plain despising their relatives. While the economy lumbers along, they struggle to pay for, select, wrap and present the perfect item, communicating just the right note for that particular relationship. They dread pretending to smile for photos that last forever in the archives. Sometimes, it seems that only the children are excited by giving and receiving gifts and treats.
But this past week was different. It was the week after the mass killing of a parent, a troubled young man, children, teachers and administrators in an elementary school in Connecticut. The Newtown tragedy was part of the discussion in every session leading up to the Christmas and New Year's holidays. The fact that these awful events came to dominate a psychotherapist's practice is not surprising. My little suburban office is a microcosmic laboratory where the temperature of the broader culture is revealed. Everything seems to come in here, from the best to the worst in human potential. Prior to the events in Newtown, some might have thought this was a skewed sample of our population because only disturbed people come to treatment. I have to disagree. In my opinion, the people I treat are often saner than those who reject and stigmatize mental health care.
Besides what you would expect -- individuals who were shocked and saddened by these mass killings -- hidden truths are explored within the confidentiality of a therapist's office. Here is just a sampling of what I heard this week:
"That shooter could have been me ... Something very bad happened to him when he was 6 or 7." -- A woman diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder who had experienced child abuse.
"I'd make more money as a waitress and my work would be done at the end of the day. I'd collect my tips and leave. But now, I can't sleep, worrying about my clients killing themselves and others. And even when I call CPS, they don't think there's enough evidence to go on. So it doesn't even matter that I called." -- A mental health worker.
"You know what my daughter said? She said, well, you know mom, he was autistic. Like that explains it?" -- The mother of a 10-year-old worrying that prejudice against special needs children has been sparked by the killings.
"It's not just guys. My friend, a girl, got off the elevator and said I've been raping mad nubes on Halo all day." -- College student home for the holiday. (Translation: Halo is a first-person shooting game, "nubes" are new players and raping, in this context, is a humorous reference to beating the other gamers.)
"I have a co-worker who fits the profile perfectly and I'm scared of him every day" -- A teacher afraid that she herself will look unstable if she points out the frightening behaviors of a colleague.
In a women's group, all agreed that, at one time or another, they could have shot a parent, or themselves, but they didn't understand killing children.
In the aftermath of a tragedy like Newtown, when everyone is arguing about why Adam Lanza felt compelled to kill himself and innocent others, we hold hidden truths in hearts. We are afraid of the fear and pain in ourselves and others. We know that help is hard to give and sometimes, even harder to get. Sadly, violence and prejudice are just under the surface of the everyday.
Will we look at these truths yet? Or will we allow ourselves to be distracted by the next mediated hype or crime spree? Given the fact that we'll never know the motivations and emotions of the killer, the only way to find our balance after such an event is to consider honestly how it has affected each of us as individuals. Let's start telling the truth and work toward humane solutions that the Newtown events have so starkly revealed.
For information on my book, The Velveteen Principles, click here.
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For more on mental health, click here.