Interview with Our Fall Conference Presenter, Bonnie Buchele, PhD, CGP, DFAGPA, ABPP
with Lisa Haileab, PhD
I was excited for the opportunity to interview Bonnie Buchele in preparation for our Fall Conference. Here is a preview of our upcoming weekend.
Lisa: MAGPS members are looking forward to you leading us in our Fall conference titled “Trauma of these times: Impact on Therapists and our Groups.” How did you become interested in the conference topic and how do you define, “trauma of these times?”
Bonnie: I became interested in the topic once Lorraine asked me if I would like to be the keynote speaker for the conference. While I was feeling the strain of dealing with my own and my patients’ feelings during these times, once she offered the invitation, it quickly grew clearer that I had been struggling more than I had known, with how to think about and manage my own reactions to the societal and political chaos as well as those of my patients who were bringing their anxious, discouraged and frightened experiences to me in response to the same events. My insight that I was trying to master a situation which was leaving me feeling helpless at times was confirmed when I periodically had trouble getting myself to prepare for the conference. This temporary paralysis was especially frequent when I was preparing for the first plenary during which I talk about a number of the events that have occurred. I would define the trauma of these times as the pervasive feelings of insecurity and anxiety related to survival concerns starting with the United States having its position and status as the undisputed leader of the world challenged; these challenges were coming more and more frequently, internally and externally. The leadership has been unable to provide reassurance and a sense of security that conditions will improve which is frightening because we look to our leaders for a kind of parental wisdom and grounding. Without being able to provide certainty that answers will be forthcoming for the many problems, fragmentation and scapegoating are more frequent. Many subgroups feel misunderstood. Additionally, change is occurring at an increasing speed, fed by the explosion of technological advances. People frequently feel bombarded by media coverage of all that is happening with safe places to talk about it becoming fewer and fewer due to polarization. Longstanding connections with others and institutions often feel unreliable. In short, the world very often these days, feels unsafe. Personally, as I began to understand what was happening, I felt some hope that finding answers would be possible.
Lisa: You were very active in shaping AGPA’s response to the September 11th attacks in NYC, Washington, DC and Pennsylvania. Can you share your reflections on that work and how it informs your view of our experiences today?
Bonnie: Yes, I was active in shaping AGPA’s response to the September 11th attacks. I feel very proud of the work we were able to do starting with the quick, meaningful, short responses right down to the long-term work that followed in many cases. Personally, I was initially terrified, not helped by the fact that my husband was trapped in DC when the attacks occurred. Quickly I felt so grateful that I understood something about the effects of trauma. Believe it or not, at that time most clinicians were relatively unaware of the impact of trauma on human beings because it had been neglected as a subject of study. A colleague and I had been working extensively with people having undergone rape and incest so I had a rudimentary understanding, at least as much as was possible at the time. I knew the basics about what was needed clinically and sat in a position, as President of APA, to utilize what I knew to the best of my ability. I learned a lot. I saw that there was a far wider spectrum of trauma responses than I had previously known. I could see that people experiencing the same events had varying degrees of distress in response, a puzzling reality, the investigation of which eventually led to the finding that the presence of a secure attachment history is a big factor in minimizing long-term damage following the experience of traumatization. I also experienced firsthand the goodness of human beings in ways I would not have imagined. When I flew, terrified with everyone else on the air plane, into New York immediately after it happened, I was surprised and touched by the kindness of those brash New Yorkers and the therapists there- a life lesson: Out of something so terrible can come such good as well. We truly are complicated creatures with all kinds of potential for evil, but also for good.
Lisa: We look forward to you discussing how to “maximize healing forces for everyone.” Can you say something about what you mean and why you are hopeful about what is possible?
Bonnie: My answer to this question relates to the last question. I believe that we all possess the capacity for resilience, healing and being empathic to varying degrees. Mustering these forces is another matter. If we do not believe those capacities are present, however disguised, unique or even hidden, we will not be looking for how to access them. Many studies have now shown that just as important as the severity of the traumatic event, is the importance of the capacity to work through the pain and recover. Terrible things can happen but equally important is our ability to really work them through and move on. Although experiencing a trauma almost always brings pain and suffering, it is a time when the rules, what we have grown to expect as normal, is no longer the case. The world is topsy- turvey. In that suspension of the rules, there usually is also an opportunity that only becomes apparent later. Once the pain lessens, we may be able to put things back together in a better way than they were in the first place!
Lisa: How can therapists be mindful of diversity when working to maximize healing forces for everyone?
Bonnie: Recent and ongoing studies have reaffirmed that a key component in the recovery from trauma is the community in the individual’s life. Within the context of trusting relationships healing is facilitated when we talk about it, create a narrative, have someone bear witness and feel mirrored. How that community can perform that function is based in the culture of the community. As helpers, we do our best when we understand the individual’s culture, accept it, maximize the constructive use of it and be attuned to how it differs from our own rather than intentionally or even inadvertently imposing our culture on the situation. All cultures have ways of listening and supporting but they differ.
Lisa: In the Issue of Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 38:4., “Today’s Bridge Between Psychoanalysis and the Group World,” you speak to both camps of psychoanalysts and group therapists having and “openness” in order to benefit practitioners and patients. How does your identity and experience as both an analyst and group psychotherapist impact your thinking/openness?
Bonnie: At times the experience has been a bit fragmenting. I have felt torn loyalties when psychoanalysis and the group world have been at odds with each other. I suppose my interest in editing this issue has something to do with integrating even further the differing worlds. Having said that, I have benefitted greatly to being open (when I can do it!) to incorporating aspects of the one within the other, i.e. listening for the analysand’s experience of group life in his or her world as well as listening more comprehensively to and diagnosing the difficulties more thoroughly of each individual group member. I also appreciate the limitations of each modality: in a psychoanalysis one never gets to observe the analysand’s impact on others directly and their private experience can be quite at odds with others’ experience. Conversely, in a group one never has the amount of information nor the intensity that can happen within a psychoanalysis. Recently, the latter has been helped a great deal by the neuroscientific evidence that is now available regarding nonverbal communication. On that point, I have become aware of the limitations and constructive aspects of the couch. Sometimes it is very helpful to the work of an analysis when the person sits up and I have access to the nonverbal communication in a way that I do not when they are on the couch. Sometimes the couch is useful when the feelings of shame are strong.
Lisa: In addition to doing two fish bowl demonstration groups, you have said you want to try something a little different on Sunday morning. What are you going to be looking for from our members?
Bonnie: On Sunday morning I want participants to bring situations within their personal or professional lives related to the “trauma of these times” so that we can reflect on and learn from them together in discussion, applying what we have been studying in the two days beforehand.
Lisa: In closing, tell us what you like the best about living and working in Kansas City?
Bonnie: I am a city girl, most comfortable in that environment. I love the European feel to KC even though it is in the Midwest. There is a wealth of good music, art, and food. And there is something very endearing about the sturdiness of people in the Midwest. My family all live in KC as well. I think I would have loved living in DC or NYC, but Kansas City has loads of things that I love with much easier access than is true of the bigger cities.