by Michaela McLaughlin
In my counseling, I have learned to process and respond to whatever comes or crashes in front of me. My work in self-development as a practitioner is to understand the barely-conscious schemas that affect my processing and responding. I’m interested in slowing down the automatic reactions and understanding the cognitive, emotive and cultural factors that help me interpret my world. Here is one such example:
I called 911 today. It was the second time in my life, other than the jokes I played on the police department (that weren’t funny) when I was in middle school.
The audio from the accident replays in my mind. Loud screech, streeeek, BOOM. And then the smoke billowed up, clouding the scene in a grey and chaotic mess. The smell was distinct. Burnt: rubber, pavement, dreams. Then, there was stillness: I realised I was holding my breath.
I ran across the street to the scene. A classic T-bone crash. Two small cars. None of the passengers moved from their cars. Bent: tyres, car bodies, dreams.
From the black car emerged an older white woman from the driver’s seat and an older white male from back seat, directly behind the driver’s seat. The entire passenger side of the car was the site of greatest destruction: the insides were exposed out. Was it a coincidence that the woman and man were seated on the other side of the car?
From the white car emerged a middle-aged black man. Before totally standing up from his car, he said, ‘She ran the red light’. Why did he feel that he had to immediately blame the woman?
Maybe because he’s black. No, that’s racist to say. Maybe because he’s black he has had to endure more blame, and consequently, has had to play more defence?
The woman looked like a ghost, her face was so white. She was sweating. Her eyes kept closing and opening, like she was in and out of a dizzy state of consciousness – what appeared to me as sure signs of shock. I asked her if she was okay.
‘That was startling’, she replied. That’s an understatement, I thought.
I asked her if she would take a deep breath with me and then we could find a place to sit down. She took a deep breath and said that with her arthritis, it’s hard to sit down. I offered her some juice I had in my backpack, something I always bring with me on long runs. She said that with her diabetes, she can’t have juice or anything with much sugar at this time of the day. This is what I noted: not one, but two physical ailments: arthritis and diabetes. Does a double negative make a positive?
Meanwhile, I turned to the other driver, the black man from the white car. I asked him how he was doing. He was quick to say, ‘Fine. Oh, I’m fine’. ’ I asked him if he felt that he was injured. He looked at his body and said, ‘Nope, I’m just fine’. It seemed like he had his arms crossed. He didn’t because I noticed that there were brown spills across the front of his white shirt. I pointed this out to him and he said, ‘Oh, I was drinking hot chocolate when we crashed and it went all over me’. Was he resistant and short in answering me because he felt guilty for causing the accident? Or was he resistant because he thought that I would blame him for causing the accident?
I went back to the older couple, who were now resting against a tree. They seemed more distressed than the other man. In talking to them, I gained an awareness that their cognitive distress may be more than just shock from the accident. There may be a longer-standing intellectual disability. I asked them if they were related. The woman responded for both herself and the man: ‘Yeah, we’re brother and sister. We live together. Jeff is 62 and I am 64.’ She continued to tell me more about their life story. Jeff nodded along, not saying anything. Their distress clearly diminished as their minds wandered from the accident to their home life.
After a few minutes, I brought their attention back to the accident. I reframed it, saying: ‘You both are really lucky. This accident could have been much worse. You both should feel fortunate that you are both safe and together’.
Then, the next moment changed the entire scene for me. The older lady put her hand over her brother’s hand; they looked each other in the eyes; and the older lady said to her brother, ‘See, everything is going to be okay. We’re just fine’. There was magic – a twinkle communicated in their eyes, a zap of electricity running through their hands and the power of social support that promotes well-being greater than any other factor. That moment was about being held: hands, hearts, dreams.
I asked them if they remembered any of the accident. The lady became distressed again: she remembered that she was dizzy from her doctor’s appointment this morning. She was confused about the lights and the turning lane. She blamed herself. She should have been more careful, she said. Did she blame herself because she knows that she has multiple defining physical and intellectual ‘disabilities’? Does she believe she has disabilities because others have told her she has them? Has she been told in the past that she is not smart enough, not able enough, not worthy enough – and therefore, most deficiencies are attributed to her being?
I felt totally engaged and totally calm during this whole interaction. I felt acutely aware of the sounds, smells, and sights. I felt present to the passengers from both cars. I felt that my ‘lens’ for analysing the situation comes from the work we have done in multicultural class during graduate school psychotherapy training.
Is it ironic that the black man came from the white car? Is it ironic that the white sister and brother came from the black car? Is it a coincidence that both parties represent ‘minoritised communities’? Is it ironic where the power and blame and shame get placed and by whom?
It makes me realise that though the situation appears black and white, it is not. It is more like the mess of gray and chaotic smoke. And, sometimes we need to crash into something to realize that we are all humans: awake, alive, interconnected.
Michaela McLaughlin is pursuing her PhD in Counselling Psychology at the University of Minnesota. To empower and inspire people through movement and art, to help the heart sing and heal and to recover the ability, grace and power that people already possess is Michaela’s reason of being.