Let’s Talk: What we can learn from pandemic panic

This essay is part of an occasional series called Let’s Talk that provides a forum to share thoughts by Detroit Mercy faculty, staff, alumni or invited guests and is designed to start conversations. It was written by Dennis Ortman, who graduated from the clinical psychology program in 1995. If you would like to contribute to Let’s Talk, please contact alumni@udmercy.edu.

Something invisible has stopped the world in its tracks, humbling us, making us aware of our vulnerability. It is the coronavirus.

Despite our technological prowess, we are not the masters of the universe we imagined. Mother Nature still rules. As the worldwide epidemic sweeps across America, President Donald Trump has declared war on this invisible enemy. He has mobilized the forces of scientists, healthcare workers, and business leaders to combat the virus.

As a psychologist, I am among the ranks of the battle-ready.

The frontline workers confront the enemy face-to-face in the patients they treat. They are the hospital service people, aides, technicians, nurses, doctors, and first responders. I admire their courage and salute them. They risk their lives daily, inadequately armed, and many have fallen in the fight. As a psychologist, I am a backline worker, fighting another invisible enemy, fear. Pandemic panic can be as contagious and pernicious as COVID-19.

I live in Michigan and our governor, Gretchen Whitmer, has shut down all but essential services. Clearly, psychologists offer an essential service in these desperate times. How important our work is was brought home to me by my daughter’s recent illness. She has been home with her family for the past three weeks, living in a bubble for protection, as the governor requested. Suddenly, she developed a fever and sore throat. Imagining the worst, she went to urgent care. What relief she felt when the doctor told her she had strep throat. We all wondered how she contracted that bug while in isolation. She admitted that she felt stressed out by the epidemic. Knowing the mind and body are connected, emotional stress weakens the immune system, making us vulnerable to diseases. So I see myself as a first-line defense in helping my patients reduce their anxiety and strengthen their immunity to the virus.

I go to the office every day to meet with my patients and have phone therapy with them. I am fully aware that I am not immune to pandemic panic, to imagining the worst. To be of service to others, I must care for myself. “Physician, heal thyself,” is my motto. The nightly news reports of staggering numbers of new cases and deaths, nightmarish hospital scenes, and heart-breaking family stories can overwhelm me. I titrate my daily information intake to the 6:30 national news. I miss going to the gym, playing golf and watching sports. I also miss seeing my family and friends, even though we are in regular phone contact. I intentionally avoid fruitless debates about political blame, conspiracy theories and signs of armageddon. Does debating really benefit me in living safely, fully the present moment? Instead, my buddies and I share humorous quotes and cartoons to relieve the heaviness of our fear. As one patient of mine related, “Social distancing ought to be more accurately called physical distancing.” While not congregating, we still need social connection for our wellbeing. Finally, as an introvert, I am accustomed to time alone when I welcome reading, reflecting, and praying. I go for brisk walks and enjoy the outdoors. What I learn in caring for myself, I share with my patients.

In therapy sessions, I have been inquiring how my patients are coping with the confinement, loneliness, and fear. Regarding their quarantine, I ask if they experience it more as a prison or retreat. Almost all have told me that it feels mostly like a retreat. Perhaps my encouragement of them to relax and observe themselves is paying some dividends. However, as the quarantine drags on for weeks, they may change their tunes. Surprisingly, my most emotionally fragile patients struggle little with the virus fear. They do not sweat the big stuff, only the small stuff. For example, they may agonize for years about a rude comment. My patients also complain about so much closeness with restless, arguing kids and bored partners that, they say jokingly, it will eventually lead to the doorsteps of the obstetrician, Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, a divorce attorney, or the undertaker (“We might kill each other!). We work on maintaining boundaries for self-care.

Concerning loneliness, my patients admit missing their usual activities and socializing. Being alone with themselves is probably their greatest struggle. That is not surprising, when you think about it. Mother Teresa founded a religious order to serve “the poorest of the poor.” When she opened homes in India, everyone nodded. But when she opened residences in the United States, people scratched their heads. She explained that the United States is the loneliest country in the world. We experience emotional and spiritual poverty. We are so busy chasing after possessions, money, status and success, competing with each other to be number one, that there is little time or energy to relax with ourselves. Consequently, we become estranged from ourselves, and our relationships remain superficial. I tell my patients, “The antidote to loneliness is solitude. You cannot be any more intimate with another than you are with yourself. You can only make friends with yourself by spending time alone with yourself.” If we enter deeply into the silence and solitude, we learn we are never alone because we are intimately connected with the universe. I continually invite my patients to stop and listen to the still voice within. And to take it seriously.

During this crisis, we are living in the shadow of death. Each night the evening news confronts us with stark images of death, which make our fears go viral. We live in a death-denying culture. However, therapy asks us to sit alone with our fears. Chogyam Trungpa, a renowned Buddhist teacher, said, “Bravery is not being afraid of ourselves.” It takes courage to be still and acknowledge to another everything that overflows from an agitated mind. For example, a middle-aged patient told me this week that he had an emotional breakdown and could not stop crying. He reported that he was reading a novel and suddenly felt overwhelmed by a nameless terror. I told him that it was a breakthrough of suppressed feelings, and not a breakdown. Together we sorted out the experience that terrified him. He said he was worried about dying from the virus and not doing all the things he planned. He thought about his legacy and did not know what it would be. His life seemed a meaningless waste. During therapy, I accompany my patients on the terrible and wonderful journey of exploring the vastness of their minds. I tell them to lean into their fears and not avoid them. We then explore what they can teach us. Joseph Campbell, an expert on myths, wrote, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” Entering the dark cave of fear, we discover what we are afraid of losing and hold on to too tightly. We learn, then, what we treasure, and further, can ask if it matches the largeness of our hearts. Jesus, another wise teacher, proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount, “Where your treasure is, there is your heart.”

The word “crisis” implies both danger and opportunity. The anxious mind sees only what can go wrong. The wise mind glimpses opportunity and joins the battle with compassion and wisdom. Despite the noise of mass hysteria, we hear a compassionate voice, “We are all in this together.” There are countless stories of people coming forth, risking their lives, to help others. There is a dawning awareness of our connectedness. But how far does it reach in our minds: to our community, our nation, the entire world? Will we hang on to a tribal view or open to a global consciousness? Our planet is a mere speck in the boundless, expanding universe. It is so fragile and cries out for care. Soon the epidemic will engulf the whole world. As our flu season ends, the time of disease will likely take hold in the southern hemisphere. We have an opportunity to extend our compassion to our southern neighbors, sharing our knowledge, resources, and personnel. We will also share the wisdom gained through our travails.

Anthony Fauci, the spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the voice of scientific reason. He says, “The virus will let us know.” We listen and then respond from our knowledge base. However, there is a deeper wisdom gained by entering the desert of emptiness during the stay home order. All the founders of the great religions chose to go to the desert to prepare for their missions: Moses, Jesus, Mohammed (Buddha went to the forest). There they spent time alone in silence and faced their demons. In our quarantines, our individual desert experiences, we encounter our demons, wrestle with our fears, and confront our virulent thinking. What will we learn about our attachments to health, possessions, power, status, relationships, to what is important, but does not last? What lasts for us and is worth the dedication of our lives? What is our ultimate concern? We know that this illness will pass, will have its season. Facing the temptation of despair with a wise mind, we may learn, as Julian of Norwich proclaimed, “All will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”

May the compassion and wisdom born of this battle spread like a virus around the world.

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