We are all part of the same vulnerable, highly social human race, psychiatrist reminds us

Michael Eleff MD, Psychiatrist, Winnipeg

As a psychiatrist, I have spent a great deal of time working virtually over the past two months, talking to people about their experiences with the Covid 19 pandemic. Virtually, because my office is closed and will remain closed for who knows how much longer.

(I do not like this new pattern of work. I have spent 44 years relying on seeing, hearing and sensing others in consulting rooms. While the phone and screen are better than nothing, they lack the richness of real, in-person interactions.)

The massive, stressful disruptions, the threats to health, life, work and financial security, all of these are universal. We are frequently reminded that, “We are all in this together.” However, while it is true enough that this terrible crisis exists in everyone’s life, it is also a uniquely personal experience for every one of us.

Each person filters the pandemic through his or her personal history, personality style and present circumstances. An aging survivor Of the Holocaust said, “I feel like it is 1941.” Her fears are not for herself but for her children and grandchildren. A refugee from civil war in Africa said, “I feel like I am in prison (again).” He keeps a Canadian flag in his bedroom, so that when he wakes from a nightmare, it reminds him that he is here and now, not there and then. I encouraged his to go outdoors every single day, tilt his head back, look at the sky and experience the freedom he can lose sight of in a room that is all too similar to a cell.

As each of us confronts mortality, (something we usually try not to think about), the danger associated with this potentially deadly illness stirs up very personalized and individualized reactions. A few people I have spoken to are so heavily invested in their own sense of importance that they simply cannot imagine how the world could go on without them!

Others think more of those they would be leaving behind.

One very reclusive elderly woman joked that the rest of the world is now living the way she has lived for years! She has been locked inside her apartment, having groceries and medications delivered, for a number of years! For others, being shut out of their usual outlets is a terrible loss. One man in his 60s has a longstanding pattern which includes working as a substitute teacher, going to the gym to exercise and “hanging around” a coffeeshop to meet people (especially women!) All three of these doors, the schools, the gym and Tim Horton’s, have been locked for over two months. Is it any wonder that long-standing emotional struggles have flared up for him in the absence of his usual activities?

We are all members of the same vulnerable, highly social human race. Our relationships, safety, security and health are both extremely important to us and always potentially fragile. Generally, many of us rely on the comforting illusion that we will live, work, age and go forward in the context of our connections with family, friends and acquaintances, in a reasonably reliable and predictable world. When these illusions are shattered by events such as the current world-wide crisis, we are forced to come face-to-face with just how vulnerable we are. We react to this challenge as unique individuals, each in highly personal and specific ways. The interplay between the universal and the personal is more than just an interesting aspect of the way the pandemic is disrupting our lives. It is an important part of understanding ourselves and each other as we deal with the present-day reality.

Is there anything in this that might help us now, as we continue to deal with the feelings of uncertainty and helplessness the pandemic stirs up?  We might remind ourselves and each other about the extraordinary strength and resilience of the human spirit. As I have come to know people who have lived through extremely traumatic experiences, such as the holocaust, wars, torture and persecution, the most striking thing is not that terrible life events are painful and disruptive. It is far more remarkable that we manage to live through such events and go forward in our lives, as individuals, families and communities. We will do so this time too.

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