The Coronavirus pandemic crisis is a very new experience for us. None of us may have experienced something like this in our lifetime. It is affecting everyone globally and so is a shared experience for almost all human beings. Also, it has effects far reaching beyond just one’s health and so in that way even the effects are pervasive and widespread regarding many aspects of our lives. Hence it is affecting everyone in different and many ways. Many people wish they got their ‘old’ lives back soon! So in that way it is something big! It’s a big change. Life as we have known it has changed in many ways.
Interestingly, it is an experience which is rooted in paradoxes. Something unusual happened there. It originated in animals but jumped into humans (humans are also animals, we have to remind ourselves suddenly), yet it broke a barrier of sorts and then it spread like wildfire across continents. However, actually ‘it’ (the virus) cannot move on its own so what carried it (humans) to spread everywhere was our movements and our everyday unselfconscious ways of being in the world as simple as even touching our faces, holding a railing, walking, talking, everything. We now cannot be unselfconscious anymore. So in order to not get infected by the disease caused by the virus and to not spread it to others we have to basically not be our usual selves anymore to a greater degree.
Now, even though this experience is new, us – psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapists – actually make our living by engaging with the ways in which we human beings are so ‘unlike ourselves’ day in and day out. This is our usual engagement every day at work. People come to therapy usually exasperated that even though they are trying so hard at relationships or at work or at being creative yet it’s just not going in the expected direction. Something they had no trouble doing few years earlier, suddenly, is just not happening anymore. It doesn’t make sense! All ways of consciously trying to change our behaviors have failed and so the psychoanalytic therapist looks at and listens to the unconscious mind, one which functions as if as a stranger living within ourselves and we try to speak with that part of us which is manifesting in our actions and our unselfconscious living so pervasively and yet is totally unknown to us in any meaningful way. In a way we work very hard to pay attention to make sense of the daily madness in us as well as the extra-ordinary moments of madness. I can safely say that psychoanalysis is the only mode of enquiry which immerses itself in the paradoxes and madness we live every day and engages with them and therefore makes sense of them until they become parts integrated within ourselves as interesting parts of our own self.
Today, I want to write something, and by doing so, try to speak with some of that madness within us in these times and some of the madness of the times itself. Many experts are talking about mental health and how the pandemic has affected our mental health etc. However, I want to say that while there is a shared aspect to this experience, yet, our engagement with it and our experience of it is through our own unique ways in which we deal with anything in life at all. Everyone imagines and feels things a bit differently than another person and the uniqueness of experience even in experiencing the same event manifests itself most easily when we are unselfconscious – places our mind wanders off to while brushing one’s teeth, while cooking, cleaning, when we are immersed in something and yet our mind is flying and floating everywhere. And also in our dreams!
This article is not about Coronavirus or COVID-19 disease and awareness about the disease but it is only an engagement with our mind’s musings evoked at this time of the pandemic. Many are our usual thoughts and feelings riding on a new train and many of these thoughts and feelings have just newly taken the journey. Let us jump on that train of the wandering mind in these times (even though no trains are actually running and most of us cannot actually wander off anywhere) and see where it takes us.
Anxieties around one’s body/ body as vulnerable or porous
There are many fears that have been evoked in these times about one’s own body’s susceptibility. But our body as understood and experienced by the mind is not just our outer shape or inner organs but also our internal world, the world of the mind.
People are now feeling paranoid with a cough here or a throat itch there. Is it corona? Am I sick? Have I gotten it? On my trip to the market, did I touch the lift with my right hand? Should I sit in the park bench for a moment? What if someone already sat there? A whole train of thoughts and feelings follows a simple cough or itch in throat. The hypervigilance can evoke a sense of challenge and competition – am I taking care enough? It can also accompany a feeling of fighting a losing battle. How much can one keep a track of! ‘No matter what I do something gets touched! Everyone kept saying there is no need to panic but just be careful. Yet, isn’t it time to panic when we have to keep track of every single damn thing we touched including our faces or clothes or hair!’ It can evoke so much helplessness especially if one is more susceptible bodily themselves or living with someone else who is. This can also evoke guilt for not being able to do enough. Old vulnerabilities can become real encounters with a concrete possibility of loss of someone close. Memories of old losses to disease may also be triggered. Most people who have lost someone feel that they couldn’t do enough.
