In a recent poll, 70% of Americans agreed with the statement: “It’s time we accept that Covid is here to stay and we just need to get on with our lives.” New York Times writer Charles Blow cites this in last Sunday’s column, and goes on to say, “The number of lives taken by Covid in this country alone – north of 900,000 – is almost unfathomable. But, somehow the public has absorbed and reckoned with it in some way. We have taken on a Darwinian sensibility about it all, accepting it as sudden thinning of a herd, a form of natural selection. It is both sad and stunning.”
I’m not sure I agree with Blow’s take on the poll results. To me, they speak of denial rather than acceptance, in the same way that anyone grieving a loss has experienced those well-meaning folks who say, “it’s been three months (or six, or twelve), isn’t it time to move on?” Americans as a society don’t deal with death very well, it makes us uncomfortable, and as a result we don’t allow ourselves to grieve. Instead, we tell ourselves and each other, “move on.”
But just as most people are profoundly affected by the death of a loved one, and find it difficult to move on, it seems to me that we as a society have been profoundly affected by the events of the last two years – either caused by the pandemic or resulting from its politicization – and as a result, we are really struggling to reconcile what our eyes and ears tell us is true with what our minds want to believe, and with what our hearts are able to absorb.
Our minds want to believe that life is fair, that we live in a just society, and that if we “do the right thing,” we will be rewarded with a happy and successful life. Isn’t that what we were told, by parents, teachers, or other well-meaning adults (who also wanted to believe)? How do we reconcile these beliefs with what we have experienced?
The unfairness of who the virus’s victims have been: young people, parents of young children, healthcare providers, adults in their prime, beloved grandparents; the injustice of access to costly treatment options being a function of wealth, status, and race; the surges of contagion and hospitalization being driven by those who don’t do the right thing, who refuse to mask up or get vaccinated; and finally, the shock of realizing that even though you did everything right – masking, sanitizing, quarantining, getting vaccinated, social distancing, depriving yourself of life’s pleasures – still, you came down with the virus anyway. How do we make sense of it all?
The answer for many people seems to be, “move on.” In other words, just ignore what we’ve seen, stuff our emotions, numb out with more TV, social media, shopping, drinking or drug use, and pretend that we’re fine, totally fine. Is that what “normalcy” looks like? To me, that looks like delusional thinking and denial.
Denial, as I often tell my patients, is a normal defense mechanism, and as such, has a protective function, which is to cushion us from the full impact of a grief or trauma too big to bear. Most children and many adults will instinctively move into “magical thinking” following a loss or a traumatic event, where one part of the mind does know what has happened, but another part acts as if everything is perfectly okay. I think this may be what is occurring for many people.
Last spring people were talking about “languishing,” from an article by the organizational psychologist Adam Grant, that described what I and many others were feeling then – “a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.” Indeed, Grant seemed to capture the zeitgeist of the moment, however, that was a very different moment than the one we’re in today.
There was a guest essay in Sunday’s NYT, by executive coach Brad Stulberg, who references Grant’s article, and has this to say: “But now, nearly a year later, as with just about everything related to Covid, we’re sick of languishing too. We want to feel motivated, and to get unstuck. The question, of course, is: How?”
Yes. I have been wanting to feel motivated and to get unstuck, for months now. At first I thought maybe I was still “languishing,” but actually I don’t think that’s what’s happening, for me, or for most of us. I believe we are grieving, whether we know it or not. Whether or not in denial, we are numb, but not from “numbing out,” rather from the shock of recognizing that the losses we’ve experienced aren’t just a bad dream that we can awaken from.
We are also angry, perhaps very angry, yet without a clearly identifiable person or cause to direct our anger toward, just like what happens when a loved one dies. We may engage in bargaining, promising to be a better person or devote ourselves to a noble cause if we can just be done with this stupid virus, and feel happy again. And many of us have fallen into depression over the past year, as so often happens after a loss.
