The rescue of 33 Chilean miners trapped more than 2,000 feet underground, in sweltering conditions, for 68 days, will almost certainly release a cauldron of emotions inside them that were contained by the walls of the mine and the imperative that they stay unified, keep themselves “buttoned up” emotionally or descend into chaos, or even cannibalism.
Catastrophes like the one that left the miners at the edge of life and death for more than two months have a way of purifying the agendas of individuals and groups. They do not—as might be assumed—promote dissension, disruption and anarchy. They promote a ceding of individual agendas to that of the group, in order to optimize each person’s chances of making it to safety and not be labeled as a problem by the others. The hostages of gunmen do not squabble amongst themselves; they disappear into a single group persona. Flood ravaged communities do not (although random acts of violence certainly occur) disintegrate into savagery; they stay remarkably well-focused on maintaining vital services, tending to the sick and planning to rebuild.
It would be highly unusual for the miners to express their outrage at their prior working conditions, or their disdain for one another, or their thirst for fame or money, while trapped. Nor would they be likely to air—or, perhaps, even admit to themselves—the ways in which their near-death experiences may have made them doubt their marriages or question their friendships. They would be loathe, while underground, to really dwell on the internal panic it is to wonder whether they might be buried alive.
Now, all that anger and all those doubts and all that fear and all those needs are about to come to the surface. For a time, they may still be contained by the crush of attention about to be bestowed upon them. But they will not be contained forever.
Psychologists working with the 33 miners and their families would be wise to worry that the deepest of emotions these miners feel will emerge from them without warning, spawning divorces, violence, terrible despondency, panic attacks a day or a month or two years from now, plays for celebrity that fall short and lead to suicide, addiction to alcohol and illicit drugs and gambling, wild allegations leveled by one miner against another, ceaseless litigation—anything to avoid the ultimate realization that life is fleeting and can end in an instant, without notice, with no escape.
These 33, who will again walk the face of the earth, are just as subject to the laws of psychological gravity as you or I. The truth always wins. It will take all the skill of the very best mental health professionals available to allow a gradual release of the molten, churning reservoirs of emotion about to emerge from the mine. It must occur—perhaps not today, or next week, but in time. Those who love these men and who care for them would be much better off, as would the men themselves, to expect such energy, rather than to be blindsided by it.
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.