For someone else the challenge can also be an affirmation of their very organized ways. That they thought about everything carefully, can offer a satisfaction for having protected oneself and one’s loved ones – a small success in the face of a large uncertainty. The whole process of cleaning and organising can also become like a ritual for someone. The whole day may go in being involved in this. It may take their mind off some other anxieties, some other unknowns. It can offer small ways of ‘doing something about it’!
Agency is a big deal in the mind. Many psychoanalysts have said that people would rather go mad than feel helpless or sad. Hence to what degree our life offers control in the face of vulnerability makes a lot of difference.
Someone who doesn’t even have the basic resource to protect themselves or their family, no home, no soap, no water, can feel vanquished, give up or give in. One could also totally become in denial of one’s vulnerabilities. It can kick in an unusual sense of what is possible and an unusual sense of defiance of one’s helplessness. Start walking at least towards something more comforting or more resourceful even if it maybe thousands of kilometers away.
Helplessness can also manifest in other ways like when people may find themselves fighting the urge to carry on usual activities especially those linked to some nourishment or resourcefulness, like going to the market, buying food even though there may be enough at home. Food has started feeling precious even to those who have never had to worry about its availability. Is it a hunger for something else? Does one want to hoard nutrition? Feel healthy? More immune? Or does one want to feel more powerful by hoarding resourcefulness in the face of feeling being put in place/ locked down/ stopped by the authorities.
Sometimes our deepest fears can also be actually wishes. There may be those who may find themselves secretly wishing in moments that they get sick and die, may not have to commit suicide, die a natural death, be free of all the pain they have felt for so long, while outwardly experiencing panic about dying. Alternatively, someone may wish someone abusive and more powerful in their lives dies of the disease. Gets poisoned.
Another way vulnerability manifests is when we externalise our troubles in the face of acute sense of overwhelm. One may feel so attacked and persecuted by their own vulnerabilities that they must imagine an attacker in the outer reality. They need to conjure an enemy, a foreigner, an other, who can be an impersonation of all the fears they maybe feeling internally- an effigy they can burn to feel they are protected because they have found the source of the distress, the cause of all worries, an omnipotent enemy, the power of which is equal to one’s own wish of omnipotence- and an unreal wish that the source of all problems is easily locatable outside of themselves and therefore erasable. This too is a ritual to constantly try to ‘burn’ or attack a symbolic or real ‘other’ to keep feeling a sense of comfort in one’s own skin even at the cost of becoming psychopathic, racist or a bigot or even a murderer. There have been cases of people committing suicide out of shame of having to be identified as a carrier of the disease, such is the stigma associated to it and the attack unleashed on those who are feared being ‘contaminated’.
When we think of relationship with body we may also think of people with disabilities, especially those who are living alone may find it very difficult to carry on their usual basic life routines. The disability may feel more acutely a limitation as access to support which may have helped them be independent may not be available. This may make one feel more dependent on others who may not be available.
Those chronically ill or immunocompromised or elderly may very closely have to experience the actual threat of death, even dying alone, should they get the covid-19 and are unable to see their family members in the hospital. They may have to think about and mull over questions about whether life should come to an end at this time and in this way.
For those living alone
Even though some people may have chosen to live alone or perhaps had loss of other partners or companions, or work may have forced them to another city away from their families, nonetheless, living alone brings its own set of independence as well as loneliness. At a time when there is so much anxiety about illness, getting infected or families or loved ones suffering or an impending loss or general vulnerability in the air, one may wish to seek comfort in close relationships but also have to face the starkness of living alone. One may not be able to curl into a hug to feel close, maybe only see friends or family or lovers on a screen or maybe not even that, just a phone call. Lovers who don’t live together may not have the privacy to seek closeness or warmth of that relationship when everyone else maybe living with their families or flatmates. Looking after oneself completely, one’s daily needs, house chores can all feel lonely at such a time with no refuge of sharing some of those responsibilities with someone else when one feels exhausted emotionally or physically. Most may not have access to their house-helps who make basic living easier through their help and offer company on a chatty morning. One may suddenly accept and understand why ‘didi’ does jhadoo pocha so quickly – it is actually a lot of effort! She must get so exhausted too! It is a lot to do all at once.
The quiet may bring in dreams of being super productive but no creative juices are flowing as there are still dishes in the sink to be done. Yet, dealing with the starkness of the outside world, covid news and rising numbers may create much conflict about the quiet of home. How does one function in this time as if everything is normal, one may ask.