These stages of grief, familiar to most of us, were first described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in her classic book, On Death and Dying. As I’ve discussed with many of my patients, the stages do not occur in a linear way, like chapters in a book, but rather as amorphous feeling states that we go in and out of over time, usually a long time, longer than we expect or want. We can experience all of them – denial, anger, bargaining, depression – at the same time, even as we have moments, days, or weeks of feeling relatively calm and “normal.” That’s what grief looks like. Doesn’t that seem a lot like what we’re experiencing today?
There’s another stage of grief that Kubler-Ross identified, which because she listed it last, we tend to assume is the final stage: acceptance. Actually, acceptance comes and goes just like the other stages, though it does tend to grow over time as the reality of our loss(es) sinks in. Some people have the mistaken belief that acceptance means “I’m A-okay with what happened, and I’m good to go now,” in other words, moving on. However, that’s not what Kubler-Ross meant, as she was really writing about the experience of the person who is dying, coming to a place of peace and acceptance of their fate. Circle of life, and all.
Acceptance, for the loved ones who remain living, is actually a starting point, rather than an end to grief. As David Kessler, a student of Kubler-Ross and author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, writes, “meaning is not in the death itself, or in how they died, but rather it’s what is in us afterward.” The process of grieving can be transformational. It has the potential to transform us into a wiser and more compassionate human being, or it can leave us bitter and uncaring. Which path will you choose? Kessler reminds us, “we can’t heal what we don’t feel.”
I believe that it is going to take years for most of us, both individually and collectively, to truly make sense of what we’ve lost during this pandemic, and come to an understanding of how that loss has transformed our lives and our world. We will be making progress when we can acknowledge the enormity of our losses, and start talking about how we’ve been affected.
A letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle caught my eye yesterday morning, as I was reading the paper over breakfast. Unlike most letters to the editor, it reads like a poem, and I quote it in its entirety here, having received permission from the author, because she sums up my thoughts and feelings more eloquently than I can:
An Open Letter to my fellow Americans
“Let’s move on,” everyone says
But, there is no where else to go
This illusion of movement to a future promised land,
just beyond the horizon of inconveniences
“Let’s get on with our lives,” you say
Have you been asleep all this time?
Haven’t we all been living our lives through the mess, the sorrows, the death and disease? What is this life you’re so anxious to get on with?
Will it look so much different than the now-moment you’re in,
that you proclaim so loudly in my ear and make such a fuss,
so I can understand what you’ve given up?
Truth is, your life will go on looking much the same
Many of you haven’t given up all that much
The illusion of normalcy, whatever that is
The luxury of not hearing about one million dead Americans
The permission to stop caring
It’s not easy, with one’s hearts and eyes open to a painful truth
But it’s not all bad
Because we are here
And that means we’re alive
Breathing, beating, dancing alive
Every morning a song
Every evening a prayer
This is our lives
The unbearable weight of being here.
(Alicia Parker, MFT)Learn More
Well, we’ve made it to the end of 2021 – what a weird and wearying year it’s been. A year of “wait and see,” of plans made, changed, cancelled, then made and changed or cancelled all over again. It’s been challenging to live with so much uncertainty, hasn’t it?
As a trauma counselor, I’m familiar with the emotional numbing that can happen when the nervous system is bombarded with threats to one’s well-being; lately I’m seeing this not only in many clients, especially the educators and healthcare professionals, who have dealt with the worst of it, but a bit in everyone, myself included, as we are all bombarded with threats to our whole society’s well-being, which I shall not enumerate here – no doubt you are well aware.
This is also the time of year that people who are prone to seasonal depression, like me and some of my clients, may struggle even without a pandemic. It’s been hard to sort out what part may be SAD (seasonal affective disorder), triggered by the loss of sunlight, versus normal sadness about all of the pandemic-related losses we’ve witnessed or experienced.
And yet there was much to be grateful for this past year, in my life and I hope in yours. First, I was among the first to be vaccinated, and now I’m boosted too, and so far have avoided getting the virus. The same is true for most of the people I know. With the vaccines and boosters have also come new treatments for those who do get COVID, so that even as we are dealing with a new, more contagious variant right now, the chances of getting seriously ill or dying from it have been dramatically reduced.
