How Does the Sociopolitical Affect our Work?
A column by Jane Lewis, LCSW
This new column invites dialogue about the role of the sociopolitical in the therapy process. It remains controversial whether or not the sociopolitical dimension constitutes a continuous presence in our work with our patients. This column hopes to provide an opportunity to express all points of view.
Perhaps it is fortuitous that the "inauguration" of this column coincides with the tumultuous fallout from United States presidential election. For sure, many of us feel flooded with all sorts of feelings regarding the outcome of the election and that the majority of our patients have brought into session a wide range of reactions.
Therefore let's begin by using this column as a place to share our experiences. To our international colleagues: Please let us know what your thoughts are-- how you are affected and the ways in which the election process and/or outcome has entered your offices!
As Harry Paul and George Hagman suggested in the last eForum prior to Election Day: "If Clinton wins, the millions of Trump voters who experienced him as the embodiment of their rage and fantasies of vindication will feel cheated and betrayed - their resentment will persist and most likely prove disruptive to the body politic. If Trump wins the legions of Clinton voters will feel their values rejected and their disillusionment and fear will be widespread. Whatever the outcome, the powerful emotional aftermath will have to be acknowledged and addressed."
In the spirit of addressing what is indeed "the powerful emotional aftermath", share my first session after Donald Trump became president-elect.
THE MORNING AFTER
Usually I drive to my office from Westchester. However, Wednesday morning I didn't trust myself behind the wheel. I was exhausted, and cycling from shock, to fear, to feeling doomed and back again.
Antonio was my first patient. After he sat down, he immediately turned his face away and remained this way for several minutes. Some background: We are now seven years into our work together. During the first year, Antonio would provide an extremely brief sketch of his week, stretch out, arms by his side and close his eyes until our session was over. I learned in our very first session that he would become enraged when I attempted to intrude with questions or comments. Each time we met, I felt alone with a frozen corpse and constantly struggled to be with Antonio and to regulate my anxiety .
Ultimately, I found a way by developing a fantasy world of my own built around taking imaginary photos of Antonio's lifeless body. These "photos" evoked many memories of growing up with parents who seemed ghost-like and tenuously tethered to the world. Suicide was pervasive in my family history and by gazing at Antonio and his frozen, death-like posture, I began to feel that he, too, lived with the constant specter of unspeakable loss.
With an awareness that our minds are dialogic in origin, I sensed that Antonio and I had developed a deep, wordless connection. Ever so slowly, he would suddenly open his eyes, look at me, and then close his eyes again. One day, Antonio suddenly opened his eyes and said he thought I was eating an apple. I responded, "No, I am here with you. Maybe it's hard to believe that I will be here when you open your eyes."
After a year we reached what I thought of as our turning point. Antonio told me he was thinking something in Italian but that he knew I didn't speak Italian and therefore I wouldn't understand him. I agreed I did not understand Italian but welcomed him to speak anyway which he did. At some point, I told Antonio that I thought I recognized the word "morto" or death. He repeated "sono stato mezzo morto di paura" which he translated as "I was frozen with fear". He then began to bring me into his life in Rome when he was 6 years old--during the turbulent 1970's when his parents and older brother would engage in street gun battles with those who supported the fascist regime. Antonio would wander the dangerous streets of Rome looking for his parents and much older brother. Hearing guns being fired, he would stand frozen with terror against the wall of a building; uncertain how long he remained there and whether or not his parents and brother were still alive.
I realized that for the past year, Antonio's frozen body had been telling me his unformulated, unspeakable story. "Sono stato mezzo morto di paura" became our metaphor. Frightening memories began to emerge about the violent physical fights that took place between his father and brother over politics during which he was certain one might kill the other. These fights led to his brother's banishment from home, heroine use and ultimate suicide. Antonio was terrified that he, too would be abandoned if he disagreed with his father's beliefs in any way. He was also filled with terror that his mother would die and he would be all alone in the world. When she came home exhausted and would fall asleep in a chair, Antonio would sit for hours making sure that she was still breathing.
While there is obviously so much more to our story*, I want to return to the day after our presidential election. Over time, Antonio's own interest in Italian and American politics emerged and he would often describe his thoughts with great animation. Having a sociopolitical orientation myself, I was always fascinated by what Antonio chose to tell me.
As miserable as I felt the day after the election, I was looking forward to seeing Antonio. I was sure he would come in with an intellectual analysis of all that had happened. I could not have been more mistaken.
Periodically, throughout the years, Antonio would assume his frozen posture. This became a signal that something had occurred, most often within the context of our relationship, that had left him feeling endangered or retraumatized. As I just mentioned, as soon as Antonio arrived on Wednesday, he sat down and turned his face away from me. His body froze and I struggled to recalibrate my expectations. Thinking back to our last session, I could think of nothing that had happened between us that he might have experienced as retraumatizing.
Eventually, Antonio told me that he was afraid he might see in my face that I was too distracted by the election results to be present. He felt extremely lonely and panicky on his way to my office, not knowing whether or not he would find me "absent." We understood together that he was reliving the traumatic experience of wandering the violent streets of Rome as a young boy-- searching for his family who he feared he might never see again. Feeling assured by my presence, the grip of anticipated retraumatization loosened. After Antonio left, it was I who felt the chill of loneliness which was greatly magnified by the death of Leonard Cohen. His deep voice and dark, brutally authentic yet humorous and sometimes hopeful lyrics had comforted me since I was a teenager.
Later, I listened to Leonard Cohen's song "Democracy" where he seems to encourage us from the depths of despair to keep moving. I kept the following lyrics in mind as patient after patient brought in their very emotional experiences of the election results.
"Sail on, sail on
Oh mighty ship of State
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on."
Please do send your reflections and suggestions to Jane Lewis, LCSW at
And this heart in the darkness, too, is political as well as personal. We must take the good with the ill and keep moving, Cohen seems to say in "Democracy":
He was a poet for our times because he was a poet for all times.
* An article about our first year together, "Bodies in Dialogue: Empathic Connectedness in the Realm of the Unspeakable" will appear in a forthcoming issue of Psychoanalytic Inquiry.
Jane R. Lewis, LCSW, is a Council Member of the International Association for Psychoanalytic Self Psychology (IAPSP). She has presented numerous papers at both the IAPSP and International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy (IARPP) conferences and has published in the International Journal for Psychoanalytic Self Psychology (IJPSP). Jane was Vice-chairperson of the Bystanders No More: Psychotherapeutic Dialogues for the Politically Silenced Conference in New York City. There she organized an Armenian Genocide Panel which focused on a dialogue between a Turkish and Armenian analyst. She has traveled to Turkey for over two decades and is closely involved with the Ankara Contemporary Psychoanalytic Association founded by Neslihan Ruganci, Ph.d. For the past two years she has been going to Palestine where she works in the West Bank with the Al-Jahalin Palestinian Bedouin tribe. She established the first Bedouin football team - the Desert Hawks, along with a Bedouin women's embroidery collective. Recently she has written and presented papers on being in Palestine as a Jewish analyst and how this has affected her work with her patients. Jane has a private practice in New York City.
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