A new patient comes in today, a tall depressed looking man in his late thirties.
He squirms in the chair and then, without prelude, says, “I can’t stop obsessing about the Newtown shootings.”
I tense, immediately wary, on edge. I’m surprised that a patient’s opening remark expresses such violent thoughts. I know that my concern is not unreasonable, but I also know that I’m particularly uncomfortable around violent men. My father had an unpredictable, hair-trigger temper. I lived in fear of him my entire life. But I need to stay in my role as analyst and not jump to any conclusions.
“What do you mean by obsessing?” I ask neutrally.
“I keep thinking about that guy going into the school and just shooting those kids. I keep thinking about it and thinking about it.”
I am not reassured. Despite my own background, the reality is that I don’t know this man and I certainly don’t know what he’s capable of. “Have you had similar obsessions in the past? Do you generally replay violent events in your mind?”
“No. Never. That’s why it’s so disturbing to me.”
Although I’m a bit reassured, I ask, “Have you ever had fantasies of committing similar violent acts yourself?”
“Oh my God, no,” he says, looking horrified. “I could never imagine myself doing anything like that. Did you think that about me? Did you think I could do something like that? No, never.”
The patient has indeed asked an interesting question. When I asked him if he had fantasies of committing violent acts, was that I sensed the possibility in him, or was I responding out of my own fear? I don’t know the answer, but I will definitely keep his question in mind as we continue.
“What are your feelings when you see the killings over and over in your mind?”
“I don’t know,” he responds.
I don’t know, I think. I remain silent.
“I’m not someone who has a lot of feelings,” he continues. “I think I should have feelings, like I should be angry about these kids being slaughtered. I should feel sad for their lives being over before they began. But I don’t feel much of anything. Like when I saw how emotional President Obama got I was really surprised. I just wouldn’t have expected it.”
“Do you get emotional about other things? More average things? Things in your everyday life?”
“No, not really, I don’t feel much. Ever. I know that sounds weird.”
My fear of this man is dissipating. There seems to be more sadness inside him.
“Do you have any thoughts about why it’s so hard for you to feel?” I ask.
“I guess there was no place for feelings. My father died when I was young. My mother couldn’t take care of me so she left me with one of her sisters for several years until she got back up on her feet and then came and got me.”
I flash on what he said about President Obama, how surprised he was that he had feelings about the children who were killed. There has been no caring father in this man’s life. There has been no caring parent. He wasn’t killed, but he wasn’t loved either. And of course he has feelings about all that, angry feelings as well as sad feelings. But at the moment he defends himself against all those big, intense feelings, by feeling not at all. It will take time to find his feelings. Probably lots of time.