The Other PTSD

Is there any coincidence that my phone hasn’t stopped ringing since Nov 9, 2016?

November 8 was Election Day (in America) but seemingly a landmark psychological event in the lives of many in London, Ontario, Canada.

December and January are normally busy times for us in the counselling world, but this year has been of epic proportions, and from what I hear from my colleagues, my practice is not unique in being overwhelmed by demand for services.

So what on earth is going on that so many people are struggling so much lately?

I’m sure there’s lots of factors – too many for a blog such as this to attempt to analyze. The very day after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, an avalanche of people started seeking help. Some very explicitly were upset about what this election meant to them. Many were scared about the future of our world. They felt this change in political leadership was a major threat to peace and stability, even if he was leader of a nation not their own.

But what I’ve also observed is that a great many folks who sought help after the election were not entirely aware of the connection between this event in world politics and the intense vulnerability and pain they were struggling with.

After a few days of listening to people’s stories I began to consider the pattern that was emerging.

People who had at some point in their life experienced bullying, sexual violence, racism, sexism, or the oppression of powerful others seem to experience Trump’s election as an affirmation of their perpetrators and a dismissal of their victimization.

I’ve started calling it “the other PTSD”, or, President Trump Stress Disorder

It’s a little like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but different at the same time.

It’s not that I’m saying Trump’s election is a traumatic stressor in and of itself. But it does seem to have been a pretty significant trigger for all kinds of people who have been hurt and mistreated by precisely the person that Trump seems to be. After the inauguration I was listening to a patient struggling to articulate her sadness and anxiety, and I offered this suggestion to her:

“I wonder if you feel like 55 million Americans have basically said (by their voting) that perpetrators who mistreat and abuse people like you, are not only free to do so, but will be excused, justified, or even affirmed. That people who have power are free to do whatever they like, and the rest of the world will either cooperate with them or support them. I wonder if you feel that victims like yourself have been told that what they’ve been through doesn’t matter, that abuse is okay, and that victims are actually the problem.”

She began to cry – not just tears of sadness, but of relief. The kind of tears that fall when another human being has understood and named our experience. It was a sacred moment, and as therapist I don’t feel I can take much credit for it. Sometimes something just comes over me that I can’t entirely explain…

geno6ft_ems-justin-eisnerI notice also the coincidence that I’ve been writing for this blog a great deal less than ever before. Partly it’s the busyness and exhaustion of caring for others. But I realize now that a certain amount of despair has set in to my life since that fateful day last November. It’s not just feelings of sadness or anxiety or even anger. I share with many of my patients, and perhaps you my readers, a feeling of being crushed by the weight of this bully convincing so many people to go along with him. It’s bad enough to have one really mean kid out on the schoolyard, it’s a whole other story when he can convince half of the other kids in the school that he’s right and should be in charge. That’s the kind of world I think a lot of us feel we inhabit since the election. And it’s harder to feel safe just going about daily life isn’t it?

I wish there was some solution for this. I feel a little pressure to wrap up a post like this with a clever psychological method to get over President Trump Stress Disorder. Maybe somebody else has a better idea? Maybe something will become clearer to us with time?

But for now, this I know to be true. Help starts with recognition. We have to name and identify and put language and images to our suffering before we can hope to find a way through. I don’t actually care much for diagnostic labels, and if you feel like calling it “the other PTSD” just medicalizes your experience, well, I’m not so crazy about the term either. But let’s put some words to it – what’s going on in the political scene really is reflecting the personal experience many people have suffered in their lives. Even if he’s not the person that he appears to be, or his policies don’t directly affect you, Trump reminds you of that person that harmed you and not only gets away with it, but convinces other people that you’re the one to blame.

So maybe you feel somewhat like me: a little kid walking through the school yard where the bully’s been put in charge and you just want to get home without getting hurt and harassed. The world seems pretty scary, but if it’s any help, you are not alone.

Throughout our history we as a human race have made some pretty terrible decisions, and we’ve repeatedly given our power over to some of the most broken and destructive individuals of our species by making them our leaders. This election is not the first, nor will it be the last great demonstration of how a deeply fearful population promotes bullies and abandons victims when they think it’s in their own best interest. But as you try to get home unscathed, remember that there are still people who are fighting injustice. The struggle against oppression and dehumanization is a long and unending one, but we are not giving up.

We don’t have to be defined as victims only. There are millions of acts of small resistance we can engage in that empower us against bullies and oppressors. We can choose to restore dignity and humanity in all sorts of ways that may not shift government policy, but are radical political acts in themselves. We can name our despair and refuse to allow it to silence us or fail to act. We can welcome strangers and immigrants. We can embrace and offer friendship to our Muslim neighbours who have been particularly targeted by bullies these past weeks. Whenever we choose to act in a way that upholds the humanity of others and refuses to exploit fellow beings for our own advantage, we are acting in resistance to what this new president represents.

I suspect my clinical work will be quite busy for the next few months as people work through this new reality. But I’m fairly certain the response we have should not be exclusively a psychological one.  Coping with the stress of a Trump presidency is not the realm of professionals alone. Rather, all of us must find ways to manage these difficult feelings by learning to see the various ways we take away dignity from others and instead act to restore it. Standing up to bullies is important, but it doesn’t always require us to punch them in the face or lower ourselves to their tactics. We can stand up to perpetrators and oppressors when we undermine their power with love.

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