For couples, families or flatmates
For some couples it can be a challenging time. Both partners may wish to share comfort as well as fears but ways of dealing with the situation may be different. Previous rhythms may have changed in terms of being at home, working from home and sharing chores which also may have increased due to additional care needed for maintaining sanitization of households and not having any help available due to lockdown. The usual house chore fights may seem to have gotten deeper and more frequent. The division of labor, a fresh question again. Emotional comfort may go out of the window. Everyone has a lot on their plates. You can’t go out for dinner or watch a movie in a theatre and distract yourself from really looking at your relationship issues. Set rhythms and chores are a usual veil to cover some of that but at this time the expectations may be newly emerging for things to be different.
There may be too many people in some households or too little space. All the joint family people are together at home. Too many conflicting needs all at the same time. Children and attending to their anxieties without getting annoyed at them would be a challenge, and yet children would only be able to grasp so much and need help with their own feelings. They need many innovations of activities to keep them and their energies occupied and also make sense of all that is going around them. For adults there may or may not be the possibility to work from home. Privacy to do work maybe not possible. Boredom of not finding anything to occupy oneself may be another issue -too many people but too little to connect! The usual life rhythms sometimes nicely iron out the difficult relational dynamics and unanswered questions about them.
Someone may be pregnant or have had a baby but all family members may not be together to share the joy. Someone else may have a chronic illness and wish for more time from caregivers now that they are at home. Caregivers on the other hand may feel too exhausted with no respite or break.
Flatmates may have to newly figure out who can contribute what. Common spaces would be contended for. Some may even find some comfort away from families in this niche with friends. Others, less lucky ones, may be locked in with difficult dynamics or worse, bullies!
Living in families that don’t get along or dysfunctional families
The lockdown also brings with it a locked up feeling with no way out especially in case where there are difficult relationships already present in the family. This can cause an additional strain on people’s feeling of well being or safety. There have been reports of increase of domestic violence incidents. There maybe children or teenagers too with no relief of school whose parents may be abusive emotionally or physically or verbally. The larger problem of vulnerability of disease maybe nothing in comparison to a chronic abusive situation and not being able to get out. Headaches aplenty, constant beating of heart, finding something to hide behind, sudden loud noises of fights happening, bottles breaking. No respite. No break. Horror of being stuck even more in an already stuck situation. Some may feel so depressed that even thinking of reaching out to someone benevolent or vaguely close may feel like a forgotten source of replenishment. We often forget our resilience or our capacities when in a chronic traumatic situation. We have it… something has held us together, but cannot access it just now. Every stimulus seems excessive, everything is too much, too overwhelming.
This maybe even harder for people whose identities are very different from their families, or people who may not have come out to their families but are in some kind of conflict and yet dependent on them.
About isolation and community participation
Images abound in the news of migrants and other vulnerable sections of the society having to deal with severe circumstances and hunger and pain. There is a helplessness in not being able to do anything about it for those who would like to be able to help.
There may be also families who have recently lost their homes, or belongings in the violence following anti CAA protests and were barely overcoming one crisis when another one hit so hard. The camps for relief work were shut down. Going back to a colony where one faced betrayal and actual persecution may bring unimaginable terrors of multiple levels of vulnerabilities related to survival. Even gods were not merciful enough to wait for another disaster!
Some people and organisations are able to volunteer, yet the numbers are huge and the isolation is bringing up a feeling of being disconnected with the larger community. How do we process this for oneself and be able to offer any contribution? The political scenarios may strike as even more hopeless than they seem otherwise when other aspects of life still feel somewhat functional. A community feeling, gathering, being altruistic is not possible in the usual ways. One has to innovate. Some are able to donate money or other resources. Some may want to work on future capacity buildings but it may feel difficult to be so far and also to be very conflicted about one’s own privilege. How does one be creative in cooking when you know so many people are dying not of the disease but by simply not having any access to resource. While some of this is true any way, otherwise as well, yet one draws from a sense of altruism, some faith of benevolence in a community which can otherwise feel too threatening. Being able to also see resilience offers hope to contribute to it.
Due to the pandemic there are huge economic losses incurred and much more possible in the future. Many people may lose jobs or experience loss in their businesses. The pandemic is bringing in many other losses in its wake due to its nature of preventing movement to contain spread. How does one prepare for so many changes in one’s life?