Second, the world has opened up again. It’s hard to even put into words how nourishing it was to be able to return to live music performances this summer and fall, in venues where I felt safe because proof of vaccination and masking were required. I’ve heard similar feelings from many others. Support for the performing arts has never been stronger. And while some events got cancelled recently, and some holiday plans changed due to the virus or the crazy weather, still the stores and restaurants remain open, and judging from the full parking lots at the shopping mall across from my office, business is good!
After last year’s lockdowns, shutdowns, and other deprivations, our gratitude for what we have grew.
We learned to appreciate what’s most important, and for most of us, being able to get together in-person with at least small groups of family or friends is top of the list. If we can just do that, we’re okay. We didn’t miss the commute to work, or long days in the office, and we learned that an awful lot of jobs can be done just as well remotely. Even, apparently, psychotherapy. While I still prefer seeing clients in person, I learned that for some clients, a Zoom or phone session is actually preferable.
And I never thought I’d say this, but when our neighborhood pool re-opened in May, for the first time in over a year, I couldn’t wait to get up at dawn to plunge into a cold body of water! I’ve learned how important my morning lap swimming is to my overall well-being. To paraphrase an old saying, perhaps a pandemic is the crucible in which all life’s lessons can be learned. What new insights or life lessons have you gained in the past year? And how would you like to apply them, going forward?
“Come, look up with kindness yet,
For even solace can be sourced from sorrow.
We remember, not just for the sake of yesterday,
But to take on tomorrow.”
(from New Day’s Lyric, by Amanda Gorman, published in the SF Chronicle, 12/31/21)Learn More
Before there were vaccines for COVID-19, all we had were face masks, sanitizer, and social distancing to keep ourselves safe. Even though it was a scary time, there was a feeling of unity or solidarity that some likened to how it was during WWII, because we were all making sacrifices for the sake of everyone’s survival. (And even though many people died from COVID, did you notice that hardly anyone got the flu last year, or even the common cold?)
Then the vaccines arrived, and as the first group got their shots while the rest waited their turn (and as some shameless folks cut the line) we began to see an interesting phenomenon: people who discarded their masks like they were the crutches of the newly saved at a revival meeting – “I’ve been vaccinated, now I’m saved from this virus, hallelujah!” – and suddenly it all got a lot more complicated. We’re still trying to figure it out.
Not only are there ever-changing rules about when and where face coverings are still required, but we also have to sort out a whole new social etiquette of mask wearing. What do we do when I’m fully vaccinated but you’re only partially? What if half the family has been vaccinated but the other half is still not eligible? Is it okay to ask if someone is vaccinated? And if we’re all sitting outdoors to eat does vaccination status even matter?
With these new rules of etiquette came a new version of mask shaming. Last year it was the people not wearing masks who were publicly shamed. Today, it’s flipped: people who have shed their masks after vaccination are challenging their friends or relatives who continue to wear them, saying “really, why?” when they don’t mean it as a question but rather a put-down.
It’s unfortunate that mask-wearing, like everything about COVID-19, has become politicized. Choosing to wear a face mask, or not, has become a new form of virtue signaling, telling the world what political party you belong to, what news feeds you subscribe to, what cultural or ethnic group you identify with, whether you’re a rule-follower or an independent thinker.
What people seem to forget is that this pandemic is a public health emergency, and that mask wearing, like vaccinations, has one purpose only: to protect us, and especially the vulnerable among us, from serious illness, hospitalization, or death. The COVID-19 virus doesn’t care whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, what your skin color is or how much money you have. The virus doesn’t care what you believe, whether you’re a kind person or a sociopath. It just wants to keep itself alive by infecting as many of us as possible, while replicating and mutating as fast as it can. (And as we’ve seen, vaccination does not confer immunity, so you can still become infected, as well as transmit the virus to others.)
There are many among us who are vulnerable, or live with someone who is. Children and the elderly, of course, also pregnant women, but what about the many young or middle-aged adults who have a chronic illness or a compromised immune system? They are advised to continue wearing masks after vaccination, and yet, because they have an invisible illness, you can’t tell by looking that they’re in a high-risk group.
