The New York Times asked Richard Grasso, the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, whether he had sought any psychological help since Tuesday. "No, I don't need it," he replied. "My counseling is this: that Monday morning 9:30 bell."
And yesterday's Times quoted from an open letter signed by nineteen psychologists, including several experts on the effects of trauma, who cited several studies that had found that certain crisis intervention techniques might be ineffective or might even slow recovery. They expressed particular concern about "medicalizing what are human reactions to things" and about one-time "debriefing" sessions immediately after a trauma that tell people what symptoms they might develop and encourage them to vent their emotions but offer no specific coping strategies. When these methods were used with rescue workers after a plane crash killed 112 people in Sioux City, Iowa, the workers complained that the help had been ineffective and intrusive.
In recent years therapy has acquired a "quick-fix" reputation, as though it were a way to wipe out all undesirable feelings with some sort of psychological eraser. Clearly the managed "care" industry, with its focus on short-term therapy and psychopharmacology, has contributed enormously to this unfortunate impression. Therapies and "healing" methods that promise impossibly joyous results, or suggest that simple affirmations can wipe away life's very real sorrows and discontents, haven't helped, either.
Maybe it's time to remember Freud's famous saying that after analysis, people suffer only from "common unhappiness." No therapy can take away the terrible events of September 11, or the grief and horror and uncertainly we have all felt since. Terrible things do happen.
And at terrible times like these, when you can, the first people to turn to are the ones you love. There is no substitute for the loving arms of a partner or parent or child or friend.
Sometimes, though, we need more. Sometimes a cataclysmic event opens up old wounds -- other losses we have suffered -- and the anxiety and pain feel like more than we can bear. Everyday tasks may seem to have lost their meaning. Sometimes we have no one to talk to. We may have already had enough on our plate before the attack; now we're overwhelmed. If we have lost a loved one, we are not sure how we will go on. We may be angry at God or wonder where God was on September 11. We may struggle with what it all means.
At times like these, you may choose to turn to a therapist. If you do, "debriefings," mere "venting," and the five sessions your managed-care provider offers are probably not the answer. You need a counselor or therapist who will take the time to get to know you, to really listen rather than applying formulaic methods or offering affirmations that don't "stick." A pastoral psychotherapist who will seek to understand the way the attack relates to your particular life experiences, and to help you integrate these with your own spirituality, can help you hold onto hope.
What quick fixes could we offer this week? It's hard to imagine. I've sat with people's pain and fear and anger and weeping. What could be more human, at a time like this? Our fears, and our caring about people in those buildings (even those we didn't know personally), are signs of our own humanity, and not to be wiped away with superficial "therapeutic" techniques. Our worries about what the future holds for our nation, our children, and ourselves are natural. Sometimes, when someone sounded overwhelmed, I've made some practical suggestions -- why not attend a prayer service, buy socks for the Red Cross, or turn off CNN. And sometimes we've prayed together.
It seems likely that Americans will never feel quite as safe on our own shores again. As pastoral psychotherapists, our job is not to try to turn back the clock or to surgically remove people's feelings. Mostly, as we ourselves reflect on the changed world we live in, we are called to help suffering, frightened people hold onto hope and connection. There's no formula for that, only honest and listening presence.
My thoughts and prayers are with the victims of their tragedy, their loved ones and friends, the rescue workers, and the eyewitnesses, including many of my colleagues in downtown Manhattan.