“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” - Desmond Tutu
Pandemic Becomes Lifestyle
Our lives these many months have been ruled by the coronavirus pandemic and the enormity of its impact on us as individuals, communities and as a culture that until recently exulted in our power, uniqueness and invincibility. Yet we, like others worldwide, have had inflicted on us unsolicited, unwanted lifestyle changes, and have become steeped in emotional and physical pain with all the suffering one might expect to ensue from these changes.
Our individual and collective losses have been myriad. For many of us our plans, hopes and dreams have been deferred or shattered entirely by devastating illness, death and financial losses arising from unemployment and failed businesses. We have seen a rise in suicide, especially among youths, increased rates of alcohol and substance abuse with a significant rise in deaths due to opioid use, incidents of domestic violence increasing in number, etc. These are the outcomes of social isolation, disruption of support, impediments to accessing care, and financial hardship. We have been overwhelmed by powerlessness, fear, loneliness, grief, hopelessness and anger.
With the advent of vaccines that herald the beginning of the end of this pandemic, the spread of this illness may come under control. However, its impact on emotional, financial and social wellbeing may persist. We remain uncertain, with lack of predictability generating considerable anxiety. To cope, we are having to find ways to adapt.
At first, few among us expected this disease to take on a life of its own while taking lives and disrupting lives on its own terms. Lacking the knowledge and awareness of what lay ahead, we may have welcomed the break imposed by this pandemic from our usual hectic routines with their heavy burdens and seemingly endless demands of work, family, school, community, bills, and countless other responsibilities. Then the reality of what we were facing began to register as the disease rampaged, relentlessly indifferent to the swath of misery and destruction it left in its wake. This break is welcome no longer although it continues nonetheless. We are left with the question, “Now what?” But answers are slow to emerge given the absence of prior experience during most of our lifetimes that would give us knowledge and guidance from which to draw.
Mental health clinicians, like this writer, have been asked to help patients deal with intensifying struggles with alcohol and substance use, interpersonal conflicts within the home and among neighbors, incidents of domestic violence and more. We have been witness to the boredom, disrupted lives, isolation, deferred futures, economic distress, etc. that have given rise to anxiety, depression, anger, irritability, frustration, hopelessness, suicidal ideation, and countless other negative emotional experiences. We have made ourselves available to current, former and new patients to offer treatment when asked. The challenges for us and for the individuals we work with are often overwhelming.
As a licensed psychologist in private practice, I treat individuals, couples and families. I have heard a litany of complaints from patients experiencing emotional distress as they wonder how they can cope with another day of uncertainty as to when, for instance, they will escape the loneliness and tedium of working in isolation without the mental and social stimulation offered by nearby coworkers; college students are wondering what a college experience truly is without on-campus activities or in-person classes; families and/or friends living under one roof are gritting their teeth to keep themselves from speaking out in irritation as they collide in the house; romantic partners, separated by distance, are aware their relationships are foundering from reduced opportunities to spend time together and grow together as a couple; individuals with no one to see and no place to go have given up on self-care activities for lack of purpose. These are a few examples of the sources of distress I hear about daily. However, with them come opportunities to grow and change.
Adaptations Are Made
Human beings are capable of thought and we possess imagination. Situations with no roadmap may force us to harness our creativity and generate new paths forward. To prevent the spread of this virus, restrictions have been imposed that limit our social contact and usual outside activities. That makes this a challenging time for people who thrive on social contact and keeping busy and active. They describe a malaise attributable to the sameness of their daily routines and an absence of options to break up the monotony. They want normalcy restored. Yet, for individuals who normally find themselves depleted by the demands of daily life, this may be a time of extraordinary peace and productivity. Adjustments must be made by many as their “normal,” whatever it had been, is no more. Therein lies a universal truth: from devastating events that force change may come opportunities for individual and collective growth and strength.
We may learn to be flexible as we entertain possibilities we might have rejected or never have imagined and begin to identify alternative ways to connect with people, nature and ourselves. Even more important, and perhaps more satisfying, is the dawning awareness that the process of discovery – the journey - may hold greater value and meaning than the product – the destination – itself. Life is full of possibility. Life is full.
The coronavirus rapidly spread far and wide due to the fast pace and interconnectedness of the modern world. And then the world slowed down due to limitations on travel and activities in general. One wonders whether we want to return to such a frenetic pace of life that forces us to sacrifice savoring the moments we have. Appreciation requires paying attention and reflecting. Out of necessity, we may do less and be surprised to find we enjoy it more. We can give ourselves permission to embrace this change and weave it into a new lifestyle.
