I watched the inauguration of Barak Obama in 2009 from my living room in Cape Town, South Africa. In my memory it is daytime, and the late afternoon sunshine is coming in through the glass sliding doors. There is a seven-hour time difference between Cape Town and Washington – Cape Town is ahead. My ex-patriot sensibility likes the poetic contrast of the freezing Washington morning with the South African summer day.
I might unconsciously need this contrast because of the feelings that Trump’s election has evoked in me. When I watched Obama being sworn in as the first African American president, there on my sofa in my (possibly) sun-dappled home in Africa, I cried. I cried because Obama’s inauguration felt like America’s Mandela moment: a possibility so many died for, so many struggled to retain faith in, and so many hoped would one day come. A time when the uncountable injustices of the past stood a chance of being addressed.
I remembered the day in 1994 that Nelson Mandela walked free from prison and spoke to the South African nation, and how quickly, by 2009, that hope had tarnished. The complexities of South Africa’s inherited inequalities, the ongoing effects of the psychological trauma caused by colonialism and apartheid, the pressures of neo-liberal global economic systems, and the corruption of the emerging ruling elite bubbled together in a toxic stew. Today, South Africa feels like a very different place to the country so many of us believed it would be when Mandela was released.
That day in 2009, in my mixed emotions, I fervently hoped things would work out differently for America.
Well, we know that in some ways, and for a few similar reasons, it has not. Amongst my clients, friends, and colleagues, there is a profound sense that something has gone wrong, that the America that can elect Trump is not the place we thought we were living in. Many Americans are left reeling as we face a new political dispensation which seems to break all the rules of civility, rationality, democracy, to actively reject a diverse society. Not surprisingly, anxiety-related symptoms have peaked in every therapy room I have heard of in the last month or so.
A line has been crossed by the hate speech Trump is on the way to normalizing. His election has generated intense feelings of unsafety in people of color, in immigrants, and in members of the LGBTQ communities. It’s as if so many of those who occupy positions of structural minority in this society have heard the message that America does not want them here. A variation on this message is that many disaffected white Americans blame them for a range of social and emotional ills. This feeling, that you are unwanted and unfairly targeted, can be extremely triggering, especially for those who have suffered previous trauma.
Anxiety, by definition, is fear of something that has not happened yet. With the election of Trump, which until it happened seemed so unlikely precisely because of what he unashamedly stood for, which seemed so un-American, at least post-Obama, we are in a universe where it feels like anything can happen.
My clients are sitting with a politically-induced terror that has impacted and sometimes threatened to derail their lives. A young transgender client is terrified that they will soon be denied paid access to the hormones they need to survive. An undocumented single mother is trying to plan for what might happen to her American-born children if she is deported, and processing rumors in her community of possible internment camps. A domestic violence survivor is rendered simultaneously enraged and returned to a past experience of victimization by the message that men can, in fact, do whatever they like to women.
One therapist has coined the term Post Trump Stress Disorder to account for the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder-like symptoms many therapists in the Bay Area are seeing in their consulting rooms. Jeff Gillenkirk, writing in Alternet on November 20, posited that many of the symptoms suffered by PTSD survivors are akin to those we are seeing post Trump’s election. Triggered by a single terrifying event, PTSD can cause increased irritability, uncontrollable intrusive thoughts, and distorted understandings of oneself, the trustworthiness of others, or the future.
Gillenkirk suggests we embrace community, engage in self-care, and ask for help if we need it. These are all good ideas, and indeed, I have offered them to my clients – and to myself. I have also urged clients to engage in some reality checking, reminding them that the majority of Americans did not vote for Trump. Furthermore, those young people who voted overwhelmingly did not vote for him; he and his kind are not the future.
I have urged clients who are panicking to remember that if it feels like anything can happen now, it remains true that the worst things may not happen. That particular fear can be a past terrorizing experience flaring up to try and convince us that things will always be as they once were, a familiar neural pathway lighting up in our brains.
All of these are good containment strategies and helpful ways of not being overwhelmed by external events, the definition of trauma. However, when I am faced with the raw pain of a client from one of America’s many marginalized, persecuted, undervalued, socially disempowered groups, the coping strategies begin to feel like panaceas. Worse, they begin to feel like a way to overlook America’s history, and its current inequalities.
I think perhaps going straight to containment strategies may not be therapeutic, may, in fact, constitute a kind of denial.
So what should we be doing?
What we always do, as therapists: we sit first with the pain, the despair, the rage. We allow these feelings, and affirm their causes. Otherwise clients are left abandoned, again, victims of the actions of another. Then we help our clients to process these painful affects by feeling with them, ensuring they are accurately mirrored.
First, we feel. Then, we understand..
We understand that the feelings are valid and that they come from lifetimes and families and community histories of trauma. Only after that do we begin to work together to enable change to occur, by strategizing and reframing and opening new possibilities for ways of being differently.
In this case, change may begin with resisting and then, eventually, undoing the damage to the social systems, public services, and intra-American relationships that are already beginning to occur. My greatest hope is that America does not prove to be just a few metaphorical hours behind South Africa in its betrayal of those who have already suffered the most.