It was an early morning in sunny Berlin when I received that call.
A friend ranted incomprehensibly about the unexpected collapse of a long relationship. As part of my déformation professionelle I immediately asked, “Do they want to come together or individually?” I am a therapist. “Haven’t you heard the news yet?” my friend replied, “Britain is leaving the EU!” Therapists, too, can have shock reactions.
My tolerant, humorous British friends – my favorite island, where I had studied and laughed, had filed for divorce – not only from me, but from the whole European Union.
Therapists, too, cannot think clearly when in shock. So, I thought, “What have we done to deserve this?” Brussel’s bureaucracy wasn’t my cup of tea, either, but it also meant: open borders, cultural exchange, even free trading and a community that challenges and strengthens its members. How would the lives of the Leavers improve by getting rid of all that? For a moment, the scary thought crossed my mind that my British friends seriously preferred their own company.
Anchorites interest me: they retire from society for a higher purpose.
On Day One after the referendum, it did not occur to me that the shocking decision to leave the EU might just be the unresolved inner conflict that had hit its external scapegoat. An ill-advised referendum used as the democratic outlet for personal frustrations, not for higher purposes. The preposition “re” in referendum points to some form of backward movement, just as the “re” in regression does. But whereas referendum literally means “to carry back” and is associated with direct democracy, regression is a term used to describe a defense mechanism leading to temporary or long-term reversion of the ego (or island) to an earlier stage of development. Sometimes the two go hand-in-hand.
As a therapist with a German-Iranian background, collective rage is not new to me. Defiance might turn into civil disobedience and change for the better. It sometimes turns into revolutions. But all too often, refractory children end up searching for a “strong and stable” hand they can cling to. On rare occasions, and by change in scale from individual to nation, one has seen them falling for men with tiny moustaches, long beards or squirrel-fur wigs. In case Mummy is the biographical missing link, patients can develop dangerous tendencies to choose U-turning ladies with baritone voices and colorful mid-height footwear as leader.
History has taught us that collective dreams can be dangerous and make the dreamers lose sight of vital details. In some cases, ignorance will have to be paid with “Dementia-tax.”
But my couch is not large enough for whole nations. And on that morning, I was more concerned with my own incapacity to remember Britain as I knew it.
Two hours after the call and still in shock, I found myself writing a condolence note, wondering what flowers to buy and where to place them on 70-71 Wilhelmstraße, home to the British Embassy in Central Berlin. Never before, not even in our times of international horror, had I felt an urge to call myself Charlie or to place flowers in front of governmental buildings. On 24th June 2016 I did. Friends don’t just disappear like that. Yet, when I reached the British Embassy in my destitute attempt to offer sincere condolences, I was not allowed to lay down my flowers and words of mourning in front of the British Embassy. My dismal ritual had to be carried out on the other side of the street, on German territory – Brexit in praxis.
Not being able to mourn the loss of a loved one (or island) means not being able to let go. Freud had warned me that not being able to mourn will lead to depression. Not anticipating Brexit, Freud died in London, as one of Britain’s most famous – and welcomed – immigrants and refugees. With Brexit or “EU immigrant problems” in place, his Hampstead home would just be another detached, nice and ordinary British house instead of a National Trust Partner. And his daughter, who was also an “EU immigrant,” would not have set up The Hampstead War Nursery which, by the way, gave children the opportunity to form attachments by providing continuity of relationships, rather than just “voting out.” And last but not least, the planet’s most famous couch would not live in Britain either.
The day after the referendum I phoned a shell-shocked friend who lives in the South of England. He informed me that his fellow countrymen were busy googling “European Union”. Retrospective research follows fake news in referendum campaigns. He knew two exotic Leavers personally: one was his 78-year old aunt, who, after the results came out, only barked: “Well, they should not have allowed anyone over 60 to vote.” Another one was a friend from school who is married to a Greek lady.
How could I possibly explain such awkward behavior to my German colleagues?
In the meantime, Britain’s ruling party had exchanged their great Leavers for a small Remainer. Like any other person faced with a better job, this small Remainer started an amazing sequence of free associations and would not stop fantasizing about “Doing it the hard way.”
Therapists see weird shit happening on their couch. But we usually listen to patients without whole nations witnessing the talking cure, Woody Allen aside.
Shortly after, Britain’s most powerful U-turner started to look for new friends, as people who get promoted do: a trip to Washington and then straight to Istanbul. A scary tough cookie tour, in search of money and love, but “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”
By the time the institution of Prime Minister had shrunk to its strong and stable minimum, I had contacted a British colleague who practices in the North of England. He has experience in treating people my Oxbridge colleagues have never met nor care to get acquainted with. My colleague strongly advised: “Take some time off, get out of your shock and into the stage of anger. Europe is still in denial. Just get real. Democrats must accept the vote of the people. The referendum said ‘Out!’”
“I am less shocked about last year’s referendum but worried about this year’s general election,” I replied while the line ‘What isn’t remembered must be repeated’ crossed my mind.
A year after the referendum I focused less on the 52% who voted “leave” but on the remaining 48% floating in catatonia. Some of them had started to publish articles in German papers, trying to remind their expelled German friends that not all of Britain is xenophobic or prefers tax havens over Mediterranean shipwrecks.
They are right. It is only half of Britain. And that’s exactly why the idea of a collective U-turn is not totally out of the question.
But right now, I see too many 12-month-old Remainers voting for a party that seriously campaigns with sentences such as “A citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere.”
How provincial can one get? What isn´t remembered must be repeated.
Only this time, your “Keep Calm and Carry On” is an “It-will-be-OK-hubris” that will affect generations to come instead of one legislative period only.
My dear tolerant and humorous friends, do not vote for the insignificant Ms. May: it isn`t funny and it’s not tolerant any more. Democrats are allowed to change their opinion. And it is OK to question a referendum, even retrospectively, especially when it used fake news as weapon of mass destruction in its campaign.
Therapists should not talk like that, I know.
I have to admit that I lied as well. I am not a therapist. I am only an artist from Berlin. But I own a couch. Artists are dreamers – my friend from the North of England told me so.
Let me sleep a tiny bit longer, until 8th June. I am enjoying my dream of that gigantic British U-turn, done by yourselves instead of it being done for you by that woman who wants it hard and who lusts for new friends such as Trump and Erdogan.
I neither trust nor like her mantra of “strong and stable.” It is a lullaby-line that has sometimes rocked whole nations to sleep.
But if you only feel strong and stable by keeping your small U-turner, then do so. I want my beloved island to be happy. Perhaps the British Embassy in Berlin will accept my wreath this year. I guess I would try again.
We all go through all sorts of phases, as we all are citizens of the world – not by choice, nor by passport – but as a matter of fact.
© 2017 Shirin Homann-Saadat