by Connie Seré, LMSW
My latest Friday analytic case writing seminar began rather unusually. One of my instructors – a woman I’ve come to refer to in my mind as ‘The Good Witch’ – arrived late, admitting she’d been just outside the building in her car, listening breathlessly to the latest NPR update on the hostage situations in Paris. Having learned the most recent death toll number and the news that the offenders had been killed, my classmates, instructors and I then stumbled through several pregnant pauses interrupted by unfiltered, under-processed reflections about the state of our fragile world.
I soon recognized in myself the kind of fear I usually reserve for the aftermaths of screenings of movies like Seven, wherein a psychopathic antagonist repeatedly finds the most venomous means to terrify the film’s protagonist. This depiction of evil embodied in human form by this film is almost too much to stomach, as if the concept of human corruption at the depth of depravity is indigestible by my very being.
My self-absorption in pangs of nausea were broken up by words spoken by The Good Witch, who observed that the cartoonists slaughtered in Paris were members of the same class as us mental health professionals: “Truth People.” In fact, I learned later that evening that one of the newspaper’s fallen was Elsa Cayat, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who wrote a weekly column for the paper called, “Le Divan,” or, “The Couch.” Dr. Cayat was the only woman killed in the attack.
Being the depressive I undoubtedly am, I had to ask: are we really? Am I really?
In David Brooks’ weekly column in the New York Times titled, ”I am not Charlie Hebdo,” he highlights that most of us chanting and hashtagging the slogan, “Je Suis Charlie” are not, in fact, as tolerant of opposing views as we claim to be. And a surviving member of the newspaper staff, Laurent Léger, echoed this sentiment recently, saying of the outpouring of support in the wake of the massacre, “It’s been extremely moving—and also hypocritical.” Mr. Léger was referencing the newspapers’ previously un-beloved status amongst many who have rushed to proclaim support for the right to freedom of expression.
As a therapist, I cannot help but question my own loyalty to tolerance of opposing views – my desire to know the truth when it is not flattering, or hopeful, or exciting, or life giving. Do I really, truly, and consistently want to know the whole truth of what my clients experience day in and day out, or else all of the layers of conflicting feelings of love and hate they feel for me? Or do I only want a smidgen – a small smattering – that will allow me to keep a safe distance from their suffering, their dependence and their hatred, all the while I cash my weekly checks.
I cannot answer these questions honestly and come out looking clean.
What I can do, though, is admit the ugly truth that sometimes, I don’t. Sometimes, I want to crawl onto my couch in my pajamas, turn on a mind-numbing TV show that will allow me to retreat from what is frightening both within me and without. Sometimes, I want to browse Facebook and be lulled into the false perception that my life ought to be sorted as comparatively “better” or “worse” than others’. And worst of all: sometimes, I wonder if I am cut out to be – if I want to be – a therapist at all.
All of these things are true, along with a trough of more palatable, elevating truths. Sometimes I look at my dog wrapped in my friend’s infinity scarf, laugh with pure joy, and think to myself how incredible it is to love a stupid dog. Sometimes I feel with all of my soul that I have found my calling, and I leave for home with a sense of complete peace. And I find that sometimes, I love my patients in a way that transcends the bounds of my role and reminds me that despite the imperatively clinical nature of my work, I am human and so are they.
Perhaps admitting my own imperfect way of being in the world will allow me some freedom from the terrorists within, who wish nothing more than to destroy any semblance of the truths that offend. And in this way, maybe I can find the courage to live within the same category as Dr. Cayat and her colleagues at Charlie Hebdo: Truth People.