This evolution, this choice of embracing, adapting to and creating change may force us to jettison the old ways that have become impractical or impossible. Indeed, the adaptations may come to be welcomed as preferred to the past, with little desire to return to or restore what was lost. In losing control of what was, perhaps we come to see that the control we believed we had was merely an illusion, and the magnitude of the loss smaller than we may have feared. Choosing to embrace these changes and undertake novel actions may, paradoxically, afford us a greater sense of control going forward.
COVID-19 restrictions on social contact have had enormous implications. It has been all too easy to lose touch with those we care about. However, due to reduced contact with our usual network of family, friends, neighbors, associates, etc., comfort may be hard to come by during a time when comfort is desperately sought as we are overwhelmed by negative and painful emotions. How can we laugh, play, celebrate, worship and mourn together? Video platforms provide an imperfect solution due to the absence of touch, the inability to look directly into another’s eyes or be gazed at directly by another because we are instead looking at a screen, lacking cues from body language or the flow of energy we feel in someone’s direct presence. Possibly, old relationships that have historically suffered from lack of proximity and were hard to maintain under normal circumstances may wither entirely. Yet, with fewer activities available to us, and the ready accessibility afforded by video platforms, we have found the motivation and means to bridge physical distance and reconnect with those with whom we have long had little or no contact.
As a culture we are sharing in new ways, perhaps because of our collective isolation, boredom, fear and grief. We may experience a deepening of our emotional connections as an outgrowth of our deliberate efforts to reach out. We are enriched as a result. Now we have physical rather than social distance and will face the challenge of keeping these rekindled connections alive after the restoration of normalcy.
In response to hardship and pain, heroes have emerged. The medical communities that have shared selflessly their time, concern and effort to work with limited resources and great risk to themselves have rallied for us, advocated for us and cared for us in our time of desperate need. The scientific community has done a masterful job of quickly responding to this pandemic by developing vaccines that will hopefully slow the progression of this disease. All the industries in the supply chain making it possible for us to receive those vaccines have worked in coordination on our behalf. In Maryland, Governor Larry Hogan responded to the rise in opioid deaths secondary to this pandemic by creating the Maryland COVID-19 Inter-Agency Overdose Action Plan.
Life Engenders Pain
No one travels this road called life without struggles and challenges. COVID-19 is one of those unique, possibly once in a lifetime – perhaps even, once in a century – events that presents us with such challenges with their associated losses, whether of people, income, health, lifestyle, missed opportunities or peace of mind. We experience sorrow, pain, disappointment, anxiety and other emotions felt and judged as negative. We grieve our individual and aggregate losses but when doing so deliberately, mindfully and nonjudgmentally, observing and accepting rather than fleeing from our thoughts and feelings, the intensity eventually dissipates. Then our experience of those struggles and challenges may be reinterpreted such that they serve as catalysts for growth in strength, resilience and wisdom. We not only consider the present events and our response to them but reflect on who we were and how we lived pre-pandemic. We can determine anew whether what we deemed necessary and valuable remains so or whether it no longer serves us well enough to keep or restore. We may contemplate whether the gains from what we had and did were worth the cost in time, money, effort and emotion.
Pain Promotes Growth
Some people actively embrace change while others may find themselves gradually evolving as they recast problems into ultimately surmountable challenges from which they can take lessons for the future. Patients have told me they have been delving into undeveloped skills and talents to fill time and provide distraction. Patients have dusted off hobby supplies stashed away and reawakened long dormant interests. For example, a woman who loves to knit told me she was given a spinning wheel so she can make her own yarn, and a man has rekindled his fondness for building model cars. A woman who had a history of enjoying playing a musical instrument was given a different instrument by a friend and is learning to play it via online lessons to hone old skills and develop new ones.
Some individuals drop their guard and discover joy and comfort in connecting with others in new and perhaps deeper ways than they had imagined possible. I know a busy young woman in a long-distance relationship with an equally busy man. Under ordinary circumstances their contact was quite limited. Now, with neither having to spend time commuting daily, and both working alone at home, they are in virtual contact throughout each day. Despite the absence of touch, there is a deepening of emotional intimacy between them. A couple in a chronically difficult marriage found new ways to express their needs and feelings and discovered a newfound respect for each other. The weight gain associated with more time to eat and the closure of his gym was the catalyst for one man to buy a spin bike. He was surprised and delighted to find he enjoys using it and has lost weight. These people adapted in response to emotional discomfort and regard the changes they have made as positive and sustainable.
One of life’s greatest sorrows is the suffering we endure when adverse events befall us. One of the greatest joys of being human lies in our unique ability to recognize this pain as an opportunity to learn. Being human means possessing the capacity to reflect on those experiences and transcend pain, paralysis and stagnation into self-awareness and growth.
Dr. Sheri Bellow is a licensed psychologist in practice in Crofton, Maryland.