There is no definitely normal reaction to abnormal circumstances.
In the current era of a Trump presidency, I find myself asking, what is insanity?
Is insanity being a black man in America fearing persecution from strangers and deducing that if the world is against him it must be the government? Is insanity being Muslim (or Mexican) and believing that those around you wish you gone, or worse, dead? Is insanity being poor and hopeless and believing the rich and powerful when they say they want to help you? Is insanity a woman wondering if she owes men her body whether they ask or not? Is insanity being married to the same gender and wondering every second if someone will come knocking at your door to tell you your marriage never counted? Is insanity believing you can become the most powerful person on Earth without any qualifications?
What if you asked these questions a year ago? What about a year from now?
This is not about who voted for whom or party affiliation. It is about our current reality; or better yet, the difficulty in even being able to comprehend just what reality even is. Since Trump was elected president, hate crimes have risen more than 20 percent with an apparent “horrifying increase in Muslim hate.” Kids are actually quoting the president of the United States to bully their peers, taunting them with threats of deportation and chants of Trump. Women, who already experience sexual assault at an alarming rate, are now being subjected to threats using the president’s own words.
The threat is only amplified for those who sit at the intersection of racial, religious, gender, and sexual minority status. What happens when these marginalized, minority, traumatized individuals express their sense of overwhelm and terror at being persecuted by our government and society at large? What happens when society at large is the perpetrator of individual suffering?
Leading figures in mental health would have us believe we can answer these questions by using math; that the location of this thing called insanity lies in a precise area of the brain that can be eliminated or altered chemically. What might we calculate to locate this precise area and how would numbers help us get there? Would we use fancy statistics and complicated formulas to quantify a threshold of racism located in the hate part of the brain? Like x + y = xenophobia? Or instead perhaps, a threshold of fear that is not amenable to manipulation and displacement onto innocent others? Would we say murderous rage is located in the primitive brain and then allocate a numerical code to such rage that is directed at Muslims versus a white neighbor, with the latter equaling immediate extraction? In other words, rage against Muslims is patriotic (maybe earning a number 2) while the same against a white family man is a sure sign of mental illness (an automatic number 10). Right?
Trauma is not about events that are horrible. Most of us have experienced traumatic events in our lifetime. Trauma is about impact and relationships. Trauma is not about particular events as much as it is about justice, kinship, and action. A woman who is sexually assaulted may not become traumatized if she finds that others can hear her story, respond to her pain, and help her to feel safe in the world again. A woman who is ignored, disbelieved, and/or finds her abuser to be given accolades and power is.
Let’s not forget that Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct from a number of women, yet he was still elected president of the United States. This is trauma.
Who is insane then? The woman who finds demons in every corner? Or the people who mock her and admire the man for his strength and charm? Is there a mathematical formula for that?
People who suffer need hope. We all have a need to believe that justice exists and that the authority figures in groups we identify with are good and helpful. How many of us respond to the horrors of the world by saying, “It isn’t that bad,” or “If so and so just did something,” or “It’s their own fault”? How many say “If you’re good, honest, and kind to others everything will turn out OK”?
It is unbearable to consider the possibility that it is that bad, it is that unfair and that there is nothing one can do. It might lead to being shut down, giving up, even contemplating death. But what about when the bully wins?
Which of these responses might be indicative of insanity? Can we find the answer in the brain? Of which individual do we look? X + y = what’s the point?
And what happens when one feels helpless, oppressed, unheard, abandoned, and afraid? Does that person become a bully too? Does the cycle of trauma repeat itself? Does the trauma spread like a virus infecting all who are vulnerable?
Insanity is often the result of chronic oppression, trauma, and a sense of injustice and hopelessness. Is it possible we are in the midst of a collective psychosis? Forgetting our past, ignoring reality, jumping to conclusions, seeing the world through extremes, fearing persecution from those who could care less about you and personalizing that which is not…these are all signs of “severe mental illness.”
So I ask again, what is insanity?
But then, one may also see that madness so often can be a process of transformation. It can lead to a rebirth of new realms never before dreamed of. Is it possible that we have entered the cocoon stage and will emerge the butterfly humanity has always promised to be? Might we have hope despite the dark clouds that form over us now? Or am I insane for even asking?
Noel Hunter is a clinical psychologist based in New York.