From panic to peace

When our control mechanisms have been diminished by this pandemic, we have no recourse but to sit with ourselves — and those things that bubble up

BRATTLEBORO — I sat at my desk at work, taking in the breaking news of the Coronavirus and coming to the conclusion that I would need to meet with my supervisor to discuss my taking some time off as I am of the age to be considered at risk of serious complications or even death should I contract it.

I was already one of the only people wearing a mask on the unit at the psychiatric hospital where I work. Because I cannot take the flu shot, I was required to do so as a preventative measure according to policy. This had been a comfort over the previous few weeks, given the news of the rapidly spreading pandemic.

I have always relied on an inner sense, a kind of intuition of when to get out of precarious situations. So I knew the signal when I felt it, when I heard it loud and clear: Make haste. It is time to hightail it out of here.

So I did.

That was a month ago as I write this, and a lot has occurred in the world and the nation - a lot of sickness, a lot of death, a lot of news about discoveries and decisions made by the government at various levels.

But a lot has stopped - suddenly and decisively, like a light switch: click, done, lockdown. No personal contact, or very little, especially face to face. It's like all the cards got thrown up in the air only to come down and land solemnly, then stay put exactly where they lay.

Suddenly, I found myself in a futuristic film from the 1990s. The streets were mostly deserted. Those who were out avoided one another, many wearing masks. Those few open stores required masks and “social distancing,” a term that very quickly has become part of our daily dialogue.

Then there was the experience of standing in line to do grocery shopping. As I stood outside of the Co-op, I couldn't help but think of the film Soylent Green.

I am waiting in line for my Soylent Green wafer, I thought to myself just for my own amusement (laugh release). But there was nothing funny about why we were standing here, keeping our minimum 6 feet from each other. It's a matter of life and death. And not just death; nay, a terrible death - not the way I want to go.

I think of the Woody Allen line, “I'm not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens.” More laugh release; a survival strategy.

So when I get admitted to the Co-op - donning my mask, making my way nervously through the aisles with my shopping list in hand, spending way more than I normally would just in case I get quarantined for some reason - the anxiety is real. It is palpable and pervasive.

* * *

For the first few weeks, I noticed a pattern. For a certain number of days, I would gradually settle in and start to feel OK, adjusting to the new reality. And then, for one reason or another, I would be catapulted to a high level of fear almost instantaneously.

Because even though I had structured my existence so that there would be very little likelihood that the virus could penetrate my self-imposed force field, what if?

What if somehow it got through?

At these times, I could actually observe the phenomenon of fear infiltrating my mind and body - sort of like I imagine the virus itself would. It, the fear, would have to run its course until at some point I would just hit the wall emotionally. And then the only recourse was acceptance.

OK, so maybe I get sick, and maybe I even die. Not a good way to go, I think to myself. But we've got to go somehow. I'm not ready.

But we don't get to choose, do we. Even the important information about final wishes - like that I want to be cremated, like who gets what - kind of falls away.

I've hit the wall of acceptance - or maybe “surrender” is a better word. Some might call it “God's will.”

* * *

And then, an amazing sense of calm would come over me. It let me understand that if I had done everything in my power to protect myself and if I was nonetheless getting this terrible thing and would die, there would be nothing I could do, and certainly worrying and fretting would not change that. If that happens, it will be my time. Or, as my friend Susie says, “We all get invited to come home.”

And then there's the way we behave.

I remember in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, Shirley MacLaine said something to the effect that what we will remember when this is over is how we behaved. I've thought of this idea more than once during this global pandemic, as I've passed people on the street or while I've been waiting in line 6 feet apart, during my brief interactions with others.

I admit to emanating a vibe of “stay back, stay away” that hasn't been overly friendly. And I recognize this as springing from the fear and panic that this virus has caused.

It reminds me that in my early childhood, before I was socialized, I was by nature a misanthrope. I eventually graduated to the title of just plain misfit, but in the beginning I actually really didn't like people. Or maybe since I hadn't yet had any experience with them, I just didn't like the concept of people.

Whatever the case, I shunned them. The message was, “Stay back, stay away.” In a sense, I'm reliving that experience now.

And that, combined with more than the usual isolation, has caused me to reflect on my life in various ways.

* * *

I suspect that many people are similarly reflecting on their lives these days, perhaps more so than usual. In fact, most of the people I talk to say that they are taking stock and processing a lot of internal stuff that is surfacing as a result of our current state of unpredictability, the looming specter of our mortality, and the isolation and lack of normal structure.

Issues and emotions are bubbling up, in a sense, from what might be termed the unconscious psyche - things that we, in normal times, are able to repress or keep at bay by busying ourselves with schedules, social obligations, and the structure that makes up our lives. I am reminded of a quote attributed to Marie-Louise von Franz, Carl Jung's protégé: “Solitude is the friend of the unconscious.”

But even more than just noticing these thoughts and feelings, we are also at this time sort of forced to sit with them. We are, in a sense, meeting our shadows - as a collective.

And in the last few days I have come to see this as a possible silver lining: that we have been forced to reflect on ourselves, our lives, and our relationships to one another as well as our relationships to the planet in general.

There are those who think that our purpose here is no less than to expand consciousness. Perhaps the world crisis of this pandemic is affording us the opportunity to do just that.

Through this experience that looms large, larger than anything that most of us have ever experienced, like a giant shadow moving excruciatingly slowly over the land, we are faced with our own respective shadows. Our internal demons, fears, longings and those things that we, up until now, have managed to relegate to the back burner are visiting us in real time.

The control mechanisms have been diminished by this looming phenomenon, and we have no recourse but to sit with ourselves and those things that bubble up.

* * *

Someone spray painted on a wall in a parking lot in town, “Tell people you love them.” There's been some of that for me. The form it has taken is in reaching out more than usual. And for someone like me, who doesn't tend to pick up the phone much, it doesn't take a whole lot to qualify as “more than usual.”

But I have been inspired to call some people, to connect, to hear their voices. In doing so, I've realized how poignant the sounds of their voices are; how the unique pitch and cadence have a grounding, calming effect on me. Those voices are woven into my life and bring me back to the fundamental essence of who I am, regardless of any changes that have occurred through our respective journeys.

Yes, we say “I love you” at the end of the conversations, but for me there's even more.

There is an acknowledgement that our lives meant something in the context of our relationship to each other - more than what we've become or accomplished or how many experiences we've accumulated, we are meaningful because we are connected.

And our voices, their pitch and cadence, the particular way we say something or we laugh, recall who we really are and what is really important.

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