Wednesday 29 April 2020

Letters from Lockdown

Taking my own medicine

The psychotherapist Julia Samuel has encountered searing grief and tremendous joy during the pandemic, often in quick succession. How can she – or any of us – adapt?

I am 60 years old and I’m confident about two things about myself.

Personally, I know that I am slow to process change. I take a long time to open up enough to let any kind of news – both good and bad – to sink in. To trust it enough and adapt.

Professionally, I’m a good psychotherapist and change is the currency of my practice – every client in the last 30 years, whatever their presenting issue, has had a problematic relationship with it. I know about the process of change.

I have never been more starkly aware of this apparent dichotomy than now. The weeks before final lockdown I had been in transmit mode, talking to anyone that would listen about my new book, This Too Shall Pass; that change is the only certainty in life. We have to find ways to allow it and support ourselves in it – it takes longer than the actual event to emotionally catch up with what has happened. Those that block and resist change have less joy and success in life, and change is harder when it comes around again – which it does. Every seven to ten years. The seven-year itch is a thing…

Then Covid-19 hit properly and the whole world was in change and crisis – Boris Johnson told us to stay home – this invisible killing pathogen was heading our way. Psychologically, I could describe what was happening – that this was a living loss that was experienced like grief: sadness, fear, anger, confusion, numbness.

I felt suspended in Planet Surreal. My newsfeeds showed me people dying in corridors in Italy and Spain, the numbers of Covid-19 deaths here in the UK rising daily. The words used by politicians and journalists ramped up fear: death, war, battle, winning, losing. But I looked out of my window and the world looked the same, even more beautiful than normal, as spring was emerging from the wettest, stormiest winter. My family was well, we were living in different countries, we all had work pressure, but we were safe.

I reverted to my default response when troubled. I got busy. Telling clients and press what helps: good habits build resilience – whatever you do affects your mood – what you eat, watch, listen to. We need structure: exercise and relaxation (breath in for the count of seven, out for 11), intentionally do things that calm you. When you are powerless, help others – you and they feel better and it boosts your immune system. In families, have regular Cobra meetings to discuss how you are feeling, the difficulties you face, organise chores. Create small rituals to mark the end of the day – perhaps a piece of music and a round of gratitudes. Above all, people need people. What enables us to survive grief – whether by death or a living loss – is love and connection to others. Skype or in person.

Meantime, inside of me, my brain knew it was bad news, but I couldn’t compute it. The only way that I really began to know the truth of my new reality was the thudding Jaws music that was building up in my chest and stomach – usually triggered by the news, but now also coming unexpectedly and unwelcome in the middle of the night. Like everybody, I really bloody hate that insistent call of my physiognomy that is telling me to wake up, to be on alert, to look for that tiger, to fight fly or freeze. That anxiety stymies me when I’m in bed. I keep trying to think my way to an answer, wrestling and turning, clenching my jaw. It isn’t like grief, which is a wave of pain that runs through me. Fear is a tight-coiled burning that blocks any other thought, certainly any pleasure.

Did I take my own medicine? I’d like to say no; it might be more interesting. But, hell, yes, I took my own medicine.

That worst night, when I was awake from 4am, I got up at 6am and cycled and yoga’d, journalled and meditated, and talked and hugged. A lot. I fought with my husband to watch happy funny TV when he wanted exciting thrillers. Has it stopped me feeling suffocated, angry and irritated? No. It’s dialled it down. I have impulse control. I don’t act out so badly. I write what I want to shout, and stomp what I’d like to punch, which means I haven’t torn holes in my relationships – less collateral damage to have to pick up afterwards.

The reality of what this really means comes to me via clients – a man telling me that the business he’s built up for 15 years is in administration. Seeing his unshaven, ashen face, this man who had been bouncily confident a few weeks earlier utterly crushed by the speed of the juggernaut that has knocked him and his business over. Hearing his despair that he doesn’t trust he has it in himself to rebuild or believe, economically, that he could.

Or the client who showed me the recording of her dying father, intubated in an ICU because she couldn’t be with him. His hand held, prayers said, music playing by kind medical and nursing staff in PPE. The intensity of her grief blocked by trauma – that is no longer a statistic but a person who sits in the front of my mind with shocking images.

Those are just two people. Their story is played out in hundreds of thousands of peoples’ lives throughout the world.

The day I saw the video of my client’s father’s death, it was my turn to cook lunch. I was cooking sausages and mash and peas (if you call that cooking) and, despite the searing pain of that video 20 minutes earlier, I felt utter joy at seeing my seven-year-old grandson sneak a fourth sausage with far too much ketchup into his tiny frame then skip out into the garden, innocent – completely happy.

Is it ok for me to feel happy now? Yes. I choose to ignite hope. Hope is the alchemy that turns a life around. I can hold the joy of small delights and love of family and being home, and I can hold the pain of loss, allow myself to move between the two – one doesn’t knock the other out. It is in the movement between them that I will adapt and change to our new normal. It will take longer than I want. And be more uncomfortable than I’d like.


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