“Everybody’s anxious,” my friend messaged. “Everybody’s anxious.” It sounds true, I know. But it isn’t true. At least five of my hyper-anxious psychotherapy patients have been miraculously calmed by the whole planet acting out their inner drama on their behalf.
“I feel weird for not being in a panic. Maybe it’s coming? Maybe I’m numb but it will hit me later?” They are in a bit of a panic about not being in a panic. But the fact is, they’ve been proved right – the world is a dangerous and hostile place where death lurks mysteriously around every corner. And now that the planet has finally heard their hyper-anxious message, they can completely relax. “I am cocooned and I think I’ll stay like this even when it’s over,” a patient said to me yesterday. Some people who always suffer from chronic anxiety, whatever the political, virological or socio-economic weather, feel they have at last been issued the permission they’ve been seeking all their lives – relax, there’s really nothing you can do about it.
At The Mind Field we had a meeting of all the therapists to discuss the issues around Coronavirus and how to deal with everyone talking a) about the same issue and b) about something in which we too are personally involved. But, surprisingly, my experience has been that fear of the virus has come up very little with patients in the past two weeks. What has happened is that things in general have been pulled into very sharp focus – those in bad relationships are having to confront that in quarantine, people are leaving countries they’ve called home for countries of origin they didn’t miss, emotional life seems to be distilled down to an essence in which only the fundamentals remain.
Even in psychotherapy it feels as if all the candy floss people whip up to mask what’s really going on (the stick in this, admittedly not brilliant, analogy) is dropping away. A patient who couldn’t face lock-down with her abuser finally left, another who has spent five years unable to leave a punishing job that took the role of an abusive relationship for a quieter family life in Turkey has taken the family to quarantine by the sea in Turkey. Another workaholic, consumed by a very toxic job, took the last flight out of a war zone to find herself with her beloved but neglected boyfriend in the German countryside. A development worker about to leave for Western Europe realised in an epiphany that his home was now here in Beirut and he would stay (after years of fretful indecision). Enforced stillness makes us realise where and with whom we would most like to be still (even when this is unachievable – I miss you!).
But the quarantine has granted us another valuable permission – we’re allowed not to be coping. We’re suddenly allowed to say we’re anxious, we’re struggling, we’re bored, we’re lonely. We might have felt, no, we did feel, all these things before, but now all the ‘reach out’ messages of therapy, helplines and all mental health providers has been completely de-stigmatised. We’re all suddenly finding it’s allowed to reach out and say things we were once embarrassed to say – ‘I miss you,’ ‘I love you,’ ‘I can’t bear this,’ ‘I’m really scared.’
Last night in the bath (sorry, Elvin) I watched a live violin concert by Elvin Ganiyev on Instagram given from his sitting room (in Turkey, I think?). Ordinarily, you might pay upwards of $100 to hear Ganiyev play, but now he’s breaking our hearts for free, chatting, waving and smiling, in jeans, trainers and a setting so intimate it’s almost liver than live. I’m deep in the Italian countryside where the birdsong is deafening and the blossom is out and every day people send me hilarious memes, videos and songs, my own children (well, I say children….they are 19 and 21) are playing their instruments and posting videos of themselves playing, as are all of their friends from music school. Every Thursday and Sunday at 6pm we go out onto the balcony or into the garden to play and sing with the rest of Italy (in our case to an audience of the one old lady, a slightly distant next door) and my son’s Fiesole music school prescribes parts so that everyone is playing the same thing, creating an orchestra in central Florence that, sadly, we can only watch on video. People are lending out their dogs so that everyone can go for a walk and the whole country makes that Moretti advert, where the Italian man is sent his beer via a neighbourly pulley system to remind him to come to family lunch, a reality (which, actually, it was already – the only thing unrealistic about that advert is that it would be more likely an esspresso or a glass of wine that they family would send, otherwise it’s a completely accurate, gritty and unromanticised picture of Italian life).
It is a highly anxious time, of course it is, and only the lucky few can decide to learn the piano or work their way through cookbooks. The news is full of the horrors that await us just around the corner, the horrors being suffered by so many and the unpredictable terror that is racing unseen around the world (giving the sense of dread suffered by so many psychotherapy patients – certainly by me when I first went into an analysis – a very real manifestation). It is reminding me a lot of Moscow at the end of Communism in the obviously bad ways (shortages, confinement, public services no longer able to cope, uncertainty, deaths) and also in the good ways. Russians have always been very good at living as if you might die tomorrow (a very real threat throughout most of their history) and the West has developed a weird way of trying to pretend we will never die at all and something is very wrong if someone does so, under the age of about 90. The truth is, and always has been, you never know what’s going to happen so, in the meantime, what and who matters? These are things a lot of us are realising with an enormous release of joy.