Psychotherapist Esther Perel spoke to the Financial Times’ Culture Call podcast about coping in a pandemic. There’s a lot of good stuff in the interview, but Esther’s experience with clients differs from mine, so here is my take on one of the points we differ on.
Esther Perel says,
“In order to achieve ‘traumatic growth’ — in which traumatic experiences cause us to rearrange our priorities and restore a new sense of meaning or purpose — we normally require things to happen in stages: There is a warning stage, a planning stage, the actual onslaught and the aftermath.”
But the thousands of people I have worked with who have experienced sudden massive change in their lives have just about all been faced with an event that was unexpected – their traumas did not announce themselves in advance. The workers in heavy industry severely injured by faulty machinery, the women who were violently assaulted, the drivers missing death by inches in a high-speed crash. None of them saw it coming. But very many of them have adjusted to the shocking change they’ve been dealt and some of them even say that the trauma has changed their life for the better.
People kept telling me the same thing
Over and again, people who’d been faced with sudden unexpected loss and change told me similar stories of how the traumatic change had affected them. The story was one of suddenly finding themselves in an unrecognisable situation, unable to find a way to get their old life back. They were struggling to deal with what had been lost, and they were finding it impossible to live with how things had become.
I started to sketch a drawing which summed up what people kept telling me, to use with new clients to give us a shared understanding of their impossible plight, and a way of thinking about how to move beyond the stuckness. I’ve drawn this sketch over a thousand times now, and it has proved really useful. So here it is, to help you think about where you are up to in terms of adjusting to the virus and the lockdown.
The first few lines I draw are a stick person walking along solid ground – their life before the trauma. It may not have felt like solid ground at the time, but boy it certainly looks solid compared to now.
Then I put in an arrow, to show the point of sudden change.
Where the arrow is, the solid ground ends abruptly. The stick person finds themselves suddenly chucked into fast-flowing water, struggling to stay afloat.
This is where people think they are when they come to see me, and some of them are. Those that are, tend to be desperately trying to climb back onto the bank, back to their life before. But as I explain, unfortunately that life has gone. We can’t turn the clock back. This is extremely painful to hear, but it’s true, and in my experience the truth tends to be easier to deal with than a version of events that can never be. And anyway, people know this – they just don’t know what to do with the fact that they have no idea what else to try to do.
The next bit of the drawing is the future – the bank on the other side of the water.
What I suggest is that although getting back on the old bank isn’t possible, they can get out of the water on to the other side, back on to the solid ground of their new life. It isn’t the same as their old life, but neither is it entirely different. Some people interject at this point with, “But how can I get there? It’s two years (or whatever time) since it happened and I’m still completely at sea”. Time for the fifth part of the drawing…
They may not have spotted it yet, but there is a ladder like the steps out of a swimming pool, up onto the bank. The task is to work out what needs to happen to progress one step at a time up the ladder. And what I point out to people is that they may well already be on the ladder, making their way up it.
Elaine’s accident at work had life-changing consequences
This is where we start to look together, quite closely, at what their new life has that’s the same as their old life, and in what ways it’s different. We list the domains of life (home, family, love relationship, friends, work, hobbies, interests). Take Elaine who worked as a carpenter and lost her left thumb (she was right-handed) in an accident at work, because of her workmate’s careless error. She had returned to work for her old employer, on the proviso that she would work alone on the machinery so she’d know her safety was in her own hands. She could not look at her left hand and spent a lot of mental energy hiding it from view.
