“I don’t get it,” Marlene begins, her face appearing tense and puzzled on my screen. “Every time I talk to one of my friends or even exchange an email, they’re talking about how devastated they still feel about the storming of the Capitol. I agree, go along with it, so they don’t think I’m some sort of a weirdo, but I don’t get it. It was a building for God’s sake. Yes, 5 people died and I’m sorry about that, but I see people dying of Covid every day in the hospital, people who are scared and alone and broken. We’ve lost way more than 300,000 people to Covid and people are so distressed about a building! What’s the big deal?”
I’ve had many patients who were very distressed by the events of January 6, others who, not surprisingly to me, didn’t even mention it. But I am surprised by Marlene’s lack of emotional response. As a nurse she has been on the front line of the pandemic, so perhaps, I think to myself, she can’t allow herself to feel any more pain. Still, politics matters to her. She usually has very definite opinions, often accompanied by intense affect.
“It sounds as though you’re uncomfortable with your not experiencing it as a big deal,” I suggest.
“I suppose. I don’t know, it just makes me feel different. Which is certainly not a new feeling for me.” She sighs. “Poor white trash, daring to want to make something different of myself. That got me beaten at home for thinking I was better than them and bullied at school because those kids sure as hell didn’t think I was as good as them. Shitty beginning.”
“And you’ve taken yourself far from those beginnings.”
“Yes. And I haven’t told you, but I’ve been thinking of applying to school to be a Physicians’ Assistant.”
“That’s wonderful, Marlene. I’m so pleased for you.”
“You don’t think it’s crazy? I’m already over 40. And PA school is very competitive.”
“You know, Marlene, I think you just asked me if I think you’re being too uppity, going too far from ‘home,’” I say.
She chuckles. “I think you’re right.”
“So do you think it’s weird that I don’t feel more about the storming of the Capitol?”
“I don’t think it’s weird, Marlene, but I do think it’s unlike you.”
“So you had strong feelings about it.”
“I did. But I’m wondering right now why you are asking me all these questions rather than telling me more about what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling.”
“I guess I’m feeling weird, which takes me back to my childhood.”
“What specifically in your childhood?”
“All of us living in that three room house. All the screaming. All the violence. My Dad beating the shit out of me if he found me reading a book. All the kids at school circling me, jeering at my clothes.” Marlene’s eyes fill with tears. “Will those images ever go away? I want them to go away.”
“Let me ask you something, what brought those images back so vividly?”
Marlene’s eyes widen. “Oh my God, seeing those people storm the Capitol! That’s what brought those images back. Those were quote, unquote, ‘my people.’ Oh my God,” Marlene says sobbing. “Oh my God! It’s so awful! Of course I couldn’t take it in. It’s way too close, way too close. It makes me sick. I don’t want to be like them, I don’t, I don’t.”
“You’re not like them, Marlene. You’ve grown a long way from there.”
Marlene continues crying, tears streaming down her face as she stares at me on the screen. “I wish I was in your office right now. I wish I could feel your presence, like your presence would erase the awfulness of those images.”
“I wish that too, Marlene. But I do hope you can feel that I’m here for you.”
She nods. Grabbing a tissue, she blows her nose and wipes her eyes.
“So I couldn’t take in the horror of the mob attacking the Capitol because it brought me too close to my childhood experience? So I did what, I shut down, and didn’t allow the horror to penetrate?”
“I’d say that’s exactly what you did, Marlene. At first I thought you’d shut down because of all the months of dealing with the stress of Covid meant you couldn’t take in one more horror. But I’d say, you got way closer to the real reason you shut down, the need to distance yourself from the horrors of your childhood.”
Tag words: Psychotherapy, mental health, defense, patient-therapist relationship, childhood, violence, growth, ambition, numbness, shutting down.