When I was a child, aged nine, my family moved from Scotland to Bristol. My sisters, brothers and I started going to a Sunday school, where I proudly wore my kilt, sporran, and all. The most exciting event was the annual Sunday school trip, by coach each summer to Weston-Super-Mare. We always went along the Grand Pier and, amidst the candy floss and deep-fried ring doughnuts rolled in sugar (which ideally suited my Glaswegian diet), there was the ghost train and the hall of mirrors. We would shriek with laughter, and sometimes tears, seeing each other in such bizarre shapes and sizes in the mirrors.
COVID-19 holds a mirror in front of us: as individuals, families, societies and nations. What we see staring back is sometimes funny, and sometimes sad. Tragically, so many people have lost their lives. At some point, every one of us will be touched by this pandemic, as wave will follow wave. But what is it, or who is it, we are seeing in the ‘mirror’? Is it distorted or real? And what can we discover that enables us to make sense of this?
We discover that our usual defences and coping mechanisms don’t work very well. Most people are creatures of routine. We like to know what normally happens next, and plan accordingly. We invest so much in the structure and meaningfulness of work, relaxation, social pleasures and simple in-person, face-to-face conversations. We miss the mundane, now it is not available. We feel for our clients, especially those unable or unwilling to make a transition to online working. They are connected to the living, breathing us, not the facsimile they see on a screen. We are part of our clients’ coping mechanisms and we, temporarily, are not available for them. Together, therapist and client, experience loss.
We discover we have irritating habits which, to be fair, are normally pointed out to us first by those around us and, of course, we initially deny. We discover even deeper layers of irritability within, that we try to hide. It is very easy for these undigested feelings to be expelled and to be focused on the ’other’, or on the people that don’t obey or flout the rules. At times, we find ourselves in the grip of irrational thoughts and feelings that take us by surprise.
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We discover that so many in our society are deeply narcissistic (not me, you understand), or, frankly, are so disenfranchised from the society they are in that, how dare anyone tell them what to do or not do. In part that narcissism is a defence against the new levels of uncertainty we are encountering, with a creeping and spreading existential and societal anxiety. These are things we have never encountered before, or at least not since World War II.
We discover that we desperately need to pay urgent attention to social justice, knowing that COVID-19 adversely effects black and ethnic groups, plus all groups living in poverty. BACP’s commitment to social justice is admirable and reflects the kind of organisation people want to be part of.
Let’s rediscover the joy of living. If you are reading this, I am pleased to say you are still alive and, given the context we are in, that really should be celebrated. But what kind of living? We cannot live in the past.
A friend of mine recently visited Weston-super-Mare, driving along the shabby seafront, on a grey, rain-sodden day. The Grand Pier is still there, but he didn’t stop and go in. I doubt the Hall of Mirrors still exists and, in reality, it is not exactly what a child would find that exciting these days. There is probably an app, if you search hard enough. The past influences the present, and our present needs to be lived – in our mind, body, and psyche (even in lockdown), by not putting things off to the future. And who knows yet what that future will be, or what that will look like in the mirror?