From our physical wellbeing to shaking hands — from opening our home to our basic livelihood — from our emotional health to getting a haircut.
Everything has changed.
Facing a pandemic, many of us feel an urge to band together. Although isolation is the right course of action, it’s counterintuitive, clashing against our basic instinct to huddle in a pack. Fighting our core instincts — even for the greater good — can cause a surge in anxiety.
Uncertainty adds additional layers of anxiety, opening the emotional field for anger and fear to run wild. As I write, we don’t know how many are carrying coronavirus, symptom free, contagious. We don’t know how many will become ill. When someone coughs, we don’t know if they have a garden variety allergy, or if we’ve just been exposed. Of those who get sick, we don’t know who will have a no-big-deal cough, who will spike a high fever, who will struggle to breathe, who will need emergency care. We don’t know a ton.
As the coronavirus plunges us into turmoil, our natural inclination is to latch onto conclusions to counteract the uncertainty, grasp at targets to unleash our anger, search for others to blame for our fear. Being all-too-human, we have a bad habit of choosing the wrong conclusion, picking the wrong target, blaming the wrong Other. At that point, our anxiety can push us to turn against each other.
These issues are exacerbated because we have leaders who aren’t cut out to be leaders. We have a president who is anything but presidential, who refuses to take responsibility for the mistakes which worsened this mess, who awards himself a ten-out-of-ten for handling the pandemic. On top of his A+ self-assessment, he states truths and untruths with equal conviction, which increases uncertainty, which in turn heightens anxiety. Many are angry at Donald Trump and his administration who did a lot of nothing for far too long, and continue to do a lot of not-nearly-enough.
I intend to express my anger in November when I vote. Until then, here’s what NOT to do: DO NOT take aim and fire at each other. I’ve heard several people (including our president) refer to “The Coronavirus” as “The Asian Virus” or “The Chinese Virus.” Each time, I feel like I’ve stepped into a time warp, back to the early 1980s, when I was seeing my first psych patients, as AIDS hit San Francisco. People referred to AIDS as a “Gay Disease,” homophobia skyrocketed, and the damage was incalculable. Folks, for the love of our country — viruses aren’t Asian or Chinese or gay. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States confirmed the first person in our country to test positive for coronavirus is a man in his thirties. Yet, we’re not calling this pandemic “The Male Virus” or “The Thirties Virus.” Why? Because that would be ridiculous. But it’s no more ridiculous than attributing a virus to a specific racial heritage or a particular sexuality. So let’s call it for what it is. Homophobia is homophobia. Racism is racism. A virus is a virus. A surge in coronavirus should never be an excuse for a surge in bigotry. Now of all times, We The People need to live up to our name.
And for the record — as a healthy coping strategy during this public health crisis, racism is an epic fail. On top of being vile, let’s be clear about the benefits of racism: THERE ARE NO BENEFITS OF RACISM. Aside from being hurtful and damaging, referring to the coronavirus as “The Chinese Virus” will give only a fleeting moment of relief. Then the next wave of emotion will surge, and you’ll need to vent again. Your anger and fear and uncertainty and anxiety will continue to spiral. From a mental health perspective, racism has enormous negative impact but absolutely no positive impact. So — and I’m being as measured as I’m able — CUT IT OUT.
Which leads to the next question — what should we do with our anger? If I’m trying to get through this pandemic with an ounce of dignity, should I rage at a president who doesn’t care one whit about me (female, liberal democrat)? Even more undignified, how can I feel personal outrage toward a virus mindlessly searching for a host environment?
A word of advice from my many years as a therapist — emotions don’t hold much stock in dignity. For the moment, I suggest we all set dignity aside, acknowledge our feelings, and respect (yes, respect) the humanness of our emotions. If you’re mad at the coronavirus or at our president, I don’t blame you one bit. If you’re afraid, you’re having a normal reaction to a scary situation. If you’re buckling under the uncertainty, you’re not alone. The goal isn’t to NOT feel whatever you do feel. The goals are to handle your emotions so that you own the feelings, rather than allowing the feelings to own you — and to channel your emotions in a way that doesn’t cause more harm, maybe even does a bit of good.
I don’t know how the coronavirus landscape will look as this pandemic plays itself out. I do know that sooner or not sooner, later or much later, this public health crisis will turn quiet and today will become tomorrow’s yesterday. We’ll open our doors to gather, shed tears over our losses, steady each other as we find our way. Inch by inch, row by row, we’ll regroup, relearn, rebuild. Tentative and strong, we’ll venture into our next new world. Today, as individuals, let’s set the stage to take those steps together.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author, living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Memphis, Tennessee. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages among the students. The story deals with homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, and the power of friendship. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written in support of same-sex parents, to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.
Amy’s novels are available on Amazon.