There are students who will graduate but may not have any jobs. There may be even people who may not be able to graduate or plans of work or academics may get delayed. Being locked up maybe even a respite, briefly, from feeling the pressures of performance, finding new jobs, giving exams and yet the uncertainty of future plans may be very stressful and need some engagement and acceptance about these uncertainties.
Doctors, Nurses and health workers and others who have to be ‘out there’
Doctors are being hailed as gods in these times, yet they have to be at work while most of the country is at home and they have to work in a crisis/disaster mode with very little proper resources available to them. Some gods! And also, they are humans and not devoid of their own usual life struggles of relationships, illnesses, pregnancy, family, love and loss. Amongst all that there maybe wish to withdraw, even fall sick, get respite in the face of so much incoming! Yet, they may also feel guilt for wanting to not be at the front line when their presence can make a difference. Healthworkers also have to face the real fear of being infected or infecting their families. Alongside that they may feel even more hysterical about their own body with such high chances of risk, everyday, to exposure to the virus.
Many senior doctors are also elderly and I have heard from a younger doctor that he fears he may lose some of his teachers in this battle! “Who will teach us”, they ask. Another doctor feels so acutely lack of research and true data. Everyone is busy managing the situation but there is a paucity of scientific attitude and time. Added onto it is even discrimination! Doctors and healthworkers are being treated as the disease itself – unwelcome in their apartment buildings, colonies. How can we expect that someone would put themselves at huge risks and not come back home to any comfort, wear a mask that gives them scars, hold their pee for hours because they have only limited gears available, not have any food and yet feel great enough to keep working to the best of their cognitive capacities despite feeling so uncared for! Some doctors, no wonder, may feel so disillusioned or dissociated that they may just wish for this to be over and not bother about individual bodies because anyways the numbers are so many! It is tough to zoom in to the numbers as people dying including one’s loved ones like parents or teachers and and then zoom out to see casualties, rising to almost infinite! And then what happens to other aspects of life? Can a doctor even have those? These days your only identity is that of a healthcare worker!
Even as I write about different people, and their different experiences, I know many voices may still be left out. I hope more voices get documented and witnessed and articulated even if in a broken way. The reason that it is important to engage with different voices in the society is because each of those are also potentially our voices. Each voice from different walks of life talks about what we are capable of experiencing as human beings. It tells us something more about who we are. If we want to collectively find a strength and our survival also depends on being on the same page about our larger behavior patterns as a species, as this pandemic has shown us in many ways,(even the way lockdowns have impacted the environment in a good way), it is very important to attend to and care for different voices which easily tend to get left out because they bring up difficult questions. It is too much to take in, yes. We like distractions. We seek refuge in forgetting, in denial, in a cup of evening tea in our homes, respite at times, but many times just refuge from feeling too much. It is too much to feel so much. Yet, actually, we do feel so much especially when we are trying to not feel so much! It’s like the virus, the more we want to avoid it, the more it finds its way in our hypervigilance and paranoia and therefore into our minds. When we cannot go out and move away or run away, then we have to face the realities. Sometimes it’s just not possible to be comfortably numb because either we don’t have those respites or our usual ways of distractions have failed because our feelings do need our attention, something is calling out for help, or the circumstances force us to experience the full force of our feelings. In those times it is so much relief to be encouraged to express, be heard, and then find better articulation for things that seemed too much and elusive and that is a source of great resilience because that’s how we learn more! That’s what the crisis is telling us about our human situation on earth.
Those who may find some resonance of their experiences which haven’t found many words yet, may find a way to remind themselves of also parts of themselves which have survived despite themselves. Our answers lie in the most difficult of questions. One more reason people come to psychoanalytic therapy is to get more ‘in touch’ with themselves without going mad (one can say madness is to feel full force of one’s inner world and the most difficult questions but not having any link to our capacity to bear and tolerate that enormity) because the intensity of what we feel alone by ourselves is always much more than what we feel in the presence of someone who bears it with us and preserves in their memory our capacities and questions along with our vulnerabilities. So as a human community, even in a lockdown situation, we should be able to remember ourselves (unheard/untouched/unquestioned parts of ourselves) and unheard and untouched and unquestioned (unengaged) ‘others’ around us even as our minds ask us to forget.
–Ananya Kushwaha ( Psychotherapist at The Psychotherapist Collective)