It is to help protect these people that I continue to mask up in public, but also to protect myself, even though I’m fully vaccinated. To me, wearing a face mask is a simple, inexpensive way to fight this coronavirus and support the overall health of the community.Learn More
Just as we were beginning to feel better this summer – because once again we could dine in restaurants, attend sporting events and outdoor concerts, hug friends, visit grandchildren and grandparents, and even travel – now we’ve been knocked back down by the Delta variant surge. Here we go again. Only this time it feels much worse. Why is that?
One of the worst parts of this ongoing pandemic has been the way it’s caused disconnection from so much that’s important in life: our loved ones, both near and far away; our regular social interactions within our communities; the activities and pastimes that bring us pleasure; and our ability to make plans for the future. Disconnection from what gives life meaning leads to feelings of isolation, loneliness, anger, hopelessness and despair.
The COVID-19 virus has caused illness and death for an astonishing number of Americans, and its impact on our mental health has been nearly as dire. The data are in: rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicidal thinking increased dramatically in 2020 as compared with previous years. According to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 40% of adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in 2020 and early 2021, as compared with 10% in 2019. Young adults report even higher rates of anxiety and depressive symptoms, as much as 63% according to CDC data from June 2020. Rates of substance use/abuse and suicidal thoughts also increased significantly for all adults during this time, double among young adults.
The explanation for these data seems obvious. At the beginning of the pandemic, we were dealing with fear of a deadly virus, not even knowing how it was transmitted or how contagious it was. Then we experienced shock, numbness, and grief as case rates and death rates kept rising, as people we knew, our loved ones, or we ourselves came down with it. On top of that were the economic effects of so many jobs lost, as well as so much uncertainty about the future. Of course we were anxious and depressed, and is it any surprise that many of us sought solace in alcohol, marijuana, and other substances, including food?
Yet over the course of the past year and a half we’ve learned to cope, adjust, find creative ways to connect with people and participate in activities online. Zoom has become our lifeline. Still for most of us, that’s simply not enough. We craved physical connection, whether hugs or just being in each others’ presence. There’s a powerful feeling of joy that comes from sharing pleasurable activities in a group (see Adam Grant’s NYT article on collective effervescence).
As vaccines became available early this year, we started feeling hopeful. By this summer, most of us were fully vaccinated, so we began to resume some normal activities. We had a taste of what it felt like, and that’s when the enormity of our deprivation over the past year really hit home. The psychological effect of having something and then having it taken away is much worse than never having had it in the first place. This is one of the reasons why it feels so much worse now. We’re grieving our collective loss and trauma.
Another reason: we now know what we didn’t know at the beginning, how to stop this virus in its tracks. Vaccines, masking, and social distancing have all been proven to work. That’s why many people are angry now. This didn’t have to happen, if everyone had just done what they were supposed to do and got the vaccine, while continuing to mask up for awhile longer. Your “individual freedom” to not mask or get vaccinated has taken away my right to move freely and feel safe in my own community. Vaccine hesitancy has become the new drunk driving.
One more important reason for our current mood: nobody likes to go backward after making progress, or lose ground in a fight – psychologically it sucks. Exhibit A: Afghanistan. Exhibit B: Vietnam. In the year-long battle against the COVID-19 virus, more American lives were lost than in both of those 20-year occupations combined, but this spring we finally had effective weapons to fight back (the vaccines) and both the scientists as well as our government were telling us we were winning the war. Then suddenly this summer, we went backward. There’s a collective sense of failure. Is it any wonder we’re all in a bad mood this August?
What to do? If we look at the science of happiness, it’s all about connection, and isn’t that exactly what our experience this spring and early summer demonstrated? So the answer is clear: we must not allow this latest surge of COVID cases to send us back into isolation again. Instead we must forge ahead, fully vaccinated and masked, hand sanitizer at the ready, not being foolhardy but not giving in to fear or despair. This is the definition of courage.
We can remind ourselves that we are definitely not as bad off as we were a year ago, that progress is being made, and that sometimes taking a step back is necessary to regain our strength and balance before we plunge back into the fight. We can remember to breathe. And we can offer a wave, an elbow bump, and a big smize to each other with our eyes, because like it or not, we truly are all in this together!Learn More
Today marks the one year anniversary of the day the San Francisco Bay Area region shut down, due to the COVID-19 virus epidemic that had been declared a pandemic just days earlier. Do you remember where you were that day?
