It's been a few weeks since the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. As we enter the New Year I find myself somewhere between that trauma and the one that is surely just around the corner. I've been wondering-
If assault weapons serve no purpose other than to wage war, why do some individuals view them as household essentials? Behind all the rhetoric about 2nd amendment rights, I think we're talking about anxious people. Not that there's anything wrong with being anxious. I suspect we'd be a lot better off if we recognized how anxious we really are and stopped pretending it away. That's why I'm going first- to lead by example.
During my training as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst I learned that anxiety sometimes serves a useful purpose. Freud proposed that the the anxiety signal operates as a mental call to arms, mobilizing a variety of responses that serve to protect human beings from the experience of an even greater anxieties that often dog us through life, unwelcome souvenirs of times when we were stuck in situations that were too much to handle by ourselves. Sometimes these responses are in themselves unpleasant (phobias, obsessions, depression). But to the unconscious mind, plagued by childhood fears, they are the lesser evil. We hold on to them, tight. But we do it unconsciously, so we experience such symptoms as holding on to us. We used to have a word for this kind of mental activity- remember "neurosis"?
I have found thinking about anxiety in this way to be very useful, as have many of my patients over the years. Placed in such a context, anxiety becomes less of a threat and more of a compass. This perspective can assist us in the never-ending effort to distinguish between situations that are likely to cause us harm and those we really don't need to worry about quite so much. But with the advent of DSM 3 in 1980, anxiety was reformulated as a "disorder" and placed on a list of public health enemies meant for eradication. A new supply chain world of psychotropic medications was at the ready, and what was previously a compass became just another obstacle that interfered with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which at this point in our history seems to involve denial of all human limitations and the satisfaction of our most unrealistic wishes (eternal youth, for example.)
While psychopharmacology has indeed relieved much suffering for many, along with the drugs has come a reconceptualization of the nature of certain forms of mental suffering that has had the unfortunate effect of discouraging self-reflection and, along with it, reflection about the inner lives of others. The concept of "neurosis" placed anxiety within the context of our own emotional lives, while the reduction of symptoms to a matter of disturbed neurochemistry makes it something alien and extraneous to ourselves. It places "the problem" not in ourselves, but in "our stars." So much for Shakespeare's modern man, and the appreciation that anxiety may be more like a smoke alarm than an infection. When it goes off, maybe the best thing to do is open it up and look inside.
If the embrace of assault weapons serves to regulate the anxiety of certain gun owners, then it is no surprise that any attempt for regulate assault weapons would generate intense anxiety in this very constituency. I expect most of them will tighten their grip as the nation attempts to take control of what is clearly a national epidemic. But perhaps, under such circumstances, a brave soul or two might be moved to take their pulses, count their breaths per minute, cut out the rhetoric and begin to wonder about what they really think is going to happen next. It is probably scaring the hell out of them. Not to worry. There are scads of health professionals who would rather treat worries than bullet wounds. How ironic that the health care field (which exists to support life) is awash in more rules and regulations than anyone can follow, while one is able to buy an assault weapon at a gun show without a prescription.