There Is No Playbook for a Pandemic

Twilight Zone time, not sure how long the unofficial quarantine has been going on in my neck of the woods, nor do I know how long it will last. As of a day or so ago, Tom Wolf, governor of my home state of Pennsylvania, declared that everyone is expected to remain at home, unless they need to go to the supermarket, pharmacy, medical appointment or essential workplace. As a psychotherapist, I am in that category. Our group practice office which provides counseling and medication management will remain active with the condition that we use telehealth to serve our clients.

A short learning curve, far easier than I anticipated. The clients seem comfortable with it and it is for the time being, the next best thing to sitting face to face in my office. Initially, I wondered if I would be able to master the intricacies of the particular platform we are using. That was a piece of cake, compared to the unexpected twists and turns of the rest of my life.

Since we are quarantined, I can’t visit my son, daughter-in-law and two-month-old grandson who I had seen two-three times a week until then. Photos, videos and phone calls are welcome but, obviously, not the same as live and in-person cuddling and caregiving. Tears are part of my daily routine these days. One of the things I am grateful for is that he doesn’t have a clue what is going on around him. All he knows is that he is loved, and his needs are met. The pictures make it clear that he is a happy little dude.

What prevents me from immersing in self pity is that I have friends with elderly parents who they can’t visit and a therapist friend who has lost several family members to the virus. I also recently read an article written either by an ER doc or nurse who, while she still lives with her family, can’t come within six feet of them lest she potentially contaminate them. It must be terribly painful to feel like a human biohazard. She lamented that she had no idea how long this would continue.

The time when we need face to face human supportive contact and nurturing touch, we are being restricted from it. When we look back at this time in history, we will come to recognize that it robbed us of the opportunity to touch, but not the opportunity to love.

The truth is, there is no playbook for a pandemic. As therapists, we are taught to be spontaneously available for whatever our clients bring to their sessions. Our toolkits ought to be, of necessity, diverse. Remember the adage, when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail? In light of the viral outbreak, we don’t have that luxury, even if we specialize in a particular modality. Like nearly everyone I know, they are expressing heightened anxiety. Our sessions are a combination of providing information, clarifying instructions, panic reduction, enhancing communication skills with family members with whom they might be sequestered, holding space for their fluctuating emotions. 

A few days ago, I was listening to an NPR broadcast of Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She was interviewing from her dining room table/makeshift recording studio, author, horror novelist, researcher and speaker Max Brooks. He is also the son of actress Anne Bancroft and comedian Mel Brooks. He and his father did a humorous but pointed PSA reminding people of how important it is to stay home when possible and keep distance from others, to avoid infecting them, specifically those who are particularly vulnerable. The tag line is, “Don’t be a spreader.”

Brooks’ focus was disaster preparation and the title of the podcast is All of This Panic Could Have Been Prevented. One of the things he spoke about was that we have the tools to manufacture the equipment we need if companies work together in cooperation to provide supplies. An example is distilleries who are now joining the cause and creating hand sanitizer. Human ingenuity at work.

This experience is a one moment at a time creation for everyone. There isn’t a single consciously aware person who has not had to make major adjustments in schedule, routine, activities and interactions. 

  • Adult children are home from college for which in-person classes were pre-empted and they are required to do them on-line.
  • Teens who are sequestered without being able to socialize with friends other than via electronic means.
  • Young children whose pent-up energy needs an outlet.
  • Couples who are in conflict who are now required to share the same space.
  • People with pre-existing depression and anxiety whose typical source of support may not be available in person.
  • Those who are older whose family cannot visit for the time being.
  • Domestic abuse survivors who are now of necessity, needing to stay in the same dwelling as the abuser.
  • Some who are in the high-risk category due to age or physical condition who must be particularly careful being in public places.
  • People who have either lost their jobs or are business owners who have needed to close the doors temporarily.
  • Those who miss their 12-step meetings to sustain their recovery.

In conversation with those who are with their families, I asked if they gathered everyone together to discuss how to best weather this storm of epic proportions. Most said no, other than to remind the children about hygiene and that they still needed to do schoolwork and couldn’t hang out with their friends. Rarely was there conversation about fears, about cooperation under unusual circumstances, about sharing household responsibilities, about ways to communicate their feelings, about anger management and about the importance of social responsibility. 

For those who live alone, it is important to consider how you will maintain a routine and health regimen. It is tempting to want to lounge around in pjs, binging on Netflix since there is no accountability party to keep you productive. Balance work and relaxation. Be sure to reach out to family and friends on a daily basis. Do your best not to isolate. Exercise as best you can. My living room is now my gym with a yoga mat and blocks, hand weights and balancing ball as part of the temporary décor.

If I could write a playbook for these times, it would include 

Remember to focus on any positives you observe such as people being kind to one another and assisting each other in getting through this crisis that will eventually ease.

Be well.

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