This is part of a a continuing series of posts from conversations with Lisa Maechling Debbeler, JD, MA, LPCC about the nature of being a therapist/analyst in a time of quarantine. We began talking on Saturday March 21, 2020 at the beginning of the shut down and are continuing to talk weekly. We were both continuing to work and trying to see as many of our clients/analysands as possible through Zoom or other virtual methods. We were both finding this both unexpectedly and expectedly difficult and wanted to share our experiences with colleagues and friends that we respect.
From Lisa, citing an episode of the podcast This Jungian Life:
The Quarantine/Stay-at-Home order is like the beginning of an alchemical transformation of the ego being broken down. It’s the beginning of a process of relativizing all our usual ego activities to something greater, fearful and not-fully-knowable.
As Jungians we tend to take a very optimistic view of the relativization of ego. We see it as a step in the path toward wholeness. Ego needs to see its proper (small) place in psyche in order for our conscious self to relate to the Self. This process of understanding our egoic limits is put into the context of growth and development.
I see this growth-oriented relativization of ego happening at times in myself and with my analysands even in this moment of uncertainty, fear and loss. I can sense (and my analysands report) moments of spaciousness and a larger peace that seems more available in all the time and quiet we have during quarantine. I feel the important and valuable things – such as family conversations, the friendship of my life-partner, religious and secular ritual, creative work – in my bones. They strike my more-than-usually-open and vulnerable heart and easily bring me to tears. This can be framed as a solutio (the alchemical stage of dissolving a material into its constituent parts) process. Some of the ego defenses have been dissolved by the time-honored methods of being quiet and alone, terror and sadness. This dissolving opens space for an awareness of the larger realities.
Jung notes that relativization of the Ego begins with a confrontation with mortality. We are now experiencing a collective confrontation with the ultimate reality of mortality. There is nothing that more powerfully puts our Ego in its place then facing our own death. All of the wonderful things about Ego – our physical experience of our lives, our rational minds, our existence in time and space – will end. Perhaps this will make us more open to the mysterious larger reality. Jung’s confrontation occurred during the dissolving work of the Red Book and was consolidated in the creation of his own personal myth and the psychological theory that flowed from it.
At the same time, I want to approach all this cheerful optimism with a lot of skepticism. As my friend Nancy, the Buddhist and Psychodynamic Colleague whose voice has appeared in earlier Blog posts, notes – taking away ego defenses can simply leave people defenseless (pun intended) in the face of world that is too harsh to metabolize.
Here is what she wrote to me this week:
I’m noticing many people who are now settling in are feeling less panic about the unknown, acclimating to the constant low-grade quiver of anxiety within & surrounding us all. At least if no one they love is sick yet. Now their usual problems & issues are coming more front & center again but now they face these problems in the container of a world which feels less safe & predictable. And with fewer options to use to work toward resolution…like meeting in person to work on interpersonal issues, or job interviewing, or contemplating a next living situation or a divorce. That seems to stall out the moment of therapy and sucks away some of the hope & optimism that fuels creativity & self-trust.
I noticed a sharp escalation of anxiety the week after Nancy spoke, and I wonder if it was stirred up by the talk of reopening May 1st? Somehow that introduced another thing to be uncertain about, just as Nancy had pointed out last week there was a settling into the new restricted level of activity.
Having life experiences that overwhelm our ego’s ability to metabolize them is the essence of trauma and as many writers from Ovid through Jung and Esther Harding, have noted we sometimes grow from these experiences but we can also be diminished. Rather than individuating, we become less then what we were. We are more stuck, more resentful, more irrationally anxious, more despairing, more callous. We can see all of these possibilities in ourselves and all around us. Much of the difference seems to flow from the amount of support and care available to us. People with caring family, good roommates, and/or strong life partnerships are doing much better overall then people isolated and sheltering in place alone or those living with abusive co-habitants. People with financial resources, jobs that can be done safely and the likelihood of decent medical care have a much greater chance of making meaning of this destabilizing time then those who lack these necessities.
I am writing this during a week when the white nationalist group called The Proud Boys was part of a coalition of far-right demonstrators blocking entrances to hospital Emergency rooms during a protest of the Michigan Stay-at-Home order. Our president responded to this action by tweeting his support of these demonstrations saying “Liberate Michigan.” I both see the resentment, irrational fear, despair and callousness in these actions and in my own helpless, terrified, rage reaction. It was also the week that the 5th case of Covid 19 was diagnosed in my mother’s independent care facility. I feel my own, and her, throat closing terror that she will suffer and die alone as many others have. As I witness this, I cannot be terribly confident that this time of ego relativization will go in the direction of personal or collective development.
We are wrestling with a larger force then ourselves and that force has a dark side. It takes us to a deeper domain of experience.
And yet at another level I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I can only describe this level of experience as “peaceful”.
I wouldn’t say exactly ‘peaceful,’ for myself … ! But ‘neither optimistic or pessimistic’ seems about right – like loosening emotional constriction and releasing judgement about our collective and personal situations. Holding one’s own humble but worthy space in the face of large and powerful force. That’s worth something.
This peace does not negate all the other feelings I have described but exists alongside them. I would like to tell a bit of my daughter Rachel’s story that may explain or at least amplify this experience…
My daughter is in her fourth year of seminary. She is training to be a Rabbi and a chaplain. Her student internship this year has been in a nursing home in New Jersey. At the beginning of the pandemic she suggested to her supervisor at the nursing home that she thought it would be safer for the residents, for her and for the community for her to work primarily from home. Her supervisor disagreed and she continued to work physically in the nursing home. Like many nursing homes, the staff, including my daughter, lacked most personal protective equipment. A few weeks later the first case of Covid 19 was diagnosed among the residents. The next day there were nine cases…. You know the rest of the story.
As you can imagine, my daughter became increasingly terrified. She was uncertain what to do to protect herself and how to best be of service to her residents and community. Finally, in the middle of particularly bad night, she was given a moment of clear certainty. She describes as an inner voice saying “I will be afraid and I will be held.”
In listening to this voice, she (and I) both contain the affect/feelings and the larger peace.
I would like to conclude on a completely egoic note…My daughter along with all the other chaplains at her workplace has been instructed to work virtually. She is safely streaming services and Facetiming with residents. We are all working to find ways to support the staff and residents who are not safe at all.
Adina Davidson, PhD is a Jungian Analyst in Cleveland, Ohio, and member of the Chicago Society of Jungian Analysts.