Her marriage had survived but was under strain as she was irritable and distant from her husband Rob. She felt a failure as a parent to her two young children as she couldn’t do the activities she’d done with them before – particularly baking, her favourite hobby. She was depressed and at the age of 32 felt hopeless about her future. Elaine was referred to me for psychological therapy for depression, but it was quickly clear that her main issue was one of adjustment to the loss of her thumb. We worked together for 10 sessions, starting with me drawing this diagram.
before the accident since the accident
lived in current house live in current house
married to Rob (happy) married to Rob (strained)
mum to Beth and Ella mum to Beth and Ella
work for Smith & Co (with workmate) work for Smith & Co (lone working)
baking every weekend unable to bake
happy with appearance revolted by appearance of left hand
out with friends fortnightly rarely out with friends
Elaine said that she had tried to return to baking but hadn’t been able to hold things and use utensils well enough, so her much-loved hobby and fun-activity with her kids was now an ordeal which left her feeling frustrated and ashamed, so she’d given it up. Elaine could see that she had managed to negotiate things at work to enable her to return to her old job, despite how hard that had been to do. This had been an important step on the ladder, and in terms of the sketch and the ladder out of the water, helped her see that she had made progress already through her own resourcefulness.
Not being able to pursue her favourite hobby didn’t just mean boredom
It seemed that the strain on her marriage, feelings of failure as a parent and not wanting to see friends were all the result of feeling disfigured and incompetent. The next steps were going to have to involve accepting her disfigurement and discovering what could replace her baking as an enjoyable hobby. The baking was more than knocking up a few iced buns. It was her way of teaching her kids a skill she’d learned from her grandmother, continuing a loving link down the family line. It was her way of showing love to Rob, the girls, and her friends. It was how she’d always expressed her creativity. It reminded her every week of her competence in the kitchen and it soothed away her stress at the end of the week.
It wasn’t clear to me whether we should focus on the disfigurement or the hobby first, so I asked her about her recovery since the accident and the operations she’d needed. To begin with, she kept her hand out of sight, but over a couple of weeks started to point to particular scars to explain what had happened and what the operations had achieved in terms of function and appearance. The more we talked, the more she was able to look at her hand and in the fourth session said, “I don’t like how it looks, but it is how it is now, and it could have been worse”.
We naturally moved on to thinking together about what could replace baking. Elaine had already, like most clients, tried as best she could to work this out herself but had only ever drawn a blank. Between sessions I googled “good grips utensils” to see whether the range of utensils designed for people with a weak grip might be relevant to Elaine. But by the time of the next session, she had already found a new brand of mixing bowl that suctioned itself to the kitchen worktop, and had managed to make shortbread. She was overjoyed, and threw herself back into baking, rediscovering all the positive feelings that came with it. She felt like a good mum again and as the sessions came to an end said, “I feel like my old self again”. Elaine wasn’t the same as before, but now felt OK with the new reality. She was no longer battling to stay afloat.
Unlike Elaine, many clients can’t resume their old leisure or work activities, in which case the rungs of the ladder out of the water involve finding alternative ways of spending time, making a living or connecting with people.
Your own unique lockdown situation
What the virus and the lockdown mean to you will depend on many factors (see my recent blog on this). You may still be reeling from the changes. You may have lost your livelihood or your home. You may be unable to do the things that usually make you tick. So there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But looking at different domains (relationship, work, friendships, hobbies etc) of the old solid ground and the domains of the new solid ground, you can work out what hasn’t changed, and what is no longer the same. Then you can think about the steps you need to take to get on to your new solid ground – look at what the rungs of the ladder might be, and see which you can focus on first.
Upcoming online events for professionals
If your work involves helping people with issues around eating, my next online Lunch and Learn session is on “Eating in the time of Covid” on Thursday May 7th. This one-hour online meet-up for professionals is to help you think about how to help your clients navigate their way through this tricky time eating-wise. Bring your lunch, and your questions. I’ll be offering tips and suggestions and look forward to seeing you there!
And I’ve just posted details of my next two-day Appetite Retraining workshop for professionals which will be online on July 2nd and 3rd. If your work involves helping people change how they eat, and you want to learn more about the psychology of eating, this is for you. It’s a unique workshop looking at the psychology of habit change, the mental blocks people encounter when they try to make changes, and how to overcome those blocks.