I had left my office the previous Friday intending to return that Monday, but over the weekend had followed the rapidly changing news on the virus, and by Sunday began notifying my clients of an immediate move to telehealth, to help “flatten the curve” of the virus spread. I remember saying, “I’m no longer confident that using hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes is sufficient.” Back then we thought the virus was mainly transmitted on surfaces. Many of us didn’t even wear masks then, can you believe it?
So when the announcement to shelter-in-place came from the county health officers, I was at home. When I look at my desk calendar for that week, I see lots of cancelled appointments, and I remember scrambling to set up so I could do video sessions. The ballet performance I’d been looking forward to was cancelled, so instead I watched the Mr Rogers movie with Tom Hanks. And I still have the list I made of all of the meals I could prepare with the food I had on hand, starting with some healthy, well-balanced ones, and ending with canned soup and rice.
“Three weeks,” they told us, “we’ll need to shelter-in-place for about three weeks to get this thing under control.” I figured I probably had enough food to last, and I wasn’t even worried about toilet paper. It was kind of an adventure!
My how things have changed since then. As you look back on the past year, how would you describe it? As a lost year? A year of losses? Or a year of feeling lost? Has it been a year of disengagement, disconnection, and disorientation? A year of reckoning? Maybe a year of crises and opportunities? It’s been all of that, and more. For me, the one word that captures it best is “limbo.” We’ve been living in limbo.
The non-religious definition of limbo is “an uncertain situation that you cannot control and in which there is no progress or improvement,” (the Cambridge English dictionary); and “in a forgotten or ignored place, state, or situation” (Merriam-Webster). That sounds about right.
Nobody likes being in limbo, because we don’t like uncertainty, or being forgotten or ignored, or having no control over the situation we’re in. But I always remember something I learned many years ago, from a former Mills College English professor turned human development consultant, William Bridges: limbo is where life’s real lessons are learned.
In Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, first published in 1980, Bridges explained that every life transition follows a similar trajectory: “endings are the first phase of transition. The second phase is a time of lostness and emptiness before ‘life’ resumes an intelligible pattern and direction, while the third phase is that of beginning anew.”
We can recognize limbo as that time of lostness and emptiness, though Bridges had another term for it: “the neutral zone,” first described by Arnold van Gennep, a Dutch anthropologist from the early the 20th century who studied traditional societies’ rites of passage. In these rites of passage, first the person or group was separated from the familiar social context, then they experienced a period of isolation, “a no man’s land between the old way of being and the new,” and finally, “when the intended inner changes had taken place, the person or group was. . . re-integrated into the social order on a new basis.”
Bridges explained that in modern society, when we lose a job, a relationship, or move away from home, and we feel lonely and lost, it’s all too common to dwell on what we’ve lost, while anxiously seeking out the next job, relationship or community. We focus on the ending, and the new beginning, without seeing any value to the inbetween, limbo-land. But it turns out we actually need a time of enforced isolation and nothingness to reflect on what we’ve lost, and explore who we are in its absence, in order to experience personal growth. It is a time to prepare and better ourselves for the next chapter of our lives.
If this doesn’t quite make sense to you, think about what you’ve observed when someone doesn’t spend any time in the neutral zone, for example, hopping from one relationship immediately into the next: isn’t it true that they usually end up repeating the same unhealthy or unhelpful patterns? That’s because they haven’t learned any lessons from their experience.
I’ll end my discussion of Bridges’ book with this quote from it: “The neutral zone provides access to an angle of vision on life that one can get nowhere else. And it is a succession of such views over a lifetime that produces wisdom.”
Can you apply these ideas to what you’ve experienced over this past year? Can you see that while you might never have chosen to live such a strangely isolated and restricted life, you have nevertheless found some benefits to it? Has it given you a new perspective, on life or yourself? What lessons have you learned from this year of living in limbo?
(All quotes from the 1991 paperback edition of Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, by William Bridges, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.)Learn More