In the flood of reflections 10 years on from 9/11, the language used to describe our experience of terrorism and war has slowly morphed toward the clinical. Fear, disbelief and ongoing sadness have become anxiety, denial, grief and closure. What are the effects of using this kind of diagnostic language in the wake of tragedy? Has the way we talk about terror hampered our ability to reflect and to act on our experience?
I’m not sure how to look back on the attacks on the twin towers. Every year the articles come out, more so on this 10th anniversary than for some years, and every year we attempt to draw new meaning and understanding from the event. The days, weeks, months and years following the attacks were meant to be a turning point, a time to do things differently and to harness the sense of community that many felt directly after the tragedy. Instead, we may have settled for merely trying to feel safer.
There are many reasons for this settling, and one of them may be that we no longer have a real language to talk about terror. Instead, we have a kind of homogenised psychobabble that is emblematic of our current obsession with packaging experience into pre-digested containers. Maybe one of the effects of this packaging is that we have become less and less able to respond effectively to disaster. We’ve packaged up our feelings and sent them off express post before we even really know what they really are.
I have a client who once tried to describe a deep feeling of sadness to me. He was having difficulty coming up with a word that fit the feeling. Sadness wasn’t enough. It didn’t convey either the depth or the length of the feeling. He finally said the feeling was really sorrow, but that there was no room anymore under capitalism, in modern times, for the word sorrow. He was describing a feeling of the overwhelming impact of a single terrible event that had changed his life forever. Ruined it, really. This sorrow marked his experience from that time on. Grief was not the word. Grief holds an implication of time-limited processing. It is a psychological word, useful in its own way, but sometimes out of step with the lived experience of an ongoing and underlying sadness following an event that permanently destroys the world as we knew it.
There is a call when terrible things happen to grow and to change for the better. To reflect and to feel and to take action. This is why, in the wake of even more common tragic events, death, separation, serious illness, so many of us reassess our lives. But there are so many pitfalls in the way of real change. So many things that call us to make surface changes rather than to take the risks required for real transformation.
One of the ways we put obstacles in the way of change is by calling one thing another. We label our reactions with psychological language and this allows us to simultaneously legitimate our feelings and to dismiss them.
In the decade since 9/11, there have been significant increases in the diagnosis and reporting of anxiety disorders, particularly among women. But perhaps much of our so-called anxiety following events like 9/11 is really fear — legitimate fear. Just as depression can often be substituted as a descriptor for real sadness, so anxiety often replaces fear in our lexicon of terms we use to interpret our feelings. And this move from a feeling to a diagnosis can hamper our recovery by limiting action. Because these are not only situations to fear, they are also situations that call for us to act. To feel the fear and to act anyway.
Another problem with using clinical language to describe a personal experience of difficult emotions is that it often allows us to externalise this experience. We can take comfort in a label, but we can also lose our ability to reflect openly on how we feel. To really process or digest and heal from a tragic event, we need to be able to allow ourselves to roam free-range through our feelings, rather than to lock our feelings of distress up like battery hens. In other words, we need to make room for as many words as possible, even the ones that feel like they’re outside the box.
Recently researchers who were interested in the detrimental effects of bitterness found that it is fundamentally important to be able to shift gears from a course of action that is a dead end, to one where there is an opportunity to find new meaning. To do this requires two things simultaneously. Firstly, it requires the ability to reflect deeply on our own experience of powerlessness over outside events and other people, and secondly, it requires us to take action to build new relationships in the world — to shift from the fruitless to the hopeful.
It’s hard to do this when we pot our personal and social tragedies. It’s hard to do this when even the language we use to describe our pain is so limited and belongs not so much to us as to professionals who are meant to oversee and to diagnose our responses.
I think this move from personal to clinical language may also push many of us to try to recover a sense of the ordinary too soon. Trying to move on, to no longer be part of a stigmatised population, we may press ourselves to recreate the normal, whatever that is. But it was the ordinary that got us here in the first place. Why go back into the foxhole? I see so many people, myself included, who expect ordinary life to continue in the face of unspeakably painful experiences. I’m not sleeping, we say, or I just can’t stop crying. Is there nothing that we should stay awake crying over anymore? Is all pain to be pathologised?
Sometimes, as swiftly as a beaver whose dam has been destroyed, we make replacement lives before we really know what it is we’ve lost. We want to put everything back together in a neat bundle, including our feelings. So we file huge complex emotions under shorthand headings like "anxiety", and we opt for safety over change, bitterness over forgiveness, distance and protection instead of peace. If we could take more care with how we talk about our own and others’ feelings, to let in the shocking, the unusual, the poetic and the perverse, maybe we could stop constantly repeating ourselves.
ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.
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