Profound and enduring stress: ‘I want my old life back’

by Michael Eleff, Psychiatrist

“I want my old life back”

The title of this essay quotes a comment made by our 6-year-old great-niece. Living through the restrictions, losses and anxieties of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have all experienced profound and enduring stresses. Month after month, we have struggled with feelings of helplessness and uncertainty. When will this end? When will we have our old lives back? We do not know. What will September be like? October? 2021?

Reb Nachman of Breslov, (1772-1820),  a famous Jewish sage, said, “It is forbidden to despair.” He himself is said to have lived with depression. Why are we forbidden to despair? I was taught that despairing implies predicting the future, a belief that things will unfold in a certain way. The ability to know what is coming is not given to mere human beings. We are obliged to live with both uncertainty and hope. Even in the dark days of the concentration camps, the possibility of liberation could be sustained and sustaining. We live through the night because we believe there will be morning (not just mourning!).

This crisis, which drags on and seems interminable, will certainly come to an end. We will not return to the world of January 2020. Time moves in only one direction.

The “new” will become “normal.” We will emerge from the pandemic bruised and battered, but we will emerge. Will we have learned and grown from this experience?

That remains to be seen. This we can count on: there will be a future and those of us who remain will have choices to make and options to explore. Our old lives will not return. We will have new lives.

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